A City That No One Knows

On a chilly afternoon in January, I took a group of students to the corner of Kearsley and Saginaw Streets for our first day of class. It seemed like the perfect spot to plunge students into the course. We were surrounded by history. Using street names and compass points as my references, i began a discussion with them of the past and present conditions of the city. They responded with silent, confused faces. Despite the fact that we were standing on the edge of campus, it was clear that, to these students, i was referencing a foreign landscape.

A year later, I was attending a meeting on heritage tourism in Genesee County. The topic was broad - how can we promote Flint as a heritage destination. The discussion that ensued, however, was quite narrow. Flint is, was, and should be the Vehicle City. The discussants were well-meaning and had a number of good ideas of how to promote the Vehicle City, But, as a picture of Flint, the Vehicle City was restrictive, singular, and exclusive. Moreover, it smacked of careless revisionism. Any story of Flint needed to flow into the Vehicle City narrative. Some fit neatly, others, required more interpretive license and even more, were completely dismissed.

I offer these two accounts to underscore why I have chosen "the alien city" as the theme of my Wyatt Exploration Program. To most of our students, Flint is an alien place. Despite the fact that they spend several hours a week near the heart of the city, it remains a foreign place, an exotic place, and unfortunately a place where the imagery of fear and violence clouds our perception of the landscape that surrounds us. Many people, however, do know the history and legacy of Flint. But, as the second example illustrates, it is a singular narrative. Flint is held captive by a story of one history, which led to one present, with few prospects for anything but one future. As a result, Flint truly is an alien city, a foreign place whose history is lost to people who have lived here their entire lives and whose present is as distant as another country.

Our task this year will be to excavate the intricacy and complexity of Flint, Michigan. As we explore the city's history and culture, we will uncover many pasts and make familiar the unfamiliar. Although the city was associated with the auto industry for decades, a number of other home grown successes have sprouted in Flint such as breweries, cigar manufacturers, woolen mills, grocery store chains, and numerous other forms of commerce. The people who have lived and worked in Flint are equally as diverse. Beginning with the indigenous people who greeted the first white migrants, the region has a reputation for attracting a sundry of newcomers. Once people from New York, Tennessee, Mississippi, Slovakia, and Syria arrived in mid-Michigan they reshaped their new home with traditions and customs from around the globe. Join us as we explore a city marked by diversity, a surprising history and a richness of places.