By Robert R. Thomas
Like a twisted love affair in which things are not what they seem, living in Flint can be an extremely disorienting hall of mirrors.
For 10 years I have been researching Flint’s history, trying to understand my hometown roots and my current residence. Despite having read most of the major books on the subject, my Flint narrative has remained littered with black holes between disconnected tissue. I had more questions than answers. On Nov. 18 in the basement of the Flint Public Library, I discovered some answers.
The occasion was a book-signing and public conversation with Andrew Highsmith, author of Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
In his opening remarks, Highsmith said his book began as a bunch of Flint questions. “At its core, my book is a local case study of the political economy of racial and economic inequality in modern America. Although it is set here in one particular place, in many ways it’s a book about the nation as a whole. At least that’s what I want it to be. … And to do that I looked very carefully at public policies and how public policies and policymakers — often with the support of very powerful corporate officials help to sustain urban poverty and racial inequality.”
And what a revealing look at public policy and social engineering the author provides — all of it based on years of research, much of it here in this library, and all of it solidly referenced by 60 pages of sources and footnotes.
I entered the book gingerly, fearing arid drones of science and scholarship, but I was quickly seduced by the measured, engaging narrative voice, synthesizing historical fact upon fact in manageable doses to reveal a kaleidoscope of fresh, shape-sifting perspectives to which the book’s subtitle — Flint, Michigan and the Fate of the American Metropolis — alludes.
Demolition Means Progress excels in delineating truth from fiction by viewing Flint’s modern history in the context of local, state and national history over the past century.
In my early childhood of the mid-20th century, I have no memory of any people other than white people. This is odd since I somehow knew “Negroes” lived in Flint “across the river.” I have no memory of ever having gone across the river.
Demolition Means Progress clarified my blind spot with a clear answer. I have no memory of black people because I never saw any. The book offers a graphic display in black and white of the racial profile of the all-white eastside neighborhood and school district of my childhood.
The author backs the graphic view with historical causes. These fruits of his research clearly portray the de facto segregation of my youth and demonstrate a definitive pattern of social engineering under the collusion of several public policies, policymakers and corporate entities. It was in this section of the book that I learned of the racially restrictive deed covenants that GM attached to properties after building houses on the property.
Demolition Means Progress is one of those page-turners where you keep slapping your head and blurting out, “I didn’t know that!”
The book’s final chapter, “The Fall of Flint,” and the epilogue, “America Is a Thousand Flints,” is the perfect encore and should be required reading for all of us living in the post-industrial urban decay of the early 21st century.
Those two concluding sections of the book connect lots of Flint dots concerning recent issues like the Emergency Financial Manager regime and the state’s major role in this complete failure of leadership and the resultant manmade water disaster.
Highsmith said it best with his concluding remarks to our public conversation: “In a lot of ways, the current water crisis is really the culmination of the decades of disinvestment that I write about in the book. In our conversations about the water crisis, we’ve put a lot of blame on city officials and the state of Michigan – and justifiably so because they’re all of that.
“And yet there is a broader set of historical sources that are also important in understanding what’s happening. The kinds of deferred maintenance that happens when you don’t have the taxes to support a city, a viable city in particular.”
Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis is a fascinating Flint Decoder Ring. Highsmith’s “local case study of the political economy of racial and economic inequality in modern America” is also a notable historic document for our times.
Robert R. Thomas is an EVM board member. He disappeared in San Francisco for 35 years, only to reappear a decade ago as a retired resident of Flint’s Central Park village where he found true love and a new home.