Friday, April 29, 2016

Downtown Versus Neighborhoods: The Flint City Council Decides the Fate of the Capitol Theatre

Talk to residents out in many Flint neighborhoods and it doesn't take long to realize there's a growing divide between neighborhood interests and downtown interests, often represented by Uptown Development and the Flint & Genesee Chamber. Look no further than the looming showdown in the Flint City Council over the transfer of a property tax freeze that Uptown says is key to rehabilitating the historic Capitol Theatre.

MLive's Dominic Adams reports:
Flint City Council Eric Mays said he supported the tax freeze under the past ownership but has not made his mind up on the transfer request. 
"I want the residents to come out and weigh in on that," said Mays, adding he believes there are other legal issues that need to be clarified before the council can vote. 
Councilwoman Monica Galloway, who represents the theater's ward, said Wednesday she is still gathering information about the proposal and declined further comment.

Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young

"One can read Teardown and go 'My, my, my! What a horrid town! Thank God I don't live there!' Oh, but you do. Just as the 'Roger & Me Flint' of the 1980s was the precursor to a wave of downsizing that eventually hit every American community, Gordon Young's Flint of 2013, as so profoundly depicted in this book, is your latest warning of what's in store for you — all of you, no matter where you live — in the next decade. The only difference between your town and Flint is that the Grim Reaper just likes to visit us first. It's all here in Teardown, a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once great American city."
— Michael Moore, filmmaker, author, activist

Purchase Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Almost Abandoned: The Revival of Atwood Stadium in Flint, Michigan by Scott Atkinson

Flint, Michigan, 1950, Thanksgiving Day.

Two rival teams from opposite ends of the city have gathered in a tradition that has taken place for the past three decades, the annual Turkey Day game between Flint Northern High School and Flint Central High School. For the next year, bragging rights will go to either the north side or south side of the city—not the students, the city. A record of more than 20,000 people have gathered for the game at Atwood Stadium, the city-owned stadium that houses the annual game. It’s a game that, by pitting the city against itself, brings it together.

Policemen are on the sidelines. It can get rowdy. After a big play spectators have been known to rush the field. It is a nice field, not the kind where you’d expect to find a high school playing. There are no rickety wooden bleachers. No school is in sight. The stadium sits near the Flint River, its top row of seating level with Third Avenue, just to the north. Beyond the brick wall that separates that stadium from the street, the concrete seating cascades down as through carved out of the bedrock—which, in fact, it was, by horses, in 1928. It is one of Flint’s crown jewels, its own colosseum.

It’s just a high school game, but it’s more than that. It is a community game. General Motors in 1950 was at its height, with about 80,000 employees. In four years the company would shut down the city streets to hold an annual parade celebrating the 50 millionth car to come off the assembly line, and just down the street is the General Motors Institute, a technical school training the next generation of people who will move the company forward into the very bright-seeming future. So, yes, more than a high school game. As far as Flint is concerned, there is nowhere else in the world to be (many, in fact, have moved from hundreds of miles away to be a part of the auto-fueled community). There is no other game worth watching. Turkey dinner will wait. Those lucky enough to be in Flint can spend their last Thursdays in November being thankful that their sons have a stadium like this one to play ball in, and that one day those sons can grow up to watch their own boys play ball at Atwood.

One of those boys is Leroy Bolden, a five-foot-eight, 175-pound halfback who would in two years go on to play at Michigan State University, where he would eventually become co-captain before going on to play for the Cleveland Browns. He is one of many who were to go through the “pipeline,” as Flint Northern alum Norm Bryant put it, between Flint’s football teams and MSU. But Leroy doesn’t know that yet. He only knows his team is tied and that, when the ball comes into his hands next, there is about eighty yards between him and victory. He makes the run. Police prepare to usher the crowd back into the towering concrete stands of Atwood, which are frantic with the applause of 20,000 people. This is life in Flint.

