An excerpt from Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City

By Gordon Young

Teardown is a book about Flint, Michigan, trying to go home again, and reconnecting with the place that made you who you are. Teardown was named a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and featured in The Atlantic Wire Summer Reading Guide. 

Dave Starr looked grandfatherly, with his gray hair and glasses, as he tapped a crooked stick on the edge of a patio table in his backyard and announced, “The meeting of the Milbourne Avenue Block Club is officially called to order.” The friendly sixty-eight-year-old was the first white guy I’d seen in Civic Park. With his well-worn jeans, flannel shirt, and red suspenders, he appeared to be an easy mark in a tough neighborhood. But looks can be deceiving.

Dave has his Yahoo account set up to automatically append to each of his emails two concise lines that reveal a great deal about his past and present life:

Retired Shop Rat—14,647 days in a GM Plant
45ACP: Don’t leave home without it.

The first commemorates the more than forty years he spent working at Buick, starting on the line before becoming a factory electrician. The second references the ammo for his gun, a stainless steel Dan Wesson .45 caliber semiautomatic CBOB. The C stands for “Commander,” meaning the barrel is shortened to 4.25 inches. The modification reduces accuracy, but within the seven-yard “defense zone” where he would be forced to use the gun it’s not going to matter. BOB is short for “bobtail” and refers to the rounded handle, making it easier to stash and retrieve from a tight space, like a pocket or a waistband. He bought it online for $925. It was an upgrade from the cheaper Springfield .45 he also owns.

It was a Thursday at dusk, and eight residents of the block had gathered for the first meeting of the summer. I’d called Dave earlier to see if I could attend, explaining that I was a Civic Park native looking to buy a house. He seemed unconvinced but was happy to have me sit in on the meeting. I drove over with a bag of cherries for everyone to eat. Dave had set up a big industrial fan powered by an orange extension cord snaking into the garage, so an artificial breeze stirred the warm summer air. Dave’s wife, Judy, served lemonade. Some of us sat in lawn chairs, and a few took seats on a low cement-block wall that surrounded a deep hole taking up half the yard. I wondered if Dave was building a bomb shelter but was afraid to ask.

The meeting could be compartmentalized into a discussion of three forces conspiring to thwart Milbourne Avenue’s progress—nature, economics, and local government in the form of Flint City Hall and the Genesee County Land Bank. Unlike the economy, vegetation grows fast in Michigan during the summer, and the abandoned houses presented a constant landscaping challenge. Many of the land-bank houses in the area had wild, overgrown yards. And the city’s failure to mow the street medians on nearby West Hamilton Avenue had recently caused a traffic accident. “What are we going to do about these high weeds?” asked a neighbor who had lived in the nice yellow house up the street with her husband since 1977. “Those weeds scare me. It’s like they’ve got plans to become trees!

But restraining weeds with delusions of grandeur and other improvement projects, such as repainting the curbs on the street, cost money the block club members didn’t necessarily have. There was a long discussion of the best way to voice their concerns with the city and the land bank to get things cleaned up. Dave, working on his third cigarette in less than an hour, didn’t bother to hide his dislike of both government entities. “I want to go down there and tell them to start doing their job,” he said. “I can’t mow grass that’s three feet high by myself.” Another neighbor, who had lived up the street since 1976 and had stylish blond dreadlocks, gently cut him off. “Dave, just leave them alone and we’ll do what we can do,” she said, pointing out that she had a brother-in-law with land-bank connections who might be able to help them out.

[blocktext align=”left”]There had been no grand decisions made, but the simple fact that a group of neighbors had come together and made modest plans for the future of Civic Park seemed like an accomplishment.[/blocktext]After the meeting broke up, everyone drifted out to the sidewalk to talk in the gathering darkness. There had been no grand decisions made, but the simple fact that a group of neighbors had come together and made modest plans for the future of Civic Park seemed like an accomplishment. It was the sort of basic, fundamental act that was missing in so many parts of the city. I asked Dave if he would mind giving me a personal tour of the neighborhood the next day. He said he had a doctor’s appointment, but he’d be glad to help me out later in the week. The streetlights began to flicker on, my old signal to get home for the night when I was a kid. It still applied. I was nervous about being in the neighborhood after dark. I said my goodbyes and headed to my car.


