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Flint voters will head to the polls on August 3, 2021, to decide who will make the ballot for the Flint City Council in November. This is the fifth in a weekly series in which Flint Beat will explore the issues in each of the city’s nine wards and talk to the candidates running to represent them. For more election coverage, including other stories in this series, visit Flint Beat’s elections page.
Flint, MI–Flint’s fifth ward is the only ward that doesn’t border the city limits– it’s located right in the middle, encompassing a little bit of everything.
The fifth ward touches parts of downtown, parts of Kettering University, University of Michigan-Flint, and Chevy Commons. North of the Flint River, the ward is home to Hurley Medical Center and Hurley Children’s Hospital. This ward also curves into Flint’s east side, where the Latinx Technology and Community Center is located.
Its location makes this ward unique, and inclusive of many different neighborhoods like Metawanee Hills, Carriage Town, the Grand Traverse District, and more.
According to a research study from the University of Michigan-Flint, in 2017, the fifth ward’s population of 9,800 residents was 56% Black, 33% white, 3% Hispanic, and 2.7% Asian. The median household income for residents in this ward is around $23,000, with 42% living in poverty, the report showed.
A little more than half of the properties located in the fifth ward are in “good” condition according to the Flint Property Portal. The portal shows that there are 1,831 properties listed as “good,” 695 listed as “fair,” 340 listed as “poor,” and 318 listed as “sub-standard.”
There have been 1,366 demolitions in this ward, and there are 161 properties listed by the Genesee County Land Bank for demolition, 19 of which are funded.
In the general election in November, Flint’s fifth ward residents will have two options: Current Councilwoman Jerri Winfrey-Carter, and Flint Public Art Project Director Joseph Schipani.
While this ward, like all of the others in the city, deal with blight and crime, these residents say they’re looking for a council person who will strategize about how to build up the tax base, support innovative ideas about development, and include the community in the conversation.
Bill Hammond is the co-chair of the Metawanee Hills Neighborhood Association, and has been a fifth ward resident for 50 years.
His neighborhood group does a lot of work around the fifth ward. They’ve hosted clean-ups, adopted parks, maintained the property of the old Cook Elementary School, gotten “no dumping” signs put up, and more.
Schipani said he feels one of his responsibilities as a councilperson would be to assist neighborhood groups in their efforts.
“I want to make sure we bring resources to the neighborhoods. We have so many great neighborhoods…we need to make sure we bring resources to them, you know if they need dumpsters, or need help doing the project that they’re doing,” Schipani said. “And help support and uplift the neighborhoods to make these places better, and give them the resources that they need to help build up the neighborhoods.”
Schipani is the director of the Flint Public Art Project, the organization behind many of the murals in Flint. He calls it his “volunteer job,” while his “day job” is working with the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, and Michigan State University on a research project studying the food system in Flint.
Schipani has a master’s degree in public administration, and is pursuing a master’s degree in accounting. He said he feels that with his education, and experience working with many organizations, he has a good understanding of how to manage and run the government.
He’s lived in the fifth ward for almost 15 years, and decided to run for council because he said with all of the fighting, it doesn’t seem like city business is getting taken care of.
“We have a big looming debt over our head, and we’ve got to figure out,like with our legacy fund, how to get funded and how to move forward with the city,” Schipani said. “We’ve got to figure out how to fund more police officers, and get more police officers on staff, work on crime and blight, and it seems the city’s city council is too busy fighting with each other to move forward on other things.”
Winfrey-Carter said she’s been disappointed in the behavior on the city council, and had higher expectations for how they would function when she ran four years ago. Running again, she said she wants to “do it all over,” and hopes that in the future, the council can follow the golden rule, and be more respectful.
“I want my constituents to see that I can be professional, because that’s what I promised them. I promised them civility,” she said. “I’m hoping that with this new term, we can get some things done. We have gotten a lot done, but I think in the midst of the arguing and bickering back and forth, people can’t see all that we’ve gotten done…It’s just us, as a group. We cannot gel. It’s crazy.”
Winfrey-Carter is the current fifth ward councilperson and was elected in 2017. In addition to being on the council, Winfrey-Carter is the director of Saint Luke’s New Life Adult Literacy Center, an organization that offers adult basic education and helps adults get their G.E.D.
She has her bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and is working on getting her doctorate in education, specializing in adult education. She’s been a high school chemistry teacher, a site coordinator for Flint Community Schools, and a professor at Baker College.
Winfrey-Carter was born and raised in Flint, but bought her own house in the fifth ward as a single mother in 2013. Four years later she decided to run for council because she felt Flint youth needed role models on the council who were going to be an example of doing the right thing. Additionally, blight has always been her number one issue.
Winfrey-Carter said she has done a lot of research on the subject, and that she thinks there is a mindset issue. She said a person with a “fixed mindset” doesn’t care about the group as a whole, while a “growth mindset” person is interested in meeting the needs of everybody around them
“They would keep their yards clean, and even go next door, and say, hey, would you like to use my lawnmower? Can I help you cut your grass?,” she explained. “I think we have a mindset problem here, and from the research I’ve done, your mindset begins to change with levels of education. So we may have a lack of education problem.”
Short-term, Winfrey-Carter said she would like to see the blight get cleaned up, and get more police officers on the streets.
“Those are the two things that are going to hold back our city. If we want to talk about economic development, we’ve got to talk about blight, and public safety,” Winfrey-Carter said. “Because without public safety, what businesses are going to want to come here? We’ve got to make this city a place where companies want to come…but you can’t make it vibrant unless we clean up the blight, and get more police officers.”
