By Edward McClelland
No state’s cities are more decrepit than Michigan’s. Detroit has become a showcase for urban blight, an international symbol of decay that attracts art photographers and ruin pornographers from all over the world. Flint, however, may be in even worse shape. The Vehicle City has the highest murder rate in the United States, its tap water is an undrinkable concoction that causes residents to break out in rashes, and the average home sale price is $15,000. Recently, a couple in the North End of Flint tried giving away their house – and had a hard time finding a taker.
Andrew R. Highsmith, an assistant professor of history at the University of California-Irvine, lived in Flint from 2003 to 2006, when his wife was a medical resident there, and he was struck by an Orwellian slogan hanging on the fence surrounding the remains of Buick City, a General Motors plant that once employed 28,000 workers: “Demolition Means Progress.” Highsmith made that the title of his Ph.D. thesis, which has now been published as a book by the University of Chicago Press.
While most analyses of Flint’s decline focus on the deindustrialization of the 1970s and 1980s, Highsmith looks back further, to Flint’s efforts to maintain residential segregation, its destruction of black neighborhoods to build highways, and the failure, in 1958, of the GM-backed “New Flint” plan, which would have expanded the city’s boundaries by annexing surrounding suburbs. Most Rust Belt cities stopped adding land in the 1920s, which is why they – and the region – have lagged behind dynamic Sun Belt metropolises such as Houston, Miami, and Los Angeles.
I spoke with Highsmith by phone from his home in Southern California.
BELT: I first saw the term “Demolition Means Progress” on a fence outside the Fisher Body plant in Lansing, across the street from my old high school. This was in 2006. Where did you see it, and how did it strike you?
Andrew Highsmith: I moved to Flint in 2003. I was doing my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in history. I wanted to write a dissertation about racial and economic inequality in the North, and I wanted to write about a city that hadn’t been written about much. We bought a house in Mott Park, and as I started exploring around the city. That’s when I first encountered one of those “Demolition Means Progress” signs. I was immediately struck by the irony embedded in the sign. This was in front of what was the Buick City complex. Then as I started exploring the city and reading about it, I realized that Flint would make a really great case study of the transformation of modern metropolitan America, and the development of racial and economic inequalities, and decided to go ahead and write this dissertation. I took some of the photographs I had taken to my adviser, and I showed him the “Demolition Means Progress,” and he said, “There you go. That’s your title.”
It’s a really catchy phrase, but it ended up doing a lot of analytical work for me, because it helped to encapsulate the operating ethos of Flint’s political and economic leadership during most of the 20th century. It’s more than just a corporate slogan. It actually helps to explain this approach to revitalization in Flint and other cities.
Highsmith: Absolutely. In so many of the chapters I wrote for the book, that’s a sort of underlying theme. To tear down structures and institutions perceived to be inefficient and replace them with more efficient ones, whether that meant tearing down old urban factories in Flint and building new ones in the suburbs, or demolishing houses in Flint and building subdivisions. It helps to highlight this issue of urban renewal that I want to center on in the book.
BELT: There are still hard feelings about I-475 in Flint; when they drew up a master plan a few years ago, they held hundreds of meetings because they wanted to make sure the community felt it was involved this time.
Highsmith: One of the things I uncovered during research on I-475 was that there was actually a great deal of support for urban renewal from African-Americans in the North End. The reasons for that were rooted in local developments, and the fact that the St. John neighborhood was so close to this heavily polluted area around the Buick plants. It had become virtually unlivable. African-Americans in that part of town demanded redevelopment, but they also demanded it as part of a broader campaign for better housing. So they joined this urban renewal coalition in the 1960s and they fought to make the process more equitable, but at virtually every stage of the process, they were excluded from the planning. It was a plan designed not to bring better and fairer housing to African-Americans, but to develop the city’s industrial core, and also its downtown tourist economy. In the end, thousands of African-Americans saw their economic fortunes decline as a result of urban renewal. Many also found themselves living in public housing – even those who had actually been homeowners previously. In that instance, the demolition of vast swaths of the North End brought despair, not progress.
BELT: You devote a lot of chapters to segregation in Flint. Was Flint’s record on segregation any worse than other Northern cities?
Highsmith: The depth of Flint’s segregation stands out somewhat compared to other Northern cities, but I think those differences are differences of degree, not kind. The same sorts of patterns, what I call administrative segregation, that appeared in Flint during the postwar era were also happening elsewhere – in Chicago, Detroit. The general trajectory of post-World War II race relations in the U.S. is toward a national convergence along these sorts of administrative segregationist lines. Places like Nashville, or Atlanta, were also using the same sorts of policies to maintain segregation. Flint was and is one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country.
BELT: So why was it, then, that Flint was the first significant city with a black mayor and the first to pass an open housing law by referendum?
