Flint, MI – Flint City Council allocated $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds and $250,000 from Flint’s general fund toward the establishment of the St. John Memorial Park in north Flint.

St. John Historical Committee President James Wardlow told Flint Beat that his organization hopes the park will preserve the memory of a predominately Black neighborhood that was displaced by the construction of Interstate-475 and urban renewal projects in the 1960s and ‘70s.

“The historic St. John Street neighborhood was a thriving, multiracial community in Flint, Michigan, that was systemically demolished by racist urban renewal policies to displace Black residents and build highways and industry where those homes once stood,” Wardlow told council at its Sept. 26, 2022 meeting.

President of the St. John Historical Committee, James Wardlow, hosts a committee meeting at the new McCree Theater on the north end of Flint, Mich. on March 10, 2022. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Wardlow said that the project will transform what is now West Boulevard Park “from a simple park with a walking path and overgrown river outlooks” into “St. John Street Memorial Park–a historical site and engaging destination to remember our history and recognize St. John Street’s contributions to the city of Flint.”

Mona Munroe-Younis, a supporter of the park project and the executive director of a local environmental justice organization, told council members the committee was advocating for a total of $2.7 million in ARPA funding.

She said that amount would allow the committee to build and maintain the park “at the quality it deserves” and that such an ask has precedent across the country.

According to Munroe-Younis, Dutchess County, New York allocated over $5 million in ARPA funds for parks and facilities; Seminole County, Florida allocated $2 million to fund outdoor park amenities for disadvantaged populations; and Chesterfield County, Virginia, allocated $8.4 million to build two new fields in a park and expand a third.

Munroe-Younis added that the federal government approved using ARPA funds to improve community mental health. She said the memorial park project conformed to those guidelines as an outdoor recreation area as well as a space where displaced St. John residents could gather to mourn the loss of their community and reconnect with their former neighbors.

“We can’t undo urban renewal fully, but we can help heal that trauma,” Munroe-Younis said. “And that is public health. So, that is part of my passion for this project.”

The city council unanimously approved a resolution to provide $500,000 for the proposed memorial park during the Sept. 26 meeting.

Councilman Eric Mays, who introduced the resolution in response to the committee’s presentation, said the city would give $500,000 “to start,” suggesting that the council may consider more funding in the future.

Wardlow said that the committee’s vision for the park will be achieved primarily through a “memorial walking path” with statues of neighborhood historical figures, signage and a plaque dedicated to the former St. John neighborhood. The park would also include a pavilion, playground and a mural along the West Boulevard Drive retaining wall for I-475/Lake Street bridge, he said.

Wardlow noted that the historical committee has completed a development plan for the memorial park and submitted applications, but he does not know when they will break ground on the project or an estimated date of completion.

At the following Flint City Council meeting on Oct. 10, council approved a budget amendment transferring an additional $250,000 to the city’s parks and recreation fund for the St. John Memorial Park. Unlike the prior funding, this money came from the city’s general fund balance, not the city’s ARPA account.

Wardlow said that Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley had committed that $250,000 to the park after the city sold the former St. John Community Center to marijuana retailer in 2021. He said the sum represented half of the amount the building was sold for.

The former St. John Community Center, at 3420 St. John Street. The building briefly became a Flint police training academy after much of the neighborhood was displaced by Interstate 475 construction. The building was sold to Evergrow LLC in 2021. (Courtesy University of Michigan-Flint/Genesee Historical Collections Center)

Also at the Oct. 10 meeting, city council approved a resolution to enter a lease agreement with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The agreement is meant to pave the way for a state park in Flint, for which Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced over $30 million in funding back in March 2022.

Councilman Murphy observed that although the boundaries for the proposed state park included several existing parks systems in the city, they did not include the proposed location of St. John Memorial Park.

Murphy asked for the memorial park’s inclusion within the state park’s boundaries, saying that it would bring development to his ward and make the project eligible to receive a portion of the state park’s millions in federal funding.

Ron Olson, Chief of Parks and Recreation for the DNR, responded to Murphy’s comments, saying that his department was open to “examine the possibilities” of including the memorial park, but he could not promise anything.

Murphy requested an amendment to the resolution saying the DNR and city of Flint would “do all things necessary to work in collaboration with the St. John Street memorial plan, to leverage resources to improve that particular area from Leith Street to Dort Highway.” The council unanimously approved the amended resolution.

Wardlow said the St. John Historical Committee hopes to use the momentum from the city of Flint’s recent allocations to secure additional funding for the memorial park.

“We’re concentrating on bringing our history back and keeping it for future generations. I want our children and our grandchildren to know that we had a self-contained, self-sustaining community where Black people lived,” Wardlow told Flint Beat.

Zachary Marano is Flint Beat’s local government reporter. Zack is originally from Milford township and returns to southeast Michigan after reporting for a daily newspaper in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula....