FLINT, Michigan -- Eastside Franklin Park is a small neighborhood in Flint bordered by Dort Highway, Davison Road, Franklin Avenue, and Robert T. Longway Boulevard.
It has challenges, specifically around poverty, blight, and crime. But it also has people who wake up on a daily basis committed to preserving it, helping their neighbors, and keeping shared spaces in the community vibrant.
The Eastside Franklin Park Neighborhood Association has already begun early spring cleanups, and has another big one planned for May 15. People interested in helping can meet in the parking lot of Washington Elementary on Arlington Avenue between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tools, gloves, a dumpster, water, snacks, and other supplies will be on hand, and volunteers will do a variety of cleanup and beautification projects in the area.
Two lifetime Eastside Franklin Park residents who have seen the neighborhood spirit up close are Vanilla Amaya and Billy Evaristo. They are sisters who grew up in the neighborhood and still live there. Their grandfather originally moved to the United States from Mexico, and his son moved to Flint in pursuit of work with General Motors.
They remember a flourishing and unique business district in the neighborhood when they were kids.
“We could walk to a lot of different places,” Evaristo said. “There were family stores, not corporate stores.”
The neighborhood was also close to the former AC Spark Plug plant, which closed in 2006. The sisters say the plant closing was when they noticed people moving out of the neighborhood.
“Yeah, that was, that was big,” Evaristo said. “And then a lot of people moved away. So, of course, you don't have people, then you don't have kids in schools. Then the schools start closing.”
Washington Elementary still sits in the heart of the neighborhood. At one time, it was one of the only bilingual elementary schools in Flint -- a reflection of the fact that the neighborhood and the eastside of Flint is home to a large number of Spanish-speaking families and students.
Washington closed in 2015, and a fire damaged the building in 2018. But in true Eastside Franklin Park fashion, residents have made the best of the situation and still use the property. There is new playground equipment on the playground, and the parking lot is still frequently used as a gathering and distribution point during frequent neighborhood cleanups.
Amaya also has unique perspective on the busy role the school once played in the neighborhood as she worked for Flint Community Schools for more than a decade, mostly as a bus driver.
“I hired in 1999 and I was done in 2012,” she said. “I also worked as a custodian for six months. When I was hired in Flint, we were the biggest [school district] in the area.”
As Flint’s population declined and school buildings closed as a result, Amaya’s role as a bus driver also changed.
A portrait of Evaristo and Amaya inside of Evaristo's home.
“Every single summer I got lucky enough or unlucky enough to have the job of, when we closed schools, I was one of the ones that went in and emptied the schools out,” she said. “I knew every year I was on the moving crew. That’s what we called ourselves, the moving crew. And so we went in and everything … all the furniture, all the desks, the filing cabinets … Everything that was left in, we had to empty these schools out. It would take us all summer long.”
Evaristo has also worked long-term for a Flint area business. This October will mark 30 years for her with McCredie Insurance Agency, which was located downtown Flint until 2015 when the office moved to Hill Road.
There are still several small businesses open and serving the community along the Davison Road and Dort Highway corridors, including Luigi’s restaurant, Vern’s Collision and Glass, and the Fresh Choice grocery store, among others. But the schools and businesses closing combined with population declining in the neighborhood over the years has caused an increase in blight and neglected properties. Residents have had to deal with crime like illegal dumping and arson.
“The empty houses need to be torn down so they don’t end up having people taking it in their own hands and setting them on fire because that’s what they’re doing,” Amaya said. “They do it to get rid of the abandoned houses.”
Crime and blight haven’t stopped the neighborhood’s residents from taking pride in where they live, though.
“We still have cookouts, we still do everything we’ve always done. Nobody seems to bother us,” Evaristo said.
Residents also continue to work together to clean up homes and shared spaces, check-in on neighbors, particularly seniors, and partner with local organizations for events and projects.
Amaya and Evaristo have both remained committed to their neighborhood for the more than 50 years they’ve lived there, and their resilience and grit are an example of how many Eastside Franklin Park residents feel about the neighborhood and the city.
Vanilla Amaya and Billy Evaristo share a laugh in Evaristo's home.
Both sisters take simple pride in the beauty and life that they’ve built in the neighborhood.
“My house is paid off and we still have pretty good neighbors,” Evaristo said.
“I feel this is home,” Amaya said. “This is my place. My street is still good and our little section in the neighborhood is still good.”
Flintside's On the Ground: Eastside Franklin Park series is supported by the Ruth Mott Foundation and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.