Highsmith: That’s a great question, one I really had to grapple with. You read about the history of Flint, recollected in the Flint Journal or in some local publications, you come across a lot of celebratory tracts on Flint’s place in U.S. history to pass an open housing referendum by popular vote, and the first large city to have a black mayor. Those are important components of Flint’s history to be proud of, but I would be wary of overstating the significance of those development. First of all, Floyd McCree, who was the city’s first black mayor, was appointed, not elected by a popular vote. I looked a lot for evidence as why the city commission appointed McCree, because they had had such a long record of segregation, of hostility toward the black community. I think a lot of it was a concession to this broader upheaval in the United States, that African-Americans were organizing, were mobilizing and the city commission recognized that these sorts of developments were coming to Flint, and that they could acknowledge those by the appointment of McCree. Because Flint had a commission form of government, McCree in the end had no more power than any other commissioner. It was more of a symbolic victory than anything else. It gave momentum to those organizing on the ground, but it didn’t generate any power for the African-American community in local politics.
The other issue is the open housing referendum. I found that many whites after this victory in 1968 celebrated Flint as quote-unquote one of the most progressive cities in the United States on questions of race, but when I went back and looked at the voting statistics on that referendum, I realized that the only reason fair housing advocates won was because of very high turnout in the black community. The referendum passed in almost all of the city’s white wards. Originally, the fair housing ordinance was passed by the city commission. Shortly after it was passed, a member of the John Birch Society organized a campaign to have a referendum on that new law, and so voting “yes” on the referendum was to repeal fair housing, and voting “no” was to uphold the law.
BELT: You’ve probably read The Origins of the Urban Crisis, by Thomas Sugrue. [A book about residential segregation and deindustrialization in Detroit.] He seemed to theorize that immigrant populations resisted integration more than native-born populations. Flint really didn’t get going until the 1920s, when immigration had been banned, so most of the whites who came to work in Flint were from the South. They were at least used to living near blacks. Is there anything to that as a reason why Flint maintained a white majority longer than other cities?
Highsmith: There’s a lot of reasons for that. Flint’s suburbs remained more underdeveloped longer than in other cities. These are in a lot of cases hardscrabble working class suburbs with a lot of self-built housing.
BELT: They call Burton “Little Missouri.”
Highsmith: Because of the development of working-class suburbs with poor infrastructure, for many years the Federal Housing Authority essentially redlined these suburban neighborhoods by refusing to back mortgages there. What that meant was that a lot of federal housing dollars in the early postwar period went not to suburbs, but to inside the city, to all-white, segregated subdivisions in the city. That helped keep a lot of whites in the city, whereas in other places with more well-developed infrastructure, whites were moving much sooner and in much larger numbers. Also, GM maintained a plant infrastructure for longer than they did in other places, and when they moved their plants to the suburbs, they didn’t move them far from city limits, so they were easily commutable for working-class people in the city. Probably another factor – one of the things that made Flint so appealing to people across the color line – was its community schools program, and that was open to Flint residents. It was a community building initiative sponsored by the Mott Foundation that was quite popular, especially among whites. Probably a final reason: because Flint was so starkly segregated for so many decades, a lot of neighborhoods like Mott Park remained all-white until deep in the 20th century, and I think that also helped maintain this white population. As neighborhoods integrated, whites began to leave.
BELT: I want to talk about GM’s New Flint strategy. You talk about how easy it was for suburbs to incorporate, and how easy it was for them to resist annexation. I’m wondering if Michigan’s laws make it particularly difficult for cities to grow. Most cities in Michigan stopped growing in the 1920s. That leads to a bigger question: why are Sun Belt cities like Houston and Phoenix able to expand while Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Buffalo and Flint aren’t? And is the legacy of townships part of this?
[blocktext align=”right”]While building downtown is great, I wonder if there’s something we can do to bring more capital into the neighborhoods.[/blocktext]Highsmith: I think you just said it right there. A major impediment to the growth and prosperity of cities in Michigan are these anti-growth state-level statutes that make it so easy for suburbs to incorporate and therefore block cities from expanding. The only way to do it is by consolidating them, and suburban opposition to that is so high, and has been for so many decades, that that’s off the table. And so cities like Flint are stuck with no room to grow, no room to develop new industrial areas unless old ones close down, or land is cleared.
In the 1940s and ’50s, the city was so densely packed, there weren’t any more areas left inside the city limits to build new facilities, and so General Motors shifted the plants outside the city. In many industrial histories, the turning point is when plants begin to move from cities to suburbs, or to the Sun Belt, or overseas. In Flint, however, the shifting of GM capital from the cities to the suburbs did not signal the corporation’s declining commitment to Flint. In fact, they were moving the plants outside the city because there was no more room in Flint to develop them. So they eyed the suburbs for new development, but when they moved those plants there, they wanted Flint to take possession of them. They wanted to grow the city and its boundaries. They supported the New Flint plan to create this large metropolitan city. If they had implemented New Flint in ’58, then Flint would have been larger than Philadelphia and Atlanta, in terms of its geographic size. It would have created a large new city with a very well developed industrial infrastructure. However, suburbanites rose up in opposition to it. They had invested heavily in developing their own communities via Federal Housing Administration projects, developing new schools. They didn’t want to share those resources with the city of Flint. They feared higher taxes, and they also feared racial integration, and so they mobilized in opposition to New Flint, and ultimately, the plan was killed by the Michigan Supreme Court.
