GM and Flint grew together
Lawrence R. Gustin is a writer and retired Buick public relations executive.
Flint, Mich., was seldom called a garden spot — not since the carriage days, when it was noted for fine houses built by lumber-and-carriage families on tree-shaded streets. But everyone knew it was a place to make money.
After tens of thousands of workers poured into the Vehicle City in the first half of the 20th century as the automobile business boomed, a more frequent description of Flint was "gritty."
That wasn't entirely accurate either. After the UAW won recognition in the 1936-37 sit-down strike, workers began to prosper. And so, for several decades in the mid-20th century, Flint had the highest per-capita income in the country. Flint auto workers could buy nice houses, second cars and vacation cottages.
As late as 1978, about 78,000 people worked in Flint-area GM plants. They all made good money. The local GM payroll topped $2 billion.
The city was politically powerful, too, and had influential residents. Harlow Curtice, GM CEO from 1953 to 1958, always lived in Flint, drove Flint-built Buicks and promoted the city.
Among other powerful Flint men were Charles Stewart Mott, the city's great philanthropist, three-time mayor and a GM board member for 60 years until his death at 97 in 1973. And Art Summerfield, a Chevrolet dealer who became Republican national chairman and then U.S. postmaster general in the Eisenhower administration.
Where the action was
It was said the idea of running Thomas Dewey, of Owosso, Mich., for U.S. president was hatched by some of those men at the Flint City Club on the top floor of the Durant Hotel. And Summerfield confirmed to me that as GOP chairman, he kept Richard Nixon on Dwight Eisenhower's ticket in 1952 when a scandal caused Ike to want to dump him as his vice presidential running mate. "I told Eisenhower he would need a new convention to choose a new vice president and I wasn't going to call one," Summerfield said.
So Flint was a prosperous, muscular city where things happened. GM was created there. The UAW won its most important victory there.
Strangely, not many of my generation seemed to know or think about how all those GM plants got there. I was born in Flint and graduated from the Flint school system, and I don't remember anyone talking about — or teaching — the story of Billy Durant and his associates who created one of the greatest industrial stories in history.
You did get the sense something had happened here, as Flint went through a series of celebrations in the 1950s: The 50th anniversary of Buick, then the 50-millionth GM car (a gold-trimmed '55 Chevy), the 1955 centennial of Flint, the 50th anniversary of GM in 1958.
Someone was good at parades because all those events were heralded with huge processions through downtown. The Flint Journal sold souvenir editions of hundreds of pages, packed with ads and accounts of Flint's history. If you were a paperboy, as I was, they were too thick to fold. But the story of Flint was finally being presented to younger generations.
78,000 then; 9,000 now
I didn't begin to understand — and appreciate — the city's fantastic automotive history until I joined The Flint Journal, first as a sportswriter and later as auto editor. One thing led to another, and soon I was writing a book about Durant. Then a picture history of Flint. And co-authoring the story of the Buick automobile in six editions. And finally writing a biography of David Buick.
As I began to learn more about my city's history, I became fascinated with its pioneer leaders. Mott was the last living link. Not only had he known the past leaders well but he had shared in their decisions and victories and made hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.
Sitting quietly in the den of his estate, Mott talked for hours about the days when Durant was creating GM. "Without Durant, I wouldn't be here talking to you, and you wouldn't be here listening to me," he would say.
Flint is hurting now. GM has not quite pulled out. But instead of the 78,000 employees of 30 years ago, the number now is less than 9,000 and dropping. Most of the magnificent industrial development created by Durant is gone.
Maybe many cities would be glad to have 9,000 GM workers. But Flint's expectations of the corporation were always so much higher.
GM made the city, and then it sort of went away. There is probably enough blame to go around for that. But folks there are trying to make a difference, with college dorms and lofts, downtown arches just like the old days, a renovated Atwood Stadium, attempts to make the Carriage Town area viable.
The people of the Vehicle City do not give up. It will take awhile, but I think it will be wonderful when Flint rises again.