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Post Personal Tales of Two Cities: Detroit and Flint
Created by John Eipper on 12/08/17 4:52 AM

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Personal Tales of Two Cities: Detroit and Flint (Patrick Mears, -Germany, 12/08/17 4:52 am)

Personal Tales of Two Cities: Detroit and Flint

By Patrick E. Mears and Edward O. Mears

"We set forth again promising each other faithfully not to separate any more, and three quarters of an hour from there, we finally caught sight of a clearing, two or three cabins and, what pleased us even more, a light. The river, which stretched like a violet thread at the end of the valley, convinced us that we had arrived at Flint River.

"Soon, in fact, the baying of dogs made the woods ring and we found ourselves before a log house, separated from it by a single barrier. As we were preparing to cross it, the moon showed us on the other side a great black bear which, upright on its hind feet and drawing its chain in, showed as clearly as it could its intention to give us a fraternal accolade.

'What a devilish country is this,' said I, where they have bears for watchdogs.' 'We'll have to call,' answered my companion; if we tried to cross the fence we should have difficulty making the porter understand.'"

--Alexis de Tocqueville (1)

A. Pat's Story

In July 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave Beaumont, journeyed from Buffalo, New York, to Detroit by means of a Lake Erie steamboat. The trip took two and one-half days with various ports of call along the way--e.g., Erie, Pennsylvania and Cleveland and Sandusky, Ohio. After spending some days in the former French frontier village of Detroit, the two travelers hiked the old "Saginaw Trail" through forested wilderness to what is now the City of Saginaw, Michigan near the shores of Lake Huron. On their way, they overnighted in what is now the City of Flint, on the Flint River, where they encountered the bear-watchdog, as described in the quote above. This travelogue is likely the first historical record of a connection between the Michigan cities of Detroit and Flint.

1. Birth of the US Auto Industry and Growth of Southeast Michigan

Only 63 years later, the cities of Detroit and Flint had begun to integrate with one another after the automobile, propelled by the internal combustion engine, had begun to be mass-produced by William C. Durant, Henry Ford and other automotive pioneers based in Southeast Michigan. In 1904, William C. ("Billy") Durant acquired control of Buick Motor Company, which had been purchased earlier by Flint Wagon Works and moved from Detroit to Flint. In September, 1908 in Flint, Durant and two other major investors, Charles Stewart Mott (2) and Frederic L. Smith (3), founded General Motors Company ("GM"). After GM's establishment, the manufacture of Buick and Chevrolet motor vehicles was primarily based in Flint, although GM's headquarters was shifted to Detroit.

By the time that my mother's family arrived in Flint in the early 1910s, automobile production there and in Detroit had skyrocketed by Henry Ford's innovation of assembly-line manufacturing. My mother's parents had emigrated from a small town in the province of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was the first-born child of this family, having been welcomed into this world in September 1909, in the textile manufacturing city of Taunton, Massachusetts. Her family later relocated to Flint, attracted by the well-paying jobs in the Buick and Chevrolet factories there, and settled in the Polish enclave near the Buick assembly plants on Flint's east side. After graduating from Flint Central High School in 1927, she attended The University of Michigan and then Wayne State University in Detroit, graduating from that institution with a teaching degree in 1934. While teaching in the Detroit Public School System, she lived in the now-demolished Hotel Tuller, then situated on Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit. My mother also met a number of the 1935 World Championship Tigers' team during her stay in Detroit, including pitchers Schoolboy Rowe and Tommy Bridges. She would spend her free time attending classical music concerts and opera performances in the city and would also visit the latest exhibitions of painting and sculpture at the nearby Detroit Institute of Arts ("DIA"), where lingered over Diego Rivera's extensive "Detroit Industry Murals" that had been painted by the master only a few years before. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/art-between-wars/latin-american-modernism1/a/rivera-detroit-industry-murals . In 1938, however, she married my father and returned to live in Flint, which was also his home town.

