Rubin: Flint abandoned by prosperity, but not history

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Flint –  The history of this city did not begin with contaminated water, or for that matter with poverty and industrial rot.

There was genius here, and money, and thriving neighborhoods, and a GM president named Harlow Curtice who commuted to work in Detroit every day by airplane.

There were sit-down strikes that helped create the American middle class, and a Frenchman named Albert Champion who founded the only two spark plug companies anyone can name.

“I never thought of it as a garden spot,” concedes Flint native Larry Gustin — but it was a fertile place to grow an inspiration into a company.

Gustin, 78, spent 23 years as a reporter and editor at the Flint Journal and another 21 as assistant publicity director for Buick.

Now he’s a historian, an author and a one-man reminder that before Flint was more than lead poisoning and Legionnaires’ Disease, it was more than poverty, crime and the graveyard of Buick City.

“What a fight that was,” he’s recalling, “to get words on there. There’s so much to say.”

He’s standing in front of the statue of William C. (Billy) Durant on Saginaw Street downtown. Alongside Durant are likenesses of Champion and race car driver Louis Chevrolet.

Gustin wrote the brief biographies on the pedestals of the three bronzes. Too-brief biographies, he’ll tell you, and it pained him to leave out the details that make the pioneers and their city come to life.

There’s this, for instance: After Durant founded and lost GM, he ran a bowling alley up the street from the statues.

“He was renting shoes,” Gustin says, “to the children of the people he brought to Flint.”

You don’t have to be a historian to marvel at that.

Every place has a story

With every sight, there’s a story, a piece of the past that gets washed away in the troubled waters that flowed from the city’s faucets.

From the roof of a renovated eight-story apartment and commercial building called The Durant, Gustin points to where the Flint River flows past the factory of the Durant-Dort Carriage Co. and, diagonally across Water Street, the company offices.

“You could say the birthplace of GM was inside Durant’s hat, wherever he was,” says Gustin, whose books include biographies of Durant and David Buick.

Otherwise, it was in that office building, where one of the nation’s leading cart manufacturers saw the future and helped build it.

What’s now The Durant opened in 1920 as the Durant Hotel and was named in honor of William — who still had to pay for his room when he stayed there, though at least he was upgraded to a suite.

The building reopened in 2010 after nearly 40 years of abandonment and spectacular bad luck, a reasonable microcosm of Flint itself.

One prospective developer, Gustin says, died in a plane crash. Another was shot to death by his wife.

Now, only steps from the river that put Flint back in the news, it’s 95-percent leased.

Back on the map

Carl Spaniola is behind the counter at Paul’s Pipe Shop, which was already 16 years old when it moved to Flint in 1944.

“Everybody forgot all about us,” he says, “until they threw a baby on the cover of Time.”

Then the water crisis became real, and Flint became a destination for TV crews.

Spaniola’s grandfather was Paul, who died three years ago at 100. Paul was a close friend of C.S. Mott, the Flint mayor, businessman and philanthropist whose name can be found on high schools, a foundation and a children’s hospital.

Flint’s wax and wane are so historically recent that connections still seem fresh. Gustin owns Durant’s desk, lamp and inkwell; he drove to New York to fetch them after the founder’s widow died in 1974.

At the wheel of his red Buick Enclave, he rolls past the scrub-tree prairie that was Buick City and a white-columned mansion that’s valued on at $799,677.

“Flint comes off as one of the worst dregs in the country,” he’s saying, and he’s not blind to why.

Knowing where to look, though, he can see far more than that.