Flint, MI —Mexicantown in Detroit. Chinatown in New York City. Little Haiti in Miami. While not necessarily unique in their naming convention, these neighborhoods all conjure images of bustling businesses, colorful mural art, and the ever-present smell of the best food each culture has to offer. Most importantly to those who are part of these cultures, they provide a strong sense of belonging, community, and cultural identity.
That’s why Asa Zucarro, director of the Latinx Technology and Community Center (LTCC) along with the center’s board of directors has drafted up a set of short- and long-term goals, grants, and projects all aimed toward establishing what he is calling the Flint Latinx District on the city’s east side.
In early 2020, LTCC partnered with the Neighborhood Engagement Hub in an effort to survey members of the community on what sort of improvements to their neighborhood they were looking for.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic put the project on hold for most of 2020, LTCC and NEH were eventually able to single out three of the most popular responses given by residents.
- More space for community
- Access to culturally relevant programing
- A greater emphasis on highlighting Latinx arts and culture
According to the Latinx District project outline provided to Flint Beat by Zuccaro, these three topics all revolve around the idea that spaces and programming friendly to Latinx cultures are not common in Flint. This is despite the fact Latinx people make up the third largest demographic in the city and in Genesee County.
For context, Flint’s Latinx population is estimated to be about 4300 (this number could soon grow due to Flint’s 2020 census efforts), meaning if it were a city, it would be larger in population than surrounding towns and cities like Linden, Clio and Mt. Morris.
The effects of this alienation of a population have manifested themselves as more than just a lack of extracurricular programming. During the early days of the pandemic, black and brown communities in Flint and Genesee county were disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
As support for these communities eventually started to roll out, language barriers among other issues began presenting an even larger challenge for Latinx community members. It wasn’t until 2021 that some healthcare organizations in Flint started making a more concerted effort to cater to this segment of the population.
To address these issues, Zuccaro and the LTCC board further tried to identify how these responses given by the community could be addressed.
“We talked about the social determinants of health and the importance of having social support and structural support to ensure a healthy community and we think having a more concrete space to identify within Genesee County could help with a sense of belonging or even just with a sense of community,” Zuccaro said.
Though the plans, as well as the idea of a Latinx district, are all tentative, LTCC was able to put together four key projects varying in focus and scope to address these issues in the community.
All equal in ambition, these projects, if carried out as planned, could turn a couple city blocks on Lewis St surrounding the LTCC into a bona fide cultural, economic, and community hub for Flint and Genesee county’s Latinx people.
As the proposal is in its preliminary stages, many aspects of it are subject to change, but the four main projects so far are:
Increase the Capacity of the LTCC Building to Host Community
Zuccaro wants to complete renovations on the LTCC building at 2101 Lewis St., allowing the space to have a dance/performance studio and offices for local businesses, as well as a full-time mental health professional and immigration attorney, meeting room, and other community-based services. The estimated cost is $350,000, and once funding is secured the timeline for completion is 3-6 months.
Add a Playground, Athletic Fields, and Community Garden to Nearby Vacant Lots
LTCC has routinely cared for several empty lots owned by the Genesee County Land Bank in the area surrounding the building. With several plot purchase options available to the center, Zuccaro hopes to turn a number of these empty lots into anything from small parks to athletic fields. Though the cost for this project could vary, Zuccaro said he hopes to have the project started in the summer of 2021.
Add Simple Branding Features and Art to Identify the Latinx District
Throughout the summer of 2021, LTCC is also hoping to secure funds for lampost banners and other types of community-oriented art projects such as murals directed at giving the center’s section of Lewis St a stronger connection to the community. Much like a college or a historical district may have banners running along its mains street, Zuccaro said he wants to make sure those who visit or pass through Lewis St know they are in Flint’s Latinx District.
Secure Funds to Improve the Streetscape and Beautify the Area
Featuring a longer time period for completion, this time being the summer 0f 2022, LTCC is looking to secure funding for anything from sidewalk and road repairs to maintaining and making new, larger community gardens. On top of this, Zuccaro says LTCC wants to source any labor related to these projects from the community itself, in the process providing possible job opportunities and training for those who work on the beautification of the area.
Khalfani Stephens, the City of Flint’s director of economic development, has already met with Zuccaro to discuss the preliminary details of the Latinx District project.
Though Stephens was adamant about the fact the proposed Latinx District is too early in its stages to talk about viability, he did offer up a metaphor to explain how really it’s on the people of Flint and not the city of Flint to make the project work.
