Monday, November 20, 2023

Inescapable Landscapes


Flint Expatriates
1515 Illinois Avenue, Flint, Michigan.

"We can’t help ourselves. We are shaped by the landscapes we are born to as inescapably as any other earthly creature born to any other ecosystem."

Margaret Renkl in the New York Times

Flint Expat Classics: Ode to the Ghetto Palm (Ailanthus Altissima)

Originally published on Friday, June 19, 2009

I mentioned the ghetto palm in my story on
house hunting in Flint, and it seems some readers are not familiar with the charms of this invasive species, also known as the Tree-of-Heaven. I'll let the Plant Conservation Alliance, which describes the tree on its "Alien Plant Working Group Least Wanted" list, sing its praises:

"Tree-of-heaven is a prolific seed producer, grows rapidly, and can overrun native vegetation. Once established, it can quickly take over a site and form an impenetrable thicket. Ailanthus trees also produces toxins that prevent the establishment of other plant species. The root system is aggressive enough to cause damage to sewers and foundations."
It also has a nice stank about it and is very difficult to eradicate.

"You have to cut them down and keep cutting them down for three years to get rid of them," exclaimed Tim Monahan, the president of the Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association, over coffee yesterday. Needless to say, he's not a big fan.

But I can't be too hard on the much-maligned trees. After all, I've got a ghetto palm forest in my temporary backyard. I'm trying to blend in and not provoke these aggressive predators, especially after learning
"each leaflet has one to several glandular teeth near the base.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Goodstock 2023 in Flint


Slow Sipper by Mort Maizlish

I was active in the NAACP Youth Council in Flint 1959-61. Flint neighborhoods were still viciously segregated, with the main stem, Saginaw St, through the north side of town as the impregnable line between black and white housing. Most restaurants by then were grudgingly taking anybody’s money, but the Help Wanted signs mysteriously disappeared whenever a person of the “None Have Ever Applied” category asked about a job.

We did a drive-in at a drive-in on N. Saginaw Street that catered to both sides of the street but restricted the hiring of carhops to the melanin deficient. We drove in, two to a car and one car at a time, as spaces opened, until we filled the place. We each ordered a small Coke, placed it on the dashboard, and waited.

After an hour or so, the owner noticed a lack of turnover and the profound silence of the cash register, and came out to look around. He screamed, hollered and threatened, especially when he located the adult leader, Edgar B Holt, but couldn’t do anything until we finished our orders. Mr Holt calmly explained that he had a delicate stomach and had to sip his Coke very slowly, and suggested that they might chat about the hiring policy as an aid to his digestion.

We left after 2 or 3 hours, and made our point. I did feel personally cheated, though. My car was the only one with two lightly complected people in it, and I was one of the first to drive in. The guy harangued everyone in the lot except me and my cohort. He glanced at us once but never could make the connection. Here we were, eager to be part of his problem, and he just ignored us!

Friday, July 14, 2023

Don't Miss Porch Fest in Flint's Carriage Town Neighborhood


Thursday, June 29, 2023

Charles W. Nash House For Sale

The Charles W. Nash house in Flint.

Ron Fonger of Mlive reports
The former Flint home of Charles Nash, co-founder of Buick Motor Co. and former president of General Motors, is for sale, but the historic structure won’t necessarily be sold to the highest bidder.

The Genesee County Land Bank is hosting a showing of the home at 307 Mason St. from 2-6 p.m. on Wednesday, June 28, and attendance is the first requirement for making a proposal to buy, invest in, and preserve the Victorian-style, three-bedroom home that was built in 1890 in the city’s Carriage Town Neighborhood.

Michael Freeman, executive director of the Land Bank, said the Nash house ended up in his agency’s hands after the county foreclosed on it for failure to pay property taxes. The Land Bank is highlighting the home’s availability and accepting proposals from prospective buyers until 4 p.m. July 24.
Readers of Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City may remember that this was the house where I stayed when I returned to Flint in the summer of 2009. It was then owned by my friend Rich Bennett, who was instrumental in convincing me to rediscover my hometown. Rich is no longer with us, but his memory and all the things he did for Flint live on. 