John F. Kennedy visits Atwood Stadium in 1960. (Photo courtesy of the Scharchburg Archives/Kettering University)

Fast forward sixty years. Third Avenue has been renamed University Avenue as of 2008, an effort to change the way people look at the area and to connect downtown Flint to the Kettering University campus, located to the west of downtown, formerly known as the General Motors Institute, where the University of Michigan-Flint resides. To the east is Mott Community College. Things have changed in Flint. Only about 8,000of those 80,000 GM jobs remain in the city, and it has almost become a cliché to residents to hear their city described by the media as the “most dangerous” or “most violent.”

Take, for example, University Avenue. The name, one resident said to the city council at the time, was “purely symbolic.” Other testified that a name change might sound great, but what they’d really like to see is fewer drug dealers and prostitutes. They want to see homes looking nicer, never mind that all-but-abandoned football field, just sitting there like a walled-in crater to the south of the street.

One idea of creating a new Flint is that it will be a college town, and it’ something people think the city might be able to pull off (or, perhaps, might be able to not screw up) given that there are three colleges in or within a short radius. Throw in Michigan State University’s recently opened College of Human Medicine branch and you have four. That college town vibe is not quite present, though it may be creeping in: There are coffee shops open past 5 p.m. now; student nights at the local bars; there is no shortage of weird, arty events. But something has been missing, one of the largest unifying forces of any learning institution. There was no football stadium.

In 2013, that changed. Now there is a stadium. Or rather, there’s the stadium that there’s always been there, but it looks like the kind of place you might go—it’s the kind of place people do go. It’s just something the city can be proud of again. And it’s owned by a university that doesn’t even have a football team.

Jack Stock is Director of External Relations at Kettering University. He said he’d been hearing from people in the community still dedicated to the stadium that they were worried about its future. He looked into it and found that the building, still owned by the city, was to be “mothballed,” that is, it was to be kept in some form of working order but no longer used. In other words, it would be just one more property along University Avenue that would just be sitting there.

He went back to his boss, Robert McMahan, Kettering’s president since 2011, who came to the university with a vision of not just running a university, but cleaning up its surrounding area. About two years after Stock entered his office to tell him about Atwood, Kettering would release a new ten-year master plan that would include initiatives such as creating greenspace around the university, cleaning up the University Avenue Corridor to connect Kettering with downtown, and creating more off-campus options for eating and housing for students. (The plan closely aligned with the city’s master plan, adopted in 2013. It was the first updated master plan the city had made in 50 years.)

“I ran back to the office and said, ‘Dr. McMahan, gosh, Atwood Stadium is at risk of never being used again, and we have, maybe, an opportunity to help.’ He said, ‘We’ll take it over for the city.’”

The city was game. So long as it was used for the same purpose outlined in the city charter—that it was to be used for recreational purposes and the community—Kettering could have it. Kettering has since sunk more than $2 million into renovating the stadium using money sought from grants and fundraising. So far they’ve renovated the locker rooms, replaced the old Field Turf (more commonly known, but no longer referred to, as Astroturf) done structural repairs, and cleaned up the area around the parking lot once covered in brambles.

The turf is what has Fred Jackson excited. It’s the same turf used in the University of Michigan’s Big House and the Detroit Lion’s Ford Field. Even in the gray late November it is as green as your neighbor’ yard, Kettering’s Bulldog mascot in its center. At 39, he had played at Atwood in high school and compared the old turf to worn-out carpet. Now the coach of Northwestern High School, he said his kids love playing on it.

“It’s perfect turf,” he said. Teams had been playing there since Kettering had taken it over, which, Jackson said, they probably shouldn’t have been. He said players would leave every game there with scars and rashes. “It was like playing on cement. There’s probably a hundred years of dead skin on that turf.”

