FLINT, Michigan—D.J. Dye sits on the edge of the stage at one end of the gymnasium dressed in a jacket, sock hat and pajamas. The 3-year-old seems content, even happy, to be here.
He is seated next to his father, Troy George, 23, of Flint, and some of his dad’s friends. He is never left alone, even when his dad rotates into the ongoing basketball game at Berston Field House.
Before too long D.J. will likely be out there playing, joining the next generation to plant their roots and build their foundations here at Berston.
These days 450 to 500 people a week come here for exercise, some friends, or perhaps just a good game.
It’s a place that sees a 5-year-old ballerina and an 80-year-old line dancer, disciplined fighters, art students, and a kid who sees the promise of a new bike come through the same front door.
It’s a place with an air of expectations for courtesy and respect. Always.
Berston is a place that has weathered its storms, from nearly abandoned to the place it is now: A place filled with activity for young and old, a place where a little boy can watch his dad play basketball and be surrounded by a dozen or so “uncles,” all keenly aware of the influence they—and this place—have on this young life.
In the Beginning Built in 1923, Berston Field House is named after Neil J. Berston, a successful realtor who was shot to death while sitting at his desk one Sunday, according to Bryant Nolden, executive director of the Friends of Berston.
The Berston family gave the land along North Saginaw Street for the field house to honor the man whose name would be spoken for generations and engraved over the front doors of this institution.
The building originally contained a gymnasium, auditorium, community meeting rooms, a branch of the Flint Public Library, and a swimming pool—a popular community memory although the pool was closed and removed many years ago.
The heritage within these walls runs deep. It is a place of great athletics, but also of deep friendships.
While most athletes passing through these doors are dreamers, there is an impressive collection of notables who found their footing here.
Charlie Bell, Morris Peterson, and Mateen Cleaves, three Flint native sons, led Michigan State University’s basketball team to the 2000 Division I national championship and became nationally known as the Flintstones. Antonio Smith was their trailblazer, also playing under Tom Izzo, but graduated in 1999 ahead of the championship season.
There’s an old saying. No one quite knows where it comes from, but most people know it: “If you didn’t play ball at Berston, you didn't play ball.”
But Berston is not just about athletic achievement.
Larry Ford, former president of the Flint Area Chamber of Commerce, grew up on Flint’s north side just south of Berston. Ford, now living in Flint Township, remembers his early years at Berston.
“All the time I was growing up through sixth grade, I was at my father’s store and my mother would take me down to Berston,” he said. “I would swim and play basketball and softball. Starting in 1940 and for the next 10 years, I used that as my ‘go to’ place for athletics. It was just an absolutely great place.”
And, then, Ford adds a critical, but sometimes overlooked, piece of Berston pride: “There was diversity there.”
Back in the mid-1930s, just a few years after the Rev. Martin Luther King was born and decades before the Civil Rights Movement took hold, Berston became the first integrated recreational facility in Genesee County.
“We didn’t view each other as black or white. We were just kids. It was a great place to come and play and that’s why we did it,” says Ford. “I think it gave me great exposure to real life, and therefore I did not find my myself in some sort of sheltered environment. The diversity was very good for me.”
Dance and DreamIn the small gym on the north side of the building, Lynne Peterson, executive assistant for the Friends of Berston, sets up her sound system. Cast iron radiators are hung above the large windows and run the length of the room to heat the space. The hardwood floor is worn and gives clear indication this small gym has been heavily used.
Overnight snow and ice has trashed the roads, but a small group of line dancers show up on time for this late morning class. It’s intended to be a senior event, for those at least over age 50.
Most are from Flint but some come from Flushing Township and Grand Blanc. Peterson starts the music and they begin to move with a smile and perhaps a light-hearted groan. Other class members drift in and each is greeted by name and maybe a hug over the next half hour until it grows to 25 or so dancers for the 90-minute class.
There’s sweat involved here and some complicated steps. This class is not for cowards—and those who attend are here for exercise, as well as fellowship.
