Car city invents new future

The `least desirable' place in the US is shaking off its old image, reports Andrew Gumbel in Flint, Michigan
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The Independent Online
THE LAST time a major strike hit Flint, Michigan, in the early 1970s, a quarter of the population ended up out of work, the infrastructure of the once-thriving downtown collapsed and the city acquired a reputation as a byword for post-industrial urban blight.

So there were more than one or two fluttering hearts as Flint came centre stage, once again, for an acrimonious General Motors strike that broke out here in June. After 54 days of largely fruitless stand-off and a patchy settlement that threatens to flare into renewed conflict any time in the next few months, Flint is - amazingly enough - still in one piece.

True, downtown is little more than a sterile row of official buildings interspersed with boarded-up shopfronts. True, this is still one of the 15 most dangerous cities in the United States, with the highest burglary rate in the country. But Flint has been canny enough to reinvent itself, looking beyond the car industry to an unlikely new existence of suburban comforts and service industries. It may not be pretty, but it seems to be working.

"People in this community are very resilient," Flint's robustly upbeat mayor, Woodrow Stanley, explained. "This is no longer an overwhelmingly GM town. We have more of a diverse economic base now, and we can ride with the punches."

It is an extraordinary transformation for a city with little other than cars in its lifeblood. General Motors was born here, and so was the United Auto Workers union, which famously came into being during a 44-day sit- down protest at the Fisher 2 GM plant in 1936-37. For decades, Flint was General Motors, and when General Motors decided to slash jobs, close plants and downsize, Flint downsized with it.

Michael Moore's prize-winning documentary Roger & Me, made in 1989 when Flint hit rock-bottom, depicted a town cruelly and cynically betrayed by the company that had forged its identity. Once-proud industrial workers were evicted from their homes, hounded out of town, pushed into demeaning, low-paying jobs at McDonald's and Taco Bell, or forced to fend for themselves by any means they could dream up.

One woman in the film sold rabbits "for pets or food", fondly stroking a bunny one minute and then whacking it over the head and skinning it the next - all in the name of an extra $10 or $15 a week. Because of the soaring crime rate, the city opened a new state-of-the-art prison, whose inauguration the Flint elite celebrated with a $100-a-head fancy dress "jailhouse rock" party, complete with finger-printing and an overnight stint in the cells.

At the time the film was made, Money magazine nominated Flint the 300th most desirable city in the United States - in a list of 300. Three years ago, though, it had climbed to 49th place. This was not through any act of munificence from General Motors; on the contrary, the forecast is that 11,000 more GM jobs might go in the next decade or so.

What Flint has done is to focus its resources on other areas, notably health and education. There are no fewer than four universities and colleges in town, with a student population (30,000) larger than Princeton's. Mayor Stanley's hope is to help the younger generation find new career paths through education, while at the same time offering Flint a major economic prop.

Flint is also an easy commute to the affluent north-western suburbs of Detroit, and relatively low house prices have made its outskirts a fashionable boom zone for residential housing, complemented by the inevitable large shopping malls, golf courses and other recreational facilities. With the US economy booming, real estate has more than offset the troubled automotive sector. Unemployment, now at 5.4 per cent, is barely above the national average.

That does not diminish the enormous psychological impact of GM's job- slashing policies on the remaining 33,000 auto workers. Flint remains militantly unionised and often resentful. Signs outside union halls proclaim that foreign cars are strictly prohibited, and the unfortunate owners of Hondas and Toyotas live in fear of their vehicles being smashed up or shot full of bullet holes.

The drab greys and browns of downtown (now euphemistically renamed "central city") and the adjoining industrial zone where creaky old plants still in operation - just - sit alongside their demolished sister structures, are like the hole at the centre of a doughnut, just empty space of ever diminishing relevance. GM still accounts for 60 per cent of Flint's economy, but that statistic feels like a millstone, not a cause for relief.

Part of downtown's problem has been gross mismanagement. In the 1980s, when anyone with the wherewithal was fleeing the city, Flint cooked up a crazy scheme to sponsor a luxury hotel, complete with high atrium, fountains and first-class room service. Nobody stayed in it, of course.

It was the same story at an upscale shopping mall called the Water Street Pavilion, and also at a Disney-style amusement park called Autoworld. Flint kidded itself into thinking it could attract tourists, but the tourists were not game, and the park closed within six months.

"I remember when Flint was full of fine shops and parades. My dad used to take me to the dime store to eat hot fudge sundaes," recalled Peggy Tortorice, a local Democratic Party activist. "That's all long gone. They've been talking about reviving downtown for 20 years, but nothing has happened, absolutely nothing."

The new city plans are more promising, but far from risk-free. GM still provides many of the students, and the scholarship money, for universities such as Michigan State and the Kettering Institute, while the flourishing health-care sector - complete with research facilities into burns, pediatrics and cancer - depends in no small measure on the 70,000 retired GM workers who live in the area. Independence is only a relative term.

Above all, Flint's worst enemy is its own reputation as a hotbed of militant unionism in an era where such a concept weakens the resolve of even the most willing investor. "We've not done a good job of managing our reputation," admits Larry Ford, president of the local Chamber of Commerce. "People both in and out of town are set in their ways of thinking. We need to get people to think in global terms."

To judge by the number of union stickers around town, that transformation is still some way from completion.