Thursday, August 20, 2009

Houses from 'back in the day' saved in Flint

During my reporting career in Flint I was frequently inside homes in rundown neighborhoods.

A very recent article in the New York Times about the recovery of one Flint neighborhood, Carriage Town, prompted my mental journey back to a street in north Flint. (Hat tip to Flint Expatriates for the link).

In one case, I clearly remember a home on Josephine Street where I was interviewing a family about the death of their teenage son in a drug killing. During the interview the mother went upstairs to get a photo of their son that she wanted to use in the story.

While she was gone I was looking around the room, trying to see past the peeling paint, cracked windows and very worn carpet.

What hit me was the beautiful crown molding on the ceiling and the intricate woodwork around the windows and baseboards. It suddenly struck home that this was once a prime piece of real estate, a home of someone of means. Maybe a captain of industry, but certainly someone with a lot of moola.

After finishing the shooting story, I embarked on a project to research a bunch of addresses on Josephine Street to see who initially built the homes, who lived there over the years and why such beautiful, well-crafted homes had ended up in such horrible disrepair. Empty lots served as reminders that homes, like people, don't survive forever.

Over the next months and years, mostly on my own time and using Polk's directories (an annual publication of addresses and residents known by reporters as a 'reverse directory') I began the process of going year-by-year to see who had lived in all the homes on that one block of Josephine.

The crush of daily news reporting never left me time to finish the project, which I worked on for more than two years, but I found most of the homes were built about 1914-1920 and were, in fact, built by captains of the emerging auto companies and high local officials, judges, doctors and lawyers.

For the first 30-40 years of the homes' history they rarely changed hands. In fact, a couple residents who built the homes lived in them into the 1950s and 1960s when I assume they either moved or died.

It was in the middle to late 1960s, which corresponded to white flight that landlords purchased the homes, cut them into apartments and then rented them out. After that you could see the frequent turnover of residents and likely the beginning of the decline of the neighborhoods.

Landlords milked the homes for every dime they could squeeze out of them and they saved more dimes by not performing necessary repairs and maintenance which eventually left some of them gutted by fire or simply abandoned.

But looking up at the skilled crafts work on those moldings made me wonder how much such fine construction would cost in today's market.

My files on that project ended up in a newsroom dumpster during a push to sanitize the newsroom and make it look pretty and neat. The realization that my career was coming to an end and that office neatness trumped productivity caused me to pitch the project in a fit of frustration.

Kind of wish I had them back.


Anonymous said...

With the NY Times exposure, I wonder what house flippers or realtors from out of town are thinking.

Anonymous said...

Great project -- like a lot of our pet projects that never see it into print.

Jim of L-Town said...

My thought at the time was that you could tell Flint's story - its rise and fall - from the history of its once high class neighborhoods.

It was frustrating never to have the time to complete it.