Flint, Michigan: My Remarkable Home and Its Beautiful People

Maxine Street, lookin' all apocalyptic and stuff.

Maxine Street, lookin’ all apocalyptic and stuff.

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

    Thank you for such a beautiful and heartfelt article about my hometown Flint, Michigan. It might not be what it once was, but I believe it’s on track for a great come back. I’ve been here for every heartbreak and setback and I’ll be here for every rebuild and new birth. FLINTSTONE FOR LIFE!!!!!

  2. Diane Breckenridge says:

    Thank-you Connor! I love my city, it is amazing and as you state there is so much more to us than the statistics and violence. I live, work, and worship in this city. It is great! Mott Park Neighborhood is awesome, we are surrounded by Kettering and the Children’s Museum, the Carriage Town Car shop and now Einstein Bagels (which are fantastic). Neighbors watch out for neighbors, we have concerts in the Park in the summer, art fairs, community watch groups. No one, not one person, has ever talked about any of that until you right now. Thank you, Flint is coming back and we are going to be a glorious light for the rest of the world.

  3. I am from Flint area and lived there until 1987 when we moved to Pasadena CA mainly business and weather. We just got tired of the grey low dark skies.

    Yes downtown Flint is dicey at best and I lived a few blocks from there attending St Michaels which is the start of downtown. I loved the bricks on Saginaw St. I had a Detroit Free Press paper route a few blocks from my house at 510 E. Wood St, cross street Ave A. My route was in a bad neighborhood from Saginaw St. to St John St one way and Mary Street to Dayton St the other. Tough neighborhood by any standards, kind of reminds me of Compton Ca, changing and tough every day. everyone from Flint will attest to that. I can tell you I never was threatened or harmed or robbed. It was my hood as I spent a lot of time collecting for delivering the paper. I ate at all the restaurants and made friends there. I was eleven at the time.

    When I married to a young lady from another tough neighborhood, the north end. we moved to the center of Flint and then bought our first house in the tough area in the north end for $8800.00 and had three children there.

    Earlier in my teens I painted a mans home on Lake Fenton and It stuck with me forever, I could live there if I wanted to.

    The Children were 4,5 and 6 when we bought 3 acres on Windsor Beach Drive, wished I still owned it, until our sons Senior year , the 4 now being 18 years old and he attended Grand Blanc HS, after spending 11 at Lake Fenton. Next move was to Pasadena.

    I have to tell you We were not running from the Flint area, it was the progression of our lives. Yes, we had three children in college MSU, CMU and Albion when we moved and left them there. They all visited us in Sierra Madre Ca and took up residences in the LA area and they are all still here. Two in LA and one in San Mateo.

    Lastly my thoughts about Flint. I was born there as were our children. The only Ca girl was my wife born somewhere between Salinas and Monterey Ca and wanted to go home. Once again not running from Flint just moving along. I worked down in the hole on Chevrolet ave. in plant 2A Parts picking and moved to 4 tail pipes and clutch forks. I figured out that was not me and worked at the house of music back in my old neighborhood on Saginaw by Freddies donuts. I just thought Flint was a place like any other not knowing any better.

    I have beed back and took many photos of all my centers of life there and yes it is ugly and depressing but certainly worth saving. the only thing wrong with Flint is attitude and business loss. It appears that everyone has moved to the suburbs like every where else which in Ca is money. Most cant live in certain areas, either because they are too tough or too expensive, The downtown area is coming to life and blight there is being taken over by, the area called LA Live with bling there and blight all around it. Old buildings are being refurbished into lofts and more. I see a great opportunity in Flint for the right group, and it will happen. Build it and the will come. Go Flint, your not in a National Bowl game, but you really are in the biggest Bowl game going. Make it happen.

  4. Jhazi says:

    Yes I love this! Something positive. Especially the ending!! ♥
    Heartwarming.

    I wrote something similar as well. Please check it out. “The Side of Flint You Don’t Hear About”

    http://jhazi.wordpress.com/2013/12/31/the-side-of-flint-you-dont-hear-about/

  5. Wendy Hirsch says:

    I loved reading your balanced account of a city trying to survive. I was surprised you didn’t mentino the Crim or Back to the Bricks or the great music opportunities in the summers to kids. I was born in Flint, lived there much of my life and remember all the changes to neighborhoods thru the years. I remember learning in Leadership Flint training how more than 50% of the families in Flint were single mothers raising children alone. How can they possibly take care of their properties when they are just trying to keep the kids fed and hopefully off the streets. And the size of the houses throughout downtown that needed heating was such a struggle.

    My grandparents lived in the States district and my grandfather learned lapidary at the local school after her retired from 44 yrs at Buick. In fact almost all of my generation and my parents generation retired from GM in some capacity.

    I think it’s sad that it has to struggle the way it is – glad to hear of it but it’s still sad the shape the town is in. We just moved my mother out of her home of 53 yrs that she and my father had built and the next street over has 9 or 19 houses borded up – houses that my friends grew up in. But somehow it became more profitable for GM and many other manufacturers to go overseas. I lived in North Carolina and the furniture and textiles industries are the same way. Most if not all of the major furniture manufactures are all over seas now. Thousands of furniture factories sit empty while those highly skilled workers in that industy are unemployed. We can blame the companies but I think there might be more to it than that. So many cities like Flint only had one industry to employ it’s citizens – same in furniture. Why? What drove the need for these companies to go out of the country to be able to make a profit. I think Flint and other cities like it need to look at some of these issues and begin drawing many smaller industries back into the area. Even Detroit is having a surgence of some growth with all the empty warehouse space going for next to nothing and bringing in lots of diverse employment. Flint can do that too. Look into what is happening with Dole north of Charlotte, NC – a huge facitly of research but they offered to re-educate and train people from the various furniture and textiles industry – to give them new opportunity to work.

    We no longer live in Michigan and just flying into MI is more expensive than almost anywhere in the US. We traveled to 19 states and Canada and other than Canada, the gas in MI was the highest.

    You were right about greed and the generosity of the people living there and taking care of their neighbors, needs to be found in the people that can bring work and prosperity back to Michigan and to Flint. It is not hopeless in Flint, Detroit, Cleveland, Lexington NC (where Lexington furniture was made – I believe 7 factories sit empty) or any size city.

    It is going to take more than neighborhood gardens and food banks (while better than not doing thise things) to grow – it’s going to take some tough, inovative changes and stepping back to find new business growth for Michigan and for Flint. We need to stop looking for Washington to keep bailing us out with more “controls” and start thinking and doing for ourselves …in Flint and all over this country. Flint is a great place to start the model. Good luck!! Keep on!

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