By 1951, the year of my birth, the US auto industry was the world's leader and a large portion of America's auto production facilities were located in the Detroit-Flint region. The making of GM's 50-millionth vehicle in Flint was commemorated in 1955, and that same year, Flint's centennial was celebrated. Three years later GM notched its 50th birthday. For a brief description of Flint as "Vehicle City," see http://www.autonews.com/article/20080914/OEM/309149833/gm-and-flint-grew-together . In 1945 as World War II was winding down, the Buick Motor Division of GM commissioned a book, The City of Flint Grows Up, which heralded Michigan's auto industry and its great stimulus to Flint's growth and prosperity. Copies of this book reflecting Flint's "Boosterism" could be found in many homes of Flint dwellers during America's postwar prosperity.

2. Childhood Excursions to Detroit

Because Detroit was just a short 75-mile drive away, my family and I would often travel to Detroit for shopping and other forms of entertainment. In the 1950s and 1960s, Downtown Detroit was prosperous and teeming with life. On these ventures, we would typically visit Hudson's Department Store's block-long skyscraper on Woodward Avenue to purchase goods that were exotic for my home town. Afterwards, we would take in a film in one of the several large and ornate film palaces surrounding Grand Circus Park. Because the Detroit Tigers during the 1960s and early 1970s were often pennant contenders, frequent visits to the now-disappeared Tiger Stadium on "the corner of Michigan and Trumbull" just east of Downtown Detroit were often in order. There, I was fortunate to see in their prime extraordinarily talented players such as Al Kaline, Rocky Colavito, Jim Bunning, and Frank ("The Yankee Killer") Lary.

As I aged my cultural tastes expanded, and I attended rock concerts (e.g., Judy Collins in concert at the Masonic Temple and Creedence Clearwater Revival in Cobo Hall, both in 1970) and visits now and then to the DIA. Although the 1967 civil disturbances in Detroit had triggered "white flight" to the surrounding suburbs, this phenomenon had not yet made a significant dent in Detroit's population or prosperity.

3. The Decline, Fall and Resurrection of the "Big Three" Automakers and Detroit

After practicing commercial insolvency law in New York City from 1976 to 1980, I returned to Michigan and joined the largest commercial law firm in Grand Rapids in order to continue this practice. Beginning in the mid-1980s, the auto industry in Michigan and the state's economy began to weaken significantly. Responding to increasing competition from German and Japanese automakers, the Big Three imposed lower prices on its supplier base, eliminated expensive inventory "banks" in their assembly plants, and adopted "just-in-time" inventory systems. As a result, financially troubled auto suppliers restructured either in bankruptcy proceedings or outside of them and, in other cases, liquidated their assets piecemeal under pressure from their bankers. These developments contributed significantly to Detroit's accelerating "Death Spiral," in which other businesses also closed their doors, unemployment increased and homes and other buildings in the city were abandoned and foreclosed upon. Many of these structures were then taken over by street gangs, who used them to further their criminal activities. In the early- to mid-1990s, the Big Three automakers began to feel the strain, as their financial strength dwindled and the quality of their products suffered in comparison to those of foreign competitors. This spiral continued through the onset of the World Financial Crisis, during which GM and Chrysler Corporation received in 2008 TARP monies from the federal government. During the following year, GM and Chrysler commenced Chapter 11 reorganization cases to rid themselves of excess factory floor space and restructure their businesses. Ford Motor Company pursued this same strategy, but accomplished it without seeking bankruptcy relief. These three restructuring efforts were ultimately successful and the Big Three after 2012 had essentially righted their ships.

4. Detroit's Bankruptcy and Two Detroit Personalities

During this time period and afterwards, in addition to representing clients in auto industry-related insolvency proceedings (especially in the Detroit bankruptcy courts) and out-of-court restructurings (4), I began to plan for retirement from the active practice of law and to move to Germany. During this transition period, I had the great fortune to meet two important and engaging Detroiters, who introduced me to sides of their city that I otherwise would not have experienced. The first such person is Federal District Court Judge Avern Cohn, who has sat on the Detroit bench since 1979 and is still presides over cases today at the age of 93. He and I became acquainted because of a common interest in the history of the federal courts and an article on Abraham Lincoln that I had written mentioning the former President of Argentina, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, and his historical connections to The University of Michigan. It is this connection that fortunately led me to John E and WAIS. The second such person is Hugh ("Buck") Davis, a Detroit constitutional rights lawyer and Virginia native, who moved to Detroit after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1968 and "hung up his shingle" there. Buck has enjoyed an impressive and extraordinary professional life, representing clients such as Alan Ginsberg of "Howl" fame and John Sinclair, the founder of the radical White Panther Party. He has also worked as co-counsel with lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, who represented the defendants in the trial of the "Chicago Seven." (5)

