The Quiet Revival
My hometown is one that has become synonymous with urban decay and high crime, and lead-tainted water. But these aren’t the only things Flint is all about.
Editor’s note: The following is an article originally written in 2014, before the Water Crisis became big news. I’ve adapted it to include some updates.
My hometown is Flint, Michigan. Yes, that Flint, Michigan; the one immortalized by Michael Moore, the city that has been dubbed the “most violent city” in America, the one that has been under emergency state control twice in a decade. The only that is still getting out from under the mess that is the Flint Water Crisis.
Flint is the city that others look at and give thanks that they are not Flint. It’s the kind of city that you drive through and see abandoned houses and giant slabs where there giant auto factories making cars and other components for General Motors. In the 1970s, Flint was a city of nearly 200,000 and 80,000 people worked for General Motors including my parents. Now, Flint hovers around 100,000 and about 7,000 work for GM.
Flint is the kind of city that can break your heart.
Despite all the sadness, something is happening in my hometown, something wonderful.
I originally wrote this article during a visit to Michigan to see my parents. My husband Daniel and I walked through downtown and saw a vibrant area. New restaurants with patios dotted Saginaw Street, the main drag. A busker played music at the edge of the University of Michigan Flint campus. Several buildings were are being remodeled for new uses. The Durant Hotel, that’s sat vacant for nearly 40 years has become apartments. Lofts are showing up in various buildings downtown. The Flint Farmer’s Market moved to downtown from a nearby location and a local business person says restaurants are seeing increases in traffic after it’s grand opening. Subsequent trips have told me something good is happening in the Vehicle City.
It was fascinating to see downtown so alive, because for nearly 30 years it wasn’t such a beehive or activity. Downtown Flint used to be the place people went shopping. I can remember going with my mother to shop at the stores downtown, waiting in the old Smith-Bridgeman’s department store as she tried on new dresses. But by the 80s, many stores moved to the big mall west of town or simply closed altogether leaving downtown a ghost town.
Something is happening in Flint’s downtown after a decades of nothing happening. What’s interesting here is that this wasn’t some master plan. It seems to be happening in a piecemeal fashion, a project like the Farmer’s Market here, and art gallery there. Downtown Flint is becoming a place where people gather and live- and it may hold the key to helping Flint transform from an industrial town to….well, I don’t know what.
Flint’s economy has been troubled since the 1980s. None of what has happened in Flint took place overnight- it happened over decades- and the city and its residents were slow to act, probably because we couldn’t see a future for the city beyond making cars for GM. The Flint of the 80s was one that thought that big projects would help downtown and the city as a whole. So, we had a Hyatt Regency hotel built around 1981. Then there was the white elephant that was Autoworld, an amusement park based on the car, in 1984. Water Street Pavillion, a glass structure filled with shops was opened in 1986. All of these things were big and flashy and a way to help downtown become a destination.
And all three flopped.
These projects were big and shinny, but they were not of the community. No one was asking for a Hyatt downtown, let alone an amusement park with no thrill rides. These things were funded with public and foundation dollars and all of that money went to waste.
The things that are taking place in downtown Flint today are not flashy, but they are what the people who live and work in this town want; a place to have a nice meal or drink with friends, a place to view art or by some organic cabbage. It’s these simple things that I believe will revitalize downtown and the city as a whole.
None of this means everything is fine in Flint. Of course, the water crisis is still big news: while the water is now safe to drink, people are still distrustful of the water and probably will be until all the lead water lines are replaced which will take a few years. There are still neighborhoods of blight. African Americans who make up the majority of the population don’t have access to a good education let alone jobs. Crime is still a problem. The city is still losing population.
But Flint is not just a “poor me” story. There are signs of hope taking place all over and it is happening not because of big business or government, but because local people are stepping up.
Places like the Ferris Wheel and Factory Two are giving people the tools to launch new businesses. Two cobblers started Sutorial Boots and Shoes. Right above Sutorial is Good Boy Clothing started by a young man who used his tax refund to start his business. Flint, the scrappy city that I call home is trying hard to reinvent itself.
The seeds of Flint’s revival are taking root. As I walked through the Farmer’s Market back in 2014, I encountered a meeting of young people interested in investing in Flint and Genesee County. Seeing that gave me hope that my hometown will make it. It won’t be saved by a big employer like GM or by blingy projects, but it will happen organically with people who live here stepping up and making a difference one by one.
The thing that makes me proud of where I grew up is that its people are working to keep the city alive. The national media can only see Flint as a broken city and well, that is true. But its also a city that is healing itself after decades of neglect. Flint won’t ever be the big auto manufacturing town it once was, but it is starting to arise from the ashes. What Flint will be next is anyone’s guess, but I am excited to see what will happen.
Flint has long been a city that can break your heart at times. But that trip four years ago made me see that it can also uplift your heart as well.
Originally published at ordinary-times.com on July 31, 2014.