This essay is an excerpt from our forthcoming Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology (Belt Publishing, June 2016).
By Emma Davis
“Hey! What’re y’all doin?” he yelled across the empty park. A pint-sized paper bag sat on the sidewalk next to his smooth-soled tan work boots.
He’s directly in our pathway, I thought, as my assistant director, Mel, and I emerged from underneath the Saginaw Street bridge downtown at Riverbank Park. Forty feet ahead, a man lounged on a concrete bench built into the supporting wall of an overhead platform — a former market block stall where people had once sold goods. His flannel coat was the same worn shade as his blue jeans. An amoeba-shaped wet spot darkened the pavement a couple feet away. It wasn’t the first time we, two blonde women in our twenties, were on the receiving end of an unsolicited comment at the desolate park.
“We’re rehearsing for a performance. About Riverbank Park,” Mel said as we neared the bench.
“Ohhh,” he said, sounding unsure. “Where will it take place?”
“At the park,” I said. “It’s a show about the history. The audience travels around the different blocks while watching music, theater, and dance. It’s based on park history and community memories.”
He thought for a moment. The warm September breeze rustled the three-year-old trees rooted like litter in the grassy canal meant for water. He smiled, revealing a missing tooth on his bottom jaw.
“You know I come down here once about every two weeks. Used to come down here as a kid,” he said.
Mel and I exchanged glances. Darkness was falling earlier each day and we still had more scenes to run through. Over the past year, I engaged community members with the park and its history to create a greater sense of appreciation for the blighted space. After a series of workshops the previous summer, we had begun to devise a script that integrated music, acting, dancing, and elements of people’s real reactions to the park to create something that brought the audience to a deeper understanding of the space. We were used to excited or nostalgic reactions when people learned about the Riverbank Park Dance Project, but time was running out on this particular evening, and there were only a handful of rehearsals remaining before opening night.
“Well you’ll have to check out the show then,” I said, handing him a flyer for Riverbank Park: A Beautiful Future.
“Yeah, I’m 51 now,” he continued. “Used to work at GM, in the factory. Wanted to be an electrician, but couldn’t get that job. I got an associate’s degree. You know, I could probably manage a Burger King if I wanted.”
Working with a group of twenty artists the previous two months didn’t leave Mel and I much time to rehearse our own roles as park tour guides. It was our job to deliver the historical information. Outside of creating the piece with the other artists twice a week, the two of us squeezed in rehearsals after work and classes, often with less than an hour before daylight disappeared. With the performance only a week away, we were going to have to maneuver out of the unexpected conversation, especially since he was sitting at the starting point for the last scene we needed to practice.
“There was just a trail, a pathway, along the river, before the park was built. I was in high school in the ‘80s, used to hang out here with my friends. You know, some of ‘em may still be the same people,” he said, chuckling, staring at the river as if re-watching an old film from memory.
* * *
I don’t remember my first experience with Riverbank Park, except that it was when I arrived as an UM-Flint undergraduate student in winter 2008. Growing up an hour’s drive south of Flint, the crumbling concrete park seemed unsafe compared to the tidy, small-town landscaping I was used to, where the neighbors shunned anyone with grass taller than a week’s growth.
The strange park seemed to me like the rest of the city’s worn and hidden spaces. I’m sure at one time it was a breathtaking attempt at uniting the city’s waterfront with a public space that spanned five blocks of downtown on both sides of the Flint River. It includes a farmer’s market area, waterfall walls, Grand Fountain, Archimedes’ Screw Block, and an amphitheater surrounded by a canal that, when filled with water, creates an island stage on the river. Cracked vertical concrete walls give the park a labyrinthine feel and in some areas they create blind spots that may have been intended to create a romantic sense of seclusion, but now feel like spaces where someone could jump out at you from any direction. Broken glass litters the below-street-level pathways and overgrown scrub trees rise out of trash-filled canals. The nauseating smell of dry urine mingles with the odor of stale fish and mucky water. Only the peeling wooden signs naming each block give clues that it’s a public park.
But I soon became more interested in the abstract features as I kept walking to and from the dance studio, just north of the park. During this same time, Flint was finally regaining businesses downtown after a thirty-year recession. A series of redevelopment efforts led to new restaurants, businesses, and a farewell to midcentury eyesores like the nineteen-story Genesee Towers, the city’s tallest building (and arguably its ugliest, constructed in a high-modernist style), until it was imploded in December 2013 after a decade of vacancy. A tall chain-link fence encircled the building to keep pieces of falling concrete façade from hitting passing pedestrians and cars.