“These are retirees,” says Peterson. “Their network of friends used to be on the job. They don’t have that any more.”
This is a business for Peterson, who charges each dancer $2 per session but quietly uses the money to buy cleaning supplies for Berston.
“My hope and prayer (for Berston) is that it just explodes, that it becomes the beacon of hope for the city of Flint that it has been,” said Judith Nolden of Mt. Morris Township, a regular in the line dance class. “My hope is that it continues to grow and provide so much for the community.”
Well, what momma wants, momma gets.
Along Came BB Bryant Nolden, son of Judith and a county commissioner whose nickname is BB, serves as executive director for the Friends of Berston. Nolden—like many in Flint—got his start at Berston early. His father, Willie Nolden, would take Bryant and his brother, Corey, when they were just kids.
“What I wanted to do was to continue the storied history here,” says Nolden, 51, who became known as the volunteer director when he asked then-Mayor Dayne Walling if he could have keys to Berston, “just to give the kids something to do.”
“When I first came, the building was in pretty bad shape. It was not clean and the grass was not cut. For seven years, I cut the grass and opened and closed the building,” Nolden said. Still, the hours were limited and Berston was far from the haven Nolden remembered.
“In 2014, the non-profits here in Flint sat down and discussed how to bring Berston back to life,” Nolden said. Then the Ruth Mott Foundation delivered a $280,000 grant over three years to pay for staffing.
And, the ball just keeps rolling.
The United Way of Genesee County stepped up to bring a new playground to Berston in 2016, and the Hagerman Foundation is providing $44,000 to pay for the Berston Success Center—a room stocked with 14 computers, a small library, and a focus on literacy expected to open this spring or summer.
A soccer field may be added next with the help of a US Soccer Foundation Safe Places to Play grant.
“The future is very, very bright for Berston. Once we put a proposal together we can approach some of the foundations and other philanthropic elements of the community to transform this center,” Nolden said.
He envisions a state-of-the-art recreational facility that incorporates sports, arts, education and comprehensive solutions to social issues.
Building on Success “Berston is the home of champions, a place that makes a difference in the community,” Sheila Miller-Graham says. Then she patiently guides and directs her students, sometimes taking the little ones by the hand.
Creative Expressions Dance Studio has taught students for 33 years in multiple types of dance including ballet, jazz, tap and contemporary, utilizing two upstairs dance studios and the small gym for classes.
“It’s my passion, my love, my gift from God,” says Miller-Graham, who frequented the swimming pool and roller skating parties at Berston when she was a little girl. “I’m fortunate to have experienced so many things in life and Berston is one of the good ones.”
In the basement, four championship belts hang on the wall of this boxing gym. It looks and smells like the history it has witnessed.
Heavy bags are hung along one wall and everything about this one-room training center exudes serious business. Framed and laminated newspaper articles chronicle Flint heroes who have fought their way to the top of the boxing world.
Chris Byrd won the middleweight silver medal in the 1992 Olympics and became a two-time world heavyweight champion in the professional world of boxing. Andre Dirrell won the bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics and Claressa Shields won gold in 2012 and 2016.
Still her training gym, Shields is at Berston today with an air of purpose, wrapping her hands and donning her head gear. She steps into the ring and an impressive flurry of punches erupts as if the title was on the line.
“She is hungry,” says Jason Crutchfield, a coach at Berston and a local and state champion in the 1980s. “She wants to be somebody.”
Well, she already is.
While Shields works, sweats, and earns every bit of acclaim she gets, in another part of Berston friends are sharing laughs.
While The Chosen Few Arts Council offers arts and crafts classes, in another part of Berston there is drumming, music, and ballroom dancing.
While the Berston Bicycle Club Project gives a new bicycle and helmet to every student who completes a nine-week safety class, other students receive educational and nutritional assistance.
Here, in Berston, is a community. For everyone.
“As a community center, Berston has engaged a lot of people in the community and has been a safe haven for them,” Nolden says. “Berston is hallowed ground for the northern part of the city of Flint.”