By Harold C. Ford
Editor’s note – East Village Magazine (EVM) and the entire Flint community are deeply saddened at the untimely and sudden death of “BeBe” Bryant Nolden on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2022. EVM wishes to express care and condolences to Nolden’s family and close friends.
Plans to upgrade and expand Flint’s venerable Berston Field House just got a huge boost from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation (CSMF). In November the foundation announced it would grant $10 million to the city of Flint “to support new construction and renovations” at the nearly 100-year-old center on Flint’s near north side at 3300 Saginaw St.
The CSMF grant provides a major chunk of a $26.4 million project which endeavors to “create a state-of-the-art community center with the capacity to serve more residents and host large festivals and events,” according to the foundation’s announcement.
Interior upgrades at Berston would include: a new gym; a large community room; a commercial kitchen; additional classrooms; updated offices for staff; a fitness center that includes a dance studio; a walking track; and a boxing room.
Exterior improvements would include: a combined soccer-football-lacrosse field; and a baseball diamond.
“Berston has been a community gem since 1923,” said Ridgway White, president and CEO of the Mott Foundation. “It’s exciting to think about how this project will help create the kind of space that staff, volunteers, and residents deserve as they launch into their second century.”
According to Bryant Nolden, executive director of the Friends of Berston, a nonprofit organization that oversees operation of the facility, Berston Field House engages more than 1,000 people annually in activities at the site.
“No other place quite like Berston”
“There is no other place quite like the Berston Field House,” Nolden said.
Nolden may be right. While other area facilities are larger and more well-equipped – such as the University of Michigan-Flint’s Recreation Center (80,000 square feet) and Kettering University’s Connie and Jim John Recreation Center (70,000 square feet) – none likely match Berston’s history and cultural impact.
Recent East Village Magazine stories attest to the importance and diversity of activities hosted by Berston:
- Aug. 25, 2021: “The venerable Berston Field House … is now the starting point for a new sport that’s come to Flint: team handball.” –Harold C. Ford
- Mar. 9, 2020: “Former Vice President Joe Biden brought his campaign to Michigan, and to Flint … at Berston Field House on Flint’s north end.” –Paul Rozycki
- Feb. 28, 2019: “Yo-Yo Ma celebration unites, electrifies a crowd with music and love at Berston Field House.” –Jan Worth-Nelson
- Nov. 20, 2018: “At Berston Field House … fans from across Genesee County filled the bleachers and parking lot at 3300 Saginaw St. to cheer the Sunday Inner City Softball League games.” –Teddy Robertson
And while other facilities in America are more well-known – at least 136 professional championship boxers including Rocky Marciano, Jake LaMotta, Muhammad Ali, Roberto Duran, and Riddick Bowe have trained at Gleason’s Gym in New York City, the site of “Raging Bull” and “Million Dollar Baby,” two Academy Award-winning films; Detroit’s Kronk Gym turned out at least 24 world boxing champions and five Olympic gold medalists during the reign of founder Emmanuel Steward – Berston has been an incubator for Flint-based athletes that have achieved substantial success:
- Flint-born Claressa Shields, twice an Olympic gold medalist, is the only boxer, male or female, to simultaneously hold all four major world titles in boxing in the WBA, WBC, IBF, and WBO.
- WBO and IBF champion Chris Byrd also trained at Berston.
- Andre Dirrell, Olympic bronze medalist and IBF super-middleweight champion honed his early boxing skills at Berston.
- A quintet of “Flintstones” – Anthony Mull, Antonio Smith, Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, and Charlie Bell – brought basketball success to Michigan State University that culminated in an NCAA championship in 2000. They played with and against each other during youth leagues and pickup games at Berston.
- Berston was a proving ground for future NBA players Jeff Grayer, Trent Tucker, and Glen Rice.
- The McGee sisters, Pam and Paula, basketball Olympians, trained at Berston.
- Berston helped nurture local, powerhouse amateur basketball teams such as Sam Ragnone Attorney that captured three straight national AAU championships from 1990 to 1992 (the 1991 title was disputed and eventually revoked). The Attorneymen were so stocked with future college and NBA players that it defeated the University of Michigan’s famed Fab Five at Crisler Arena.
More important, perhaps, some not-so-famous patrons often praise Berston’s value as in a 2020 YELP* review submitted by Darryl N. from Mt. Morris:
“There is SO MUCH you can do there! And it’s FREE! I felt like I struck GOLD the day I walked into this place! Everybody there (the employees & people who work out there) are SUPER nice. I feel like I’m Home when I go there to work out.”
But Berston has been and is much more than a high-level sports facility. It’s home to a dance studio, senior exercise classes, fine arts programs, a bicycle club, senior line dancing, yoga classes, weight training, women’s 40-and-over double dutch rope jumping, chess, a new handball club, a variety of youth activities, and other community events.
“The heart of Flint neighborhoods”
“Community centers are at the heart of Flint neighborhoods,” said Kimberly Roberson, director of the Mott Foundation’s Flint area grantmaking program. “We believe Berston’s expansion will be great for the city’s north side and all community members who enjoy spending time there.”
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[Editor’s Note: Our reporter, Harold C. Ford, tells us that, during his college days, he helped his Mott Community College (MCC) fraternity score a keg of beer against a rival fraternity by dropping 56 points in a game at Berston’s basketball gym. Decades later he benefitted from the tutelage of Flint’s fine arts legend Bruce Bradley at Berston while prepping to mime a Righteous Brothers song at MCC’s annual “Mott, Motown, and More” benefit fundraiser.]
EVM Education Beat writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com.