I just know I'm going to write a lot more about this: 2008 is the 100th birthday of General Motors, and that blessed event, beginning a whole century of exuberant innovation, huge-scale manufacturing, massive migrations from the South, flamboyant Big Money, and the collapse and abandonment we've had several decades to adjust to, occurred right here in Flint.
Specifically, it began at what we now affectionately call "Chevy in the Hole," a huge compound of factories in bottom land of the Flint River just west of downtown.
The site is now a giant brownfield. I find it irresistibly ghostly and haunting.
I took my "Green Ink" students there on a bike tour a couple of weeks ago. Increasingly, it seems right NOT to drive a car when paying tribute to this fallen behemoth. Pausing to catch our breath on Bluff Street overlooking the acreage, we didn't have much to say as we took in the concretized channel of the river and the silent expanse where some of the fights of the 1936 Sit Down Strike took place and where millions of cars were banged out on noisy and oily assembly lines. Several mallards noodled along in the brown water. A red-winged blackbird sailed by. A remarkable single cottonwood did its leafy hula. It really is a cemetery.
The brownfields of Chevy in the Hole are not really brown: there are many green things growing in the cracks and edges. I asked our tour guide, Christina Kelly of the Genesee County Land Bank, what they were. "Just weeds," she said.
My biology professor friend Tracy Wacker, with her usual bracing candor, said "The definition of a weed is a plant growing where somebody doesn't want it to. Looked at that way, none of the plants at Chevy in the Hole are weeds, because nobody cares if they grow there."
This is just the start of what I have to say, but in quick summary, when Tracy and I walked back to Chevy in the Hole yesterday, scrambled around a chain-link fence and poked around in the humid overgrowth on the cracked concrete and the river bank, she called out the names of least 30 different plants: rumex, chicory, bachelor's button, black nightshade, common mullein, curlydock, dogwood, catalpa, coreopsis, lanceleaf plantain, milkweed, dames rocket, buckthorn, bull-thistle, crown vetch. That's about half of them.
One of the most prolific species butting into the ruins is a lusty compound-leafed interloper named, ironically, Tree of Heaven (shown above). It is everywhere. It stinks. The reason is that it contains compounds that keep other plants from growing. Its deep and feisty underground runners make it almost possible to kill -- cut it down, it comes up two feet away. Okay, really, I can't resist this metaphor. I'm chewing on it avidly, like a local betel nut spiking my adrenalin.
But there were also small and hopeful willows, that yellow coreopsis -- a native plant -- and that dogwood. The cemetery is birth to some kind of regeneration -- quiet, slow, shy, fascinating. In the silent breezes there's something to notice. In the persistent weediness, a whisper of history receding, a hint of something lusty and green coming back in its place.