In the wake of that defeat, GM continues to push for growing the city’s boundaries. They do so through annexation, but they find suburban hostility at every turn. Flint’s able to annex a few plants, a few shopping centers, but over time, the city’s boundaries essentially become fixed, and that means it’s virtually impossible for new economic development unless it involves demolition and relocation, which is an expensive process, and it also meant a loss of an extraordinary tax base permanently.
The defeat of New Flint in 1958 was a real turning point in Flint’s history. There were very few strategies left for developing the local economy, and it meant real limitations on developing the local tax base, and it signaled how divided the metropolis had become.
BELT: Would Flint be different today if the plan had passed, or would whites simply have moved further out?
Highsmith: Probably both. Certainly Flint’s industrial infrastructure would be in a healthier state: the suburban plants that were included within the New Flint boundaries would still be in the city limits. There were a number of places like the Swartz Creek facility, the Grand Blanc facility, those would be generating tax revenue for the city, and jobs. Flint’s industrial moment would have lasted longer had New Flint been implemented. When GM leaders were confident in their ability to control municipal politics, they were comfortable maintaining their presence in Flint and Genesee County. As they perceived losing their grip over local affairs, they began to be less committed to the city. I found a number of quotes from GM officials in the ’40s and ’50s where they said, “If you do this kind of thing, if you incorporate your suburbs, if you resist New Flint annexation, then you’re going to impact our economic development strategies, and you’re going to be a less appealing place to do business.”
BELT: The title of your last chapter is “America Is a Thousand Flints.” You talk about the redevelopment of downtown Flint. Nobody can deny that it’s a much better place than it was 20 or 25 years ago. Do you find that encouraging?
Highsmith: I was in Flint from 2003 to 2006. The momentum had already begun to shift for the downtown. There were new stores and restaurants opening up. I feel ambivalent, to be honest, about those changes. I think it’s great to see people downtown, to see businesses open, to see young people downtown with U of M-Flint housing there. All of that is encouraging to me. At the same time, I’m concerned about downtown Flint becoming exclusionary, like it was in the early part of the 20th century. And what I mean by that is you get the sense that it’s less hospitable than it was before for the poor and the homeless. I write about the evictions at the Berridge Hotel, and I try to walk a fine line. I don’t want to congratulate some of the substandard units they had in places like the Berridge, but by the same token, a lot of poor renters looked to the Berridge as housing of last resort close to the downtown core, and now that that is gone, I wonder where those people are and how they can access places like downtown. I’m concerned about the prospect of gentrification, and I feel like there’s been a kind of bifurcated approach to development in the city over the last 20 years, in that we’re getting more and more demolition in the neighborhoods, tearing down of the old, decrepit housing and shrinking the city, and more and more investment in building downtown. While building downtown is great, I wonder if there’s something we can do to bring more capital into the neighborhoods. The whole Shrinking Cities phenomenon, I understand the concept of wanting to reduce the size of the city and have people live in more compact environments. The problem is, many of the people that are being asked to shrink are the same ones who suffered through other rounds of urban renewal and are deeply suspicious of the city’s motivations in wanting them to relocate. For that reason, I’m hesitant to endorse this notion of Shrinking Cities, even though I can see the economic benefits of it. This seems like urban renewal, round three, for a lot of people.
BELT: The Master Plan identifies certain neighborhood in the most depopulated parts of the city as neighborhoods where you can keep living, but we’re not going to build anything else, and once you’re gone, nothing else is going to be there.
[blocktext align=”right”]I think that there’s obvious signs of discontent about the status quo, and that sort of organizing is to me the brightest hope for the city.[/blocktext]Highsmith: That to me is a sort of echo to what happened in the 1960s with the St. John neighborhood. In 1965, after the city designated the St. John neighborhood for renewal, the city commission passed a law instructing residents not to invest any more than they had to in their homes because they were ultimately going to be demolished, and once that happened, it marked this wave of disinvestment and neglect of the North End, and you can see a lot of that same sort of thing happening today. These neighborhoods have been eyed for shrinking, and services curtailed. It doesn’t feel like a free choice to people who would like to remain in their homes, but feel pushed out.
BELT: So what does post-industrial Flint look like to you?
Highsmith: In the near future, the city is going to struggle economically; it’s going to struggle in terms of its tortured, divisive history of racial segregation, but I’m encouraged in many ways by the wave of activism I’ve seen across the country in the last few years, and I don’t just mean the Black Lives Matter movement, but the Occupy organizing. I think that there’s obvious signs of discontent about the status quo, and that sort of organizing is to me the brightest hope for the city. I take heart in some of the organizing I see happening in Flint now, for example over the issue of clean water in the city. I think that if the lesson of the 1950s and ’60s can say anything to our own moment, it’s that organizing, that activism can generate new investment and resources.
Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin’ but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland.
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