When I returned to the Starrs’ pale yellow house with dark shutters a few days later, Dave seemed fidgety. We were standing in his living room, which was outfitted with his and hers La-Z-Boys, a collection of family photos, and some impressive NASCAR collectibles, including a wall display of Matchbox-size cars and a few dozen commemorative plates devoted to various drivers. I could hear Judy putting dishes away in the kitchen. I noticed Dave wasn’t smoking and wondered if that was the problem. In a way, it was.

“I got some bad news at the doctor the other day,” he said. “I’ve got lung cancer.”

The cancer was stage one and attacking the lower lobe of his right lung. He would need surgery sometime that summer.

I told him I was sorry, unsure of what else to say. I suggested that we cancel the tour, that we could do it later, but he brushed it aside. Judy came in, and we sat down in the living room. A gray cat appeared, eyeing me suspiciously. “That’s Jinx,” Dave said. “Someone dumped her across the street, and she ended up in our garage one day. Two Pit Bulls were ripping the siding off trying to get at her. I went after the Pit Bulls with a two-by-four and she came inside and decided to stay.” There were three other cats somewhere in the house, reluctant to make an appearance. “Jinx seems to think it’s his job to protect me,” Dave added. “He sleeps in the hallway and keeps all the other cats from bothering me at night.”

Under the watchful eye of Jinx, I asked them to tell me how they’d met and ended up living in Civic Park. Judy was a twenty-one-year-old beauty-school student when she went out on her first date with Dave. They’d been set up by Dave’s sister, who was a classmate of Judy’s. They went to a drive-in movie, and after it was over they sat in the driveway of Judy’s parents and talked until dawn. “This was a deal where you meet someone and you know that’s the person you want to spend the rest of your life with,” Judy said. “I don’t know how you know, but you just do.”

[blocktext align=”left”]Families who still had a place to live but couldn’t afford to pay their heating bills could come there in the winter for warmth.[/blocktext]Dave and Judy got married about a year later in the cafeteria of Saint Michael’s school because the parish was in the process of building a new church. I knew this spot well. It was where I ate lunch in first and second grades before the school closed. I also worked bingo there with my mom to help offset the tuition at my Catholic high school, selling cake, candy, and pop to elderly, chain-smoking players. It was now a “warming center” run by Catholic Charities, not to be confused with a homeless shelter. Families who still had a place to live but couldn’t afford to pay their heating bills could come there in the winter for warmth.

They moved into the house on Milbourne when Civic Park was almost exclusively a white neighborhood. A black pediatrician was the only nonwhite resident on the tree-lined block. Their classic two-story New England Colonial has a steeply pitched roof and is modeled on the style favored by the Puritans. It cost $14,500, and they made a $450 down payment. Their mortgage was $123 a month. “At the time I couldn’t figure out how we could come up with that kind of money every month, but we did,” Dave told me. He figured the house was worth less now than it was when they bought it in 1968. He was not wrong.

For a time, Judy worked as a beautician, but she gave that up after a son and daughter were born. Civic Park was a good place to raise a family. There were kids everywhere. The school was just a few blocks away. Haskell Community Center, with its playground, pool, and bowling alley, was nearby. There was baseball in the summer and skating in the winter at Bassett Park. But as Flint’s economic fortunes declined, Civic Park began to change. The number of rental houses increased, and abandoned homes became more common. Crime flourished, and security bars and home alarm systems became a necessity in a neighborhood where residents used to leave their doors unlocked.

[blocktext align=”left”]Dave can’t even remember when they became the only white family on the block, the Caucasian equivalent of their long-ago neighbor, the black pediatrician.[/blocktext]Civic Park also morphed from a white neighborhood to a black neighborhood. Dave can’t even remember when they became the only white family on the block, the Caucasian equivalent of their long-ago neighbor, the black pediatrician. But though white flight was commonplace in Civic Park and the rest of Flint, the changing racial demographics didn’t bother Dave and Judy. “I just figured they’re people just like everybody else,” Dave said. “Maybe it was my upbringing or my Catholic school background, but I’ve always been taught to see the person, not the skin color. We have wonderful neighbors. Really nice people.”

Their friends and family didn’t always have such an enlightened outlook. White neighbors confided that they were moving because the blacks were taking over, destroying property values. “I grew up in a prejudiced household,” Judy said. “My dad pressured us to move. At one point he said to me, ‘I don’t know why you’re living there with all those niggers.’”

