Almost to the end.
I’m allowing myself a closing argument.
Flint has been in decline since before I was born, and very soon almost the entirety of its residents will only remember the city’s downfall. In the last fifty years, the population has halved, and Flint has gone from an expansionist vision of a future that saw it eclipsing competing cities to the possibility of demolishing whole neighborhoods that have emptied out.
During this time there have been a lot of attempts to resurrect the city in its old glory, and many of them were, frankly, unrealistic. At times the main drag, which is the oldest road in the region and a conduit through four major cities (including Detroit) has been cordoned off for an ill-conceived pedestrian mall. Parking meters and haphazard one-way streets were installed downtown at the same time as free parking was added to the strip malls and plazas of the suburbs. AutoWorld, a hare-brained theme park expected to draw a million visitors annually was probably Flint’s greatest embarrassment. However, an era of inept political leadership (two mayors have been deservedly forced out of office in the last ten years alone) has probably been more damaging.
These issues are all surrounded and dominated by the withdrawal of General Motors. In 1978, almost 80,000 people worked for GM locally. That number has shrunk by 90%, and the process continues today. Flint at its peak had 200,000 residents, and the county under 500,000. Even under expert leadership, well-coordinated institutional support, and an aggressively inventive private sector, Flint would have been doomed to a steep decline. In reality, the severity and speed of its actual decline is part of the reason this city is so analyzed, even on an international level.
The last several years have realized, finally, a more pragmatic and well-considered response. A decade of selective investment in the downtown area has prepared the way for a time when several expanding commuter colleges would go residential. In the last decade Kettering University on the West Side built dormitories, and has been followed this year by housing downtown at the University of Michigan campus. The area between the two schools has been approved for redevelopment and park space (several proposals involve brownfield left by GM along the Flint river, which could reflect the Olmstead-style Kearsley Park across town). The idea is that a sizeable mixed-income population will encourage investment and rising property values.
The East Side is instrumental to these plans. While it does not have a residential campus, it is the site of the Cultural Center, which has been an anchor and an asset to Flint for over fifty years. Mott College, which is itself expanding, and the stable neighborhood of the East Village bound this area on the south and east. If anything, this part of the city has helped shore up the downtown area far more than downtown has driven regional commerce. If Flint’s current slow-growth development works as intended, in one decade we will see a viable urban corridor running from the western city limits to Dort Highway. Of course, this corridor will still be bounded by the poverty and devaluation of surrounding neighborhoods, and the disparity will be extreme. However, given the severity of disinvestment, it is hard to imagine any permanent progress being made in Flint without some consolidation and growth.
The Flint School District, too, is a critical piece of the puzzle, albeit in a less obvious way, and from a less promising position. The district has cycled through three superintendents in the last several years, and has fallen victim to hare-brained schemes of its own. Earlier this decade the graduation rate was pegged at around 40%. And yet, if you haven’t noticed, most of the current redevelopment plans involve higher education in some form or another. Three colleges are in the targeted development areas, and a fourth just outside of city limits. If Flint’s progress is contingent on collegiate educational growth, yet city residents are not equipped to participate in that growth, then there is every reason to think that whatever progress does occur will be segmented, or worse, superficial. Therefore: By any means necessary public schools in Flint have to fix their problems. At this point, it is as important a question as GM’s continuing presence.
Flint Central and its campus are an asset that cannot be replaced. We needn’t rely on sentimental reasons for saving the school. Any short-term gains achieved by demolishing the building (even if another structure is built on-site) would be offset by the inability of future development to fill such a unique and necessary niche in the city’s social and geographic landscape (an architect friend of mine has observed that $27 million today could not construct a school in any style of Central’s size). Central is emblematic of Frank Manley’s community education experiments, which are more relevant to Flint today than ever before, and the campus has ideal access to the city’s most successful institutions. True, the problem of retaining the physical structure could be ameliorated by selling the building to Powers Catholic, but the most long-term solution, the solution that enables Flint’s population to be the necessary and participatory force in the city’s recovery demands that the school remain with in the public school system. Get the money from our foundations and federal stimulus money, beg, borrow, and steal from alumni, find and coerce the genius behind the Kalamazoo Promise, go on Oprah and beg, do whatever it takes. Fix Central, upgrade Northern, and make these two high schools the effective poles of newer, meaner, sharper magnet programming and community education. $27 million isn’t pocket change, but it isn’t that much either when calculated against the capital of a reenergized city center.
Central High School could be one the most decisive elements in a retooled and realistic master plan for the City of Flint.
And in my mind, when those polished doors swing open again, its the Indians they will welcome home.