Cities like Flint are struggling. Cities built to support one or two industries which leave, cities built to support and reflect a moment, and cities built by individuals not groups. And when those industries left so did the people and so did the city and all that remained were ghosts, excuses, and blame.
Luckily, the human experience tends to be a wheel that keeps turn, turn, turning and opportunity has a way of coming back around. Enter the 21st Century and a chance to bring back Flint and some of the other cities of America that focused too much on one industry and lost it.
I think we humans forget the power of cities. We forget that a large city is the heart that pumps the blood outward into the community. It’s the engine that drives the economy. We don’t like to think that because so many of us have a country/suburb view of the world when we reach a certain age. We have learned to fear out cities because so many people abandoned them for the suburbs and while we turned our suburbs into small cities the opportunities disappeared with the interest and poverty rose and so did crime. When we abandoned the cities, some to greater degree than others, we abandoned the people there too.
The pendulum has swung back though and our interest in cities is back on the rise as we start to realize that those places are hubs for business and entertainment and they are not things to be abandoned. Neither are people.
The only way the system works is if it’s treated like a system.
Like a body.
You need balance to make it survive.
You can’t abandon the cities and run to the literal and figurative hills because you’re taking the baggage of the city and its many affectations with you. Malls. Traffic. People. Crime. All of it follows the exodus so that the city never really leaves, it just changes shape. What we forget is that we are the cities, the buildings are just the form that it takes but we’re the city, and wherever we go, it goes.
The problem is that the suburbs throw up their hands and shake their heads and say NO to the notion that if the city fails they will fail, not realizing that cities are what they are and were built where they are because they are hubs for business, travel, entertainment, commerce, and more. They are built near travel lanes to make all of that easier. And we have to work together. If cities fail then it’s only a matter of time until the towns fail. We humans cannot get past our ingrained tribalism and need to have enemies, even if they are implied. City people are still Americans, are still PEOPLE, and they are still part of the same system as the folks in the ‘burbs. And vice verse. People in the ‘burbs are just trying to do what they feel is best for their families by heading out to where there’s more land, less people, and more serenity. And both groups of people are fine. We are so silly. We let race, and religion, sexuality, and beliefs separate and do everything we can to build more and more walls around ourselves never seeing that we’re building prisons, not homes.
Ah, but cities.
The issue with places like Flint is that too few voices are forging the new cities. Too few ideas and too much money. The intentions are good, I believe that, but they are also full of politics, both personal and political. Business is targeted as are the owners so that you get an interpretation of a city, not a genuine city. A city is organic. A city is a patchwork quilt of people, ideas, and ages. No doubt, there will be a lot of failures and you have to be ready for that but with those failures will come unimagined successes. You have to trust that the right people, if given the chance, will create something wonderful. Flint has become a city of medicine with three hospitals within fifteen minutes of one another – two of those within five minutes of each other. We are a city of colleges with two satellite schools for major national universities, a nationally recognized community college, a globally recognized engineering school, and a handful of business schools. We have a LOT of students here with nothing to keep them here. In Downtown Flint there are a small handful of upscale restaurants, and bars that serve food. There are two, maybe three spots that are more laid back for food but there is a distinct lack of thought about the many students here. The bars are not clubs, they are bars. You don’t dance there so much as twirl drunkenly. The music venues skew to small rock clubs, bars, or spots that trend younger than most young adults want to frequent. There are no places for mid-range concerts outside of a large concert/events hall that programs for middle aged people. As for clothing, the options fall to a very small variety. The grocery store in town failed and was never replaced. There is one hotel and one convention space, which seems fine until you realize that it creates a monopoly on pricing at both. There are no music stores. No bookstores – a college bookstore isn’t the same. No downtown diner or spot for people to gather at odd hours. And there are no jobs.
Yet – we have a world class cultural center. We have an amazing farmer’s market. We have some fantastic free and inexpensive summer festivals. We have an arts community. We are close to major highways. We are an hour from Detroit, Lansing, and Ann Arbor. We are resilient. And the biggest thing is that in a city the size of Flint you can have a huge and immediate impact on this area if you have the right idea and right methods. But the opportunities have to be there. The space is there, but the opportunities to INHABIT the space need to be there as well. People need the chance to find and live their dreams.
Let the market decide who survives and who doesn’t.
Let the downtown reflect the people who inhabit and frequent it.
Business isn’t about charity, it’s about self-perpetuating. It’s about growth, expansion, and safety. A city is not a business though. People are not a business. The city of Flint, and cities like it need its leaders and funders and the people who hold the purse strings to let go, just a little, and let people have a chance to shape the city they want to see. We have a lot of space that’s unused in Downtown Flint. Space that could be rented. Space that could be used. Space that could become something. We talk a big game about fostering business and incubating it but let’s really do it. Let’s get rid of the vanity businesses that exist but are not open and are not part of the community. Let people who want to add to the city and the downtown have a chance. We have so many assets here, it’s a shame to let them all wither. The groundwork is laid, some very nice moves have been made but it’s time to let the people have a voice in how the downtown is re-built. And once the downtown is thriving we can finally, FINALLY, turn our attention outward to the other parts of the city that need attention, hope, and opportunity. Not money, but opportunity. People have thrown enough money at Flint’s problems, at the problems of cities like Flint, and it didn’t solve the problem, it just eased some consciences. Change comes from work and investment and it’s time for change to finally come.