Judy is slight and soft-spoken with short gray hair and glasses. She likes sweatshirts with pastel designs—seashells and starfish and the like—that you’d find at craft fairs. But you can tell when something doesn’t sit right with her. “I just told my dad, ‘Too bad. We’re not going anywhere. This is our home.’”

daveandjudystarrDave and Judy’s devotion to Milbourne hasn’t come without its share of heartache and tragedy, however. In 1996, after both children had moved out, Judy was working at McDonald’s to earn extra money. She had to be there at 4 a.m. to prep and open the restaurant. One morning she went out to the car for work and didn’t notice the teenage boy who lived across the street sitting on his front porch. He’d had problems with drinking and drugs, and his parents sometimes locked him out when he missed his curfew, hoping to teach him a lesson. “It was a tough-love thing,” Judy explained. As Judy unlocked the car in the predawn darkness, he came up behind her, swung her to the ground, and slammed her face into the concrete. He apparently planned to steal the car.

“The only thing I remember is lying on the ground and begging him not to kill me,” Judy said.

The car alarm went off and woke up Dave. “I looked out the bedroom window,” he said. “I could see the car in the driveway with the door open, and I could hear her moaning. I raced down there and found her face down with blood all over the place.” Dave called 911, and the police caught the boy hiding under the deck behind his house. The police told Dave he was crying when they found him, afraid that he’d killed Judy. “He almost did,” Dave said.

Judy’s jaw was broken in three places. Her eye socket was fractured. She was taken to the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor for seven hours of surgery. She endured eighteen months of medical procedures. She consulted a denture specialist because her gums, teeth, and jaw were so damaged. Dave installed a hospital bed in the living room and prepared Campbell’s Chunky Soup in a blender for Judy to eat. The neighborhood kids all made get-well cards for her and brought them over. “The people on the block showed they were more than just neighbors,” Dave said. “They were our friends.”

At the same time, Dave realized the neighborhood might be too dangerous for them to stay any longer. His daughter urged them to move. He asked Judy if it was time to leave. “I don’t know where and I don’t know how, but if you don’t want to live here anymore, we’ll go,” he told her.

“This is my home, and I will not be driven from it,” she answered without hesitation.

“She may not act like it, but she’s one tough lady,” Dave told me.

But Judy’s determination couldn’t completely erase the aftereffects of the attack. Her vision was damaged and she had trouble focusing in one eye, but the psychological scars were more insidious. For several months, she wouldn’t leave the house, even to go into the backyard, without a baseball bat. “I’d try to feel comfortable, but sometimes I had this fear, you know,” she said. “But this is our home. I wasn’t going to walk away from it.”

[blocktext align=”left”]I share Judy’s attachment to this troubled spot on the Michigan map.[/blocktext]I understood her devotion, even though my mom had always described our family as a band of gypsies, comfortable anywhere yet never fully settled in one spot. We are allegedly drifters with a yearning for the open road. My mom certainly took that approach to life. Her failed marriages to two navy pilots ensured a peripatetic lifestyle. My brother was born in Flint. One sister was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and another in Olathe, Kansas. I was conceived in a Quonset hut at Hunter’s Point Shipyard in San Francisco when my dad’s carrier was in drydock and born in San Diego. I’ve certainly moved around a lot as an adult. Yet I’m the kid in our family who spent the most time in one spot, and that spot was Flint. I share Judy’s attachment to this troubled spot on the Michigan map.

The conversation soon drifted to lighter fare. We talked about professional wrestling and NASCAR. Judy’s favorite driver is Jeff Gordon. Dave’s favorite driver is anyone other than Jeff Gordon. “Sometimes in a race I’ll try to jinx him,” Dave said, narrowing his eyes and wiggling his fingers in the direction of the television. “Once or twice he’s had an accident right after I did it.” Dave was smiling. Judy was not. She shook her head and stood up.

“Let’s go for that walk,” she said, selecting an official red and black Jeff Gordon jacket from the coat rack. “You got the pistol?”

“Right here,” Dave answered, pulling his shirt back to reveal his .45 sticking out of the front pocket of his Wrangler jeans. He looked at me and added, “It’s mostly for the Pit Bulls.” I wasn’t sure if this was meant to be reassuring.