It is impossible to talk about Atwood without talking about what’s going on throughout University Avenue because Kettering’s efforts are beginning to be more than the symbolic renaming that skeptics worried about when the city changed the name of the street. Lights keep the entire corridor bright throughout the night, deterring crime. In 2013, Kettering worked with the C.S. Mott Foundation to make “University Corner,” an area adjacent to the campus that houses a bagel and coffee shop for students that is attached to a Flint Police mini station. At the other end of the University Avenue Corridor, a Kettering-owned building that was once a convenience store referred to by some locals as the “stab and grab” is now being turned into a Jimmy John’s.

“I’ve never been so excited about a Jimmy John’s,” Stock said.

Across the river are more improvements. The city found funding that will slowly change the former manufacturing site, an enormous Brownfield once known as Chevy in the Hole, where the famous 1936-37 down strike took place, giving rise to the United Auto Workers union. Now a quarter mile stretch of concrete and gravel, it is becoming Chevy Commons, a large walkable park that will lead the way to Kettering. It’s a city project, but the far end of the brownfield belongs to Kettering, which is going to be turned into an automotive test track that Kettering officials hope will bring outside industry into Flint to conduct vehicle research. The site will be the only proving ground on a college campus in the country.

Kettering is also funding the security for the area, and working with the city to make the area “hike-able and bike-able” Stock said. Atwood’s parking lot serves as a small stretch of the Flint River Trail, a concrete path that takes walkers and bicyclists through about 18 miles along the river, much of it green and wooded. It’s an area Stock said he wants all people feeling safe walking.

The idea is to have busier streets. Our intention is, when you look west now, is that’s the next piece,” Stock said, referring to the efforts that have taken place to revitalize Flint’s downtown surrounding UM-Flint, and the neighborhood to the east, home to Flint’s cultural district with museums, a library, theaters, and a music institute. “A Jimmy John’s…just a few successes like that and we’ve got something. We’re not there yet but we’re working hard.”

 Tim Monahan lives just blocks from the entrance to Atwood Stadium. He’s part of the  University Corridor Coalition along with Jack Stock, other residents, and anyone else who’d interested in what’s going on around University Avenue. The coalition has a name, and that’s about it. There are no officers, no 501(c)3 status. Just people getting together to talk about ideas. Monahan was one of the people who, in 2008, voiced his concerns to the city council about the name change of the avenue not being enough. He’s also the former president of the Carriage Town Neighborhood Association. What he said he likes about the coalition is the lack of politics.

“The politics aren’t in it,” he said. “Kettering has done such a beautiful job. The city would never have been able to do what Kettering has done. Have you seen that turf? They’ve tried to do the right things around town, around the corridor.”

He said he recently saw a historical aerial photo of the neighborhood, and said it was disappointing to see all the houses that aren’t there anymore, most of them being demolished after being abandoned. But that’s something that won’t change, he said.

“The whole area right around there … is really the beginning of the rebirth of Flint, and I think Kettering is leading the way,” Monahan said.

It’s a large, multi-faceted effort. But at the center of it all, serving as its monument, is Atwood.

Atwood is now the home field for Northwestern as well as Flint Southwestern Academy and Powers Catholic High School, located not far from Atwood. And on August 27, 2015, residents came out to watch another hometown game.

Jackson coached his kids during the first game at Atwood on the new turf, after Kettering took it over. Flint Central and Flint Northern have both closed, but it was still a hometown game. Northwestern played the neighboring Beecher School district. It wasn’t between the two famous rival schools, and it wasn’t on Thanksgiving, but even so, about 4,000 people came out to watch the boys play.

“The Atwood Stadium stuff they’ve been doing has been spectacular,” Monahan said. “We’ve actually had fun watching these football teams. It was by far and away the biggest crowd I’ve seen in years. In years. It was just spectacular to see that many people come in for a game.

“The security was tight, but there were no problems.”

“I’m just glad it’s back,” Jackson said, a sentiment that many people share, even if the stadium was only gone for two years. It had hardly left, but it was already becoming just one more structure in Flint sitting vacant and unused.   “Flint’s got something that’s nice,” Jackson continued. “I like that. I like the whole idea of what they’re doing down there. … It’s a great opportunity for our kids. It was amazing to them. It was like buying a new house.”

