Friday, June 22, 2012

Impressions of Flint by Sinan Imre

When Stephen Zacks and I left for Flint, Michigan with a truckload of Z-Blocks — sculptural seating structures designed by Srdjan Jovanovic-Weiss of Normal Architecture Office — from New York City last Friday, I did not quite know what to expect. I knew that we were on our way to a supposedly stricken place, thus I could not help but leave with a slight feeling of doubt.

After a long day of driving, our journey led us to Braddock, a small town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At this point, I should say that the only places I have traveled to outside New York are places that are known to be attractive for travel. Braddock was not. When you drive into Braddock from the East, the first thing you pass is Edgar Thomson Steel Plant. 

At its gates is a smiling giant, wearing orange worker pants and bending a piece of steel with his bare hands. One could imagine this symbol of strength greeting the habitants of this city back when it was alive with the workers of the steel industry and their families walking through the streets. Now these very streets are lined with abandoned delis, cafes, restaurants, houses, lots and churches. 

But there are still signs of rejuvenation, and seeing that this rejuvenation is starting with art gives me hope. One of the abandoned churches — the 1880’s United Bretheren Church —has been given to artist Caledonia Dance Curry, better known as Swoon. She is part of Transformazium a collective of artists and activists that re-imagine Braddock’s abandoned spaces similar to what the Flint Public Art Project is attempting in Flint.

Upon arriving in Flint, our task was immediately laid out for us. Without rest, we at once wanted to see the abandoned house that we have been given on the condition of fixing it up. Spencer’s Funeral Home, on the corner of University and Grand Traverse streets has been closed for decades. It's been left to rot as many of the other houses in the neighborhood. 

When its doors opened before us, piles of debris, a collapsed roof, boarded windows, no light, filthy air, and a dead squirrel greeted us. I realized at that very moment that it is experiences like the one described here that truly test someone’s faith in their endeavors. I will admit that seeing the condition that Spencer’s was in did shake my confidence. But at once, we started to shovel, opened windows and took down some boards and within minutes, the place had already started to transform. The beautiful two-story historic home that had the potential to be flooded by natural light from each and every direction started to breathe again.

With the Z-Blocks laid out in its lawn the doors wide open, Spencer’s began to attract a lot of the locals. Within a few hours, the entire neighborhood knew what we were going to transform Spencer’s into. Many came to help, others came to just have a conversation. One woman began to cry and hugged us for opening the doors of the funeral home where the service for her grandfather was held. At the end of the day, my faith in the project was twofold what it was that morning. 

The immediate impact of our continuing attempts at revitalizing Spencer’s Funeral Home as a community art center and a place for art happenings combined with the presence of Transformazium in Braddock have already shown me the power that art holds over economic and social improvement. -SINAN IMRE