By Teddy Robertson
At Berston Field House the trees that shade the ball diamond refract a vibrant yellow against the gray October sky. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, fans from across Genesee County filled the bleachers and parking lot at 3300 Saginaw St. to cheer the Sunday Inner City Softball League games.
Today the action is indoors and Berston Field House hums with activity. Success of the August 2018 arts millage has enabled the arts organizations here to jump-start expansion of their programs in this storied sports and recreation center.
Hallowed ground for North End Flint athletic and community life, the Berston building itself shares an historic tradition. Designed by the visionary city planning firm of John Nolen (1869-1937) in Cambridge, Mass., the Field House reflects the American architectural movement pioneered by Frederick Law Olmstead, creator of New York’s Central Park. Nolen’s firm designed extensive projects that incorporated nature and community life in plans for burgeoning cities in Wisconsin, Florida, and California (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Nolen).
Berston Field House opened in 1923 with an auditorium, gym, pool, community meeting rooms, a branch of the public library, and even a small clinic for those who couldn’t afford medical help. Community facilities were woven into urban development, typical of Nolen’s plans. The building walls are four feet thick in places; downstairs, Fire Department horses stamped their feet where the boxing ring stands today. The sturdy boiler system still cranks out heat.
How the North End grew
Around 1906 Flint banker, water commissioner, and philanthropist Neil J. Berston (1857-1916) eyed Flint’s north end for real estate development. He bought a 60-acre farm just north of the Buick factories. Plotted into lots, the area became known as the Parkland addition. Berston acquired an additional tract of 120 acres and the land was platted into subdivisions. Street names like Spencer, Dewey, Jamieson, McClellan, and Leith honored the Berston and the Spencer and Dewey families, the farmland owners. Berston also gave land for North Flint Presbyterian Church (later Parkland Presbyterian). Mysteriously, Berston was shot to death on a Sunday in 1916; the murder remained unsolved. In 1920, sons Neil, Jr., and Charles deeded property to the city, along with funds to build Field House, named in honor of their father.
“Our Legacy, Our Hope”
In 1930 Berston Field House became the first community center in Flint to open its facilities and programs to black residents. Flint natives like Judge Thomas Yeotis and Flint Township Planning Commissioner Larry Ford recall the Field House in the 1940s as a magnet for youth who just wanted to play ball. In recent decades, Berston nurtured a roll call of Flint athletic talent—Olympians Chris Byrd, Andre Dirrell, and Claressa Shields in boxing, and the Flintstones Charlie Bell, Morris Peterson, and Mateen Cleaves in basketball. But with years of disinvestment in the North End, capped by the great recession following the 2008 mortgage crisis, Berston’s doors closed.
County Commissioner Bryant (BB) Nolden recounts what happened after his election to Flint City Council in 2009, a time of deepening financial woe. “I saw the books,” he says, “I knew the city didn’t have the resources to operate community centers.” Nolden began tending to the property—cleaning the building, cutting the grass; he bought an old plow truck and cleared snow in winter. When he asked then-Mayor Dayne Walling if he could open Berston for a couple of hours each day, the Mayor handed him the keys. With the Field House open for several hours after school, kids could come in, shoot hoops, and then head home to eat. “At least for these hours I knew these kids were not getting into other stuff,” Nolden says.
Nolden’s years of volunteer labor paid off. In 2014 Field House supporters formed the non-profit Friends of Berston, choosing the motto “Our Legacy, Our Hope,” and a website (www.berston.org) and Facebook page www.facebook.com/fobfh/. The Ruth Mott Foundation awarded Berston a $280,000 grant to build up staffing. And in 2015, also with the Ruth Mott Foundation, Berston hosted the first North Flint Community Forum.
Today Commissioner Bryant serves as full-time Executive Director of Berston Field House with a part-time staff of five and a cohort of thirty volunteers. Five tenants call Berston home: Creative Expressions Dance Studio, The Chosen Few Arts Council, YMCA Safe Places, the Berston Cycle Club, and the FWC Berston Boxing Club.A chess club also meets in the building (https://www.berston.org/programs).
Arts millage jump-starts expansion
Housing two established arts organizations, Creative Expressions Dance Studio and the non-profit Chosen Few Arts Council, Berston was a natural partner in the arts millage proposal. A Flint institution for over three decades, Creative Expressions offers an array of dance classes for all ages, including participation in Flint’s annual Tapology Festival. The Chosen Few Arts Council offers wide variety of classes in music, pottery, drawing, poetry and photography—programming that seeks to fill the void left with the loss of the arts in public schools.
The August millage commitment enabled these arts programs to expand in time for school opening in September. Creative Expressions Dance Studio has cut its annual student tuition of $1,000 in half. The Chosen Few Arts Council has opened its arts classes free to youth in the YMCA Safe Places program, also at Berston. Plans for a kiln and ceramics equipment have advanced with hopes for readiness in summer, 2019. Chosen Few adult classes like yoga relaxation conducted by yoga and tai chi instructor Brenda Glasschild are now free and participation is growing. Shows on the 2018-2019 Whiting/Capitol Theatre calendar have begun exchanges with Berston youth—kids attend performances and visit backstage, and artists come to the Field House for workshops.
Valorie Horton, a potter with The Chosen Few Arts Council, stresses the acute need for arts programs for kids. “My family grew up at the Flint Institute of Arts,” Horton recalls. “When schools phased out arts programs, I realized how essential non-profit arts organizations would be.” Together with her son, Omar Batson, Horton founded The Chosen Few Arts Council in 2006.
A full-service recreational campus
Today Field House users check in at the entrance with a Berston card. Youth can shoot hoops in gym, but they can also go downstairs to use the Berston Success Center, a quiet work space outfitted with 14 computers and several printers, thanks to the Hagerman Foundation. Seniors come twice weekly for Enhance Fitness, a nationwide YMCA program to improve strength and balance. Senior Line Dancing draws as many as 40.
With the Memo of Agreement with County Board of Commissioners still in progress and funds slated to start in January 2019, Friends of Berston Fieldhouse Board is drafting policies and finalizing Board membership, improving its webpage and getting out a bulletin of activities. The annual Berston budget will increase from $265,000.00 to $412,000.00; an additional bookkeeper has been hired and United Way serves as fiscal sponsor for millage funds. The goal of the Friends of Berston Board is to become self-supporting over the 10-year millage period.
Friends of Berston fund development continues and has already raised approximately $36,000. “Small donations are the life blood of small non-profits like us,” Nolden says. “We’re at the cusp of an explosion with investment downtown. At some point we might do a capital campaign or an endowment.”
An easel in the director’s office shows an architectural plan for renovation and expansion of the Field House site. “I see Berston’s future as a full-service recreational campus,” Nolden explains. It’s a step at a time. A new playground was added in 2016 with funds from United Way of Genesee County. A soccer field is in the works with support from the US Soccer Foundation and a Safe Places to Play grant. Millage funds strengthen the arts component in this vision.
Three signs at the Berston Field House entrance tell the story. Over the doors hangs a tribute to Olympian boxer Claressa Shields. On the north side of the walkway stands the State of Michigan Historic site marker; on the south side, a fresh new sign announces ten different programs in athletics, arts, and recreation all under one roof. The Friends of Berston know well what the Field House means to the north side community, but their motto speaks for the well-being city of Flint and Genesee county as a whole: “Our Legacy, Our Hope.”
EVM columnist Teddy Robertson can be reached at email@example.com.