FLINT_DEC

Flint Public Art Project supports collaborations among local residents and organizations as well as with leading artists, architects, planners and community organizers from around the world, connecting Flint to regional, national and global movements to revitalize neighborhoods and cities through art and design.

ArtPlace recently spoke to James Andrews, Flint Public Art Project’s Director of Strategy and Operations about some of the challenges the group faces in realizing its mission.

ART PLACE What has been the thorniest issue you’ve faced to date?

ANDREWS: Like many cities, Flint suffers from deep systemic inequality. Inequitable urban development is one manifestation of this problem.

Recently, Flint’s downtown has sprung back to life after years of decline, and our office, as well as our Art Walk programming and many of our other activities are situated there. Many residents from neighborhoods such as the African American North Side say they feel unwelcome and disconnected from the developing downtown scene. This view is reflected in interactive planning workshops we are conducting on the North Side in Flint public schools, adapted from a model created by urban planner James Rojas, first conducted in Flint during our CUT conference in October 2012. When asked to create models of their city using small colorful blocks, many workshop participants depict downtown Flint as island-like, a walled-off zone, while other parts of the city, its residential neighborhoods, are represented as randomly scattered, disjointed or adrift.

Downtown Flint’s recent development has been focused on seeding new business, combating crime, and attracting outside investment and tourism. What appears to be missing is a more holistic view of how Flint’s downtown can interact with the rest of the city, how it could help to shape and be shaped by all of Flint’s neighborhoods and become a reflection of the social and cultural richness that thrives here. These themes were also discussed during our October Art Walk panel discussion on revitalizing downtown Flint.

The models created in our workshops are consistent with what people have told us during our open meetings, think tanks and brainstorming sessions–that in order for Flint to realize its true potential for long term health, all residents need to feel they are part of the decision-making process about the city’s development, and that every neighborhood participates in the city’s revitalization.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that unlike most cities and towns, Flint lacks any central downtown commons where people can gather, meet and celebrate together. Instead, the center of downtown Flint is dotted with parking lots. A commons is more than just physical space where people from different parts of a city can relax and socialize together, it is also a metaphor for a city’s systemic and social health. An accessible and well-designed public commons signals the presence of surrounding neighborhoods and communities that are alive, vibrant and connected to the city core. A city without a commons is like a house without a living room, den, porch, lawn, or any other social space. Such a dwelling is not so much a home as it is a site of clustered functions.

ART PLACE: How have you dealt with this situation?

ANDREWS: We are now developing proposals for new and innovative programming that highlights neighborhood culture in Flint, and potential social connections among Flint’s neighborhoods and downtown. This includes a public school critical debate league, which will encourage critical reflection and debate in Genesee county schools, resulting in several public interventions and an experimental poster series. Neighborhood Art Walks, which will extend the thriving Art Walk tradition beyond downtown, and a series of 3D interactive murals, combining architectural elements, performance, mural-making and conceptual art. This spring we will present Free City, our three-day international art festival that will take place in Flint from May 1st to 5th, 2013, located in and around the former Chevrolet manufacturing hub known as Chevy-in-the-Hole. Free City will transform the abandoned Chevy site into a hub of activity and highlight its long-term potential as an open space in the heart of the city, while connecting several surrounding neighborhoods with the downtown area.

We also recently launched our Flat Lot competition, which seeks to activate the best and most innovative design to help transform the Flat Lot, a large parking lot situated exactly where a town commons would most naturally be. This program is modeled after PS1/MoMA’s young architect’s program, and has the support of several key downtown stakeholders including The American Institute of Architects – Flint, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), Uptown Reinvestment Corporation, and the Michigan Architectural Foundation. Together we are helping to reimagine Flint as a city that embraces the future in collaboration with all of its residents.

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