Let's hope the new owner of the Nash House treats it well.

My sleeping arrangements at the Nash House in 2009

Laundry day at the Nash House in 2009.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

That's My Moon over Court Street: Dispatches from a life in Flint by Jan Worth-Nelson.

The essence of Flint is too often defined by outsiders. Journalists, politicians, and policymakers love to swoop in, make dire pronouncements and tenuous promises, then skip town faster than General Motors. My friend Jan Worth-Nelson is just the opposite. She moved to Vehicle City for a job, put down roots, and made it her home. That doesn't happen too often these days. Her highly nuanced relationship with a place that's hard to love is captured in these pages. She details Flint's struggles with compelling, clear-eyed prose but still manages to pinpoint what makes it unique, admirable and, yes, appealing despite all the heartache attached to this troubled spot on the Michigan map.

Here is the introduction to her new collection of essays, That's My Moon over Court Street, which is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Flint and everything it represents.

When I arrived in Flint at the start of the '80s, I was already 30, never married, a broke social worker and former journalist, desperate for evidence my life wasn't wasting away. 

I never, ever, thought I would still be here 42 years later. But here I still am.

I lived in a walkup on Avon Street, which crosses Court Street, the main east-west
artery through the heart of the city. It was a down-at- the-heel old neighborhood, tucked
between an ugly freeway and artifacts of Flint’s glory days: sprawling brick high school,
library, art museum, planetarium. On the other side of Court, a big green park and a
fancier neighborhood which seemed unreachable.

From my upstairs dormers many nights I used to see a mysterious bearded man on a
bike slink out in the moonlight and disappear.

I eventually found out that figure was Gary Custer, founder and publisher of the little magazine that appeared on my own doorstep every month. East Village Magazine is a
scrappy little black-and-white publication that has been landing on the doorsteps of
homes, shops, and restaurants in Flint, Michigan, since 1976. Some of us rudely called
it the “East Village Idiot.” But as I learned over the years, Custer was anything but.
A Vietnam-era Navy veteran, Gary had graduated in photojournalism from the
University of Missouri. He often cited ideas about the Global Village -- he was crazy
about Marshall McLuhan. For him, that meant a passion for neighborhood preservations
efforts, and, while he sometimes seemed reclusive, he had a commitment to train
volunteers and students in community journalism.

He never married and never had any kids. His untamed long white beard made some
people wonder if he was homeless -- but he wasn’t. His apartment in a big Victorian
house was a short bike ride to the office -- a storefront owned by his brother that bore
no sign, no hours, and was frequently locked.

Sometimes, nursing a pipe, he worked at the office all night, hammering away in the
midst of a firetrap tunnel of piled-up folders, books, old copies, on a succession of hand-
me-down computers, piecing together the eight-page product that was, I think it is pretty
safe to say, his whole life.

East Village Magazine focuses on the kind of journalism that matters to every citizen
who cares about what is happening in their town. Over the years that included news
from City Hall, city council meetings, the school board, zoning issues, blight elimination,
crime, healthcare, local politics, and neighborhood associations. And, because it is in
Flint Michigan, the abandonment of Flint by General Motors, the State-appointed
“emergency manager,” and, of course, the Flint water crisis.

But Gary always included a story that described everyday life in Flint. He showed us
that no matter what was going on at City Hall, people continued to live their lives. He
called it “Village Life” as a nod to McLuhan.

Eventually he found some of my writing here and there and, after another back page
columnist left, he asked me to join in. I said no for several years.

When Gary finally snared me to write the column, I was already well into middle age,
and the inexplicable survival of the little magazine had become almost legendary. By
then I lived in my own house, miraculously in that leafy historic neighborhood on the
south side of Court I had envied decades before. I am still there.

