Flint, MI — For two days this month, the Crim Fitness Foundation is inviting Flint residents to reimagine how they utilize a single city block.

The event series will take place Sept. 22 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Sept. 23 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 401 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. 

The series will see the Crim and Better Block, an urban design nonprofit based in Texas, temporarily build out a “fully functional city block” at the corner of MLK Jr. and First Avenue, just across the street from Riverbank Park.

Organizers told Flint Beat the goal of the pop-up is to foster conversation around Flint’s land-use policies, consider what types of developments and spaces best serve neighborhood residents and visitors, and hopefully spur a grassroots push for better design and development across the city.

“It’s a little hard to explain, so perfect for print media,” said Cade Surface, the Crim’s Director of Urban Strategies and one of the event’s organizers, with a laugh.

Surface noted the 400 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue used to host an array of buildings for different purposes, from food shops to jewelers. He shared schematic drawings from the early 1900s and photos into the 1950s, highlighting the area’s former uses.

A past view of the 400 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.. (Image courtesy Sloan Museum of Discovery)

“Really around the time of the Civil War, it was built out … to the gills. It was just packed full of buildings and businesses and places to live,” he said. “It had everything from several hotels to an auditorium to restaurants and clothing shops and a church and industrial buildings — all of it all within that really short stretch of the city.”

While the area may have once been packed with buildings, now 401 MLK Jr. Ave. hosts a mural-covered fence, vacant building and little-used parking lot, the remnants of a former Mega Coney Island.

“Today it’s primarily used … as a place for overflow parking for events or for people visiting the park,” Surface said. “There’s really no evidence aside from these old maps and photographs and stories of how differently that little modest slice of land served the people of the city.”

Slide the arrows to view an image of 401 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue from 2023 and the same stretch of land in the 1930s. (Images courtesy Crim Fitness Foundation)

But instead of just tell people about other purposes the 400 block could serve for residents and visitors of Flint, the idea behind the upcoming Better Block Flint event is to show them.

Marissa Lopez, a project manager for Better Block, described the two-day event as a celebratory demonstration of concepts Flint residents told her and other organizers they wanted to see in the space. 

Lopez said she’d learned from pre-event surveys that residents were looking for bike lanes and muralized sidewalks among other design elements, but the beauty of demonstrating such infrastructure temporarily is that people can take a “live survey” of the space, try things out, and decide what suits them for more permanent future development.

“We are going to have a survey on site so the community can say, ‘Hey, I like this,’ or ‘I didn’t like this,’” she said. “It’s just really allowing the community to experience the space and give feedback on it.”

A rendering of Better Block Flint’s proposed design concept for Sept. 22 and 23, 2023. The event series will temporarily transform 401 Martin Luther King Jr Ave. in the hopes of sparking conversation around land-use policy and urbanism in Flint, Mich. (Rendering courtesy Torrie Peterson, creative director for The Better Block)

Surface noted that even if attendees aren’t looking to delve into lengthy discussions about parking minimums or the nuances of Flint’s zoning code, they can still come out and enjoy the event’s “block party” vibe, which will feature vendors, live music, food options and activities.

However, he added, organizers hope that once people experience how the area could function with investment and intentional, people-centered design, they’ll want to join the conversation and take action.

“We’re not trying to prove with Better Block Flint that it’s cool to have a party in a vacant space,” Surface said, noting that Flint event organizers regularly host “great parties” on closed streets and alleys. “But what we are trying to show is that loads of vibrancy doesn’t just mean temporary events that last a weekend. It also means just humble but permanent development — that means that there’s something to do, and people to see, and things to buy, and commerce to be had and people to meet in our land all year round, every day of the week.”

Basically, he said, 401 MLK Jr. Ave. can always feel and function like the event planned for Sept. 22 and 23. 

“It can always be an engaging … accessible, democratic space,” he said. “But it can’t be that if it’s a parking lot with an abandoned building in the middle of that.”

There is no registration required to attend the Better Block Flint event, but those interested in volunteering to help build out the site’s activations or support day-of activities can sign up here.

Surface added that the Crim hopes to replicate the event in each ward of the city pending other neighborhood groups’ approval and funding availability.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....

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