Monday, June 20, 2011

Prepare to FLOW

We are inviting you—artists, performers, activists, do-ers, makers, craftspeople, builders, designers, urbanists, dreamers—to join us. All proposals will be accepted. We will work with you to develop, fund, advocate for, and realize your dream for a place in the city. We are looking for projects that can be made to happen immediately, including existing works that can be given a bigger audience.

In 200 words or less, tell us who you are, where and when you want something to happen, and what resources you need.

This July 4 and during the July 8 ArtWalk, we're looking for about 10 hands to help carry and install lights in and around the Genesee Towers. We are also looking for another 20 or so volunteers for a sculptural performance, including four 10-13 year olds, four 18-22 year olds, four 35-45 year olds, and four 55 and older.

Flow is a program of the Flint Public Art Project supported by Red Ink Flint.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Secret Cities of Flint: Stockton Center at Spring Grove

Spring Grove is a restored wetland in the Grand Traverse neighborhood, on the edge of downtown, filled with 19th century homes. The tracks of the Flint and Pere Marquette railroad are hidden in the brush behind Spring Grove, and on a bank above stands a two-story mansion being restored by architect Freeman Greer.

It was the home of Colonel Thomas Stockton, a Union Army leader who raised the 16th Michigan infantry, a 761-soldier regiment from Flint, Saginaw, and Genessee County that fought heroically in many important Civil War battles, including Gettysburg.

Stockton married a daughter of Jacob Smith, the first European settler of the area along the Flint River, and inherited through her a large part of the Indian reservation along Swartz Creek and the river. Maria Stockton founded the Ladies Library Association in 1851, which evolved into Michigan's first public library.

Greer formed the nonprofit For Flint Investments, which bought the home from the state of Michigan for $5,000 in 2002 to restore the building. The building had been vacant since 1996. Now it serves as the office of his firm, GAV & Associates, with his wife Renee, and a handful of other tenants, and houses a museum. Stockton Center at Spring Grove provides tours of the building, displays photographs, documents, and other exhibits, and has the largest collection of Civil War books in the area. "It was just a way of saving history--the income from the tenants doesn't quite cover the mortgage," Greer says. "We had to mortgage it to do the construction work. We were successful in using tax credits for it but the governor did away with them."

The Stockton house was recently used to film Alleged, a movie about the Scopes Monkey Trial, the landmark Tennessee court case that helped prevent fundamentalists from prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the United States in 1925. Broadcast on national radio, the trial argued by ACLU lawyer Clarence Darrow and politician William Jennings Bryant captivated the public and coalesced popular opinion in favor of evolutionary biology.

The house was purchased in 1920 from a grandson of Maria Stockton by the Archdiocese of Detroit for the Sisters of St. Joseph, in order to establish the hospital that became St. Joseph Hospital. The hospital addition has also been restored.

Greer estimates that he has spent a million dollars restoring the home, with help from foundations and nonprofits, and a mortgage. "Right now we are [able to cover the shortfall] but moving forward we have to figure out how to get more tenants in the building and increase its income."

A millwright is currently working on restoration of the eaves. The building's market value is a fraction of the investment, but its historical value is incalculable to Greer, a member of the city's Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission. "When I walked in here, I said, 'Oh my goodness, it has to be saved.' It's taken everything I've got to do it, to get it back operating in this condition. And so we're just holding on."

On the evening of my visit, the Historic Preservation Commission was meeting to decide whether to allow a school in the neighborhood to be converted into senior housing and the appropriateness of moving a historic home in Carriage Town to an adjacent lot in order to create a parking space and make it eligible for federal funds for low-income housing.

Greer, along with the Grand Traverse District Neighborhood Association, led the restoration of the wetland behind the house, with help from the Genesee County Land Bank and 80 volunteers from the AmeriCorps program. They cleared garbage from the site, rescued two cats trapped inside, hauled away a car, and removed invasive species from the natural spring. They have raised funds to plant $3,000 worth of lillies and other native species, and are witnessing the return of endangered species like the Blue Heron.

The Pere Marquette railway is planned to become a public trail called the Grand Traverse Greenway. Greer is looking for collaborators on a public art project that would attract attention to adaptive reuse of the 1920s-30s concrete silos on the site, owned by the Land Bank. "The city of Flint is a very neat quilt," he says, as we walk up the embankment back to the house. "The pieces are all stitched together."

Across the street from Spring Grove is Flint Tool & Die (contact information for the plant is at this link), the last remaining Chevrolot factory on the mile-long stretch of manufacturing facilities known locally as Chevy in the Hole. Its below-grade-level landscape was previously a marshy flood plain along the Flint River before it was dammed in the 1960s.

The factory is a long nondescript warehouse that does metal cutting, stamping, machining and assembly for the Chevrolet Volt and Cruze, and the Cadillac CTS. It has 362 employees, 314 of them hourly and 48 salaried, and received a $12 million retooling from General Motors a few years ago.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The New Midwest: A Day on a Bike in Flint

In New York, around 600 people are murdered every year. Flint is statistically more dangerous because there were 20 killings in the first four months of this year. The news of its danger dominates outside perception of the place, rather than the everyday normalcy of the way that people live in the city.

On a recent bike ride through this most-dangerous-city in the country, the air was filled with the smell of a landscape that was alive; lawns were being mowed, a man was painting the awning of the Vegan Soul Hut, a health food restaurant he had just opened on Flint Park Boulevard and MLK Avenue. His wife Regina was promoting the Esau Lentil Burgers as "so good it will make you sell your birthright." She said they were bringing an awareness of good food back to Flint. "It's vegetarian food for meat lovers. Because of the look, the texture, the taste, people think they're eating meat. Now I don't have to eat meat," she said, "Let the little chickens live!"

A group of young men were chatting around a gold-painted Buick Regal that had been installed with a lifted suspension, men and women waved as they sat on their steps or tended their gardens, children laughed as a reporter rode past on a bike with tall handlebars dressed in skinny black jeans and ankle boots.

Well-cared-for churches abounded, closed-down school buildings were outnumbered by working community schools, countless blocks were immaculately cared for, there were signs for block associations on corners. The Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association had put up signs throughout the area northwest of downtown recognizing the value of the place's Victorian homes. You could find abandonment and neglect, stretches of homes that were rotting, evidence of arson; you could also, if you were looking for it, see a living city.

At night the downtown strip was buzzing with bars and clubs: it was the last night of the Flint City Theatre's production of Macbeth at the Buckham Gallery; Rasberries was charging a ten dollar admission to the African American kids driving in from the suburbs to dance and socialize in an upscale discotheque; the Torch was filled with burger-eating beer-drinking intellectuals; another crowd of younger people were hanging out at the bar in Churchill's.

It was someone's birthday party; rows of cupcakes were lined up on the table, and a few heavyset men and women were twirling to a 90s techno hit. It was no exclusive bar being promoted by celebrity publicists; it's also not a dangerous hell on earth.

In Flint and other areas of the Midwest, job losses and reports of decline predominate the image conveyed to the outside, rather than parallel processes of restructuring and rebuilding that are adapting the cities for new uses. Instead of looking at the past, the Public Art Project tries to look at Flint and other cities in the region as they are today, and how they're actively producing a new city.