Can virtual ball drops and bizarre car sculptures help people see the Rust Belt city in new ways?

As cities go, hollowed-out Flint might have the worst reputation in America. But the Flint Public Art Project wants to change that.

It encourages residents to re-envision and reclaim struggling urban spaces. Over the last three years, FPAP has brought several experimental public art events and design competitions to the city. "I liked the idea of redirecting resources and attention away from inflated places like New York to places like Flint where they could have a bigger impact," says Program Director Jerome Chou.

Working closely with local government, vendors, and residents, FPAP has hosted exhibits that explore the causes of blight, school inadequacies and neighborhood violence.

Mark's House by Two Islands, winner of Flat Lot competition.

We caught up with Chou, founder (and Flint native) Stephen Zacks, FPAP’s Architect-in-Residence Andrew Perkins and Director of Strategy and Operations James Andrews to talk about about what they hope to accomplish and what they've achieved so far:

How long has FPAP been around and what has it accomplished so far?

Stephen Zacks: The organization’s been around for almost three years – initially, just as a concept. In August of 2010, I began distributing the proposal and meeting with friends and colleagues in Flint and New York about the idea. I dove in with no funding, staff, or infrastructure.

The city has been misunderstood for so long, and we were able to broadcast a different story about the place through our projects, contributing to a new identity for Flint as an exciting space for cultural experimentation. In Flint, we were able to take a lot of ideas we see in our field and use them to inspire people to reimagine places through quick, temporary interventions in abandoned and underused spaces.

For example, at a downtown parking lot called the Flat Lot, we invited proposals to design and build a temporary summer pavilion, in cooperation with the Flint Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Hundreds of teams around the world submitted ideas, and brought some international recognition to Flint as a place that encourages innovative design.

Jesse Sugarmann, 

We Build Excitement, 2013, Free City festival. Photo: RA Littlewolf and Whisper Willow

Free City festival, 

After the Closer, The Hinterlands, 2013. Photo: RA Littlewolf and Whisper Willow

What have been FPAP's most successful events or projects so far?

Jerome Chou: In May, we organized Free City, a three-day public art festival at a former Chevrolet manufacturing site called Chevy-in-the-Hole. We wanted to bring a diverse, critical mass of people and activity back to the site, and demonstrate all the ways the site can be re-used. We had birding tours and gospel choir performances and a dance party and a working sauna. People are asking us when we’ll do the festival again.

Andrew Perkins: We bought a 100-year-old, 16-room abandoned house from the Land Bank for one hundred dollars on the condition we bring it back into working condition. Our staff has lived there, and we’ve hosted potlucks, art exhibits, and movie screenings there, and housed up to a dozen artists from around the country at one time. More importantly, the house allows us to be embedded with the people, places, and events of Flint—the good and the bad.

Skart, Sadness Project, 2012, for FPAP's Congress for Urban Transformation conference. Photo: Courtesy of Skart
James Andrews: I'm also excited about a new program called Museum of Public Schools, which involves creating temporary think tanks of students who investigate and respond to the existing conditions of their schools with visionary design proposals.

Stephen Zacks: The New Year’s Eve celebration last year was one of my favorites, where we rolled out our high-powered video projector and invited artists Kero and Annie Hall from Windsor to do an 11-story virtual ball-drop against an office tower downtown, and help launch an annual ritual—the first New Year’s countdown event in Flint. 

Kero, New Year's Eve projections, downtown Flint, 2012. Photo: Courtesy of Flint Public Art Project

What upcoming projects are you looking forward to?

Jerome Chou: We've just launched four new programs with community partners around the city. We’re organizing a series of neighborhood art parades that will help residents reclaim unsafe streets. Part of that project will involve building temporary structures to support new uses in vacant lots. We’re also creating temporary installations on two abandoned, concrete silos near downtown Flint and leading workshops to propose new permanent uses for those structures. These programs are also meant to help activate the city’s master planning process on the block and neighborhood-scale.

Andrew Perkins: Since last August, I’ve led a collaborative renovation of an abandoned mortuary into an alternative space using repurposed waste materials. This summer I’m working with a group of young people who are learning basic design and building skills as we repair the foundation and the roof.

We've already hosted a Baltimore-based puppet duo called Der Vorfuhreffekt Theater, performances by Detroit-based musician Frank Pahl on instruments made from sewing machines and propane tanks, a community visioning workshop, and Catie Newell’s University of Michigan graduate-students built light installations into a staircase. As we move forward with repairs, we’ll have more of these types of events, which hopefully will spark interest in reclaiming adjacent vacant structures.

Spinning Circle/Shooting Cloud, Raphael Shirley, 2013, at Free City. Photo: RA Littlewolf and Whisper Willow
Chevy-in-the-Hole Art Flag Bunting, Deirdre Robb, 2013, at Free City. Photo: RA Littlewolf and Whisper Willow

How has the city responded to FPAP?

Jerome Chou: We work closely with the Mayor, the Planning Department, and dozens of groups and institutions around the city—public schools, block clubs, nonprofits. We couldn’t do this work without all of these partnerships.

Andrew Perkins: At the same time regulations and procedures for working on abandoned homes or land can be expensive, inaccessible, and confusing—especially for the many that don’t have the resources we do.

Spacebuster by Raumlabor in downtown Flint, 2012, courtesy of Storefront for Art and Architecture. Photo: Courtesy of Flint Public Art Project

Have you noticed a shift in the way the city sees itself since this group started? Any new interest from out-of-towners in Flint?

Stephen Zacks: Flint has always had civic boosters, smart community leaders, and an incredible amount of small-scale innovation. If we’ve contributed something to this mix, it’s that we’ve amplified the existing activity in the city, we’ve supported and brought attention to people reclaiming abandoned spaces and enabled residents to recognize themselves in a new image of the city.

We’re told that some expats are moving back because they’re excited about what’s happening, which makes me a little bit nervous. Will there be jobs here? There’s an enormous amount of work to do, but the only jobs might be ones you make for yourself.

All images courtesy Flint Public Art Project via Facebook

Author's note: A previous version of this article had an incorrect spelling of Stephen Zacks' name.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Multicolored maps of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Tampa, denoting neighborhood fragmentation

    Urban Neighborhoods, Once Distinct by Race and Class, Are Blurring

    Yet in cities, affluent white neighborhoods and high-poverty black ones are outliers, resisting the fragmentation shown with other types of neighborhoods.

  2. A photo of a new subdivision under construction in South Jordan, Utah.

    A Red-State Take on a YIMBY Housing Bill

    Utah’s SB 34, aimed at increasing the state’s supply of affordable housing, may hold lessons for booming cities of the Mountain West, and beyond.

  3. Design

    A History of the American Public Library

    A visual exploration of how a critical piece of social infrastructure came to be.

  4. Design

    The Curious Politics of a Montreal Mega-Mall

    The car-dependent suburb it’ll be built in wants to greenlight Royalmount against the city government’s wishes but it needs them to pay for the public infrastructure.

  5. Design

    There’s a Tile Theft Epidemic in Lisbon

    With a single azulejo fetching hundreds of euros at the city’s more reputable antique stores, these tiles, sitting there out in the open, are easy pickings.