Some residents view development as a solution to blight, rather than a step to take after dealing with blight.
“I think if you start focusing on other things, you know, like giving people nicer places to live, better, affordable, new places, I think if you are more business friendly, bring in more jobs, then the blight will ultimately, eventually start to take care of itself,” said Carriage Town resident Derek Dohrman.
Hammond said blight is the result of a larger problem: depopulation.
“The most important thing is reversing our loss of population, and you can’t do that if you don’t have a nice looking community for people to move into, and have a decent school system, and if you don’t have jobs,” Hammond said. “You’ve got to have those three things.”
Rather than focusing solely on blight, Hammond said he wants to see the city council focus their efforts on economic development, and if they don’t, he’d like to see a special group formed to do that.
“Everything is done very piecemeal and by project. We need a concerted plan, a real plan of action that starts from point A, and goes all the way to point B, and then to C, and then to D, and then to E,” Hammond said. “Not one that says, we’ll do one project here, one project there, and expect that to work. That’s not gonna work.”
He said he feels the current city leadership isn’t engaged enough with ideas of generating economic activity, and that he’d like to see the fifth ward councilperson be an innovative thinker.
“It just feels like we’re rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic, if we’re not going to get serious about bringing people back,” he said. “And you’re not going to bring people back, if you don’t have jobs for him to come to…and a decent school system.”
Jeron Dotson, 28, is opening a restaurant in the fifth ward. While he was born and raised in Flint, he feels like “a real resident,” now that he has his own place and business, Poke Bowl.
The restaurant will be located on the University Corridor, and Dotson said he remembers participating in cleanups in that area years ago with his brother. He says it’s grown tremendously, and the investment in that corridor is an example of Flint moving in the “right direction.”
Dotson said he wants to see the next elected councilperson support community-minded economic development in the city and the fifth ward.
“Not only should they be in tune with what the community wants, I feel like they should also understand and try to make it their goal to increase opportunities for those that live here to invest back in the city,” he said. “If they can make it easier for the average man or entrepreneur to do business in the city of Flint, that is like gold.”
If that can happen, Dotson said the fifth ward could set an example for the rest of the city.
“I think that the fifth ward, if we can find the right way to blend business and community, then it could be like a beacon, or like a prototype for the rest of the city,” he said.
In addition to businesses, some residents say they want their council person to support affordable housing initiatives in the fifth ward.
“I think they have a responsibility to help to promote some development with new housing, and making housing available and affordable in the downtown, or close to the downtown area,” Dohrman said.
Cade Surface, an urban planner, agrees. Surface has lived in the fifth ward since 2006, and in Carriage Town, specifically, since 2011.
“I want the people that are representing our city neighborhoods to be urbanists. I want them to want Flint to be a city and to govern it, and zone it, in a way that keeps it a city, and doesn’t actually emphasize…suburbanization or like this strange sort of suburban model that has been supported by some of the recent decisions,” he said.
Surface said he’s been disappointed in the way that the council has responded to various developers over the years.
“When some of my neighbors stood up at council and said, ‘We don’t want apartments, because we want our neighborhood to be a neighborhood of homeowners,’ that to me, said, ‘We don’t want people that are too poor to buy our their own house to live in our neighborhood,’ or ‘We don’t think our neighborhood should have people of color, or people with low income,’” Surface said. “That was very thinly veiled classism to me.”
Surface said while a councilperson should listen to what their constituents want, he would also like them to stand up to comments that may be racist or classist.
One thing all residents want is to be heard, and Councilwoman Winfrey-Carter said her phone rings practically non-stop.
“My responsibilities, first, are to meet the needs of the constituents which means answering all constituent calls,” she said. “My phone starts ringing at seven in the morning, sometimes a little earlier. My phone does not stop ringing until probably well after 11 o’clock. But you got to answer those calls.”
Winfrey-Carter said she’s “resourceful,” and good at pointing residents in the right direction for where they need to go to have their issues resolved.
She said she attends neighborhood meetings, but that she would like to see more associations because there are some gaps. She said she’s the type of person that likes to visit constituents up on their porch, and that the pandemic has made it hard to connect that way.
Schipani said he’s heard from people in the community that they often don’t feel like they have a voice. Giving residents a voice is one of the responsibilities he said he would have as councilperson.
“I worked a lot with the Flint Public Art Project with different neighborhood groups all throughout the city,” he said. “I feel I’m pretty good at bringing people together, and bringing positive changes, so I think that’s one good asset that I would bring to the city council.”
Dohrman said Winfrey-Carter always answers his calls, and that she’s “straightforward,” with him, which he likes. He just wishes there was more connection between all of the fifth ward, and a place for everyone to talk about their concerns together
“I go to neighborhood meetings for my own neighborhood, but it would be nice if there was a little more connection there with other neighborhoods,” Dohrman said.
Monthly meet-ups, and town halls would be a good start, he said.
Residents would also like to see meetings run smoother, and end earlier, so the public can participate in them more.
“Frankly, the length of the meetings, but also just like the conduct and the showmanship… think makes it pretty difficult for people like me to participate in the democratic process,” Surface said. “It’s just a big time commitment, and frustration, to even observe the meetings, let alone try to participate in them. So I’m sure the majority of the city feels that way, but electing people who can work on getting business done is probably more important than anything.”