FLINT, Michigan — Civic Park is Flint’s engine, a neighborhood that is home to many who are at the core of efforts to transform, shape and better the entire city as well as their own few blocks of it.
This is a neighborhood that is rich with history, borne out of General Motors’ determination to create thriving neighborhoods built by and filled with the new middle class their factories were creating. Civic Park was a “planned neighborhood,” designed to have everything its residents needed: a school, a community center, a park and families connected by winding streets and shared livelihoods.
Cars were built, lives were made and a middle class was actualized. For a long time, it — like all of Flint — thrived. This was a well-to-do neighborhood; not rich, but very comfortable.
Today, Civic Park School, the central building block of the neighborhood, is closed. It is marked by empty lots where homes have already been demolished, boarded up houses destined for similar fates, and a powerhouse network of people committed to their neighborhood and impacting nearly every aspect of life in Flint.
Some are old enough to have went to Civic Park Elementary. Some wish to build on the prolific nature of after-school programs that Civic Park offered in the past. Some make the goings-on of Flint their full time job.
Those who make a difference in Civic Park choose to do so.
Former Mayor and State Rep. Woodrow Stanely, City Councilman Maurice Davis, Pastor Alfred Harris of Saints of God, and Pastor McCathern of Joy Tabernacle are household names in Flint. They are the well-known faces of Flint who hail from Civic Park.
Beyond them, are also many residents of Civic Park — who see themselves as nothing more than someone doing what needs to be done — but in fact function as the nuts and bolts of Flint life.
They are the often unheralded people making a difference in schools, libraries, youth programs, public health, and neighborhood life itself.
“When you’re able to say you choose Flint, then you see the difference in people. Everyone doesn’t choose Flint," said Holly Wilson, a Civic Park resident of 19 years and neighborhood liaison for the Neighborhood Engagement Hub.
Wilson, 47, is a woman with degrees and certifications in mechanical, industrial, electrical engineering and robotics. She speaks with a level of insight that gives one the feeling that her gears are always turning, ready to spark an insightful directive. She lives and works in the middle of it all.
Engagement is her professional mantra.
“(With) her engineering background, she’s able to bring that into a community meeting in a way that an engineer from Kettering could not do,” said Carma Lewis, Civic Park resident and president of Flint Neighborhoods United. “She speaks the language of both communities … she’s able to take those methods to a community level.”
Wilson’s day-job affords daily interactions with neighborhood groups across the city. It’s her passion. Wilson chose Civic Park 19 years ago and adopted Flint as her home as an undergrad student at the University of Michigan-Flint in 1990.
When she first came to Civic Park, the obvious shocked her and her family. She wouldn’t allow her son to play outside and struggled with her surroundings. Until she had enough — and joined the Civic Park Neighborhood Association.
Within a few years, she took on a leadership role, serving as vice president for three years. That lead her to other leadership positions. She has served as the president, treasurer, and parent advisor for the International Academy of Flint advisory board. She also serves on the Urban Renaissance Board.
Looking at her background in engineering and her community work, Wilson says it’s easy to see the connection between the two passions.
It’s all about building bridges.
Grace Tucker, 79, remembers attending Civic Park Elementary and being a voracious reader of the books she discovered at the Civic Park branch of the Flint Public Library. A resident of Civic Park for 71 years, those early years stayed with her.
Tucker has worked for 41 years at Flint Public Library and continues to serve as a substitute librarian. With her extra time, she volunteers with the Genesee County Literacy Coalition and the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network.
She sees the impact of poverty and lack of access to education — and works to eliminate it. “There are so many people in this area who are basically functionally illiterate because there is this stigma about admitting that you can’t read,” says Tucker, who uses her connection to the community and work at the library to lead people to literacy resources.
She also supports programing and helps coordinate events for the Civic Park Neighborhood Association. And, she is a quiet visionary. She takes walks in her neighborhood as a way to refuse the pessimism she often faces from others about her neighborhood.
“I’m one of those people that believes Flint will rise again,” said Tucker. She says she often is questioned by others, by outsiders, about walking in her neighborhood. They tell her: “I wouldn’t walk that neighborhood.”
She tells them: “Well, you’re not a part of the neighborhood. I’m part of the neighborhood.”
Jessie Carpenter, 48, grew up on Flint’s southside, but his 18-year career as Flint Police juvenile intervention officer opened his world to neighborhoods like Civic Park. He saw firsthand the impact of the lack of after-school activities and community centers.
In 2008, he revived Flint PAL (Police Activities League) in Civic Park’s Haskell Community Center. There, young people can get involved in sports and activities, get help with their homework, and eat a healthy meal.
“We don’t turn kids down because of an address,” said Carpenter. “It’s a safe place for the kids to go. There aren’t a lot of schools in that area, so that program is very vital to the kids that get bused out of the neighborhood.”
Carpenter considers himself fortunate that Civic Park is rich with helping hands because, though funds have been low, there are always people willing to volunteer their time. He has seen 30 kids from his program now known as Flint PAL Corp. go off to college and some still come back over the summers to help out. That’s what Carpenter says inspires him.
“Civic Park has been rich throughout the years with individuals and programs that bring people together,” said Carpenter.
Carma Lewis, 52, can be found in daily uniform consisting of a bedazzled #ichooseflint T-shirt or a good pair of overalls. Lewis has served as the Outreach Coordinator of the Flint Action Coordination Team for more than two years.
Her work puts her at the table with local and state powerhouses every day. She is surrounded by suits and formality, but Lewis shrugs all of that off. She is Carma no matter where she is or where she goes — and that means she just doesn’t see any need for stuffy clothes.
“I’m a resident first,” said Lewis.
And she is a walking rolodex of community information second.
She is president of Neighborhoods United and works out of City Hall. Her job was created as a way to connect residents to public health resources during the water crisis. It requires fluid navigation of Flint’s network of nonprofits and service organizations. Giving answers to residents is her full-time job.
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“I ended up heavily into social media at that time and people were asking questions,” said Lewis. “So they were asking questions and I was looking for answers and started sharing those answers, and that’s what led me to the position I’m in now.”
People are looking for community resources to recover from the hit of the water crisis, said Lewis. She just wants to help.
“Carma just is a heavy-hitter citywide, so it's hard to confine her,” said Lynn Williams, community engagement officer for the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. “She’s just a champion for all things Flint and all things Flint neighborhoods.”
And, Williams, too, is a resident of Civic Park. She’s lived in the neighborhood since shortly after graduating high school, raised her family there, and remains active in the Civic Park Neighborhood Association.
She sees the many influential people living, working, and thriving in her neighborhood. She also sees her neighborhood continuing to struggle and evolve into a much different place than it was built — planned — to be.
Why is Civic Park home to so many influential people? It’s hard to know for sure, but maybe it’s because the people who still live there, the people who have stayed, the people who have made their house a home (even while their neighbors’ deteriorated) are those who are willing to do what needs to be done.
"The heaviest hitters are the people on the ground doing work,” said Williams. “The people putting time in. The people that are involved in the everyday efforts of making Civic Park a safe, clean, and pleasing place to be. To me, those are the heavy hitters.”