The stadium was back, but Flint had still changed.

Beecher won the game, 36-14. The Beecher players dedicated the game to their teammate, Gabe Davis, who had been fatally shot less than three weeks before the game during a block party about three miles north of the stadium.

Norm Bryant remembers the Turkey Day games. He’s 79, and played in his share of the games and remembers when Leroy Borden made those runs, just a few years before he started playing there.

As a member of the Friends of Atwood Stadium, which had helped keep the stadium in working condition while the city owned it, he’s as excited as anyone to see what’s happening at Atwood and praises Kettering for what they’re doing and for continuing to consult with the Friends of Atwood group. He was at the game when more than 4,000 people showed up to watch high school kids play. Some considered it a throwback to earlier days. Bryant loved seeing the football there, but it wasn’t a Turkey Day game.

“No, no, no, no, no. It wasn’t the same. How you could you compare 4,000 to 20,000? It just wasn’t the same. You’d have to be back there to know what I’m talking about. … People went out to the game for entertainment,” he said “It was just something that kept the city together.”

Now he, like Kettering, like everyone in Flint, is wondering the same thing about the stadium that they are wondering about the city itself: It’s not a matter of how to make Atwood (or Flint) what it once was, it’s about seeing what it will be like next.

Bryant has ideas. He thinks they can get colleges to come and play games there, holding battles of the bands at halftime. They could have tractor pulls. One thing he wants to see built is a museum dedicated to Atwood, showing visitors the history he lived through.

“And we could say, hey, this was a crown jewel here. Put some of the old trophies, the ball we used in the turkey day games on display. …We need to have that, because that’s history,” he said.

“I don’t know if those days will ever come back. … We have to find other ways to fill that stadium up.”

Flint Postcards: New Union Industrial Bank Building

Friday, April 22, 2016

This Is Our Neighborhood, and We Refuse to Give Up by Megan Crane

This is our neighborhood, and we refuse to give up.

We live on a quiet little street in south Flint. Our small bungalow is nestled into the shadow of the now-defunct McKinley Academy. The neighbors are working-class and quiet, the lawns are well-kept, and most of the houses have at least a few perfunctory tiger lilies gracing the front steps. There are only two rental houses on our block, and we reside in one of them, my fiancé and I. The other house is on the opposite side of my next-door neighbor’s place.

Until last week, the only neighbors we were acquainted with were the guy across the street, Jeff, and our neighborhood watch guy, Joe, who lives on the corner of our street and Camden Avenue. We pay Joe’s son to mow our lawn – in fact, most of our block does the same – and my fiancé Zach has been known to stand in the driveway talking to Joe for a couple hours. We’re from Up North, after all, and we believe in community. For the most part, however, the people on our block mostly kept to themselves, and we did the same.

It’s strange the way an isolated incident can change things, is it not?

At 7:30 one night last week, I was sitting in my living room. My feet were up on the coffee table, my fat old diva of a Norwegian Forest Cat was embedded in her usual spot on my lap, and I was sipping a coffee and studying for my abnormal psych final the next day. It was a balmy, warm afternoon, and I had the windows open. Zach’s cat, a tuxedo-print Maine Coon, likes to lie in the windows and survey the neighborhood. When I heard a tearing sound coming from our bathroom, I assumed it was Leonard sharpening his claws on something and paid no mind.

A few minutes later, a series of random rapid thumps started coming from the bathroom. My first thought was that the cat had somehow gotten stuck in the bathtub, despite the fact that he can leap into the windows with ease. I stood up, placed my cat on the chair, and went to investigate. Leonard was nowhere to be seen.