B. Eddie's Story: Detroit Sports--Death/Rebirth

Since I grew up in Grand Rapids, which is almost equidistant to both Chicago and Detroit, it was only natural that most of my childhood excursions during the 1990s were to the vibrant (and safe) streets of the Windy City rather than to the vacant lot that Detroit had become during my youth. Always an afterthought, all excursions to Detroit were almost exclusively limited to outings at old Tiger Stadium to watch the hapless Tigers scrap out a loss in front of a meager collection of fans. The electricity of those powerhouse Tiger teams from the mid 1980s was non-existent during my formative years, having vanished along with the fleeing automakers. Despite the decrepit state of the team (and stadium), I still fondly remember the ritual purchase of hot peanuts on Corktown streets after parking the car in a dingy stadium lot, and the rousing cacophony of sound and color when emerging from the dark caverns of the Tiger Stadium concourse into the uniquely terraced stands just before first pitch. Despite these warm memories, I couldn't stomach the losing and refused to resign my passion for baseball to the mercy of perennial AL basement dwellers. Taking a cue from Detroit's automakers, my baseball allegiance abandoned Detroit in the late 1990s, latching on instead to instant reward in Bronx--where it has remained since.

Since forswearing Detroit's baseball team, the Tigers anticipated Detroit's recent resurgence and became one of baseball's millennium darlings (perhaps I was the problem?), making the fall classic twice (2006, 2012) and knocking my Yankees out of the playoffs with regularity (2006, 2011, 2012). The foundation of this rebirth was erected in 2000, when the Tigers relocated to the brand-new Comerica Park in downtown Detroit. The rest of Detroit's teams soon followed the Tigers downtown (all four of Detroit's major teams now play in modern arenas located in downtown Detroit; the Lions (NFL) and Pistons (NBA) had previously played well outside of the city, much closer to Detroit's more affluent suburbs and fans in Pontiac and Auburn Hills, respectively). While taxpayers often groan about footing the bill for expensive stadiums, it is clear that this athletic gentrification of downtown Detroit has paid dividends--these investments have completely transformed downtown Detroit into a vibrant city center with many entertainment and gourmet options, attracting many of those in the suburbs who would otherwise keep their dollars and forks in Bloomfield Hills or Grosse Pointe. Fans are no longer returning briskly to their cars after games and fleeing back to safety in the suburbs, but are instead reveling in Detroit's nascent bar and brewery culture (https://www.freep.com/story/entertainment/2017/10/19/detroit-brewery-taprooms-2017-eastern-market/758450001/ ) or licking gobs of BBQ sauce off of their fingers at some of America's finest BBQ north of the Mason-Dixon line (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/20/dining/20Detroit.html ) long after the stadium lights are switched off.

Detroit's sports future is looking bright. The Tigers are rebuilding after shedding older contracts but fans now expect success and the front-office is like-minded. The Red Wings (NHL) and Pistons (NBA) are showcasing their youth in the just-opened Little Ceasar's arena--drawing in many curious fans wanting to experience their new digs. There is even optimism surrounding the Lions (previously the laughing stock of the NFL for all of their recorded history) to the point that talk of the Lions making a playoff run--or God forbid making it to the Super Bowl--is no longer met with a medical diagnosis. Over in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines have poached Jim Harbaugh from the ranks of the NFL (an uncommon coaching move in American football) and recruits have noticed.  Despite the disappointing season this year the future is promising (something I like to think I was personally responsible for-- https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/01/sports/ncaafootball/michigan-athletic-director-dave-brandon-is-set-to-resign.html?_r=0 and http://www.detroitnews.com/story/sports/college/university-michigan/2014/10/09/michigan-students-dial-boycott-directed-brandon/16996555/?utm_source=folwd.com )


[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Quinze Jours au Désert (or, Fortnight in the Wilderness), reprinted in Tocqueville in America by George Wilson Pierson, Johns Hopkins University Press (1996) at pages 229-89.