Dave locked the door and Judy, who was intent on actually getting a little exercise, quickly pulled ahead of us as we walked north up Milbourne toward West Dayton. Dave was more intent on explication, pausing frequently to deliver commentary, gossip, and insight, like an earnest tour guide at the Civil War battle sites he’s fond of visiting on vacations. In fact, we only made it as far as the white house with the aluminum siding next door before he stopped. It was more or less abandoned, although it was hard to tell from the outside. The house was tidy, with curtains in the windows. Dave explained that it had been a rental owned by a woman in Detroit. One day while the tenants were out, scrappers broke in and stole the copper pipes. Dave had noticed the front door open and water running out of the house. The owner didn’t want to pay to fix the plumbing, so the renter moved out. Rumor on the street was that the owner’s son was a truck driver, and he sometimes crashed at the house, even though there was no water. The electricity was still on, and Dave worried about the house catching fire. Not exactly an unusual story in Flint, except that the owner had paid $65,000 for the house on a land contract in 2007. “No idea why someone would pay so much for this house,” Dave said. “It’s insane.”

We caught up to Judy halfway down the street in front of a light blue house that appeared to be occupied despite an addition in back that was collapsing. Dave said the owner had flown to the Philippines several months ago. “He married a lady there, if you know what I mean,” Dave said, raising an eyebrow and giving me a half smile.

“How’d they meet?” I asked, unsure where this was going.

“Mail-order bride,” he clarified. “I guess she’s having trouble getting into the country, so he went there. He said he’s coming back with her someday, but I kind of doubt it.”

Judy jumped in. “Have you ever seen that show Hoarders?” she asked. “That’s what he’s like. There’s a little pathway to get through the house. That’s it. He doesn’t throw anything away.”

[blocktext align=”left”]I tried to imagine the owner bringing his new wife back to Flint, to the alleged wealth and promise of America. It was hard to envision the scenario ending well.[/blocktext]We stood on the sidewalk for a few seconds, staring at the house. I tried to imagine the owner bringing his new wife back to Flint, to the alleged wealth and promise of America. It was hard to envision the scenario ending well.

Down the street, three black men were huddled over the engine of a van parked on the street. One glanced up at us standing on the sidewalk, smiled, and called out: “Hey, Mr. Starr, come and see what I’ve done with the car.”

“That’s Anthony,” Dave said to me. “A great guy.”

Anthony and his wife, Tabitha, had rented a house on the block for twenty years and were hoping to buy it from their landlord. Anthony had a light blue Chevy Lumina in the driveway that he’d been working on. He’d swapped out the fuse panel and found a replacement hood in a slightly paler shade of blue. He was excited about the car, even though it was just the kind of blandly unreliable make and model that helped hasten GM’s decline. Anthony walked us around the Chevy, pointing out improvements.

“That’s why I love this street,” Dave said as we walked away. “Anthony gives me some hope. The guy even shovels my driveway and rakes my leaves when we’re not home.”

We passed an empty rental house owned by a speculator in California before reaching the corner of Milbourne and West Dayton. Joy Tabernacle came into view across the street. Six church members, all young black men, were out sweeping and cleaning the parking lot. But the yards of houses across from the church were littered with tires and an impressive variety of junk. One house looked like you could knock it over with a feather. It was owned by a guy in Nevada. We rounded the next corner and walked down North Chevrolet Avenue, a major thoroughfare of Civic Park that runs all the way to the now-demolished Chevy in the Hole factory complex. Nearly every house on the block was abandoned. I pointed out an occupied home across the street, the yard filled with kids’ toys and a brightly colored plastic clubhouse. “Hey, at least there’s some kids left in the neighborhood,” I said, but Dave frowned. “I hear a lot of domestic violence calls on the scanner from that place in the summer,” said Dave, who regularly monitors his two police scanners. “Fights and stuff.”

We passed a vacant lot landscaped with Hennessey cognac bottles and several trees scorched by fire. “Drug house,” Dave said matter-of-factly. “A crowd gathered to watch it burn, and they cheered when the walls came down. They were happy to see it go.”

At another vacant lot, he paused again. “A car doing about a hundred hit the house that used to be here during a car chase. Knocked it right off the foundation. I heard the boom and came over. The car was upside down in the yard. Two dead.”

