Lifecycling: Using art to breathe new life into a city

As Stephen Zacks remembers it, the vast field of crumbling concrete, weeds and abandoned auto factories between the river and downtown Flint, Michigan, was a place everyone ignored. Even locals looked past the rusting factories and vacant houses in town.

Flint was once on the forefront of the American auto industry, with several automotive plants stationed in the city. But when the factories began closing one by one in the 1980s and 1990s, the city sank into economic depression. The neglected, mile-long industrial site possessed endless potential when Zacks (and community leaders) started imagining the ways artistic expression could serve to revitalize his hometown.

In 2010, he developed the Flint Public Art Project in hopes of showing the people of Flint a fresh perspective of their city by reviving its dilapidated public spaces with new art. Zacks, then a reporter and producer in Brooklyn, New York, said a childhood friend had suggested that he bring his artwork back to his hometown. He aspired to bring people and purpose back to “Chevy in the Hole,” the bygone plant complex that stood at the heart of the city.

Stephen Zacks returned to his hometown to start up the Flint Public Art Project.Joshua Kristal/Mic

He, along with a team of local volunteer artists and urban planners, implemented community-wide lifecycling with permanent and temporary art and live events. Everything accomplished was a grassroots effort, with community sponsors and a crowdsourcing campaign.

With continued community support as well as local and national grants, FPAP has expanded into artist workshops and more. Their Stone Street Co-op & Residency provides students, artists and community leaders with free or affordable housing to produce their art projects in Flint. Another initiative, Spencer’s Center for Art & Architecture, which is housed in a renovated funeral home on the edge of downtown, serves as an exhibition hall and performance space for visiting artists.

Since 2012, FPAP has also thrown an annual art festival called Free City, featuring a free-form gallery of interactive installations, music, dance and workshops, on the site that first inspired Zacks: “Chevy in the Hole.” This year, more than three dozen artists from Flint and as far away as Japan premiered works that often reflected optimistic visions of what Flint’s landscape could be.

“Not everyone is into the sort of art that hangs in art museums.”

Among works created for the festival and still on view are a garden of reclaimed tires by a Flint-based architect, and a colorful graffiti mural by a Detroit artist. “Not everyone is into the sort of art that hangs in art museums,” executive director of FPAP Joe Schipani said. “There is a uniqueness and variety” to the works. Many of the creations are meant to be touched, climbed on and otherwise interacted with.

A garden of reclaimed tires created for Flint Public Art Project’s Free City festival.Joshua Kristal/Mic

FPAP’s projects have succeeded in bringing attention to underutilized spaces, Schipani said, and inspiring the community to find ingenious ways to transform their city. A few years ago, the city committed millions of dollars to cleaning up “Chevy in the Hole” and repurposing it into a parkland with wetlands, woodlands, grasslands and a new name: “Chevy Commons.” FPAP is advising the neighborhood board on how to execute a plan to create a pop-up library park in a vacant lot.

Lately, FPAP has shifted its focus from downtown Flint to neglected neighborhoods to the north and east. By planning regular art parades, Schipani explained, they can engage the community with new works of public art. For example, a playground structure was designed and built by local students. Young and old join musicians and dancers along the routes, and the town celebrates at the end with a block party.

Left: Sandra Branc, a local artist and organizer, volunteers painting faces at an art parade. Right: The Flint Public Art Project aims to engage and activate Flint’s residents to improve their community.Joshua Kristal/Mic

Raynetta Speed, a prominent community leader and lifelong Flint resident, was the source of inspiration in reviving the neighborhood parades. Speed told FPAP organizers about her experience growing up on the city’s north side in the 1950s and ‘60s, hanging out with her friends in the neighborhood and watching parades pass by.

Today’s art parades aim to do the same by getting people out on the streets together to reclaim public space. They crisscross different neighborhoods that “need some attention,” Speed said. FPAP volunteers board up houses, paint murals, and clean up parks along the way, she said, and this in turn “inspires residents to motivate them to do a better job maintaining their own neighborhoods.”

Flint Public Art Project commissioned large-scale murals from local artists and artists from around the world.Joshua Kristal/Mic

“To add art and color into those blighted neighborhoods put pride back in the neighborhood,” Sandra Branch, a Flint resident, local artist and organizer, said. “I’ve had several of the residents tell me what a difference it’s made, and how it’s made them become more active politically and socially and personally.”

“To add art and color into those blighted neighborhoods put pride back in the neighborhood.”

Branch has been a member of the Flint community for 30 years and began working with FPAP in 2016. Before FPAP, she had already been working with local street artists to create murals and art installations. As a project director for Gallery On The Go and owner of Earth Works Art Studio and Gallery, Branch has made a concerted effort to beautify the city, while mentoring underprivileged youth and disenfranchised street artists who participate.

“I do believe that public art is one of the cheapest ways to economically stabilize and revitalize a depressed and blighted neighborhood,” Branch said. “Give a voice to the voiceless, makes the disenfranchised feel that the city does care.”

Flint’s public art is made to be interacted with.Joshua Kristal/Mic

FPAP also supports creative minds who want to take action in the community but may not know where to start. With each new project, they connect with community leaders to collaboratively develop ideas that reflect their interests, at the same time helping artists navigate regulations surrounding working on abandoned homes or land.

Artist Melisa Morgan grew up in and around Flint and now lives in Detroit, a city with a landscape that she said is similarly challenging. Seeing so much urban blight makes it so that “you’re unable to escape confronting issues,” she said. “You also realize that the human spirit is incredibly resilient.”

Abandoned homes get boarded up and an artistic makeover, with help from artist Melisa Morgan.Joshua Kristal/Mic

Her work with FPAP includes a series of brightly colored word murals painted across boarded up windows and doors on a dozen abandoned houses scattered on Flint’s north side. Each word, Morgan said, was chosen to evoke positive feelings about community, perseverance and empowerment.

While Morgan painted, neighbors came out in support. “It’s important for people to see attention paid to their neighborhoods, and people putting effort into cleaning things up,” she said.

The art itself is driving interest and spurring dialogue, Schipani said. Dialogue, after all, has to happen before buildings are demolished, and the space where they stood can take on a new identity.

“The Flint Public Art Project has inspired that throughout the city,” Schipani said. “Now people are saying, ‘let’s look at building beyond its four walls and think where we can go.’”