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buickI grew up in Flint, Michigan.

Now you may not think much about that. One could say one grew up in Terra Haute or Bloomington and you might get the same sort of shrug–so what?

But some towns define people in a way others don’t.

Flint is a defining town. Flint is and always has been Buick Town. Flint was and is Detroit in miniature, always the little brother to the big guy, the one with acne and coke-bottle glasses. Say you were from Flint when someone from Detroit was around, and there would be instant snickering. (If you went to one of the big college towns to school, you know this all too well). If you were somebody in Flint, you were nobody anywhere else.

Mayfair District, Mt. Morris Township, Flint Michigan to be exact. You can buy a house two blocks from where I grew up for $18,000 bucks. Three bedroom, two-car garage and “completely remodeled”. That tells you most all you want to know about what has befallen Flint. Or this:

flint2Everybody I knew worked for GM one way or another. My dad did. My mother worked for AC Spark Plug. My uncle worked for AC. The neighbor across the street worked for Chevy I believe. All our parents worked “shifts”–1st, 2nd, or 3rd. Every three years a strike target was chosen and some of our parents walked picket lines until a new contract had been negotiated which would apply to all the “Big Three”.

Everybody belonged to the UAW. Everyone voted Democratic. Everyone was “down” for changeover, “laid off” for a couple of weeks while the factories retooled for the upcoming year’s new model. Everyone went to the unemployment office (and the numerous temporary satellites that were set up) and filed. Everybody got a couple of checks until they were “called back”. Everybody really went on vacation, but they dutifully signed the forms that they were “looking for work” and “available for work.” Everybody used the same 4-5 companies as their “places I looked for work last week.”

We were all white, all working class, all covered by insurance, paid vacations, with good sick time. We wore, mostly, decent clothes, drove cars that were within three years or so of being new, had yards to play in. We had mostly our own bedrooms or shared them with a sibling perhaps. We had “family rooms” in the basement which were paneled with “wood” and floored with linoleum, with a spare couch and a TV and an old fridge to keep pop and beer in.

We were not close to being rich but we were well-fed. We “shopped” at the Flint Plaza strip “mall”, seldom bought anything, but we always had enough for a coke and fries at Kresge’s. Our parents, (at least mine) wanted us to have a future that was beyond the “shop”. They sent us to college to be “something”, to have a better life than they had, and they didn’t find their life bad by any means.

When I reconnected with kids I went to high school with, I was in for a shock. While some were wonderful people, with compassion and deep concern about their fellow man and woman, a dumbfounding number had changed. They had gone into the shops, they had not strayed far from Flint, some even living in the very homes they grew up in.

Ours may have been the last generation who worked a full life in the shops. The first recession came in the 1970’s. Layoffs, real ones became normal, and “having seniority” was all that mattered. Increasing pressure from the newly created Asian brands made a first and only job until retirement, a thing of the past. I am not sure how many of my classmates put in their full 30 and retired, or how may were forced out, or took early retirements. But what had once been total security became something much less.

I was long gone, and my dad was long retired when most of this happened. I knew of it in Detroit, where there was less impact, but it was still a real one. People picked up and moved to other parts of the country where jobs were available.

But apparently a lot of kids I went to school with stayed. And they have made their life in a city that has fallen deeper and deeper into seediness. Flint continues to be the top of nearly everyone’s list as the most deadly place to live. It continues in the “little brother” syndrome, having all the worst traits of its big brother Detroit, and nary or hardly none its positives. No big league baseball or football. No growing film industry. No zoos, no gambling casinos. If I had to, I could not tell you, “if you ever get to Flint, make sure you see. . . .”, for there is no place to see.

And I start to read between the lines of comments on alumni pages on Facebook. Sometimes no even so much between, but seeing the ballyhoo for the “good old days” and “weren’t we something us Mighty Hawks”, and all the “remember the A & W!” as bespeaking a sadness of when times were good.

I started to see all the plaintive meme postings about “you’ll always be daddy’s girl” to daughters grown with children of their own, and lives of their own,  and “my greatest joy is when the phone rings and it’s you” as being what they are–the tell-tale signs of lives lived out in some perception of “is that all there is?” mentality. The anger at nephews who are scamming the system picking up food stamps while being able-bodied but not interested in working is apparent in the strident voice of the tea party “patriot” who hates that she works too hard while somebody, ANYBODY might get a free ride.

Another echoes that back in the day, when “we could stay out playing well after dark in the neighborhood”, where of course, now apparently that is not possible.  Yes, I know that was true, we walked everywhere at any time of night from each other’s homes with no thought to danger of any kind.

Because I went into the greater world, lived in other places, other states, other neighborhoods, I never saw my childhood life brought asunder by demographic changes, economic hard times, and how that all got twisted by a hundred voices all pointing the finger at someone else. The automobile industry blamed it on the unions, and the unions, on somebody else, and civil rights in the 60’s changed all those neighborhoods. There suddenly was no “black” part of town, nor “hispanic”. And as neighborhoods changed, the obvious change was color, though of course it had everything to do with economics and not race. But the “other” was born in those recessions.

And once working class Democrats became Reagan Democrats adopting the Southern strategy. It should never be forgotten that George Wallace did exceeding well in Michigan and especially in Detroit and Flint, carrying the primary there in 1972. Those angry white kids I went to school became natural Tea Party adherents by 2008. Angered by a city falling into ruin as GM spiraled into near bankruptcy,  and all that they held dear (the old neighborhood and school) changing radically, they expressed their ire, coupled with a goodly dose in some cases of old-fashioned biblical fundamentalism which serves all too often to bring out the absolute worst in people in a return to revolutionary fervor. Suddenly those that had been union members hated unions.

The recipe is simple. Stay where you grew up. Find yourself not doing as well as your parents did by and large. See your environment change and get much worse, destroying even your childhood memories, and most importantly have some group identify the problem not as economics but by blaming groups  of people as being responsible for your less than expected life.  Add a liberal dose of  fundamentalism which lends itself to “us vs them” analysis, and voilá, you have working class Democrats turned into working class Tea Party advocates, inexplicably voting against themselves. And why we can’t talk to each other unless we stick to “is Walli’s still up on Pierson Rd?”

That’s how it seems to me anyway.