See inside the $1 million investment cleaning up Flint's northside block by block

FLINT, Michigan — It was a rainy, cold, grey Saturday. The winds seem to swoop up from the ground, aiming squarely for the face. And, there stood Sandra Johnson, ready to get to work. 

Born and raised on Flint’s northside, Johnson still calls this area home. She also serves as project manager for the Hamilton Community Health Network’s $1 million federal grant to reduce crime working with the North Flint Revitalization Initiative. The grant from the Bureau of Justice Administration is a Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program. It is a community crime reduction grant driven by residents, community associations and block clubs  — the same type of grant used to make marked improvements to the University Avenue Corridor in recent years. 
“Today, we’re working to eliminate blight and some eye-sores in the community as well as other activities to reduce crime,” Johnson says during a community cleanup event on Nov. 10, 2018. She grabs a paint roller and dips in grey paint near the frozen grass in front of a freshly boarded, abandoned house on Verdun Street. “Now I’m going to keep working while I’m talking to you, because we got a lot more houses to cover today.” 

Johnson is direct, but yet incredibly upbeat, like a motivational drill sergeant writing a Hallmark card.

“One thing for sure is that this block here has about three, maybe four, houses where there are residents. Everything else has been in total disarray for awhile now,” she says not skipping a stroke with the roller. “The community has just taken hit after hit after hit, from the crime to the loss of jobs, to people moving, to the water crisis. It’s all played a major role in it and if you live where there is broken windows and open doors — it just breeds opportunity for crime and violence.” 

They work with the Flint Police Department to identify and eliminate causes of crime. Vacant homes and debris make families feel unsafe and can invite squatters and drug trafficking, Johnson said. 

Working on Saturday are people from Hamilton Community Health Network, North Flint Neighborhood Action Council, WOW Outreach, North Flint Reinvestment Corporation, Ruth Mott Foundation, Davison Free Methodist Church, Our Savior Lutheran Church, LISC, WT Stevens and the Kagle Leadership Initiative. 

“We know for sure the city of Flint has been ranked high in the nation with crime and violence, just senseless murders and loss of life here especially on the north end,” Johnson said. “Young people getting killed and feeling unsafe, so it’s very important to get these initiatives grant-funded and the community engaged.” 

Kettering University’s received a three-year Byrne grant in 2014 — sparking new investment, reduced crime, and continued development. 

Related story: Reinventing University Avenue: See how community partnerships made this Flint area cleaner, safer in less than a decade

Johnson says she dug deep to pull together a coalition that works with Hamilton to build a community network to, quite literally, cleaning up the neighborhood and make it safer, block by block.

“It is hard work, but it is — don’t think I’m kidding here — it is heart work. What we do here, what these volunteers do here is sowing seeds,” Johnson says. 

Groups of students also walked with rakes, bags, and heavy gloves to clear trash and debris from a dumping site near Foss Avenue Baptist Church. Throwing old bumpers, shopping carts full of trash, boxes, and rummage into a large dumpster placed by the Kagle Leadership Initiative from Kettering University. 

Andrea Allen studies chemical engineering at Kettering and was one of the student volunteer organizers as part of the Kagle Leadership Initiative. This work helps is an illustration of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, says Allen, a native of Kingston, Jamaica. “Flint has its reputation, but there is a lot of good here,” Allen says. “There are so many good people here in Flint, and we want to be with them in supporting them — showing that we care.” Another student volunteer, Isabelle Barbosa, a Detroit senior studying electrical engineering, said its important to show students how many organizations there are working together to help Flint. 

Working alongside them was My’a Smith, a volunteer through WOW Outreach. “When you clean up garbage, brush, board up a broken window, or cut some weeds, it makes me feel more like a change is happening — that something better for this area is possible,” she says. Smith, 20, also runs her own small nonprofit called My’as Closet that provides hygiene products, food, and clothing. “You get tired of hearing about how bad Flint is,” Smith says, picking up a bundle of weeds. “It feels good to be a part of something positive you can point to and say: That’s a change.”

As volunteers fight through the cold and the area is cleared, again becoming green space with a bit of snow still sprinkled throughout, Johnson keeps painting. 

And, smiling. This work is personal to her. It’s not always easy to stay, she acknowledges, but this is home and doing this work in her community feels like exactly what she should be doing.

“Would it be more attractive to move someplace else where there was clean water, less crime, better education, better job access? Absolutely, especially being the mother of a young child. However … ,” Johnson says as she stops painting for a moment, “there are truly great people here and their lives are valuable. I have been blessed and if I have a chance to make their lives better, to do this kind of work in the community, then I embrace it wholeheartedly.“
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Read more articles by Jake Carah.