Rust Belt Renaissance: A Writer’s Residency in Flint, Michigan

FPAP1Last fall, an art installation referred to locally as the Floating House was erected in a parking lot in downtown Flint, Michigan. Shaped like a suburban split level, the 28 foot tall house was covered in shiny Mylar and sat on a platform from which you could stand and see the statues of Louis Chevrolet and Billy Durant on one side, and on the other the abandoned 19 story hulk of the Genesee Towers. Flint Journal editorials and social media forums speculated on its meaning. Was it a snide joke in a city of thousands of abandoned houses? Was it some sort of elegy—the empty house floated up to heaven?

“Mark’s House” was the result of the inaugural Flat Lot Architectural Contest, sponsored by the Flint Public Art Project. Launched in 2010 by native son and sometimes-Brooklynite, journalist Stephen Zacks, the Flint Public Art Project’s official mission, according to its website, is to “inspire residents to reimagine the city, reclaim vacant and underutilized buildings and lots, and use innovative tools to steer Flint’s long-range planning.” Over the last two years, FPAP has put together Neighborhood Art Parades complete with drum lines and marching bands, art installations, and the Free City Art Festival, a three-day art fest in Chevy-in-the-Hole, the former Chevrolet manufacturing site. Later this year, the FPAP hopes to complete the Spencer Art House, a long-empty Victorian funeral parlor. FPAP Operations Manager Thomas Hutchison said, “Once complete, [Spencer Art House] will be used as an incubator for urban planning, public art and architecture.”

The Flint Public Art Project isn’t just inviting you to rethink Flint, it’s inviting you to come stay a while. In 2012, the FPAP acquired the property at 605 Stone Street from the Genesee County Land Bank, and rehabbed the building into Stone Street Residency, Flint’s first artist’s residency program. Community leaders, writers, musicians, and visual artists are invited to stay up to 90 days. The house includes nine rooms, 1.5 kitchen spaces, two basements, and three common areas. Rooms are available for as little as $100 a month.

The house is located in Flint’s Carriage Town, a historic district along the Flint River that includes the carriage factory that began Flint’s evolution into the automotive industry. Around the corner is the Good Beans Café, which hosts frequent concerts, open mic nights, community meetings, and theater productions in its anteroom. A recently completed bike trail connects the neighborhood to Downtown, the University of Michigan-Flint, and the Flint Farmers’ Market.

Stone Street is currently housing its first wave of residents, including, according to Hutchison, “a couple working collaboratively on an indoor gardening project and a musician that is working on a performance/video project in collaboration with various rotating regional artists.” Stone Street also serves as a venue for a monthly performance series.

Flint, which lost 80,000 General Motors manufacturing jobs through the 1980s and 90s, has bottomed out on Forbes’ Most Miserable list for years, and is now determined to make itself a kind of Rust Belt phoenix. The Flint Public Art Project is part of a recent move toward gentrification and reclamation of disused industrial sites. On Saginaw Street, downtown Flint’s main thoroughfare, you can grab a crepe made with local ingredients, go to a yoga class, and hang out at a bar that specializes in Michigan microbrews—all business that have opened their doors in the last five years. Urban farming has transformed vacant lots into hoop houses and chicken coops. Flint’s so tired of the old Roger & Me jokes that in December, when PolicyMic posted an article called “This is America’s Most Violent, Apocalyptic City—and You’ve Probably Never Heard of It,” complete with images of scrapped houses and desolate streets, Flint’s outcry was so loud that PolicyMic issued an apology, removed the pictures (one of which turned out to be of Detroit, another, more bafflingly, of Israel) and changed the title.

Flint Public Art Project is also part of a larger regional trend: the rejection of the idea you need to be in Brooklyn or San Francisco to be an artist. Belt Magazine, based in Cleveland, profiles Midwestern artists and issues, and claims to “strive to bring in voices from all over the once-industrial heartland that is now remaking itself on its own terms.”  In St. Louis, the Luminary Center for the Arts is currently housing artists from Pittsburgh, Portland, London and Copenhagen. Detroit, 60 miles south, which shares Flint’s automotive history as well as its troubles, has also seen a recent creative economy upswing and experiments in urban agriculture. The Write-a-House,organization, which partners with Detroit Young Builders to rehab vacant houses and give them to writers, has received the attention of every news outlet from the New Yorker to the LA Times.

Asked why artists might come to Flint, Hutchison said, “Cheap housing and access to space and materials can foster a unique opportunity to actively participate in this part of our country’s history,” Hutichson said. “In this, we can find new ways to build stronger, smarter, more creative and more active communities.”

To find out more about the Flint Public Art Project and the Stone Street Residency, visit them at flintpublicartproject.com.

By Kelsey Ronan