This story is a part of a weekly series in which Flint Beat explores the issues and concerns of resident in each ward, as well as each council candidate, leading up to the Aug. 3 primary. For more election coverage, including other stories in this series, visit our elections page.
Flint, MI– There are four people vying for the council seat of Flint’s second ward, but it will take a lot more than politics and promises to impress this ward’s residents.
They’re looking for major change.
The second ward is the third smallest ward in the city, according to a research study from University of Michigan-Flint. Its population is about 10,400 as of 2017, and about 91% of residents in this ward are African-American, 4% are white, and 1.5% are Hispanic, according to the study.
The report shows that the median household income is $25,000, with 38% of residents living in poverty.
According to the Flint Property Portal, in this ward, there are more vacant lots than properties listed in “good” condition. Properties in “fair,” “poor,” and “sub-standard” condition outnumber those in “good” condition, too. Some blocks have more overgrown fields than houses.
With a median age of 36, many residents in the second ward are parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. They’ve lived in the ward for decades, and remember the good days without vacant houses and closed schools. They remember neighborhood block celebrations, businesses lining Clio Road, and plenty of places for kids to play.
They watched it fall apart. What they want from their local officials is help getting it back.
second ward residents say that’s through property repairs and rebuilding, economic development, increased public safety measures, and resources for children.
Rebuild and repair
Bennie Jones, 62, has lived in the second ward since 1978. He lives on a block with only four houses left—three if you don’t count the one that’s vacant with boarded windows. In place of homes, there are overgrown fields.
According to the Flint Property Portal, there are 2,109 properties listed as good, 1,387 as fair, 451 poor, and 395 sub-standard. There have been 1,378 demolitions in this ward so far, with 288 to go, only seven of which are funded.
Getting residents home repairs, and making their properties affordable, is the top priority for the current second ward Councilman and Council Vice President Maurice Davis.
“One of the biggest issues for me is higher property taxes. Any increase, because most people over here are older homeowners, and they’re on fixed income, so any increase in their cost of living can be devastating,” Davis said.
Additionally, Davis said many second ward residents can’t afford to make the necessary repairs on their home. While there are programs in place to help fund homeowner-occupied repairs, Davis said many of his constituents don’t qualify because they are not up to date on their insurance or property taxes.
“You got to have all these stipulations that, when you live in an impoverished community, you can’t qualify. Especially when they got tarps on their roof and they’re barely making it,” Davis said.
Davis was elected in 2017, and beat the incumbent with 57% of the vote. The jazz musician caused a stir over the past year after going viral for supporting former president Donald Trump, and hosting a podcast on Facebook where he sometimes talks about other councilmembers and used profanity. In February, Davis said he was receiving death threats.
But Davis, who has lived in the second ward for 45 years, still wants to serve as councilman, and says he knows “how to do the job.” He says his biggest challenge since getting elected is that while he does his part, other city departments don’t always do theirs.
“As a council person, all we can do is recommend, and have department heads get it done. A lot of things that I put in complaints, ever since I’ve been elected four years ago, most of them haven’t been done,” Davis said.
While Davis said he participates in cleanups and helps with other issues, there are some jobs he can’t do, like be the police, or provide pipe restoration services. But as a council person, he has a few different ideas of how he might be able to help.
“I’m gonna impose a special order, to do an ordinance that disconnects the delinquent water bills from people’s property taxes. Too many people over here are losing their homes to foreclosure and they can’t even afford to pay a water bill,” Davis said.
He also said he would like to see each ward have their own funded account, so the council representative can use their allocated money to solve problems on their own.
He said his vision for the second ward is that it remains inclusive as it improves.
“Don’t let Flint move forward and leave the residents that suffered all their life and been here to get foreclosed out of their home,” he said. “Include everybody. Grandfather these folks in on fixed income, and let the homeowner-occupied rehab dollars actually be what they say they are.”
To keep the homes maintained, council candidate Ladel Lewis said she believes second ward residents need to become empowered and take pride in their neighborhood.
“The first thing is encouraging residents to make where they are their home. If we want people to start building in our neighborhood, let’s keep our yards clean so people will say, ‘hey, people’s yards are clean, I’m less likely to dump,’” Lewis said. “Why? Because they see that we care about our neighborhoods…Let’s not wait ’til you move to Flint Township, or your tax money comes in and you move to Grand Blanc. No. Let’s start the pride and the beautification process right where you are.”