By 2012 I had moved to the city to work as a UM-Flint dance faculty member. Riverbank Park became as familiar to me as my own home a mile away. I often visited the park to hang out with friends after art walks and explore the maze left by the waterless Grand Fountain. It was unlike any park I’d ever experienced, which were often just large, grassy fields with some play equipment. Without a working water system to bring it to life, only a concrete skeleton of the park remained. But the more I went there the more I felt the spirit of the space and those who’d been there before me. I fell in love with the architecture of the park because it was a perfect space for creative movement when it was empty of water.
But my love for the park was threatened when the City of Flint received a grant award in 2012 to remove portions of the park’s concrete features. This was when I first learned Lawrence and Anna Halprin’s connection to the park.
Riverbank Park was designed in 1976 by the office of Lawrence Halprin and Associates based on public suggestions and the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood control requirements. The park’s design intended to bring together the community’s idea of aesthetic and spatial beauty with Halprin’s best practices in how public spaces encourage interaction. He often worked with his wife, pioneering postmodern dancer Anna Halprin, whose process-oriented approach to dance inspired Lawrence to develop the RSVP Cycles, a collaborative method that seeks transparency for diverse groups working together. Together, the Halprins worked with communities to include them in the design process by exploring and discussing public spaces and their effects on human experience over time. When opened, Riverbank Park won several architecture awards, becoming a space for the community to gather and create memories.
With a sense of urgency from the pending construction, in 2013 I took a weeklong workshop from 93-year-old Anna Halprin at her Mountain Home Studio just north of San Francisco. I learned how Anna’s method combined dance, visual art, and storytelling to create deeper understandings of our environments and personal experience. One day we explored the redwood forest in her backyard to ask a tree a question, and then answered by drawing, writing, and dancing a response. The results symbolized events happening in our own lives, bringing understanding and visibility to the forefront. I wanted my own community to feel a similar transformation when reflecting on Riverbank Park.
* * *
Riverbank Park was nicknamed the “people’s park” when it first opened in 1979. With the early auto industry boom, Flint’s wealthy industrialist forefathers planned many of the neighborhoods to have their own parkland, creating around 60 parks across the city. Riverbank Park is designed very differently, serving as both a flood control project and feast for the senses. The park spans five blocks beginning on the north side of the river at the Archimedes Screw Block, which moved water up from an old dam to a series of canals connected below the street bridges and includes a “water wall” of small waterfall-like single stream fountains shooting down a smooth concrete wall. The rest of the water would continue forward to the Grand Fountain, with an intricate series of smaller fountains and pools for residents to swim and play in.
On the south side of the river two additional blocks were built, one that originally included a kayak launch and a series of market stalls. Beyond that block was the large amphitheater that surrounded the concrete island stage, divided by a canal. The canals could only be filled when water levels hit a certain height, so an additional inflatable dam known as the Fabridam, was included at the southern end of the park to retain water and raise the river to fill the canals.
Riverbank Park was one of several projects to attract tourists and support economic development during the beginning of what would be Flint’s multi-decade recession. By the late 1960s and early ‘70s, a declining auto industry and layoffs led to increased crime and poverty, and suburban “white flight” began to empty out much of the city. As a company town tied to the fate of the auto industry, Flint was hit hard by the oil crisis of the early ‘70s, and as population shrank the city made many attempts to stop the loss of residents and revenue.
The park brought new energy downtown when it first opened in 1979. The amphitheater stage was host to headliners like Dizzy Gillespie. During the initial performance of my project, one of the audience members mentioned that he was at the original opening, and country singer Rick Nelson entered the island stage by floating down the river on a boat. I’ve spoken with several people who shared childhood memories of playing in the Grand Fountain, going to Kids’ Kapers events, meeting Mr. McFeely (the mailman from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), and attending the Flint Jazz Festival for the past thirty years.
The park was designed optimistically but perhaps not realistically.But problems began soon after opening. A businessman, for instance, was walking along the boardwalk on the north-side Water Wall Block, and he tripped in one of the gaps in the concrete. Soon after, the gaps were covered with steel plates, also covering up the ability to connect directly with the river. There were issues with late-night partying, thefts, assaults, vagrancy, vandalism, and the park’s north and south divisions on each side of the Flint River became a symbol of the city’s underlying racial boundaries. The park also suffered mechanical and electrical problems, and according to the Flint Journal, people would try to pop the Fabridam with bullets, arrows, and knives.
The park was designed optimistically but perhaps not realistically. The canals only fill with water when the Fabridam artificially raises the river level. The canals were meant to be full of water, but because the Hamilton Dam existed at the park’s northern edge, there needed to be a creative way to raise the water high enough to enter the canals. Eventually, the crumbling dam required that the river level stay low so that too much pressure wasn’t put on the it, leaving the canals dry and full of trees and trash.
