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.”

5 comments:

  1. Great story. Thanks for sharing. I was not aware of a lot of the history. It is great to know that new turf has been laid down and the facility is being used again.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Unfortunately, the rental rates for the stadium is still astronomically high and the stadium still sits unused most of the time. A donor paid for Powers, Northwestern ans Southwestern to play there this year.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Define "unused." Along with football, it host JV and varsity soccer and lacrosse games last fall and this spring. Kettering students used it for summer/fall/spring intramurals. And Flint PAL used it for youth football. None of those events were being hosted there previous to the renovation.

      Delete
  3. A big +1! Glad to hear something positive going on in the hometown!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great article. Took me right back to my senior year at Flint Northern in 1963 and my following years at GMI. Thanks for the memories.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for commenting.
www.teardownbook.com