[2] Charles Stewart Mott (1875-1973) had previously invested with Durant in Buick Motor Company and moved to Flint. He was later twice elected Mayor of Flint in the 1910s, established Mott Foundation, for which I worked during my college summers in the 1970s, and funded the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital on The University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus.

[3] Frederic L. Smith (1870-1954) was born in Lansing, Michigan, graduated from The University of Michigan and was the starting quarterback on the University's 1888 football team. He later studied at the University of Berlin (now Humboldt University) and was introduced to the fledgling auto industry by Ransom E. Olds, whose Olds Motor Works based in Lansing was purchased by General Motors Company in 1908.

[4] The final matter that I worked on was representing with one of my partners the 67th District Court of the State of Michigan as a creditor in the municipal debt-adjustment proceedings under Chapter 9 of the US Bankruptcy Code. This representation stimulated me to write a two-part article on these proceedings and Chapter 9 in general. See Patrick Mears, Subnational Insolvencies and Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code: History of Chapter 9 and its Operation in the City of Detroit's Debt Adjustment Case, Pratt's Journal of Bankruptcy Law, LEXIS/NEXIS (April/May 2015) and (June 2015).

[5] Since the late 1800s, Detroit has been a hotbed of political radicalism and unionism. The advent of the automobile era triggered the formation of aggressive unions like the United Auto Workers, which was led by the likes of the Reuther Brothers and Maurice Sugar during the 1930s and 1940s. See, e.g., Patrick Mears, From the Palmer Raids to the Bridgman Raid: The Trials of the Nascent American Communist Movement," accessible at http://www.federalcourthistoricalwdmi.org/Stereoscope.html .

JE comments:  A stellar monograph (duograph?) from Mears Père et Fils!  I'm long going to remember Edward Mears's phrasing "to scrap out a loss."  Don't forget, Eddie, about the glorious 1984 Tigers, but that was a bit before your time.

It's sobering to realize that in 1945, Flint may have been the most prosperous small city in America.  Today's smugly comfortable communities assume that total meltdown could never happen to them, but how can they be so sure?  I'm going to seek out a copy of Flint Grows Up.

Thank you, Pat and Eddie, for this excellent piece.  With a nod to Tocqueville, I might title my memoirs 31 Years (and Counting) in the Michigan Wilderness...

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  • Personal Tales of Two Cities; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 12/11/17 3:32 AM)

    Gary Moore writes:

    It's interesting how the great historical report on Detroit-Flint by Team Mears (Patrick and Edward, December 8)
    had a construction and evenness that brings automatic credibility, whereas the breathless New York Times
    piece, also discussed on WAIS about Detroit's recovery, made such an obvious effort at cheerleading ("America's
    Most Exciting City?") that questions could easily arise.

    The modern journey of the New York Times. largely
    mortgaged to billionaire Carlos Slim in Mexico, while piloted by the latest Sulzberger, a sort of designer vegetarian
    who said in print he wants his veggies haute cuisine (I'm a bas cuisine vegetarian myself), is a journey most Americans
    have not noted. It's perhaps too large to be told with the effectiveness of the Mearses.

    JE comments:  Vegetarian bas cuisine, Gary?  Please tell more!  And can you give us insight on Carlos Slim Helú's impact on the NYT?  I always had the impression that his business is, well, business, and that he never lets ideology get in the way of lucre.  To be sure, the NYT is long past its halcyon days of profit.  Is Slim trying to change this?

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    • Carlos Slim and the New York Times; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 12/13/17 4:40 AM)

      Gary Moore writes:

      JE asked for more information on whether New York Times coverage might have been influenced by
      the financial rescue of the Times by Mexican telecommunications billionaire Carlos Slim (the surname
      comes not from Texas but was "Selim," from Mexico's dynamic Lebanese expat

      I think the Times has made a great effort not to be influenced and to show
      it's not influenced, and Slim has hastened to support that image, though for a while
      after his entry there were some articles that seemed very bullish on Mexico and blind to the
      flaws--but this could only be the Times' historic sub-theme of noblesse oblige, to create a happier
      world (as perhaps in the Detroit article that started this discussion).