Perhaps most symbolic of Riverbank Park’s tribulations starting in the 1980s, was the 25,000 pound, 40-foot-tall, yellow aluminum sculpture on the amphitheater stage. Created by a Buffalo, NY, artist, the modernist sculpture was intended to be a crowning jewel for the park. However, five months after installation, the sculpture fell into a canal and broke after a windstorm. It took two years before it was bolted back together and reinstalled, with steel cables added later. The artist even took out a mortgage on his house to help fund the repairs. But in 1984, the city removed the sculpture, citing safety and legal concerns, and when a buyer was unable to be found, the city decided to scrap the metal. The sculpture was replaced with a pine tree.
In 2012 the city of Flint received a grant to increase park accessibility south of the river. According to a city planning department report, the construction included removal of concrete portions in the Amphitheater and Market Stall blocks, filling in canals with dirt, a new kayak launch, and a handicapped-accessible ramp leading to the Amphitheater stage. I wanted to be happy for the changes, but I couldn’t help wonder how much time remained before Riverbank Park was just another failed attempt at a brighter future, soon to be demolished and forgotten by the next generations. Or at least, that’s what it can feel like here sometimes.
* * *
“There used to be this Archimedes Screw at the park,” the lounging man said, sipping from the can wrapped in its beige paper blanket.
My interest sparked. He recited a line of dialogue matching what we’d imagined a character saying in our script. While I’ve never personally set eyes on the Archimedes Screw, I knew what it was from talking with residents and searching Flint Journal archives. Archimedes invented the spiral design in 200 BC to pump water out of leaky ships, and it was later used for irrigation systems, allowing cities to flourish with a direct water connection.
“Yeah, it was right next to Hamilton Dam,” I said. “Haven’t talked to anyone yet who knows what happened to it.”
“It’s an old invention designed by some Greek or Roman guy…maybe Socrates,” he said.
“Or…Archimedes?” I responded with a smile.
His expression went blank for a couple seconds. Realization spread across his face as he processed the name connection and laughed it off. Mel responded with her line from the show about how the Archimedes Screw was initially installed backwards, and how the gears had to be reversed in order for it to work properly. An ominous sign that perhaps should have signaled how the park’s, and Flint’s, history would unfold.
* * *
Learning about the history gave me a stronger connection to the space, and I wanted more from this once-beautiful park. I wanted others to see it as I did. How, I wondered, would the community respond to Riverbank Park if I used Anna Halprin’s participatory dance methods in the space designed by the office of her husband and collaborator, Lawrence? I wanted to bring the area to life and use its many secret and underused spaces to get visitors moving through the park as it was originally intended, hoping to create a connection that would inspire future visits and increase awareness to what a resource Flint had in front of its eyes.
In 2014, two years after the initial grant award, construction still hadn’t started and I wondered if the city, operating under a state-appointed emergency financial manager by that time, would decide against the changes with only a year remaining to utilize the funds. That summer I developed a series of workshops that would inform the 2015 performance. Together, both parts were known as the Riverbank Park Dance Project. The four workshops gave participants a hands-on experience in the space using Anna’s movement methods while discussing park history and responding through art-making. The three, multidisciplinary performances led the audience throughout the park’s main blocks and were based on interactions with the space, as well as park history, poems, art, and dances created during the 2014 workshops.
During the workshops, we started at the Amphitheater and Market Stall blocks, exploring areas using Anna’s scores with movements like sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. Traveling each of the four main blocks, we discussed history and current issues about the space. At the Grand Fountain everyone shared their experience of the park by drawing a picture, writing a poem, and creating movements.
Many of the drawings imagined the park’s potential, with multiple shades of green grass and blue water flowing through the canals and fountains. Poems articulated challenges. One poem written from the perspective of the park said, “I am not very old, but I feel like it. I used to feel much stronger now, but I’ve fallen ill recently.” Another poem: “The glorious plan for the space has been lost, but, it still has a purpose. It’s part of the earth and as the trees shelter the walls, it continues to exist to the world, wants to be seen.” For movement responses many people did “the wave” with their arms, where one arm lifts and floats back down while the other arm echoes to look like rippling water. Of the 50 people we surveyed, half had not been to the park before and every person said they would likely visit again.
The workshops identified what people thought of the park currently, but embracing memories was essential to the performance. I held two story circles, or dialogue sessions, to better understand how people have personally interacted with the park. A story circle is a method that values the voice of each person while identifying reoccurring topics important to the whole community. I’ve participated in story circles for other creative projects in Flint, and enjoyed how the technique provided opportunity for residents to be involved in the creation of the performance. At our Riverbank Park story circles, people said they wanted more activities like the monthly cookout a local church group had for community members and homeless people. Women felt unsafe at the park, and people worried about the next-door neighborhood, Carriage Town, a historic area one woman said was a place she was afraid she would get robbed.
