Village Life: Flint moves beyond ghosts as autumn whispers in

By Jan Worth-Nelson

It’s a lovely cool morning, clear and fresh, reminding me of why it’s good to be in the Midwest. It feels like the first day of fall, the light turning slightly mellow, even though it’s only the first of September, and I’m up early going next door where new tenants are moving in today to what was our first home on Maxine.

Symbol of moving on: chambered nautilus on the sidewalk of the old house, crafted by Ray Sinclair. (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

The empty house looks beautiful to my sleepy eyes, a classic Flint colonial with warm wood floors, big square windows, a black and white kitchen, a built-in niche here and there and an attic trap door with a rickety sliding ladder that could whack you in the head if you aren’t careful. In the upstairs bathroom, aquamarine Flint faience tile remains, in the bathroom and walk-in shower where I had some of the best showers of my life. Some were with my husband—there was room for both of us in late middle-aged affection, soaping down the other’s familiar and beloved body. Some were in moments of exhaustion, including one when I decided, the water pelting away tears, that it was time to retire. Some just delivered everyday pleasure, hot water reliable and soothing, simply a moment to savor being alive.

That was before the water crisis, when showers turned into danger, suspicion, anger, fear. Thinking about that now, I let a surge of wrath wash over me. And a question that always bothers me pounds at me again: how does a person move on? How does a community battered by trouble move on? It’s not like this is a new question — It’s THE Flint conundrum, the reality of Flint that continually makes us both a cautionary tale and also – Lordy, could we really pull this off? –a template of recovery.

We are a town of grief and guilt and tedious corruption and betrayal – a town with many ghosts in the brownfields. My husband says the cleared lots of the East Side, where green grass blankets the chewed-up debris, are not gardens: they’re tombstones. On Dupont Street they paint fake windows and doors on abandoned houses to trick the scrappers. We get by.

Seven-foot tall thistle at Buick City (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

We are also a town of stubbornness and surprise. This is a town that has hatched risktakers and pioneers, and, as the water crisis demonstrates, we’re very capable of tenacious resistance to injustice.

I’ve been interviewing people lately for Dan White’s “Flint Folks” photo project, and it comes out again and again: everybody, from whatever walk of life, whatever hopes and dreams, whatever frustrations and obstacles, says things like “Flint makes you tough.” Or “we are resilient.” Or, repeatedly, “it’s the people here who make this place.”

I’ve never been a person of answers. Singed by people who thought doubt was a sin, I’ve always avoided those who are sure of themselves. But we need them. Some people are working at answers, people wrestling with progress on the 12th floor of the Mott Foundation building and in the embattled chambers of city hall and in the renovated Dryden Building and under St. Paul’s ochre domes.

The rest of us, less sure but finding ourselves in the world we’re in day after day, also are trying to help however we can, believing in the Golden Rule and trying to be good people. Trying to do our part. This is a town where lots of people do their part. We’re too ornery not to keep moving on, the “how” always evolving.

Mother Earth helps. Need I mention that the sun comes up and the moon shines behind the silver maples and the leaves are starting to turn and I saw a V of geese flying south already?

Looking up at Longway Planetarium (Photo by Dan White)

And how about that eclipse? At Longway Planetarium, a couple of hundred people, neighbors and parents and children, put on our funny glasses and let ourselves be awed and ate ice cream bars in the odd dusk-like shade together. We took pictures of each other and forgot about our troubles. Did you see that? All the pictures of people looking up? In the videos, there was a steady stream of wonder. I loved all the “Wow!” and “Oh my god!” and “It’s happening!” All we had to do was be there and watch.

I know, I know, just watching isn’t enough. But it’s something to be good at: paying attention, after all, is a serious calling.

In the meantime, moving on and moving in is happening right next door. A whole crew of Flint fixers we love have helped us scrub floors and wash windows and change lightbulbs and add fresh paint and dig out and repair a flummoxing ruined old drain. The new tenants are carting in their stuff right now and they’re young and hopeful and have a rescue dog named Oscar.

And that old house gleams and, dare I say it, gives off some mighty good karma.  It’s not all ghosts around here as autumn whispers in.

EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at



Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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