Shrinking cities like my hometown of Flint, Michigan, can get lonely. More than one third of the place where General Motors was born is now abandoned. And empty houses tend to translate into fires. Throw budget cuts and layoffs at the police and fire departments into the mix and arson becomes commonplace. During the four years I was reporting, writing, and editing Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, I learned to live with the sight of smoke plumes and the acrid, charred smell that wafted through the town where four generations of my family lived. But the terror that comes with surviving in a place where buildings burn all too regularly wasn’t real until my friend Guy, who nearly lost his home to arson in the summer of 2010, told me his story.
Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City
Guy thought of himself as someone who didn’t scare easily. After all, he’d seen some weird shit in the neighborhood. There was the time the previous summer that a speeding car crashed into a neighbor’s house, knocking it off the foundation. The male driver was draped over the engine block. His pregnant girlfriend was strapped into the passenger seat. They both survived, but the unborn baby did not. Guy detailed a host of other misfortunes that had befallen his street: a little boy drowning in a backyard pool, instances of child abuse in plain sight, neighbors drinking and fighting.
When we first moved here, there were some GM retirees and a few other people on the block who kept their homes immaculate,” Guy said. “But all those ‘normal’ people—for lack of a better term—either died or moved away. There’s almost a complete absence of middle-class homeowners now. Almost everyone’s renting. On warm summer days the street is a cacophony of profanity. It’s just amazing how quickly the street declined.”
There’s no doubt Guy would have liked better neighbors—or the money to move—but he still maintained a large measure of sympathy for his fellow East Siders, even if they were making his life miserable and all but eliminating any value left in his house. “There’s a prevalence of hopelessness coupled with contempt for authority in the neighborhood,” he said. “There’s just a lot of disillusionment. They never got a real piece of the American dream. And the piece they got is getting increasingly smaller.”
Guy had a highly personal take on the arson spree. He and Maggie — his wife —had been asleep one morning when they were awakened by pounding on their front door. Groggy, disoriented, and naked—Guy volunteered that he’s not fond of pajamas—he jumped out of bed, thinking it was a break-in. “I’m not a gun nut, but I live on the East Side, so of course I have a shotgun,” he said. “I was wondering if I was going to have to defend myself.”
He threw on a pair of boxers and headed for the door. He could hear someone screaming for everyone to get out of the house. Guy opened the door, walked onto his front porch, and discovered that the two-story house next door, just fifteen feet away across the driveway, was fully engulfed by flames. Burning debris was floating down onto his house. He could feel the fire. It was so hot he smelled his hair starting to singe. A drunk man in his fifties had banged on the door. He was riding his bike home from a party and saw the fire. He had probably saved Guy and Maggie’s lives. “Armageddon’s happening on the other side of the driveway, and I’m in there sawing logs,” Guy said. “Our bedroom window was open, smoke was billowing in, and we didn’t even notice.”
Maggie quickly joined him on the porch. Standing in his underwear, a wave of anxiety washed over him. He and his wife had three Chihuahuas, two cats, a blind Cocker Spaniel, and a German Shepherd named Buddy they had found on the street and nursed back to health. They were all in the house. He needed to get them out. And what about his computers? If they went up in flames, so did half his income. And there was the fact that he’d just paid off the house four months earlier and canceled the homeowners’ insurance because it was too expensive. “I just had this overwhelming feeling that I was doomed,” he said. “Everybody and their brother had just been laid off from the fire department, and I had no insurance. We were going to lose everything, and it was my fault. I was going to hate myself for the rest of my life, if I had one when it was all over.”
Maybe all that time in Vegas had earned Guy a little luck, because the drunken bike rider had managed to call 911 on his cell phone. Guy could hear sirens in the distance. They were getting louder. The city’s beleaguered fire department was on the way, which was hardly a sure thing in Flint. When the trucks rolled up, the neighbor’s place was too far gone to save. The goal was to contain the blaze. Big sprinklers were used to soak Guy’s house. He pulled himself together and jumped in his burgundy Dodge Dakota with bad bearings, baking in the driveway, and saved it from the fire. All his property was safe.
Guy knew how close he had come to losing everything, but it didn’t give him a new outlook on life in Flint. “The fact that they saved our house and no one died is just amazing,” he said. “But when people started burning down every empty building, it’s still shocking. No one’s more afraid than me. I live in fear all the time, because there doesn’t appear to be any end to this. I don’t see this getting better. Ever.”
Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young was released June 28 by the University of California Press. It is available online and at fine bookstores nationwide and online. For more information visit www.teardownbook.com.