Village Life: the ballet of brick laying

By Tom Travis

About 11 years ago I moved into a 100-year old house in Flint. The decision was made to remove all the big, heavy radiators that were connected to the old boiler heating system. There were a lot of them. What do you imagine is the heaviest thing ever? Looking at a radiator it seems easy enough to wrap your arms around and hoist out of the house. Wrong! I’ve moved and helped move a fair share of pianos in my life, including grand pianos. I’ve always thought those monstrosities were the heaviest thing around. But old radiators by far outweigh pianos, and radiators don’t have wheels on the bottom to make for easier moving.

So, because of that moving marathon,  I’m now the ever-pained owner of a herniated disc. I forget which disc but it’s one of the lumbar discs. I dutifully attended several sessions of physical therapy which resulted in much improved mobility along with laundry list of do-at-home exercises accompanied with a handful of stretchy cords and pulleys for my home exercising.

As I talk to my fellow quinquagenarian friends I’ve discovered most of them have these stretchy cords and pulleys at their homes too. It seems going to a physical therapist is a routine happening for us as we age and the body reminds us of its ongoing decay.

I’m reminded every day of that  herniated disc —  when I bend over to pick up something from the floor, or I stand up after sitting on a hard surface or move just the wrong way. Like pretty much everybody else, I have learned to live with these kinds of ills. I have a tool box of pain relief too, including: a heating pad, ice packs and a bottle of ibuprofen. 

Don’t worry, this isn’t a boring essay about me whining as I get older. But hear me out. 

When I came back to Flint about 12 years ago my circle of friends consisted of a lot of 20-year-olds. Not sure why but they were there and I needed some friends. Now, more than a decade later, my life seems to be filled with many different friends who are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. I hear and see their physical ills mounting and we discuss these physical, aging rites of passage regularly.

When I first returned to Flint I ran the Crim Race for five years in a row. But then came those pain in the back radiators. Unable to run anymore,  I’ve taken to walking. My daily walks have become a regular form of exercise for me. I aim to walk 5,500 steps each day and usually once or twice a week I’ll hit 8,000 to 10,000.

This spring as Saginaw Street began its transformation with new bricks I often found myself taking my walks downtown. It was a noisy, dusty project at first, as big scooping machinery dug up the old bricks. But things changed later in May as the work went from scooping and digging to pallets of bricks wrapped in plastic appearing, and a team of about 14 bricklayers meticulously placing them,  brick by brick, onto the newly flattened street. I became fascinated with the orderliness and symmetrical work by that team of bricklayers. It was artistic.

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On my daily trek of 5,000 to 10,000 daily steps along Saginaw Street, I watched the bricklayers replace the tattered and worn old bricks with refinished and new bricks.

I started to notice something as I observed the bricklayers’ careful work. Watching them lay down brick by brick seemed to calm me.  I watched the steady, smooth flow of heavy machinery making a mess of removing old bricks. Then after the old bricks came out,  the bricklaying team laid fresh new dirt,  then a smooth new layer of sand, and finally the new bricks. I came back to watch it all day after day. Maybe my brain and mind needed that orderliness and symmetry. 

When I watch gymnasts, dancers or contortionists doing what they do, I often think, “that’s not something I could do, not with my back.”  With the bricklayers, it’s the same thought, as they grab a brick, bend over and carefully place the new brick on the fresh sand, then stand up, grab another brick and bend over, again and again, hour after hour.

Early on in the brick laying project. I spoke with Site Foreman Kyle Livingston and Project Manager Chriss Hoffman from Michigan Pavers and Walls, located in Flint Township. Kyle said the crew of 14 bricklayers put down about 50 feet of bricks each day.

In addition to brick layers, there are a gaggle of construction and masonry workers, electricians, engineers, heavy machinery operators stirring up lots of dust this summer on Saginaw Street.

Often the streets are filled with all of them working together. To watch them working together I wonder if there’s some unseen conductor directing all the different parts to come together like a ballet playing out all their tasks. It seems they all work in harmony and in conjunction with each other to lay brick, put down underground wires, and install lamp posts on top of the concrete and new curbs.

So, especially during hectic and chaotic days, I would stroll downtown and watch the bricklaying process. The orderly arrangement of new bricks placed and the symmetry of it all seemed to wash over my wearied brain with a  sense of peace.

Today there are three blocks with brand new bricks open for traffic. The barriers have been removed and vehicles are back to traveling up and down Saginaw Street. The new lines have been painted and the embattled parking meters stand at attention to snap a photo of license plates on the curbs.


The brick laying project has been paused until after the Back to the Bricks, Bikes on the Bricks and the Crim Festival of Races are completed. The longtime Crim race at the end of August has traditionally, for Flint folks, marked the end of summer.

But then, in the fall, the bricklayers will continue their work north on Saginaw Street for a couple of months. In the spring of 2024 the team will complete the last two blocks, in front of the University Pavilion up to where the street crosses the Flint River.

You can follow the progress of the bricklaying project at the following link:


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As with any local government decision,  there are lots of naysayers in Flint who think the $5 million price tag is unnecessary or misspent money. Some suggest the money could be spent on better things or the bricks should have been removed and asphalt put down instead of bricks. But the nostalgists, including me and my troubled back, are cheering hurray for these beautiful bricks and the skilled, steady workers who are laying them down. 

My back pain goes on and will be with me to the grave. These new bricks will live on for another 100 years. As I stroll through the Sloan Museum of Discovery and the Gloria Coles Flint Public Library’s local history room and stare at the 100 year old photos of the bricklayers and workers,  I wonder who they were, if any of them were related to me, what are their stories. I’ve taken a lot of photos this summer of this brick project and wonder who will be looking at my photos 100 years from now wondering what the stories are of this 2023 bricklaying team. I wonder if in the past generations there were others watching — maybe a middle-aged guy with a bad back — and enjoying the calm of observing their skilled ballet.  And 100 years from now, maybe there will be another guy standing on Saginaw Street admiring their symmetry.

EVM Managing Editor Tom Travis can be reached at

Author: Tom Travis

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