We came to the corner of West Hamilton and North Chevrolet Avenues, an intersection I had crossed every day on my “commute” to Saint Mike’s in second grade. My mom had to be at the hospital at six for work, so I woke up on my own during the school year. She would set an alarm on the stove to signal when it was time for me to ride my bike to Dupont Street and catch the city bus to school. Now there was an all-too-familiar shrine of plastic flowers, balloons, stuffed animals, and homemade signs for a little girl killed in a car accident at the corner. “We tried to get a light put in here, but the city said there wasn’t enough traffic to justify it,” Dave said.

There were no visible cars. In fact, there wasn’t another person in sight. We kept walking and came to the corner of West Hamilton and Milbourne. We had only circled a single block but had already passed nearly twenty abandoned houses. I noticed a cracked slab of sidewalk inscribed “W. B. Brown & Sons 1917.” It dated back to the creation of the neighborhood. It was hard to believe it had survived. Nearby, in red spray paint on an adjacent square of concrete, another makeshift memorial read “R.I.P. Quack.”

“Probably a gangbanger,” Dave said.

“Who liked Donald Duck,” I said, a desperate attempt at humor. The sun had hidden behind a cloud, and Dave’s travelogue of death, decay, and mayhem was making me depressed.

“Or a doctor,” Judy said without smiling. I couldn’t tell if she was serious. Then she added, “Our street is supposed to be up for new sidewalks soon. We’re next on the city list.”

“Yeah, right,” Dave said, and they both laughed at the notion that Milbourne Avenue would be the recipient of infrastructure improvements anytime soon. Gallows humor. Given the archeological evidence at our feet proving that some sections of the sidewalk hadn’t been replaced in more than ninety years, I could see why they weren’t optimistic.

We headed down West Hamilton for another block and turned on Proctor. To the uninitiated, it might look similar to Dave and Judy’s block. But it quickly became clear that almost all the houses were abandoned. Many had yellow C/P symbols spray-painted on the front, indicating that the water and gas pipes had been capped. Thieves had made off with every scrap of aluminum siding. There were thirty old tires piled in one driveway. It was uncomfortably quiet—a character in a suspense movie might describe it as “too quiet.” There was suddenly a sense of danger. Dave told me that their mail carrier tried to hit streets like this bright and early in the summer, before the gangbangers and the Pit Bulls woke up. “I’m telling you, our block of Milbourne is like a tropical paradise in a sea of blight,” Dave said, then he paused as if searching for a more thoroughly superlative metaphor, but a sour look washed over his face. “Whew, smell that?” he asked. “The skunks got out of control when Walling cut the garbage pickup.”

[blocktext align=”left”]Like many Flint residents I had come to know, conversations with Dave often looped back to Mayor Dayne Walling and Dan Kildee, the county treasurer and president of the Genesee County Land Bank.[/blocktext] Walling’s attempt to help balance the city budget by reducing garbage collection to once every two weeks in late March had united the city in opposition to the measure. Blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, labor and management, Michigan State and University of Michigan fans alike formed an unlikely alliance against the measure. The only constituency that seemed to endorse the move were skunks and rats, and they didn’t vote. Walling had reverted to weekly garbage collection after the withering public outcry and the realization that the move hadn’t saved any money because city garbage collectors had to work overtime to collect all the extra trash every two weeks.

Kildee was getting international publicity for refining and vigorously promoting what had come to be known as the shrinking-city concept. Kildee’s urban-planning theory called for essentially abandoning irrational hope and moving on. He believed that cities like Flint should accept that they are not going to regain their lost population any time soon. Derelict houses and buildings should be leveled and replaced with parks, urban gardens, and green space. Eventually, incentives could be used to lure residents into higher-density neighborhoods that had been reinvigorated with infill housing and rehab projects. Although there were no hard numbers, the city could theoretically save money by reducing infrastructure costs. There would be fewer sparsely populated neighborhoods in need of city services like police protection. Some sewer and electrical lines might be eliminated, reducing maintenance costs. The housing market would stabilize, if not improve. Think of it as manifest destiny in reverse for urban areas, a radical urban-planning concept that rejected growth as the fundamental goal of cities.

By using the tax-foreclosure process to keep distressed property away from speculators, the land bank controlled abandoned structures all over the city. More than 1,100 had already been torn down, but that was just the start. There were still more than 6,000 empty homes in the city. Demolition cost about $9,000 a pop, so there wasn’t nearly enough money to finish the job. And the land bank sometimes struggled to maintain its holdings.

