Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Event: Shrinking Flint.

NOTE: I am a member of the Flint Diaspora. I care about my hometown and continue to follow news there. These are the opinions and observations of a former resident.

This is the closest thing to positive press I've ever seen Flint get from the New York Times. Which is ironic, because the situation prompting such a drastic response is almost relentlessly bleak.

The picture today, however, is somewhat different.

Shrinking any city is a complicated process, with few examples of implementation and accommodated by few tested processes. Everyone, homeowners, businesses, municipal government, and civic institutions, is taking a risk. And yet, as Karina Pallagst so eloquently argues in the article, "some cities just don’t have a choice." The idea of shrinking Flint confronts a drastic problem with a solution that is both ambitious and rigorous in scope.

Shrinking a city is also a test of leadership. It will be politically unpopular among residents dislocated, and also within more stable areas forced to quickly recalibrate their balance of services and residents. It will require delicate negotiation and collaboration between unions, city workers, residents, and government. Not least of all, the initial expenditure will be massive. Even after clearing away as much red-tape as possible, the process of razing and deregulating square miles of a dense city will take a lot of money. Taxpayers will have to be patient with officials as savings slowly accrue over time.

I've often argued that a lack of municipal coordination was one of Flint's biggest disadvantages. Unlike the withdrawal of GM, it is undoubtedly the largest factor that residents have a power to directly change. The city's decline in the last fifty years was inevitable, but with government and local institutions providing a united front, a lot of the tragedy of that time could have been averted. Instead, we've seen infighting, corruption, and a rhetoric that has racially divided the city at precisely the time when citizens needed to come together.

In 2002, after the recall of Mayor Woodrow Stanley, I noticed that Darnell Earley (formerly the City Administrator) seemed to do a better than competent job of reconciling the many difficulties of his office. He certainly excelled the Stanley, Rutherford, and Williamson administrations of recent history. Now there would appear to be a similar pragmatism coming from acting mayor Michael Brown. What is it about Flint that the best leaders are those who don't actively want the job? Is it a lack of political ambitions, or an immunity against reprisals?

At any rate, given the power vested in the Land Bank, the recent cohesion of the business community, and meaningful investments by higher education in the city, Flint's leadership may have finally come of age.

If so, it isn't a moment too soon... in fact, it's a few decades too late.

But the New York Times article conveys both the gravity of the problem and the potential for innovation, even progress, to spring from definite misfortunes.

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