These are not the essays of a young person, though I was often playful. I didn’t feel my
age; I was furiously emerging from a long- failed marriage and launching a new one,
and I was half-pissed all the time at not getting enough respect in my university job.
Writing the column was freeing and cathartic.

Gary was a cantankerous editor, and he and I used to fight about words. He was a
subject-verb-object man. I liked words like lachrymose and duende -- not to be a
showoff, I insisted, but for the pleasures of it. I was teaching my poetry students to write
sestinas and pantoums, for chrissake. He stood for simple sentences and he worried
about the reader. I wanted to take the reader along with me. The job was to write “local,”
and he liked best when I observed my daily life - the kind of sensory detail, beloved or
troubled specifics, that kept us both going through our ups and downs.

In the end, he let me write pretty much whatever I wanted. That was the gift of it. At first
he told me to write 800 words so it would fit on the back page. But when I had more to
say he didn’t fight me much -- he said, “Write until you’re done and then stop.” When I
came in, usually on Sunday afternoons, to proof my column, he poured me Bushmills in
a chipped mug, and we would talk about everything -- repeating gossip and legends of
the city, sometimes with the door wide open to the scent of it -- acrid and redolent with
ghosts. A wild rosebush twisted around the fence outside. I have repeated all this so
many times: I cherished those Sunday afternoons.

I never got paid for it, except for the Bushmills. Once in a while he’d send me an email:
“good work.”

Gary Custer died suddenly in 2015, just weeks after he’d learned he got a five-figure
grant from the C.S. Mott Foundation -- enough to keep the magazine going for least
another year. I’d just retired from teaching writing, and so I was free.

For the next five years, I was the editor. I didn’t really want to do it, but I got roped in,
and hacked away grumpily at the financial and technical thickets. My husband, an LA
transplant, faithfully pitched in. We got renewal grants each year. I wrote far fewer few
Village Life columns from then on, getting other people to join in. We expanded the
magazine to 12, then 16, and now often 20 pages.

In 2020, after a series of personal crises, burned out by the Trump era and smothered in
the worst of the pandemic, I stepped back. Though I’ve contributed several columns
since, as I have stated, I was tired of words. I handed the editorial reins to Tom Travis,
who has been ably guiding East Village Magazine ever since.

For years, my second husband and I also commuted back and forth from an apartment
at the LA Harbor, but always, always, I came back to my home in the old house off
Court Street, where my life, familiar and beloved, proceeds. What I wrote about it, even
when I was perched on the lip of the Pacific, always seemed to turn to Flint. My roots
have gone down deep.

I have a lot of friends here, people as enmeshed in complex life journeys as me, and I
love that so many of them have tolerated appearing in my columns.  If you are looking
for evidence of advocacy or political analyses, this collection is not for you. Throughout,
my inclination was not to "promote" Flint or offer arguments or solutions to its repeated struggles.  What I had to offer, instead, were my eyes and ears and my heart, put together in collages of what I hope are decent sentences and respectful stories -- a palette of dramas, small and large, collected one by one, from my own life in this place. 

In 2018, I got myself my first (and only) tattoo. It’s a semicolon – to me, a powerful
reminder that there is so often so much more to a story – certainly true in my life, and
absolutely true in Flint, Michigan. At about the same time, I inherited a Buddha from the
back yard of my beloved friend, the late poet Grayce Scholt. The Buddha is missing its
right hand. I don’t know the story of how that damage occurred, but I do know that the
broken Buddha, who now sits quietly in my own back yard, still retains a big broad
smile. It has become a cherished symbol, for me, of incongruous joy and of the
community that has become my home.

My adult life in Flint has had some dark times, and I haven’t been spared from hard and
stupid things. These essays describe the improbable happiness I have found so often
here. How could that happen in a town like this, even through some of its toughest
times? These columns, one by one, represent a kind of answer, the vindication of
claiming my life in this complicated city: to look at it, to love it, sometimes to despair
about it, and to write it into the cornucopia of our collective human lives.