I supported Kildee’s vision. Flint had ten-square miles of blight, and this was the first rational plan to deal with it. But it appealed more to the head than the heart, and I understood the intense emotional resistance to the concept. It seemed at odds with America’s can-do spirit, its reputation for boundless optimism. Kildee was declaring that we can’t have it all, that Flint can’t be a booming metropolis where thousands of well-paid workers owned snowmobiles, sent their kids to college, and looked forward to cushy pensions when they retired. Americans, myself included, aren’t exactly big on accepting reality, as indicated by my mission to own a second home in Flint when I could barely afford my first one in San Francisco. Americans don’t give up. We fight. Even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense. So of course, many Flint residents hated Kildee’s vision, as did right-wing political pundit Rush Limbaugh. Even a largely positive profile in the New York Times described it in overblown, almost apocalyptic terms: “A city built to manufacture cars would be returned in large measure to the forest primeval.”

We passed several vacant houses, none of them boarded or secured, all owned by the land bank. Dave pointed this out, shaking his head. “Kildee was in the paper the other day complaining that Detroit wasn’t doing a good job of keeping property away from speculators,” he said. “Some of the worst houses in Flint are land-bank properties. They’re as bad as speculators.”

We looped back around to Milbourne and stopped at the lone vacant lot on the block. “Now, Gordon, are you familiar with the hip-hop band the Dayton Family?” Dave asked rather formally.

I couldn’t help but laugh. I didn’t take Dave Starr to be a fan of Flint’s foremost gangsta rap act, creators of classic songs like “How Many Niggas You Know?” “Sex, Drugs, Money & Murder,” and “U Can’t Fuck with Us.” Despite numerous struggles with the law in the nineties, the founding members of the Dayton Family—Ira “Bootleg” Dorsey, Raheen “Shoestring” Peterson, and Matt “Backstabba” Hinkle—managed to produce a gold album and capture the essence and humor of the Vehicle City in its declining years with songs like “Welcome to Flint”:

In Flint, we ain’t never been scared to die slim

cause we been there ever since they closed GM

Welcome to Flint Town, it’s nutty and wild,

niggas love to murder execution style.

The members of the Dayton Family grew up about seven blocks to the west near Bonbright Street, but Shoestring’s mom was renting the house that once stood on this vacant lot on Milbourne when the band was searching for a spot to shoot a video for their song “Ghetto.” Before we moved on, Dave offered up a concise musical critique. “You know, rap used to be more about telling a story,” he said. “It grew out of guys on the street corner just telling stories. I think it’s lost some of that now. It’s not as good.”

[blocktext align=”left”]Flint is a place where strange things can happen, but I have to admit I never expected to be walking the streets of Civic Park, discussing the evolution of hip-hop with a retired white shop rat.[/blocktext]Flint is a place where strange things can happen, but I have to admit I never expected to be walking the streets of Civic Park, discussing the evolution of hip-hop with a retired white shop rat. But the conversation was certainly instructive. If I had any doubts that Dave Starr understood the particular dynamics of his neighborhood, they were gone now. He certainly wasn’t living in the past. His eyes were wide open.

When we got back to the house, I asked Dave about the backyard construction project I had wondered about during the block-club meeting. It turned out he wasn’t building a bomb shelter. He was in the middle stages of creating what would be a three-thousand-gallon pond with a filtration system and a cascading waterfall. He’d been working on it since 2007 and planned to fill it with water lilies and other plants. He hadn’t decided if he would stock it with koi or smaller, double-tailed wakin goldfish. “One of my neighbors suggested catfish,” Dave said, smiling. “I think he’s looking forward to a cookout or something. We may have to consider it if the economy keeps going like this.”

davestarrbackyardHis enthusiasm built as he detailed the work that was left to be done, but he finally paused as he surveyed the cement-block retaining wall, the deep hole, and the high mound of dirt near his garage. “I planned to get a lot done this summer, but this cancer thing might slow me down.” I asked how much the pond would cost from start to finish. He figured about eight thousand dollars. I tried not to look surprised. It could end up costing more than his house was worth. Dave looked at me as if he knew what I was thinking.

“Some people might think we’re old-fashioned or strange, but this is not just a house where we live. This is our home, and we’re going to take care of it,” he said. “You can either run away from your problems or you can stay and fight.”

Gordon Young is the author of Teardown: Memoir of A Vanishing City and runs the blog Flint Expatriates (