“Decline in Flint is like gravity, a fact of life,” said Dan Kildee, the Genesee County treasurer and chief spokesman for the movement to shrink Flint. “We need to control it instead of letting it control us.”
The recession in Flint, as in many old-line manufacturing cities, is quickly making a bad situation worse. Firefighters and police officers are being laid off as the city struggles with a $15 million budget deficit. Many public schools are likely to be closed.
“A lot of people remember the past, when we were a successful city that others looked to as a model, and they hope. But you can’t base government policy on hope,” said Jim Ananich, president of the Flint City Council. “We have to do something drastic.”
In searching for a way out, Flint is becoming a model for a different era.
Planned shrinkage became a workable concept in Michigan a few years ago, when the state changed its laws regarding properties foreclosed for delinquent taxes. Before, these buildings and land tended to become mired in legal limbo, contributing to blight. Now they quickly become the domain of county land banks, giving communities a powerful tool for change.
Indianapolis and Little Rock, Ark., have recently set up land banks, and other cities are in the process of doing so. “Shrinkage is moving from an idea to a fact,” said Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective Program at the University of California, Berkeley. “There’s finally the insight that some cities just don’t have a choice.”
A block adjacent to downtown has the potential for renewal; it would make sense to fill in the vacant lots there, since it is a few steps from a University of Michigan campus.
A short distance away, the scene is more problematic. Only a few houses remain on the street; the sidewalk is so tattered it barely exists. “When was the last time someone walked on that?” Mr. Kildee said. “Most rural communities don’t have sidewalks.”
But what about the people who do live here and might want their sidewalk fixed rather than removed?
“Not everyone’s going to win,” he said. “But now, everyone’s losing.”
“If it’s going to look abandoned, let it be clean and green,” he said. “Create the new Flint forest — something people will choose to live near, rather than something that symbolizes failure.”
Watching suspiciously from next door is Charlotte Kelly. Her house breaks the pattern: it is immaculate, all polished wood and fresh paint. When Ms. Kelly, a city worker, moved to the street in 2002, all the houses were occupied and the neighborhood seemed viable.
These days, crime is brazen: two men recently stripped the siding off Mr. Kildee’s old house, “laughing like they were going to a picnic,” Ms. Kelly said. Down the street are many more abandoned houses, as well as a huge hand-painted sign that proclaims, “No prostitution zone.”
Mr. Kildee makes his pitch. Would she be interested in moving if the city offered her an equivalent or better house in a more stable and safer neighborhood?
Despite her pride in her home, the calculation takes Ms. Kelly about a second. “Yes,” she said, “I would be willing.”