I’m only five feet tall, and the bathroom window is level with my forehead. The thumps sounded as though they were coming from directly outside the window, so naturally, I stood on the edge of the bathtub and peeped out to see what was up. I looked to the right first; my next-door neighbor’s screen over her kitchen window was torn and flapping. I looked to the left. Her air conditioner usually rests in her living room window. However, it was gone. It had been replaced by broken glass and a pair of men’s legs sticking out the window.

Maybe Ashley locked her keys in the house and this is one of her friends trying to help her out, I thought. Wait, if he’s a friend, why would he shove her air conditioner through the window? Wouldn’t he have gone through the back? And when did that screen get ripped? My mind immediately answered itself.

“Hey, can I help you?” I called through the window.

The man immediately began wiggling back through the window. His feet made contact with Ashley’s trash cans, crushing them. He maneuvered his way back to the ground, and turned to grin at me, dead teeth leering in his mouth like rotten fenceposts. “Hey, I live here,” he responded.

I recognized this guy as the creepy guy on our block – and every block in Flint seems to have one these days. This particular creeper lived in the other rental house, the Section 8 property on the other side of Ashley’s.

“No, you don’t live there!” I yelled, making my voice as loud and aggressive as I could.

“I live here,” he repeated, still grinning at me, and stepping toward my fence and my face in the bathroom window.

This guy had been acting strange since he moved in. I didn’t know Ashley, except to nod at her, but I was fairly certain she hadn’t given this guy permission to be in her house, and if she had, well then, fuck it, I’d apologize later.

“You don't fucking live there!” I screamed, full-force. I darted back through my house, checking to make sure my ¾” steel pipe, about the length of a Louisville Slugger, was in its place by the front door, then flew out the front.

By now, two other guys I recognized as living down the block had heard me and come running. They had the guy cornered, and as I ran up to them, Joe the neighborhood watch guy came jogging across the street, yelling to us that he’d called the cops already. The intruder started mumbling that he’d thought Ashley had stolen his air conditioner, so he was going into her house to get it back. One of the neighbors, an older gentleman named Paul, immediately “called bullshit” and told the guy his air conditioner was still in his window and he needed to get gone now. Joe repeated that he’d called the police, and told the guy we didn’t want that shit in our neighborhood. The guy staggered off.

Now, under normal circumstances, I could understand if the man was drunk and somehow got his house confused with Ashley’s. They’re the same color, with similar trim. Both places have tiger lilies at the front, and the man had only been living on our street for two months. However, as Paul and Joe and I stood there talking, it came out that only that morning, Paul’s son Eric had caught the same guy in their back yard trying to boost the air compressor over the fence. Eric had had to threaten the guy with physical force, and when that didn’t work, he’d had to use that CCW permit of his and draw down on the guy to get him to quit advancing on him.

Jeff across the street came outside to see what was going on. Joe filled him in, then called Ashley at work. She came flying home, and since we were still waiting for the police to show up, we all ended up hanging out in Ashley’s front yard. We remained there, getting more bits and pieces of the story from each other. The same guy had tried to get into Jeff’s and Joe’s houses the same day. I can only assume he ignored my house due to the ugly purple Saturn with the ungodly-loud motor that I take to school every day. What’s more, he’d knocked on Ashley’s door the previous night, in the midst of a horrific storm, to “borrow” her phone, then pushed his way inside the house and looked around. He tried coming back again later, but that time, she refused to let him in, since it was well past one in the morning.

So after four more calls to 911, Flint’s finest finally sent an officer to take a report. He arrived around 1:30 am, five hours after the break-in, took our statements, told Ashley that the most they could charge him with was unlawful entry, and left.

The next day, we assumed it was back to normal. The car was extremely low on gas, so Zach caught a ride to his cooking job down in Fenton, and I shouldered my backpack and caught the bus over by Kings’ Lane Apartments. I went to school, sat for my exam (96%), and caught the bus back home. It was another gorgeous day, so I got off a few stops early, up by Fenton and Atherton roads, and walked home. I cut across Fenton, walked a block down Campbell, and turned onto Brunswick. My earbuds were in, I was listening to my favorite song by Buffalo Springfield, and I had nothing more in my head than going home and putting the final touches on my Creative Writing class portfolio.