“If you take Anytown, USA and say ‘here is an area that currently does not have a lot of foot traffic and there is not a lot of businesses here’ and then say ‘is it possible that this area could support businesses?’ and the answer to that question is, well yes. I mean Las Vegas was nothing until someone decided that they were going to build there and they were going to actively recruit people to come there and do what they did,” Stephens said.
With the proposal being in such early stages, Stephens said he couldn’t give a concrete answer on how the city itself could lend a hand in the development of one of its neighborhoods, saying only that “our division (Community and Economic Development) is here to help…business grow and expand.”
Khalfani said his division can help businesses get access to loans or other types of resources, and also emphasized the importance of community engagement.
“We really talked more about community and the idea of, you know, what’s happening in that area? What is the community doing and wanting and how can we make sure that these individuals are a rising part of the greater Flint community?” Khalfani said.
This idea of community members being engaged with the project, Zuccaro said, is a large part of the Latinx District proposal. Though not mentioned in the proposal, community volunteerism has been a large part of the neighborhood beautification process that has allowed for such a proposal to even exist.
Through a series of community cleanups hosted by the LTCC in partnership with other local organizations, the tech center has been able to maintain 50 vacant properties across Flint’s eastside with the help of volunteers, most of which were part of the center’s Summer Youth Leadership program.
These properties include the lot adjacent to the LTCC building, where a few weeks ago the center hosted its second clean-up of the year in the hopes of eventually turning the lot into a community soccer field.
With over 20 volunteers putting in the work picking up garbage, trimming trees, and mowing lawns, Zuccaro said he hopes a community clean-up crew can soon be put together to regularly care for the lots.
“All the work we’ve done to date…was almost solely on the official staff of the center. One thing we noticed with our youth groups that was monumental in getting all the work that’s been done so far it’s really that there is power in numbers…Our goal is to mobilize a neighborhood cleanup crew, a good group of neighborhood volunteers who are interested in maintaining and making Flint a beautiful home,” Zuccaro said.
Aurora Sauceda, a public health navigator and coordinator at Michigan United and long-time Flint resident, still remembers when Flint’s east side and the rest of the city was home to a larger and more robust Latinx community.
She sees the idea of a Latinx district as being a source of empowerment for the community and serving as a way for Latinx people to take true ownership of their surroundings.
As a member of the community, Sauceda put a large emphasis on the idea of Latinx businesses being close to Latinx individuals. For many Latinx families in Flint who want to eat the types of food they’re accustomed to, trips to Hispanic markets in Saginaw, Lansing and even Detroit are commonplace.
“I go to Pontiac whenever I want my tortillas because we can get the Milagros tortillas for 99 cents and it lasts me a whole week and when you shop here, you go to Kroger and you pay $1.39 for a little packet of corn tortillas,” Sauceda said.
She also argued following through with the projects outlined in the Latinx District proposal would help the LTCC as well as the community as a whole in its missions toward self-sustainability, something community leaders like Zuccaro have said is built into each project they carry out.
For Sauceda, remodeling and opening up the second floor of the LTCC building would be a giant step in securing office space for Latinx businesses and organizations. And with the income generated from rent, the LTCC itself would be less reliant on outside money.
“There are hopes to remodel the whole top floor of the center and hopefully invite Latinx organizations…And then it would be a Latinx center where you would have other organizations like El Ballet Folklorico, Latinx-owned businesses like contractors, lawyers,” Sacueda said.
Looking back on her time growing up in Flint, Sauceda mentioned how the east side would be home to near weekly dances in the park and often live music would be featured. Even now, she said, that wish for community exists. People want to “feel the music,” she said.
In the last few years attempts to revive this sense of community through dances and cultural celebrations have drawn large crowds and created a buzz. This buzz, Sauceda said, has hung in the air of the east side for years.
Though this Latinx District proposal is new, the idea for it, the sentiment and need behind it has always existed. Now, there seems to be a chance to mobilize and make what has been a dream for many a reality.
“Other communities do it. They support each other. It makes them stronger and we can do that, too,” Sauceda said.
A nearby and somewhat recent example lies in Detroit. For over a hundred years now the city’s southwest side has been home to a majority Latinx population.
Earning itself the name of Mexicantown as more and more Latinx families moved in, the city’s southwest corner quickly turned into a beloved piece of Detroit history, culture and commerce.
To celebrate Cinco de Mayo in a COVID-19 friendly way this year, We are Culture Creators and Fiesta Vibes, two Detroit-based organizations, teamed up to organize a week-long celebration called Fiesta Detroit. Focused on highlighting artists and artistic movements in the city, the two organizations planned the celebration around live outdoor musical acts and mural painting.
In the process of planning this scaled-down event (Cinco de Mayo usually draws crowds of thousands in Mexicantown) Fiesta Detroit inadvertently created what could potentially serve as a model for a Flint-sized Cinco de Mayo celebration.
