Cities you love, cities you marry

As a part of my graduate studies in urban planning at the University of Michigan, I undertook a capstone project last spring with five of my colleagues in Flint. In brief, the University of Michigan-Flint campus had been planning for several years to open a green energy demonstration center with three residential units, but the first vacant house slated for the project was destroyed by a fire in November 2010. My colleagues and I from the Ann Arbor campus were brought on in January 2011 to help UM-Flint faculty and the Genesee County Land Bank “fast track” a second vacant property into the Urban Alternatives House as our master’s project.

Downtown Flint, Michigan, August 2009Downtown Flint, August 2009. 

I found myself in Flint in concert with this project in mid-March, this time to distribute flyers to every household in the neighborhood about a public input session to ensure the house renovation reflects what its neighbors want. Our group spoke to a few folks on porches and through windows that weekend morning, and got an overall positive reception. But among about three hundred households, these interactions were few and far between. It was extraordinarily quiet as I went from door to door, except my footsteps on the many creaky porches and crumbling stoops. I know too that these are mostly occupied structures, though lots of them look like they’ve been left untended for years (of course, that’s probably true when it comes to house maintenance but mostly due to a lack of means). In March, Michigan’s census data was released and shows that Flint lost about 22,000 residents over the last decade. I don’t think all of this was due to people moving away either, partially because the surrounding county also lost population, but mostly because the average age is quite high and many have just been deaths due to old age.

Of course, there are still about 100,000 people in Flint, and maybe 700 in this neighborhood. The experience of being in Flint and bringing about a positive outcome while not being a resident has got me thinking about what it means to live and love a place. When the house you grew up is gone, your high school is closed and either gone or sitting in place falling apart, how do you feel about your city? How do you show a commitment to the place you love when it is physically crumbling, unstable, emptying out? I don’t know yet, and I only hope that outcomes of this work will include a tangible improvement in the neighborhood’s building stock, and foot traffic that gives the neighborhood some badly needed life.

Meanwhile in my former city of eight years, a mass event to profess locals’ love of Durham, North Carolina was also held in March 2011. Marry Durham was part street festival and part public proclamation that Durham is a city with many people that love living, working, and playing there.

1,200 or so Durhamites take the plunge
1,200 or so Durhamites take the plunge.

Now, I do find an event like this a little corny. But because Durham is so close to the larger, faster-growing, and slicker-looking state capital Raleigh, it often is derided as more crime-ridden and less pleasant. I spent enough time living there to say that this is bull (although of course both cities experience crime), and that Durham is at least as racially integrated as our next door neighbor and boasts great food and more affordable housing, among many other benefits. Other Durhamites have of course long known of the false perceptions and creatively worked against them, including a long-time Durham, Love Yourself! campaign. So if Marry Durham was another opportunity to do that, I see why and I think it’s cute. Flint is not growing, as Durham is, and has a variety of other issues that make it difficult to celebrate living there. But if I could find a way to gather 1,200 Flint residents in any occasion, including that of professing the commitment to their hometown that I know is there, I would jump at the chance.

Wool E. Bull gets in on the actionWool E. Bull takes the plunge.

This post originally appeared in my personal blog in March 2011. Photo courtesy of Flickr user -AX-, reproduced under a Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0 License. Durham photos courtesy of the Durham CVB, reproduced under a Creative Commons BY-ND-NC 3.0 License.

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