The ruralization of Flint's Civic Park neighborhood

FLINT, Michigan—There is a certain sad beauty in the green here in Civic Park.
 
Here, one-third of properties are vacant, typically because the historic family homes that once packed this neighborhood have been demolished after decades of neglect and decay. 
 
Here, only 41 percent of buildings that are still standing are in “good” shape, as determined by the city planning department.
 
“It’s bad for the neighborhood,” said Maurice Davis, Flint City Councilman in the 2nd Ward and a Civic Park business owner for 40 years. “When you are shrinking a neighborhood, it’s bad.”
  
Grace Tucker, 80, has lived in Civic Park since she was 3 months old. She now lives on Patterson Street and there are 16 vacant properties on her block. The neighboring blocks are similar, home to another 15 and 16 vacant lots.

For Tucker, though the changes to the Civic Park landscape have been slow, they’ve been unavoidable. 

“The home diagonally across from me burned four years ago and it's still waiting to come down,” said Tucker. She’s watched as other homes around her have also been abandoned and fallen into disrepair.

The Genesee County Land Bank owns the vast majority of vacant lots and several of the  properties that do still have structures on them — so those homes, too, are vacant and likely to eventually face demolition.

Before the homes around her were demolished, Tucker saw the structures as a health and safety risk because of their ability to attract squatters, vermin, and critter infestations. Even with the houses demolished, you never know exactly what’s out there, she said. 

She was glad to see the homes go, but now there is little left of what once was a bustling neighborhood.

“I don’t know my neighbors,” said Tucker. “I don’t mind the green. It's just there’s so many large stretches. There’s nobody to talk to, nobody to wave at, nobody to say ‘hi’ to.” 

She is active in the Civic Park Neighborhood Association and she very purposefully walks through the neighborhood, an overt attempt to get to know others in the neighborhood and build a sense of community. Along the way, she remains cautious of overgrown sidewalks and stray dogs, and increasingly sees furry creatures like rabbits and groundhogs taking up residence in the neighborhood. 

“We used to see them rarely, very rarely, and now you see them almost every day,” she said. 

Civic Park is not alone in adjusting to decreasing density.

It’s a phenomenon of urban areas nationwide including Pittsburgh; Albany, New York; Gary, Indiana; Youngstown, Ohio; and even nearby Saginaw, Michigan, said Danielle Lewinsky, vice president and director of Michigan Initiatives for the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit organization created in 2010 to help communities build new futures in communities dealing with vacant, abandoned, and deterioration properties that often are the result of declining population and disinvestment.

Authentic engagement and collaboration with residents, businesses, and local municipalities is imperative, Lewinsky said.

“Sometimes there’s a feeling that reuse is typically happening to residents and not with residents.” said Lewinsky. "There can be a feeling sometimes of individuals and a community being left behind or ignored or minimized and there being the feeling that it's not the resident’s choice in terms of the future land use vision.” 

Every city needs a blend of land uses, she said. Ultimately, the goal is to create a stable community, even if it isn’t the same traditional neighborhood longtime residents are used to, she said. Less population and housing dense areas can instead be transformed for native plantings, rain gardens, sculpture parks, and urban farms, she said.

“Because ultimately if a neighborhood becomes more stable, more safe, more healthy, that is a benefit not just to the immediate residents and businesses but also to the city, to the region, to the state.” 

The Imagine Flint Master Plan calls for 51 percent of the properties in what it calls the Civic Park neighborhood to remain traditional neighborhood — just shy of half (46 percent) are to transition to what it calls “green neighborhood status.” 

Green neighborhoods look much like what Lewinsky was describing: “Low-density, residential neighborhoods with a significant amount of land dedicated to green uses, community gardens, small-scale urban agriculture, and small open space areas.”

This "ruralization of Civic Park" is an issue brought up by residents during editorial advisory meetings with Flintside as part of its On the Ground journalism program in Civic Park. It was brought up as neither bad, nor good — just a fact of life that in the heart of the city, it doesn't feel very urban any more. 

While Civic Park by any official definition is still far from rural, it certainly is much less population dense than it once was.  

The master plan was the result of extensive resident input and serves as the city’s guiding document for land use and planning. Neighborhood planning also is ongoing throughout the city — and recently launched in Civic Park with a community meeting designed to ensure resident input and involvement.

One of the key points of contention in talking about Civic Park land use boils down to how you define the neighborhood itself. While the city planning office includes a broader area from Welch to Pasadena and Clio to Dupont, the most historic portion of the neighborhood is actually much smaller. That area surrounding the now-closed Civic Park Elementary School is almost entirely tagged to become a green neighborhood. 

The outer area of the neighborhood, closer to Clio Road and Welch Boulevard, are home to the more densely populated traditional neighborhoods.
 
The reality of the decline of the Civic Park neighborhood frustrates Davis, even as he sees lots of good happening in the neighborhood. His frustration comes from seeing millions of dollars going into preservation of historic structures elsewhere in the city, but not this neighborhood. 

“They respect what they want to respect,” Davis said. “Civic Park really needs to be restored, and when it is restored it needs to be so the community that is here can stay here. It’s got to be inclusionary.”

Built in 1919 by the General Motors Housing Corporation, Civic Park was built to house the influx of manufacturing workers — and like the city it calls home, it flourished for generations. 

Over time, though, it suffered. Abandoned homes became more and more prevalent, visible scars left as reminders of white flight, red-lining, systemic racism, and disinvestment. Today, 488 of those scars have been demolished.

Soon another 97 will be knocked down and another 105 are targeted for demolition, although there’s no funding yet to do so.

They leave behind large swaths of green, a welcome sight for those neighbors who had to live next to the blight that preceded them but tinged with loss of the neighborhood Civic Park once was.
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