As I got to the street just north of my own, Ashley and her boyfriend Ken came driving up and flagged me down. They informed me that they’d found the guy’s wallet in their backyard, with all of his personal information and a few other people’s names and driver’s license numbers as well. They dropped it off to the police, but we have yet to hear back.

I tell this story not in search of praise, but to comment on the aftermath. Since the break-in, I’ve taken to sitting on my front steps every day. I have severe general anxiety disorder, and the woman who lives behind me is a screamer. I can’t sit in my back yard; she gives me panic attacks. So I sit in the front. I write, or I work on my little craft projects, or I tend to my flower and herb garden. And without fail, Jeff across the street will come out to his front steps. He places his hands on his hips and surveys the neighborhood like a contented monarch looking over his kingdom, then will wave or yell, “Hey, baby girl, how you doin’?” Larry from the end of the block will walk by with his little pug dog, wave, and ask me what I’m working on today. Paul will wander over and talk for a few minutes, or Joe will come across the street to see if I want some cuttings from his wife’s flower bed. Ashley or Ken will lean over the fence that separates my yard from their driveway, and we’ll swap stories about life in the restaurant industry or plants we’re growing or whatever.

Our neighborhood was serene before this incident, and it has gone back to its status quo. We watch each other’s houses, we know each other’s routines. Things have gone back to normal on the surface. The difference is now, we’re invested in our neighborhood. Those roots have sunk a little deeper into Flint soil, and our street feels to me like any of the hundred different small-town streets I lived on before I moved to Genesee County. The police response time might be terrible, but our neighbors have our backs, and we have theirs. The people on my block are good people, hard-working, quiet homeowners who are just as invested in keeping our neighborhood safe as we are. We live in a small oasis of tranquility in the midst of one of the rowdier south-side neighborhoods, and we’re okay with that.

This is our neighborhood, and we refuse to give up.

Megan Crane

Sasha Avonna Bell, R.I.P.

Gary Ridley of MLive reports:
A woman at the center of a bellwether Flint water crisis lawsuit was one of two women who were shot to death inside a townhouse earlier this week. 
Sasha Avonna Bell was one of the first of a growing number of people to file a lawsuit in connection to the Flint water crisis after she claimed that her child had been lead poisoned. 
Bell was found dead April 19 in the 2600 block of Ridgecrest Drive at the Ridgecrest Village Townhouses. Sacorya Renee Reed was also found shot to death in the home.
A tragic reminder that Flint's fundamental problems emerged long before the water crisis. All the celebrities and national media members who are suddenly interested in Flint were M.I.A. for decades while the city struggled with crime and abandonment. Let's hope the outrage over the water crisis actually leads to long-term solutions. It took a long time for Flint to reach this point, and it will take time to improve the city. And let's hope every one showing such concern now is in it for the long haul.

My sincere condolences to the family and friends of Sasha Avonna Bell.

Prince, R.I.P.

A mixtape that was in heavy rotation on my boom box in Flint in the early eighties: Prince, Go-Go's, Bob Marley, which provided a more uplifting break from The Smiths, Joy Division and The The.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Calling All Flint Residents

Dear City of Flint Residents,

We ask for your participation in a study about the effects of the Flint water crisis on your quality of life. Our University of Michigan—Flint team is primarily interested in your level of concern, how you are responding to the water situation, and how trust in the water system and the government may be restored.

The online survey (linked here: should take around 15 minutes to complete. No individual or household information will be reported. If there is a question that you are not comfortable responding to, you may choose to leave it blank.
If you have questions or concerns about this study, please feel free to contact us.

We thank you in advance for your participation!

Dr. Victoria Morckel, Principal Investigator
Assistant Professor | Department of Earth and Resource Science
University of Michigan-Flint