I had the opportunity to go home to Flint at the beginning of this month. It all started with a phone call from a close friend I’ve known since preschool who asked if I’d be interested in riding back as company on the road while she participated in a film project that was taking place. I hesitated at first, being someone who enjoys the comforts of familiar surroundings on weekends and the prospect of just relaxing locally. I didn’t think about it for too long, though. I have been sitting on a mostly unused pile of vacation days at work and hadn’t been back to my hometown but once last year during a brief, thirty-six hour stay. The idea of taking a road trip with “Cate” and all of the good conversation and hilarity that would ensue cinched it for me.
Cate and I had gone through part of elementary school all the way through high school together, as well as participating is some of the local theater programs in Flint, with her having been more active in the latter than me. She’s one of my favorite humans. I was at her wedding years ago, and I adore her family. Cate herself is like family to me, like the sister who can’t stop inadvertently dropping one-liners in church and making you do loud spit-takes during the most serious parts of the service. She’s also a good listener with a big heart. Cate has seen me through some of my darkest personal times with keen life perspective and without judgment.
She was very busy in her role as a film production associate that weekend and had her car with her, necessitated by those duties. Our accommodations near the central part of the city enabled me to do something I had never done before, even during all the years I had lived there: travel everywhere on foot within something like a one mile radius of downtown. With Flint probably being most widely known as a former General Motors manufacturing powerhouse, and geared mostly for travel by private passenger vehicle, it was surprisingly easy for me to walk around to get to where I wanted to go. I toyed with the idea of riding the various public MTA bus routes, but so much was available to me simply by using my own two feet.
Flint seemed as much like a person as a place that weekend, as if welcoming me back with open arms after such a prolonged absence. I was a prodigal son, back from the shop and newly restored, ready to see and experience more of Flint than I have for years. It’s hard to put into words without risk of overemoting just how much I love Flint and the people there. It goes much deeper than something like a shared trauma bond of watching so much of the employment, money, resources, and even clean drinking water (for a time) stripped away over time. Flint is more and bigger than all of that, with so much beauty hiding in plain sight in equal measure to all of the heartbreak.
It’s a place unlike so many others I’ve experienced, where the proverbial playing field between different kinds of people seems to be the most level of any city in which I’ve ever lived. Of course, there are extremes as with any locale, and I wouldn’t exactly call it a racial utopia, but Flint is a place where you can casually observe people of all different backgrounds genuinely interacting with each other with kindness and respect, tempered with the frankness and bluntness that is signature to those of us from the area. Flint is for everybody. It is beautiful, and it will always be home. It is the place where I feel the most like Joe Dennis.
The Genevieve S. Donnelly Pavilion in Kearsley Park. Monday, February 21, 2011.
Kearsley Park on Flint’s east side is a place where I used to go snow sledding with my two brothers. There were basically only three destinations we’d choose for that activity: a hill next to interstate I-69 by Southwestern Academy High School, a slope next to Mott Community College along Court Street, and the various inclines in and around Kearsley Park and its Genevieve S. Donnelly Pavilion, which was originally built in 1925. Against the odds, this park and pavilion exist in 2022 in very much the same, idyllic, Currier & Ives-like setting enjoyed by area residents and visitors over many decades. I walked there in the hope of getting some summer shots of the pavilion and grounds when I was met by a parking lot and side streets full of vehicles.
The sounds of classical music from violins and other instruments emanated from speakers in the pavilion, which was full of people, some of whom were sitting on the ledges of the outer openings of the building. There was a children’s dance recital taking place, open for any passersby to observe and enjoy. Out in the parking lot and away from the pavilion, an open-air summer fair was taking place, with rows of tents from which vendors offered sno-cones, popcorn, funnel cakes, sunglasses, attire, and other goods. There was a DJ spinning bass-heavy hip-hop beats to accompany the lively happenings and conversation in and around the tents. The smell of cotton candy and roasted nuts was in the air. The events at Kearsley Park that Saturday afternoon seemed at once to be the best of both worlds, appealing to both my quiet, reserved side that enjoys the arts and classical music, and also the practiced extrovert in me who enjoys some of the more boisterous aspects of urban African American culture.
Parked on the grass amid all of the goings on was this Monte Carlo. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written about Chevrolet’s personal luxury car, but the context in which I saw this one beckons me to restate how successfully this model appealed to a wide audience, in both base and Super Sport form. The first thing that struck me was that if I had been asked to guess whether its owner was in the pavilion or walking among the vendors near the DJ booth, I honestly would have had no idea. If could have belonged to the DJ just as easily as to one of the parents of one of the dancing kids who had driven up from the Flint suburb of Grand Blanc (which is pronounced “Grand Blank”). Maybe the DJ was from Grand Blanc. My point is that I had grown up in this area seeing this generation of Monte Carlo, bone stock, just as we see it here, being driven by people from all backgrounds and walks of life.
I never had a sense that the MC was specifically targeted at, or primarily found favor with, people of one specific demographic or another. Everybody loved it, at least in Flint, with our GM-centric, vehicle-building mindset admittedly being disproportionate to much of the rest of the United States. New car shoppers bought almost 137,000 Monte Carlos in ’84, of which over 24,000 (close to 18%) were Super Sports. Powered by a high-output, four-barrel version of the 305-cubic inch V8 which put out 180 horsepower and teamed with a three-speed automatic transmission, the only option for the SS, period tests from two magazines indicated an SS was capable of 0-60 miles per hour in between around eight and eight-and-a-half seconds. These were reasonably fast cars for ’84, even if not quite as fast as the top-tier Mustangs, Camaros, or Firebirds… or even the FWD Dodge Shelby Charger, which was genuinely fast, torque-steer and all.
It has always been such an uplifting phenomenon in the Flint area to observe people rally around celebration of the automobile and its industry, the thing that put our shared city on the map. I’m not trying to pitch the idea that cars are a thing that will bring sweeping and lasting unity to the United States. However, with so much division I’m used to reading about in my daily news feed, I wish there were more universally liked things like a Monte Carlo from the ’80s (and not even necessarily a car, or even a physical object) that would lead more people to discover the common ground they share even among obvious and perceived differences between them. At the end of the day, we’re all just people, and every human being wants the same basic things. Many social constructs of dubious origin get in the way of us simply being who we are, without being reactionary, and getting along with others in the process.
After an extended weekend, Cate and I were back in her Mazda3 headed back for Chicago with many memories having just been made, hers of working on a big film project with homegrown, major talent with whom both she and I had once walked the halls of our high school, and mine of having toured our city on foot with my camera for the first time and seen and photographed beautiful places I had never known existed. Both of us shared the memory of being back in a wonderful, gritty, straightforward, beautiful place where the lines of race, class, and socioeconomic status were gloriously blurred and all that really mattered was whether or not you were a good person. On the first weekend of this June, this ’84 Monte Carlo and its universal appeal ended up being emblematic of what it felt like, for me, to grow up in the Vehicle City.
Eastside, Flint, Michigan.
Saturday, June 4, 2022.