Learning about Flint’s history of housing discrimination, from a bike

After Emily Doerr completed her first summer providing tours of Flint through her company, Flint City Bike Tours, she received some valuable feedback: people wanted more specifically themed tours.

“I learned last summer that people actually want to be more focused,” Doerr said. “My first summer of tours was more general. People liked it, but they wanted more specific topics like architecture or art or history. You can get more nuance when you’re focused on just one specific thing.”

Doerr already had a unique tour focused on the more than 100 murals that Flint Public Art Project has brought artists to the city to create. This summer, Thomas Henthorn, a faculty member in the Department of History at the University of Michigan-Flint approached her with an idea: a bike tour focused on Flint’s neighborhoods and the history of housing discrimination and redlining in the city.

“A lot of the tour is related to research I'm doing right now on residential segregation and neighborhood planning in the early part of the 20th century, and also just research on Civic Park in general,” Henthorn said.

Doerr and Henthorn partnered to do the tour twice this summer, and with more than 30 riders participating, it was her most popular tour. Participants make six stops along the tour, and learn about how various neighborhoods were developed, who they were developed for, and how discriminatory practices were used to exclude groups of people, first non-Caucasion European immigrants in the early 20th century, and later Black Americans who were migrating to Flint from the southern United States.

“It’s not a pretty history,” Doerr said. “It’s something we need to aggressively and proactively fight against. But the way Professor Henthorn presents the information, it is very research-based and provides a good explanation to help people understand how institutional racism works.”

The tour starts at Berston Fieldhouse and, among the stops, are Oak Park, Civic Park, and Metawanee Hills. While the participants on the tours learned about Flint’s history, they also got to interact directly with residents.

“People like to see folks out riding, they wave to you, you get a lot of great reactions from the folks in the neighborhoods,” Henthorn said. “Our last bike tour, we were joined at the end by a couple of guys who were just out riding their bikes and asked where we were riding to and went along with us.”

Henthorn also noted that, along with teaching some of the history of Flint, the tours provided a good opportunity to show people that there is a lot of beauty in Flint’s neighborhoods.

“It is really important that we focus on the neighborhoods themselves here,” he said. “Part of the tour is drawing attention to the challenges, but you also see that there are a lot of great things going on and great people who live here.”

Proceeds from the tour also went directly to the Urban Renaissance Center in Civic Park.

This summer, Doerr also featured a new Haunted Flint tour of the city’s historic cemeteries, based on a book by Roxanne Rhoads and Joe Schipani. The COVID-19 pandemic limited Flint City Bike Tours plans to do bigger tours over the summer, but Doerr is looking forward to working with more community members or groups in the future to create customized tours on specific topics.

Although the Ride the Red Line tour is completed for the summer, Doerr and Henthorn both plan to continue it next summer. Doerr also said that, depending on weather cooperation, the Haunted Flint tour might add some dates in late September or October.

“If we have decent weather, it could be cool to do Haunted Flint in October when people are really getting into Halloween,” she said.

Information about Flint City Bike Tours is available on its website.
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Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.