Of the 50 people we surveyed, half had not been to the park before and every person said they would likely visit again.In June 2015 a chain-link fence the length of a city block surrounded the Amphitheater, and demolition began. With my fingers interlinked with the fence, my heart cracked as I watched a multi-ton wrecking ball slam against the stage bridge. The thunderous echo of concrete smashing into concrete sounded like a dumpster being dropped after emptying.
Luckily the performance worked around the closed Amphitheater Block, and even incorporated it into the performance with music and a dance in front of the fence, acknowledging the weddings and jazz festivals that happened there. Rehearsing outdoors in the middle of summer wasn’t easy, with some days reaching temperatures above 90 degrees, but we were committed. Each rehearsal I prepared a score or narrative based on the information I’d been researching, and in return each artist developed their creative response, many utilizing the architecture for a connection with the space. About half of the artists had visited the park before, while the remaining had never been before rehearsals started. In the beginning, most said the idea of a performance taking place at Riverbank Park was different and unusual, but by the end everyone agreed it was a good experience that helped to change perceptions.
The performance opened the last weekend of September 2015, and attracted around 200 people. The title, Riverbank Park: A Beautiful Future, was inspired by a park fundraising brochure created in the mid ‘70s. We raised $160 and it was donated to Flint’s Downtown Development Authority for future park clean ups.
Starting at the Market Stall Block, the audience traveled throughout the park on a historic tour. The site-specific show included scenes depicting a 1970s park fundraising pitch, fishing, parkour, dancers representing nature and activities like playing in the water, music from festivals over time, the construction changes, and an entire scene at the Grand Fountain that included poems and movements created by workshop participants, voicing hopes for the park’s future.
During talkbacks, audience members ignited conversation about the park’s past, present, and future. For those who had been there before, it brought back both painful and joyous memories. Many people agreed on what they’d like to see at the park, including several types of art, and brought up issues of safety, maintenance, and cleaning. There was a desire to see the water features working again, specifically at the Grand Fountain, and hopes that the Amphitheater changes would help bring people to the park, despite some skepticism about the city’s ability to follow through with the project successfully.
“It was built with a purpose,” an audience member said about Riverbank Park during the last performance talkback. “Part of the Halprin process was to incorporate movement, and you can see the necessary changes to revitalize it are still typical to witness, but the necessary changes to bring it back to life…the key to any park is to have people be able to actually participate in it. Parks don’t exist in a vacuum. Without people being there, it’s all for nothing.”
* * *
Listening to the man’s stories about the park, Mel and I saw a dark, wet stain on the concrete near his feet. We shared an awkward look with him before he broke the silence.
“You’ll have to excuse the urine,” he said, pointing to the squiggly spot. “My friend peed there.”
“Hey! Mind if I go pee here?”By this time, I was familiar with every nostril-burning stench at the park, but this random act of urination felt personal.
“Why didn’t he just go in the canal?” I asked the man, annoyed about his friend’s choice to pee in our pathway.
Analyzing the tall grass in the canal four feet away, he laughed. “I agree! But he just stood up, went right there, then left.”
I was used to suspiciously smelly puddles at the park, but they were usually under a bridge or secluded corner. Not just out in the open.
“You know it kind of felt like he did that in my house,” he said, pointing to the spot. “I was just sitting here, having a nice time, and then my friend got up, and went, right there. And then he left without me!”
The three of us were there, stuck with the stale smell of evaporating urine. We all agreed it was a jerk thing to do. Our experiences of Riverbank Park weren’t necessarily the same, but our appreciation for it was. It’s a place where we’ve met people and made memories that shaped our lives.
We got to the point where I found an opportunity to practice my line from the performance, about leaving. We thanked him for sharing his story and said we needed to get back to rehearsing. After reminding him of the show dates, we walked up the stairs leading further into the park, away from the concrete bench. Dusk was on the horizon and Mel and I still needed to practice our last scene as tour guides. I spoke the first line:
“Maybe it’s obvious Riverbank Park isn’t the shiny modernist gem it used to be, but it’s the people–”
“Hey!” He shouted across the empty park, the paper bag clutched in his hand. “Mind if I go pee here?”
Only if it’s in the canal, I thought, as Mel and I stood frozen with mouths open. Our eyes locked and silently asked: Was there a friend? Was that his wet spot from earlier? Is this guy really going to pee in the canal right now? There’s no public restroom so maybe it would be the most…courteous thing to do?
Then, he laughed.
“I’m just kidding!” he said, throwing his arms up into the air.
And we all laughed, as he turned around, walked away from us up the stairs towards Saginaw Street., and left the park.
Order Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology here.
Emma Davis is a dancer, choreographer, and educator living in Flint. Her work is primarily site-specific, drawing inspiration from personal experience and the historical, architectural, spatial, and socioeconomic aspects of the place. Davis directed the Riverbank Park Dance Project, a community-based, site-specific performance that shared the stories and history of Riverbank Park through music, theater, and dance.