By Eric Lundin, Contributing Editor
If a one-industry town is vulnerable to a change in fortunes, a one-company town’s position is even more precarious. Few cities exemplify this more
than Flint, Mich., the hub of General Motors from
the company’s founding until the 1980s. In GM’s first
year, 1908, the city had fewer than 40,000 residents,
and despite shrinking during the Great Depression,
the city’s population grew over the decades and
peaked at 197,000 (1960 census). It wouldn’t last.
Large economic forces put the city’s population into
a long-term decline sometime in the 1960s, a trend
that was exacerbated by GM’s decision to reduce its
Flint operations drastically in the 1980s. Today Flint’s
population is 99,000 (2014 estimate). The number of
Flint residents employed by GM fell from a peak of
80,000 in 1978 to 8,000 in 2010.
When Flint native and future metal sculptor Ste-
phen Christena was on the cusp of entering high
school in the late 1980s, the deindustrialization of
Flint had taken its toll. Metalworking classes had
disappeared, and woodworking was on its way out.
It seemed a little ridiculous to Christena, given his
background: His father, a longtime GM employee,
was a can-do guy who enlisted help from Stephen
and his siblings in any and all home repair and improvement projects—including electrical, plumbing, and roofing—so Stephen was accustomed to
rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty.
The lack of vocational classes in Flint closed off a
few avenues for its high school students, Christena
Adept at mathematics, Christena had the potential to do well as an engineer, but he pursued an
art degree at Western Michigan University instead.