Lewis was born and raised in the second ward. She graduated from UM-Flint, and then left for college at Western Michigan University where she earned her Ph.D in Sociology. She lived in the D.C. area for a while, but came back to Flint to care for her father in 2019.
When she came back, she noticed a lot had changed, from finding bullet casings in the street her father lived on, to seeing more renters than homeowners.
“I don’t want to shine a negative light on renters…but I would say we have uninvested renters. That’s the difference,” Lewis said. “But one of the great things about our neighborhood is that so many people are still there. So many of my friends’ parents, my old neighbors, they are still there.”
Lewis said the people who remain in the neighborhood after all these years inspire her to do work in the community to make it a better place. As part of the Sarvis Park Neighborhood Association, Lewis said she organizes clean-ups and events, prints quarterly newsletters, and applies for grants to fund various projects.
Her vision for the second ward is for it to be home to invested residents, business owners, and political representation.
“When we’re invested, more businesses will want to come this way,” Lewis said. “People will look at this as a place to move to, instead of a place to move away from.”
Cliff Alexander has worked at the Big John’s Steak & Onion on Clio Rd for 34 years, starting as an employee and working his way up to becoming the owner. Over the years, he’s witnessed the devastating impacts of recessions on top of the end of Buick production on businesses in the second ward.
“The turnaround was 2008, 2009. Everything went real quick…within 15 months, everything around here was garbage. I mean, people had broken and stolen everything out of everything,” Alexander said. “If we didn’t put money back to save for a rainy day like that, we would’ve shut the doors. It was bad.”
He said businesses have tried to come in, but the buildings that are left behind are so badly damaged that they’re beyond repair. In his opinion, the second ward needs demolitions, new buildings, and economic development to give the youth hope.
“We have to let the kids know that there’s some hope for the community. You know, they see all this stuff tearing down and nothing building back up, what are they gonna do? They’re gonna leave too,” Alexander said. “Nothing gets built around here, everything is just torn down and looking bad. That’s all they’re gonna remember, they can’t remember being around a nice community.”
second ward candidate and local activist Arthur Woodson was raised in this ward, and does remember when Clio Road was a street full of businesses.
“I never had to leave that side of town because everything that was on Miller road and downtown, was right there on Clio Road,” Woodson said. “I used to call it the “yum yum” street, because we had Burger King, McDonald’s, Dawn Donuts…those are things we need to see come back on that side of town.”
Woodson regularly attends council meetings, and other city meetings, speaking during public comment and live streaming them on Facebook. His top priorities include bringing research and studies into Flint related to the impact of the water crisis on physical and mental health. He said he would also like to see Clio Road become a “Black Wall Street,” or a “Business District Association,” and get funds to give businesses tax breaks to help them stay afloat.
“So we can bring businesses and revenue, Black businesses and revenue, on Clio Rd. And once we start doing that, everything else will follow,” he said.
The kinds of businesses matter too, for Lewis.
“I noticed that we have a new business here on the Clio Rd strip called Ghost Hookah. So you know, when we have less “Ghost Hookahs” and more viable grocery stores…and viable economic options, and more invested homeowners, business owners, and politicians in the area, we can move forward and change things around,” Lewis said.
Increased Public Safety measures
Alexander said another element keeping businesses from coming to the second ward is the crime. He said some people don’t want to come to his restaurant because of the reputation of the area.
“They see Clio Road, and say I don’t want to go there. That ain’t my fault, but I’m losing business because of that. We got older citizens that come here but now they don’t want to come because of the stuff around it. I’m losing business,” Alexander said.
He said he needs a councilperson like he needs “a hole in his head.”
“What do we need? Police,” he said.
Davis said he gets calls from residents all the time saying they called the police but they never showed up.
“It’s frustrating… we’re not police, but these residents just want some kind of security where they live,” he said.
Eartha Logan has been a resident of the second ward for 47 years, and is the secretary of Flint Residents Organized for Good. She remembers a time where residents could walk through the streets at night without fear. Now she said, it’s hard to sleep, hearing sirens and gunshots all night long.
She said gas stations and party stores—places she said children used to be able to go and buy things safely—are hubs for crime now.
