Flint, Michigan: My Remarkable Home and Its Beautiful People

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.

About

Connor Coyne is a novelist living and working in Flint, Michigan. His first novel Hungry Rats has been hailed by Heartland prize-winner Jeffery Renard Allen as "an emotional and aesthetic tour de force." Connor's second novel, Shattering Glass, has been praised by Gordon Young, author of Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City as "a hypnotic tale that is at once universal and otherworldly." Connor recently represented Flint's 7th Ward as its artist-in-residence for the National Endowment for the Arts' Our Town grant, through which artists engaged ward residents to produce creative work in service of the 2013 City of Flint Master Plan. His work has been published in Santa Clara Review, Moria Poetry Zine, East Village Magazine, Flint Broadside, The Saturnine Detractor, and Qua. Connor lives in Flint's East Village, less than a mile from the house where he grew up.

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51 comments on “Flint, Michigan: My Remarkable Home and Its Beautiful People
  1. Thomas says:

    I too returned to Flint after 15-years in the San Francisco Bay Area. While Flint has it’s rough spots, I’m happy to come back here. What people forget, is that the grass is not always greener. I worked hard for 15 years only to watch most of my money travel into the pockets of Greedy landlords. One of the big reasons I returned to Flint, was that I could finish a Graduate degree here (from a World Class University) for pennies on the dollar! Rent here isn’t 3k a month (seriously), and Flint has a thriving arts community for a such a small town. As far as danger goes, I was paying top notch rent on the West Coast. I still had to pass sketchy areas and homeless people. Not only that, but once I had to step past a freshly stabbed dead body, in front of my apartment building. There’s problems everywhere, and there is opportunity in Flint, if you look for it.

  2. Mary Dongian says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for this beautiful essay on my hometown of 70 years!

  3. connor says:

    Hello!

    As of my writing this, I’ve gotten 42 comments on this blog, and many more on Facebook and Twitter. I hope I will have a chance to respond to you all individually soon, but I have a sick wife and a messy house, so please be patient as I start writing back.

    I want to say, foremost, that I am humbled and honored by your messages, encouragement, comments, and, above all, stories. I have heard from friends I remember from decades ago, and it seems I have made some new friends as well. Your responses help illustrate my final point that “there is no shortage of such stories.” Thank you.

    I also want to briefly address the criticisms I’ve received, which all seem to boil down to a belief that I’m glossing over serious issues. I’ve read articles that do so, and I tried hard not to do this myself. I hope you noticed, for example, that while I spoke of “traditional” assets like the universities and museums, I spent the bulk of my time on efforts by individual citizens to improve their lot and that of their neighbors; that is, I believe, the really great and untold story of Flint.

    I have no complaint with coverage (national or local) that explores our struggles in a serious way. Whether it is Slate picking apart the way the subprime mortgage crisis hit Flint or the Flint Journal’s recent look at the horrible scars left by a plague of homicide, that is good and valuable journalism.

    My beef is with out-of-town journalists who write about us the way one might stare at a car wreck. These articles do not inform, they do not explore, they merely point and gawk. And, ultimately, they are dishonest. I am not a journalist by trade, but even I know that one of the fundamental tenets of good reporting is that you try to cover both sides of the story. Forbes and PolicyMic seldom do so… but I think my article does. And I think the positive light I have chosen to shine on the people of my city is only meaningful because, in the midst of crime, arson, poverty, and want, I see people holding out hands to each other, trying to keep each other afloat.

    When I first drafted this article, I had actually titled it “My Beautiful City and Its Remarkable People,” but I realized I had gotten it backwards. The city is many things, “beautiful” among them, but its greatest asset is its people. Flintstones are tough as nails, but I have found them to be full of love and generosity. That is, I believe, truly “beautiful.”

  4. Nadia says:

    I love it. Thank you. I grew up in Flint and I remember all the good things. I know it will get better. I constantly remind people of all the great things Flint has from the restaurants I grew to love. Keep up the great writings about my hometown.

    I Love Flint!!

  5. ron says:

    The city of flint is a crap hole. My house has been broken into and robbed 6 times. Its been randomly shot. Mu vehicles smashed by hit and runs. The police department is the most racist against white people anywhere. My property is worth next to nothing and I live on the west side. Manynof our houses are vacant, abandoned or boarded up.north east and west this city is gone.a realist wouldnt disagree with the facts and statistics.

  6. lorna smith thompson says:

    thank you so much ! i was born in Flint, attended Mott College, and lived downtown above a piano and organ store during college.
    i was last there when my father passed away in 1987.

    i was shocked and saddened by the depressing articles that make the news. Thank you for speaking out ! … for defending our fair city. i owe a debt of gratitude, and applaud your eloquence in writing.

    Thanks,
    Lorna Smith Thompson of Flint, Michigan

  7. ginny braun says:

    I think your article is beautiful. It made me cry. I moved to Flint in 1963 and am still here. My former husband and I bought a cape cod in Mott Park and I’m still in it. I love my neighborhood and my neighbors. The park and golf course are a joy to live near. Myself and my neighbors have done many things to keep it beautiful. People pick up litter, mow the golf course after the city had to abandon it, plant and care for gardens, remove dead trees, keep in touch with each other on facebook, have neighborhood cleanups, redone the tennis courts, fixed broken equipment, mowed the neighbors lawn, whatever needs to be done. We have neighborhood meetings bimonthly, put on Art in the Park, Music in the Park, picnics in the summer, Halloween parties. We’ve received grants from Keep Genesee County Beautiful, the Flint Community Foundation, the Ruth Mott Foundation. Kettering University and McLaren Hospital have made donations too. We’re relentless. We don’t give up. I guess we’re Flintites too.

  8. Sharon says:

    Thank you for reminding me of the beautiful city I called home 30 years ago.

  9. David Haddrill says:

    I just need a copy of this having grown up there 60’s seventies I want something about home signed home sick

  10. LaSondra Nowosielski says:

    Thanks for a great article that puts a kinder light on Flint. Although I lived outside city limits, I went to Hamady and then Swartz Creek H.S. I have also moved away and moved back to this area. I returned to Flint and promptly bought a house in the city of Flint, off Ballenger Rd near Miller Rd. ( Not far from Mich. school for the deaf. I stayed there for ten years but moved south to the Grand Blanc/Holly area. My work was in this area I moved too and my daughter’s dad and his new wife were near also. Convinence for us working class, but I have to be truthful. I was a little afraid living in Flint, single mom with one small daughter. And so, I don’t live in Flint town now but I still believe I am a part of Flint. And I’m glad to hear good stories and memories from this great town!

  11. Freda Domerese Gregory says:

    Thank you for the great article on the beautiful city of Flint…I grew up there on one of the State Streets on the east side…a lot has happened to Flint in 43 years…but it is still a very resilient city and will make a comeback…Flint has a lot to offer still and I’m proud to call Flint my home even tho I don’t live there anymore. Every city in the nation has its bad abandoned places and crime rates. Forbes should come back and let you take them on “the tour” and show them all the good that is still there…thank you again.

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