— Jan Worth-Nelson

Keep It Simple: Ford Camper Special Pickup in Anacortes, Washington


Saturday, January 28, 2023

Dining in Flint by Mort Maizlish

The quirky world of the Coney Island was unique to Flint.  Perhaps a dozen purveyors were clustered in the downtown “hot dog district” around Saginaw between Water & Union Sts.  There were many more scattered throughout the town, especially surrounding the factories, where they did a huge trade at shift breaks. They were operated by Greek and Macedonian extended families.  They all served a singular style of hot dog with little to no variation: A frankfurter made locally by Koegel, with mustard, finely minced onion, and a delicious and unmistakeable meat sauce (now revealed as based on boiled beef heart) made by Abbott’s, something like dry chili, never greasy, and with a mysterious blend of seasonings. 

The restaurants…Flint Original Coney Island, US Coney Island #1, Tasty Coney Island, US Coney Island #2, Nick’s Coney Island…were tucked in small commercial storefronts, often 3 or 4 on a block.  They were open 24 hours every day of the year, and some I’m sure had no door locks.  Uniformly simple, clean and efficient,  well lit, and with sparkling white tile walls, each consisted of not much more than a long counter, a few tables, and a small kitchen.  Every serving came on a white oval plate that seemed designed specifically for one hot dog bun.  The counter men, with white aprons and paper hats, took orders and delivered their product with the same speed and consistency as the assembly lines at which most of their clientele toiled.  A fresh bun on the plate, a Koegel frank on the bun, then mustard, then the magic meat sauce, then the minced onions.  Less than a minute to wait.

I don’t recall their serving much else other than beverages, perhaps french fries.  There was no reason to wander.  You were there for a Coney, no other reason.  At midnight or 1:00 AM, after a date, or a late movie at the Capitol, Strand, Palace or Rialto, two Coneys and a long-neck Budweiser set everything right.  

I’ve never found the right combination anywhere else, but have come close with Nathan’s covered with chorizo and, of course, French’s mustard and finely chopped onions.  Close but never there.  Is it the sauce or the frank?  Or the comfort of the presentation of a perfect dish, so simple, so reliable and so effortless.

Flint had some excellent restaurants in the 1950s, especially around N Saginaw above the Durant Hotel. Cromer’s was the best that I remember, and only for very special occasions. The Purple Cow, in the hotel, was the place to go for breakfast and lunch.  The Turkish Village, and a prime rib buffet.  Every restaurant seemed to be focused on one particular group or class, with one great exception. Uncle Bob’s Diner, on Harrison St, was a welcoming magnet for all people at all times. The original portion, with a counter and booths, built in the 1940s, may have been a converted railway dining car, or perhaps was designed to look like one. A large dining room with table service was added later. I was there as a child with my parents for special dinners out, and in later years and late into the night with dates, or with my misfit friends from high school and junior college. The food was varied, with the only kosher-style dishes in town alongside standard American comfort foods. My Flint friends still mourn its closing as the defining moment in the death of downtown. 

Years after closing, the original diner portion of Uncle Bob’s was purchased by a dreamer with a vision of a diner-nostalgia theme park, “Dinerland”, along with a miniature golf course. He acquired a total of three defunct diners from around the country and relocated them to a large open field near Rockford, a sparsely populated rural area north of Grand Rapids. One was to be a classic diner, another a Sports Bar. As the ultimate indignity, Uncle Bob’s, once the soul of Flint and proud purveyor of spectacular corned beef and rare roast beef on kaiser rolls, matzoh ball soup and cheesecake, was relegated to serve as the ice cream parlor, with that designation smeared on the windows with a thick paint brush. 

Dinerland has gone through a few owners, but seems to have never been able to live much longer than the initial investment of each successive operator. My wife’s nephew lives near Rockford, and drove me there during our 2014 visit. Uncle Bob’s, with its unmistakeable art deco exterior of maroon stripes over ecru walls, rusts into the ground as the field grows back into meadow around it, like a small adjunct of any number of Flint factories before they were finally scraped away.