“The loitering around the gas stations, you know, we need to make them accountable for that, and maybe with our elections coming up, that will be something that could be addressed more firmly,” Logan said.
Davis attempted to bring forth an ordinance to close liquor stores earlier, but it was never approved by the council.
Council candidate Audrey F. Young, who has owned her home in the second ward for 12 years, says the store owners need to be held accountable.
“The loitering causes a lot of problems, and I live very close to Paradise (Food Market), so when things happen around there at that store I can hear them. I hear gunshots, like the other day there were 50 rounds of gunshots not long after they closed up,” she said.
Young said a conversation needs to happen with store owners about enforcing loitering rules. If store owners aren’t asking people to leave or calling the police, Young said it’s “not fair to the people that live in this area.”
In speaking with residents, Young said she found out that many of them want to get certain alleyways between party stores and neighborhoods, that are often used as “escape routes,” closed off.
“We’re trying to work together to get it taken care of before I even get the opportunity to become a councilperson,” Young said. “My thing is this, what you see me doing now during election season, is what I do all the time.”
Young is a licensed occupational therapist, and is actively involved with the Man Up group, working to teach conflict resolution as a response to the increase in violence the city has seen. She said she is also part of a neighborhood watch group, where neighbors call each other to report suspicious activity and look out for one another.
Lewis and Woodson have other ideas about public safety, too.
Lewis, who has started going through the Michigan State Police Citizens Police Academy and worked in tandem with different police departments at organized clean-ups, wants to push for more citizen advisory councils.
She said residents need to build relationships with police, and that it goes both ways in gaining an understanding of each other.
Woodson said his goals would be to bring more research into Flint regarding the water crisis, as well as mental health services for the youth impacted by the water crisis.
He said that young people are the ones committing the crimes now, and seven years ago, they were exposed to toxic water when they were still developing. He questions if that’s the reason crime is up, and said he would like to see young people interviewed about whether they have mental illnesses or substance abuse issues, the way veterans are when they’re brought to jail.
Resources for kids
Right now, there is only one open school in the second ward—Eagle’s Nest Academy, a charter school that houses K-5. But there used to be several.
Bunche Elementary, Anderson Elementary, Civic Park Elementary, Merrill Elementary, and Northern High School were all second ward schools that closed.
Woodson said it’s important for Flint to have new schools, with new technology, good pay for teachers, and all kinds of classes for kids ranging from S.T.E.M. to media studies.
“Some of our kids want to be a scientist, they don’t all want to just be basketball players. I mean, give our kids something that they can feel great about,” he said.
Jones called Merrill Elementary “the heartbeat of the neighborhood.” This was one of the first schools built around the concept of “community education,” where kids could go to school to learn and play, adults could continue their studies there, and the whole community could gather for activities.
Jones was the school’s former community service director, and reminisces on all of the different activities that were available for kids there.
“We had kickball, basketball, talent shows, we had dances, we had teen club, we had breakfast for the kids on Saturday morning, they could watch movies, play at the gym, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “We even had daycare, so like on Friday, we’d take them on trips, we did arts and crafts.”
Now it’s another abandoned building, with overgrown grass and litter. If you peek through windows, you’ll find broken glass all over the floor. But, Jones said he’d get in there and clean it himself if he could.
“There’s no place for the kids to play. Nothing. They have nowhere to go. All they do is play video games, ride their bikes, and get in trouble, all because there’s nothing to do,” Jones said.
Jones has resorted to setting up basketball hoops on his street to play games in the neighborhood. He said they’ve even opened up fire hydrants for kids to play around in.
Logan said young people don’t have a lot of hope without the schools open, and no activities for them to participate in. Her vision for the second ward includes revitalized parks, an amphitheater for performances and motivational speakers, better basketball courts, and lots of lighting around the parks.
She remembers when kids used to play basketball games and have relay races in the neighborhood, with everyone sitting out on their porches watching over them.
Every second ward council candidate said they remember how different things used to be, and want to work to get it back to that.
Logan said she wants a council person who gets out in the community and participates in events, clean ups, and any other service projects that are happening.
“I would even like to see them have town halls,” Logan said. “Get your people together in your ward. Find out exactly what their concerns are. The city expects the residents and the groups to clean up the city. We can’t clean this city up by ourselves, because it’s gone too far.”