May 30, 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.

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