Monday, August 6, 2012

Flint, I hardly knew ye: a love song to a city

Before I moved here, my first exposure to an authentic Flint was through the electric prose of Ben Hamper, the most eloquent "Rivethead" I've ever had the pleasure to read. He wrote a memoir of his life on the line from 1977 to 1988, when Flint was free-falling into the emblem of economic and social pockmark we know today. Here is a passage, about a celebrated fistfight among some of his fellow workers, that made me want to know more closely this city-as-a-metaphor:
Flint, glorious Flint. I think I understood their grief and what it was that attracted them so to this ridiculous mayhem. They certainly weren't here as spectators of sport, for this 'Toughman Contest' could hardly qualify as anything more than organized barbarism. I believed they were all here to commit some kind of weird personal exorcism. The toughmen were just convenient foils for the true meat-grinders of the world: the landlords, the foremen, the cops, the judges, the nagging spouse, the fools in charge. Violence as one glorious teething ring for the benumbed and trampled masses.

Flint, with all of its automotive start-ups and shutdowns. All the uncertainty and paranoia and idle tension. It wasn't so strange. It was a real wonder we weren't all being fitted for loinclothes and nose bones. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, our lonely ratpack wants to KICK YOUR SAGGIN', COFFEE-BREWIN' ASS!
I was never going to know this Flint, if it still exists. If it ever existed. I am in this piece, but I schmooze with "the cops, the judges," and I'll soon be "the nagging spouse." I think I got flavors of Hamper's world from the people I met here, but they were glimpses into a place I'll never understand, and it's not what I'll remember about my time in Flint. And if, in the future, I too see Flint as a metaphor, it won't be of barbarism. Maybe, approximately, it will be of community. Of independence, at the same time. I will remember a small group of dedicated people trying to carve out a functioning city on their own terms.

Can we talk about Flint without talking about poverty? No. Without talking about violence and racism and economic inequality? We can't; of course, we can't. That Flint certainly does not exist. (See, for example, this coverage of Back to the Bricks, Flint's most broadly attended summer festival.) We can't walk two blocks away from my apartment or office without seeing the pillaging of the city in every half-standing building, and then wondering how it can be so close--yet so, so far--from the renovated hotel-turned-apartment building. Why is there private or public security on every other corner downtown, while the city forms a horseshoe of violence around us? Well, we know why. We're just not good at fixing it.

So I will take up the easier and lighter topic of singing the virtues of Flint. There are things going right in this city, and they are things I will miss and things I don't expect to be able to replace. (I count it as a sign of my maturity when I lose something in life and resist falling to pieces at the  admission it is irreplaceable. Examples: the dream of becoming a comic strip artist, Kalamazoo College, the way you feel about your very best friend when you're twelve years old.)

It should also be noted that all the Things I Will Miss about Flint are within a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment. And a lot of them are food.

1. Flint Institute of Music
Did you know you can take one of the technically stimulating ballet classes in southeast Michigan with a bunch of high school students in the Flint Cultural Center? It reminded me of the Russian teachers Marygrove College brings in for summer intensives. Except these classes are every day, just normal life, $11 a class. They have music lessons too.

2. 501 Bar and Grille
This is Ben's favorite restaurant in downtown Flint. Specifically, he likes the pear and goat cheese salad and the mussels in tomato sauce, and then I save the leftover sauce to put on pasta. It's a tapas bar (my dad: "You go to a topless bar?"), so the theory is that you can try a lot of dishes. But we get the same thing every time. They also make a delicious dirty gin martini with blue cheese olives, and you definitely have to try the bacon-wrapped, goat-cheese-stuffed medjool dates.

3. My professional life
On a more personal note, I loved my job and my boss and my office-mate. It's the nature of the clerkship: almost everyone adores hers and never wants to leave, and my experience was no exception. But my love affair extended beyond the office: the young attorneys practicing in downtown Flint form a wonderfully tight-knit group of support. There is instant camaraderie that results when you discover, "Oh, you chose to start your career here too?" And then you pretend to complain about it but you actually love the small-town feel of gossiping about all the same people and the fact that you can afford to meet up with everyone once a week at the most expensive restaurant downtown and talk about how to practice in front of such-and-such judge and whatever Amanda's crazy client did this week. I don't know if it was purposely an all-woman group or if there are just not a lot of young men attorneys in Flint (maybe a little of both), but the reliably engaging conversation and easy community at Thursday evening drinks will be difficult to establish elsewhere.

4. Rikita, the Vinyasa yoga instructor at the Y
All classes are included in your membership fee at the downtown Flint YMCA. Rikita is training to teach at the Center for Yoga, one of my favorite studios in Ann Arbor, and she's picked up some classes at the Flint Y. Sometimes, at the 6:30 a.m. class on Fridays, I got a one-on-one lesson. And, as Ben will tell you, she plays dub-step during her flows.

5. Art Walk (and the Flint Institute of Arts)
More laid-back than Art Fear, and it happens the second Friday of every month, even in the winter. Ben and I bought our first pieces of artwork from an artist who was also, in his down time, our favorite server at 501. He has since moved to Grand Rapids. If you're impressed by more established artists, the FIA is the second largest art museum in the state and sits right down the street.

6. The Flint Crepe Company
This restaurant has a special place in my heart because it went from food cart to store front in my short time here. Gluten-free and veggie options available, plus Calder's dairy products and Reed's Ginger Ale. If you're a cute girl, they'll create new desserts for you to "sample" after your late-night dinner. And then they'll make a gluten- and dairy-free version for your sister.

7. The Torch
Torch Burger. Enough said. And, since we're still on the subject of food, Hoffman's Deli and its Dilly-liscious sandwich. Browse the Carriagetown Antique Center while you wait.

8. The Flint River
I loved walking over the river to work in the morning--so peaceful and calming. Sometimes I read on the benches among the Grand Fountain, a weird, large-scale fountain park on the riverbank. Sometimes I saw people fishing, and I hoped they knew they should eat no more than one bass per week from the Flint River (and only one carp per month).

9. Buckham Alley Fest
I missed it in 2011 (weekend before the bar exam) and 2012 (on Houghton Lake), but apparently there's a spelling bee for adults. That alone merits a trip next summer.

For those interested in shooting 50 miles up US-23, keep updated on goings-on about town by visiting Bring Two to Flint.

1 comment:

  1. Great read here. And I'd just like to add another "virtue of Flint".

    Peace Mob Gardens (, working hard and having fun in the Kearsley Park area, transforming what used to be abandoned blocks into areas of sustainable urban gardens!