At the height of the real estate bubble, Gordon Young and his girlfriend buy a tiny house in their dream city, San Francisco. They’re part of a larger influx of creative types moving to urban centers, drawn by the promise of fulfilling jobs, bars that offer a dizzying selection of artisanal bourbons, and the satisfaction that comes from thinking you’re in a place where important things are happening. But even as Young finds a home in a city sometimes described as 49 square miles surrounded on all sides by reality, a vital part of him still resides in industrial America in the town where he was raised: Flint, Michigan. It’s the birthplace of General Motors, “star” of the Michael Moore documentary Roger & Me, and a place that supplies the national media with never-ending fodder for “worst-of” lists.
Filled with nostalgia and compelled to help his struggling hometown, Young hatches a plan to buy a house in Flint. He embarks on a tragi-comic odyssey to rediscover the city that once supplied the country with shiny Buicks and boasted one of the highest per capita income levels in the world, but now endures a real unemployment rate pushing 40 percent. What he finds is a place of stark contrasts and dramatic stories, where an exotic dancer can afford a lavish mansion, and speculators snap up cheap houses on eBay by the dozen like jelly donuts. There are desolate blocks where only a single house is occupied, and survivors brandish shotguns and monitor police scanners. While the population plummets, the murder rate soars. Throw in an arson spree and a racially motivated serial killer and Young wonders if Flint can be saved.
And yet, he discovers glimmers of hope. He befriends a rag-tag collection of urban homesteaders and die-hard residents who refuse to give up on the city. Dave Starr, a well-armed shop rat who logged 14,647 days in a G.M. plant, battles cancer and economic decline as he joins forces with his neighbors to preserve a lone block surrounded by decay. Pastor Sherman McCathern negotiates with God in his heroic effort to transform an abandoned church and improve the lives of his congregation. Mayor Dayne Walling, a Rhodes Scholar in his thirties who spent his adult life grooming himself to run Flint, has the toughest job in politics — one that sometimes necessitates police protection for his family. And Dan Kildee, a local politician and urban planning visionary, grabs international attention — and trades jabs with Rush Limbaugh — by arguing that Flint and other troubled urban areas should manage decline instead of futilely trying to stop it.
Young’s insights, hard-hitting and often painfully funny, yield lessons for cities all over the world. He reminds us that communities are ultimately defined by people, not politics or economics. Teardown reveals that the residents of Flint are still fighting, in spite of overwhelming odds, to reinvent their city. In the end, Young learns that you can go home again. But the journey is likely to be far more agonizing and rewarding than you ever imagined.