      I said in my post that the subject
      of what the Times is, and may be becoming, is perhaps too big to trace, but there are flashes of a definite
      corporate personality, and for decades there have been background complaints, not just as right-wing
      knee-jerk, but regarding indications of a sophisticated form of shaping by omission. New York Magazine
      could scarcely stop guffawing when it got hold of a letter from the latest Sulzberger heir, when he was
      still being groomed and had been sent out to a family ranch at a Midwest paper. He mourned that he
      just couldn't find vegetarian restaurants locally that met his high cuisine standards.

      The paradox of having
      an idealistic diet but wanting it on princess-and-the-pea aristocratic terms seemed to capture something
      that whispers through in general coverage. The too-large-to-analyze picture contains the wild card of
      post-cyber-age values and the old Times commitment to its vision of a better world, often a good vision,
      but creepily able to hoodwink the unwashed with that omission trick.  (Who now remembers the Times staffer
      who eventually had to be fired for her major role in the Bush-Cheney WMD hoax, promoting a happier world
      only by a very narrow definition?)

      JE comments:  Gary Moore speaks for all of us in Flyover Country:  coastal idealism often cannot hide a charitable condescension tinged with contempt.  (Or is it contempt tinged with charitable condescension?)  The Flyovers took their revenge last fall, sort of, by electing a Coastal oligarch who speaks a passable Flyoverese.

      The New York Times still retains one asset of immense value:  its brand.  Slim certainly understands that you don't mess with that.

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      • Carlos Slim and the New York Times; Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post (Istvan Simon, USA 12/17/17 4:23 AM)

        The New York Times is a great paper, with a long tradition of mostly liberal (in the American sense of the word) editorial policy, but a superb news gathering organization with accurate reporting and absolutely not failing as Trump has said.

        My guess is that it will remain a newspaper of integrity, and that Trump will be soon long gone, but the NYT will remain. I know nothing about Carlos Slim other than he is a cellular phone magnate in Mexico, and immensely rich, but if he has brains (and he probably does) he will not interfere in the editorial policies or news gathering of the Times, for if he does, the newspaper will lose circulation and, ultimately just be a drain on Slim's bottom line.

        Trump, though he attacks the Times all the time, has been great for the paper, for circulation is way up and its prestige higher than ever in the world. These assessments, of course, are just my opinion, and I never was, nor ever will be an "ultra-liberal," and yet I am a proud subscriber of the electronic edition of the NYT.

        Billionaires now own most great newspapers of the United States, The Wall Street Journal is owned by conservative Rupert Murdoch, The Washington Post by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, and the NYT by Slim, and so on. The problem for newspapers is that fewer and fewer people read them. They have adapted and sell electronic editions, but the revenue on these is much lower than buying the printed version, though the costs of producing and distributing the electronic versions are also much much lower than actually printing it on paper. Also, one can get most of what matters in the world for free on Twitter.

        Still, it is satisfying to read a longer version of an event than a 140- or even 280-character summary. One reads on Twitter mostly a digest by millions of people on the event, whatever it is, and Twitter tends to reinforce opinions, because the phenom of "followers" naturally encourages the association of like-minded individuals. Still, Twitter is a great engine of democracy in action. One gets a very accurate picture of the mood of the country on Twitter and I predicted the narrow victory of Doug Jones based on this. It was close, so I could have lost, but fortunately I predicted the outcome correctly. It is really comforting that even in Alabama a child molester cannot get elected.

        JE comments:  As of Black Friday 2017, Jeff Bezos is now the world's richest person, and the first ever (I believe) to hit the magic $100 billion mark.  His surname, which he took when his stepfather adopted him, is of Cuban origin.  The Cuban entrepreneurial spirit?

        A Mexican (sort of) owns the NYT, and a (sort of) Cuban owns the Washington Post.  Interesting.

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