Archive for August 9th, 2011

I am spending the week in Michigan, at the home of my mother, just outside of Flint, where I was born and where I lived as a child.

When I was small, this place was prosperous. General Motors was booming, and people came from all over to work in the auto factories: white mountain folk from the Appalachians and Ozarks, black sharecroppers from the Deep South, Poles, Ukrainians and Rusyns from Eastern Europe, and small farmers, like my parents, from Northern Michigan.. A man with an eighth grade education, like my dad, could get a job working on the line and make a good living for his family, sending his children to parochial schools, buying a new car every year or two, even purchasing  a vacation cottage “Up North”. All on one income, mind you.

And the ethnic mix made for a colorful childhood; my friends’ parents played bluegrass on the weekends, and wedding reception music at St Agnes was polka, whether or not your family was Slavic.

All that is gone, of course. Flint is, with Detroit, the most depressed urban area in the nation. Blocks of homes are abandoned, and factories that once ran three shifts daily have been demolished, leaving huge empty spaces. The ethnics have moved to the suburbs. The murder rate tops the nation.

Michael Moore and others have chronicled the decline, and I will spare you the details of corporate and individual folly and greed.

A drive through the north end can be depressing. The last time I was here for any length of time, caring for my mother as she underwent chemotherapy, I drove through an area I had not been in for years.

When I was in my youth the area around N  Saginaw St and Fifth Ave was thriving, a sort of little countercultural haven. On one corner was Merlin’s Kitchen, a vegetarian restaurant. Across the street was a “head shop”, a record store,  a vintage clothing store, and Middle Earth Books, which featured occult and new age titles.

I’d make a day of it, browsing the stores, buying a book or record or two, and then eating vegan cuisine at Merlin’s.

Now all these stand vacant, in various graffiti-covered states of decay.

My nephew, Brad, who works at an organic farm an hour or so west of here, but who lived in Flint off and on the last couple of years, tells me good things are happening here: various small farms and other projects are sprouting, including the restoration of a long-dormant mill in Linden, just south of here. And I have linked to the site of the Flint River Farm, which is pioneering urban agriculture downtown.

This is promising, of course. Cities were founded where soil was fertile, and the land beneath Flint and Detroit, long unused for anything but parking lots and lawns, will still produce abundant crops with the  right care. And though I read in The Detroit Free Press yesterday of an urban farming project in Detroit that looks more like an agribusiness land grab, the Flint River Farm is small scale, a distributist undertaking (even if the farmers have never heard the term).

Always in need of good news, I hope to visit while I am here.

The photos at the top of the page are of the Fisher Body plant, where my father worked for 34 years, and where I once worked for all of 3 months.  On the left, the assembly line. On the right, after abandonment in the early 80s. It has since been demolished.

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