It’s two days after Christmas and Maxine Street has never looked more beautiful. Many days of snowfall have created an ice-cream landscape that calls to mind the snow village on display at Bronner’s, a Christmas emporium forty miles to the north. I’m writing from the College-Cultural Neighborhood, aka East Village, deeply entrenched in Flint, Michigan. My windows rattle with the sound of a snowplow next door clearing a driveway. Not too long ago, a man pulled his kids by on a sled, heading for a nearby park. At night, when neighbors turn on their Christmas lights, it will melt some of the snow, making the winter scene look even more like a fairy-tale; reds, greens, silvers, blues, and golds.
What, where? Oh, yeah, you read that right: I’m writing this from my home in Flint, Michigan.
There appears to be something of a custom among national journalists to swoop into Flint – a former stronghold of General Motors, 95% of their local workforce eradicated, half of its peak population, astronomical poverty rates, consecutively ranked by FBI stats as America’s most-violent city, yada yada yada – to chronicle our blight, misery, and desperation, and then usually offer a few token words about the hope and resilience of the 100,000 people who live here. This seems disingenuous to me; why don’t such stories lead with such hope and resilience? Is an abandoned house really more interesting and informative than a network of churches and charities administering to the needs of neighborhoods neglected by the free market? Does the oft-repeated FBI factoid really provide more insight on a place than the hundreds of residents who will each mow sometimes dozens of lawns to keep their communities clean and safe? Is the post-apocalyptic narrative so fragile that it cannot tolerate reportage on our symphony orchestra, the new Michigan School for the Deaf, or the academic cradle of the first female president of a major automaker (appointed just last month)?
Look: I grew up in Flint, and moved away to Chicago and New York for fourteen years, and then moved back to take advantage of opportunities here, and I’m telling you: out-of-town journalists who write “worst of” lists and exposes on my hometown have got it all wrong.
To be fair, my neighborhood is one of Flint’s more affluent areas. If you head a mile to the north, you’ll find yourself in the infamous State Street area – the Eastside – where there really are about as many abandoned houses as occupied. In fact, if you’ve read recent articles on Flint, you may have even seen a picture of an abandoned block of Jane Street in this area… but if you add all of the other blocks together, you still get over 8,000 people. The State Streets are afflicted with all of the problems associated with Flint, but did you know that the neighborhood is anchored by the sweeping natural amphitheatre of Kearsley Park with its glorious Donnelly Pavilion? Each year, a local Shakespeare Company mounts a production there, and the park is a hive of happy and perfectly legitimate activity year round, from biker rendezvous to family reunions. Head north to the corner of Davison Road and Iowa Street – one of the more blighted areas – and you’ll find the headquarters of the Peace Mob, a collective of urban farmers who are buying up vacant lots and converting them to food production. Just across the street is the empty home of Gypsy Jack, an eccentric who outfitted the house with wild-west paraphernalia. After sitting empty for years, the house has a new coat of paint and a bright sign proclaiming “Under Restoration by the Community.” Just another block up is a former bank building occupied by the Hispanic Community Tech Center, flashing fiery murals that belie the building’s staid architecture. The Eastside isn’t an affluent part of Flint. It is one of its poorest.
Only a few out-of-town journalists call attention to Flint’s history of vicious segregation. This is, unfortunately, part of the story too, though it tends to be overshadowed by General Motors downsizing. Segregatory housing compacts were thrown out in the controversial open housing ordinance of 1968. Flint was the first major city in the U.S. to have passed such a measure by popular vote. However, Flint remains sharply segregated today, and the predominately African-American and heavily industrial North Side has suffered from the most severe shortages of services and employment. This, then, must be pit where hope dies, as represented by Forbes’ “Worst Cities” lists. Right? Except that, even amidst the trauma of the North Side, there are hundreds of examples of residents making the best of a rough situation.
From Saginaw Street, the Berston Field House, deep in the North Side of Flint, looks much like shuttered public facilities throughout the city; beautiful but crumbling relics of bygone glory. However, Berston is humming with activity. Thirteen years ago, basketball player Mateen Cleaves led the Michigan State Spartans to the 2000 national championship, and netted himself the NCAA Most Outstanding Player award. “Flintstones” has been a byword in college basketball ever since. Mateen trained at Berston. Claressa Shields was only five at the time… just thirteen years later she became the first ever gold-medal winner for Olympics womens middleweight boxing. She also trained at Berston.
Berston is one short mile from Sharecroppers Park, created under the guidance of Flint pastor and NEA artist-in-residence Melton Harvey. Decorated with cast off pieces of colorful glass and plastic, glued together into whimsical and delightful ornaments like mobiles and chalices, the park shimmers in the morning light, as if covered with a fine mist of dew. The park also produces food. Flint is (literally) growing more independent from big box supermarkets for produce due to increasingly sophisticated networks of farmers and gardeners.
Still on the North Side, you’ll find Joy Tabernacle, a former Presbyterian Church which had been purchased in 2009 for $15,000 after a onetime listing for $100,000. When the Flint Journal covered the transfer of ownership, pastor Sherman McCathern said that his ministry includes those who have “fallen through the cracks.” In the last four years, the church has purchased several nearby properties for parishioners, and worked with absentee landlords to improve their properties. Joy Tabernacle is one of dozens of Flint congregations, from Grace Emmanuel on the South Side, St. John Vianney on the West, and Woodside Church in my own neighborhood. They partner with nonprofits and charitable organizations like the Eastern Michigan Food Bank and Carriage Town Ministries to ameliorate the needs of those left behind by our profit-obsessed society.
At the opposite end of the economic spectrum, Downtown Flint has benefited in recent years from cash infusions from the Mott Foundation and the permanent presence of University of Michigan–Flint. With the addition of residential dormitories in 2007, the local student population has swelled, and spurred development of further amenities. Many of these take the form of restaurants and coffee shops, but last year a suburban hospital opened an urgent care facility a block away. This will complement Hurley Medical Center – a nonprofit hospital that is the only Level I Trauma Center north of Detroit. Meanwhile, Michigan State University is opening a public health program in an empty newspaper facility. The local Farmers Market – a year-round affair which was voted America’s “most loved” in 2009 (Care2.com/LocalHarvest.org) – is relocating nearby. These investments are controversial, as the leverage of resources must be when money is so tight, but the district looks and feels nothing like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. On the corner of Saginaw Street and First Street, one is less than a mile from three college campuses, a hospital, a planetarium the size of Chicago’s Adler, multiple museums, theaters, and concert halls, and one of America’s largest nonprofit foundations. Did I mention that Flint’s student population is well over 20,000?
I could spend more time talking about Flint and its neighborhoods. I could go on all day. It isn’t that the crises here aren’t severe – the hunger, the violence, the want, the desperation are all-too real – but when out-of-town journalists show up, snap a few pics of abandoned houses and parrot some depressing stats without sharing the great innovation and determination of Flint residents, they do a disservice to the people of this great city. Instead of gaping at how far Flint has fallen, out-of-towners should instead contemplate the ties that bind people to a community that has become, in their words, “hell.” They should consider the incredible stamina it takes to build a happy life in the midst of such obstacles. They might even learn something new. There is no shortage of such stories.
I could keep going. I could tell the story about the owners of the Atlas Coney Island who welcome me when I come in at three in the morning. Of my colleagues who produce art projects on a shoestring budget. Of the youth theater that provided a home for me and my friends when our world was fast becoming complicated and scary. I could keep going all day.
But I don’t have time. I want to take my daughter for a walk through the winter wonderland of our beautiful city.
My neighbor finished plowing the sidewalk and plowed my walk and driveway, too.
In Flint, we look out for each other.