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Flint, Mich.—‘Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City” is out in paperback.
Originally published in 2013, the part memoir, part history of Flint sought to take a deep look at a city with deep problems—before the Flint Water Crisis.
Flint Beat sat down with author Gordon Young to talk about how the book has held up and what it means to readers since Flint has gone from being a city known for crime and disinvestment to being defined by the water crisis. Spoiler alert: All the issues Young wrote about are still relevant, and they appear to be relevant to far more people than just Flint residents.
(Editor’s note: Portions of this interview have been condensed for clarity.)
Flint Beat: So, it’s been what, eight years since “Teardown” was published. Now it’s out in paperback. That must mean people are still reading it.
Young: It’s been a surprise to me, the popularity of it, because I thought it would appeal to a lot of people, but I thought mainly this is going to appeal to Flint residents past, present, and maybe future. When I wrote it I decided, I’m going to write this as a personal story, it’s not going to be a textbook about Flint or or a deep historical dive into Flint. So I’ve been a little surprised. It’s selling all over the country. People buy it, and I guess those could be former Flint residents but last week I sold five copies in New Orleans. But I think in the end it’s a reminder that there are a lot of places like Flint out there in the United States. They’re struggling with poverty and economic trends that are not favorable to them, and shrinking populations. And inevitably, if you look around the country there are a lot of people who are not giving up on their city. And so I think that creates this dynamic that would make the book appeal to people, even if they didn’t have a Flint connection. It just seems like there are a lot of Flints out there, and people are interested in reading about Flint.
Flint Beat: Peanut was one of those characters that seemed to embody that attitude of not giving up on a city. Have you kept in touch with him?
Young: Yeah, and like Flint, it’s an up-and-down story. He’s gone through some tough things in his life since the book came out, but he’s still there and I talked about him saying, “Flint is still home to me, like, this is just life. I’m not giving up on the city, I’m still here.” And he has such a great attitude about it. And I think he reflects a lot of people in Flint and that’s that’s kind of the contradiction that I think sometimes it’s lost in coverage of Flint—that these bad things happening in Flint are real. But what’s also real is that there are people who are not giving up and are still trying to change the city, which is inspiring to me.
Flint Beat: Do you hear from a lot of Flint readers?
Young: I do hear I hear mostly from people who have a Flint connection, but I have heard from some people that are totally unconnected to Flint, and they often have sort of a circuitous route that they took to find the book. I just talked to someone who read the book who went to college in Troy, New York. And so they’re going through so many things that Flint has. All of these places are so similar. These places were very prosperous, and then these forces of deindustrialization and offshoring and all of the things that we’ve discussed in the book have happened to them, too. So I’m happy that people totally unconnected to Flint are finding it interesting as well.
Flint Beat: In your updated prologue, you talk about how so much has happened to Flint since it was first published. And I feel like Flint has gotten so much more attention since your book came out. Do you ever wish like you would have waited a couple years to publish, or are you glad you caught Flint at that moment in time, pre-water crisis?
Young: Well, I didn’t really have any choice because that was the time when I was trying to do this and try and reconnect with the city. Looking back on it, the book is exactly the book I wanted to write. There were several publishers who were interested in the idea, but they all wanted to change it. Some of them wanted it to be more like a urban planning book and some of them wanted to be like a prescriptive book that told you the lessons of Flint, almost like a self help book for cities. And not that those are terrible ideas, but that was not the book I wanted to write. If you’ve read “Teardown” you know that it’s a totally different sort of book. It’s a memoir of the city and me and my family. It’s mainly the story of people in Flint right now, so if the water crisis had happened while I was working on the book, it would have become a book about the water crisis. That would have been an important book to cover, but that really wasn’t the book I was setting out to write.
Flint Beat: And then, of course, the water crisis happened.
Young: So, I also think that the water crisis kind of fits into the pattern that we’ve seen in Flint, and in cities like it. Recovery is going to be really slow and have a lot of setbacks along the way. Flint is a perfect example of, you see progress being made, and at the same time you also see setbacks happening all the time. The water crisis is a huge setback, and it’s infuriating because it could have been avoided, but at the same time, cities in this position, bad things happen to them because they were structurally unsound, and they’re economically unsound. I didn’t predict the water crisis, but I talk in the book about how the conditions in Flint make it inevitable that some bad things are going to happen in the future, because we need to fix these fundamental problems first, or we’re going to have another water crisis type situation.
Flint Beat: Flint has obviously gotten a lot of attention, as well as some aid, because of the water crisis. Do you still think conditions here are setting it up for another crisis?
Young: I don’t think it hurts Flint to have a light shined on it in revealing this huge problem, so people are aware of Flint now. My fear though is that the water crisis was symptomatic of this series of problems that Flint has had. It was a huge example, and it was much more insidious because it could have been stopped and fixed at various points and it was not, and people died as a result. Unless we get a more comprehensive approach we’re going to have another sort of crisis down the line, and in some ways we’re having them now. If you look at the murder rate, right down it’s back up again. I write about this in “Teardown,” how Flint broke the record the year I was there and now it looks like we’re going to break it again. So I feel like we need a more comprehensive approach. You need local leadership. You need to stay working to help the city. And I think you need federal help to fix these things. And I think unless we take that comprehensive approach and we stop trying to pretend that somehow the mayor is going to come in and fix these problems, Flint is going to continue to face the possibility of these big, bad things happen.
Flint Beat: Do you see any signs of that happening?
Young: Dan Kildee has for a long time been talking about infrastructure programs at the federal level as a way to help places like Flint. And I always—I agreed with him, but I always expressed skepticism that it would ever happen. I’m a journalist, and he is much more optimistic about these things. And I have to admit now you see this Biden infrastructure plan, which is kind of what Kildee has been saying, needed to be done for places like Flint for years. So, I’m cautiously optimistic that this might be the big thing that kind of helps reset Flint on a more fundamental level than the things that have happened in the past.
Flint Beat: This book was a way for you to come back to Flint and reassess this complex, complicated relationship with Flint. We’re almost a decade from that moment. What is your relationship to the city now?
Young: Well, in 2016 I had my daughter was born, so my life changed dramatically. So I’m now 55 And I have a four year old daughter so I think my days of spending the entire summer sleeping on the floor of an empty house in Flint, they’re probably over. And with COVID I haven’t gone anywhere in a year and a half. So, I’m looking forward to kind of reconnecting with Flint, in person. I came back after the book was published to do a story for The New York Times, on international students. So I would love to come back to Flint like that as a journalist. I really enjoy just being in Flint. I love going back. I have this comfort level. I’m looking forward to coming back and seeing all my friends there and reconnecting.
You can learn more about Young and his book here.