The titular event on May 1 occupied half a city block and one empty residential lot. Empty lots and low-traffic streets, two things Flint’s Eastside has a veritable bounty of.
Flor Hernandez, a project manager for We are Culture Creators, grew up in Southwest Detroit. She said for her, coming up in an area where she felt represented, cared for, and culturally involved played an important role in her success as an adult.
“For us, that (Southwest Detroit) was our community. But once you graduate and move into the real world, for me, I went into corporate. I was the only Hispanic female among a group of older white men. It’s very alienating,” Hernandez said. “To be able to have cultural events like this allows you to have a deeper sence of appreciation for you heritage, your culture your, your background. You feel like you belong to your community.
Hernadez also stressed the fact that younger Latinx generations need to understand the importance of having their voices heard and of valuing the places they live in.
“We need to not be fearful of taking up space when we deserve it. This is our community. We have so many different types of Latinos and Hispanics. Having this kind of event embraces our culture and teaches people that we deserve to have this space,” Hernandez said.
While partnerships with other organizations in the city are important, events like Fiesta Detroit can’t happen without the right municipal support.
According to Hernandez, support from the City of Detroit was essential to the event’s success. As she says, part of her organization’s goals is to “bridge the gap between the citizens of Detroit and its city officials.”
Being in contact and building relationships with people like the Southwest’s business liaison to the city as well as city council members is an important part of making sure community-building events like Fiesta Detroit stick around.
“This is our city but we also do have permits to go through, we have city officials who are very supportive of our organization. Without that support a lot of the time we wouldn’t be able to pull events off like these,” Hernandez said.
Like Detroit, Flint and surrounding areas have a healthy number of Mexican restaurants as well as a thriving art scene.
The question then is not so much whether something like Fiesta Detroit or Mexicantown exist in Flint, but rather whether the Latinx community in Flint can receive the needed support form the city and community partners to help make it happen.
The answer to that question, seems to be a resounding yes.
Councilwoman Jerri Winfrey-Carter of the city’s 5th ward who has already been working with Zuccaro and the LTCC on a program to make GED’s more accessible to the city’s Latinx community said she “I will embrace whatever he (Zuccaro) wants to do in that area. I embrace diversity…I’m 100% all for it, whatever he wants to do, I will give him total support.”
For Sauceda, the ultimate goal for bringing business to the area isn’t profit. Rather, she wants to see a self-sustaining community where local money is spent locally.
Flint’s considerable Latinx population, paired with the lack of grocery stores, venues, or even restaurants cater to their specific cultural needs, means many Flintstones are spending their money outside of the city and going to places like Detroit for food, groceries, and entertainment.
A similar effort to revitalize an area of Flint, the University Avenue corridor, has been underway for years on the other side of town. Its success has led to new revenue streams for the city and the business that reside within it and serves as a comparable, if not, larger example of what Zuccaro hopes the Latinx District could one day be.
The University Avenue Coalition has existed since 2012. It was founded by Kettering University as a way to beautify and commercialize the mile-long stretch of road between downtown and Kettering. In the years since its founding countless local, state and national organizations have donated money or given grants to the cause.
The Coalition oversaw the purchasing and remodeling of Atwood Stadium which eventually led to the creation of the Flint City Bucks, a United Soccer League team that drew thousands of Flintstones and other across the state to weekly matches during its first season alone.
Dylan Luna, a business development manager for the Flint & Genesee Economic Alliance said it’s important for the city to encourage local spending.
“I think Flint has a big opportunity for a district that’s primarily Hispanic based and caters to the community,” Luna said.
He mentioned having business similar to the Poke Bowl, another product of the efforts made along the University Avenue Corridor could be a great way of bringing new business to the area.
“Maybe it’s a couple of years off but I think, if they really want to develop it, something like a first-floor restaurant or a boutique with an apartment for the owners above like the Poke Bowl building. Something like that could happen for the Hispanic community,” Luna said.
According to him, while it is just an idea, the Economic Alliance has floated the notion of creating programs to incentivize Latinx immigration to Flint.
As time passes and Zuccaro speaks with more community partners about the possibility of a Latinx Distict, he said he feels it’s something that can happen. The city and the Latinx population have what they need to make a part of the city for themselves.
On top of that, he believes a Latinx District doesn’t just have to be for Latinx individuals. He wants to share his culture, his art, and his city as he knows it with others. He likens the Latinx District he envisions to the nearby town of Frankenmuth.
“You know, we always talk about Frankenmuth. It doesn’t just bring out the Germans, it brings out everybody. And that’s what we want to do for our community.”