By Scott Atkinson
“I think people are seeing this can have a lot to offer,” said Beth White as she walked along the dozen or so red-bricked blocks of Saginaw Street that constitute Flint, Michigan’s downtown. She was talking about downtown itself. She’s worked there for the past seventeen years and that sentiment — that downtown is coming back, is having a revival, or has, at least, something to offer people who would have to go out of their way to drive there — is becoming something of a cliché, especially to downtowners. But it’s an unavoidable one. It’s the kind of thing you might get sick of hearing other people say if you spend any amount of time in downtown Flint, and yet is also the very thing you will find yourself saying when faced with someone who doesn’t yet understand, doesn’t get it, who hasn’t drank into the wee hours at the Torch Bar & Grill, talking about things like gentrification or the steepening price of coffee. They must be initiated, taught, and the day she was walking downtown with her friend, a man who had not been downtown in a number of years, was perhaps the best day to make that point. Along the entire stretch of Flint’s downtown Saginaw Street, including several of the side streets that local officials are struggling to make feel like there’s more to downtown than this one stretch; in parking lots on the nearby University of Michigan-Flint, campus; in all the nooks and crannies where they could be parked, were cars.
[blocktext align=”right”]Nice cars. Classic cars. Vehicles you know better than to touch lest you smudge the custom paint jobs. The only thing there were more of were people…[/blocktext]Nice cars. Classic cars. Vehicles you know better than to touch lest you smudge the custom paint jobs. The only thing there were more of were people, filling the streets on August 15, the culminating car show of Back to the Bricks, Flint’s string of auto-related events, now in its eleventh year. Some were people like White, who are downtown all the time. Others were from as far as Texas or California, driving or hauling their classic cars all the way here just to get a spot on the bricks. Most others were from the surrounding Genesee County, people like White’s friend who otherwise do not venture there but, during the third Saturday of August, cannot resist. The auto industry is all but dead in Flint, and yet its spirit lingers — and at 10 o’clock that morning, White was, like the rest of the crowd, moving slowly and steadily toward a small landscaped plaza along the side of the street to see the likeness of a dead man.
They were headed to see a man who may have given their grandfathers or great-grandfathers their first jobs. Covered with a velvet cloth, a bronze statue of Albert Champion awaited his unveiling. Champion is better known in the area by his initials as the founder of A.C. Spark Plug, a division of General Motors. Like the other bronze men he stands with, floating above the crowd on his granite pedestal, he called Flint his home during a long and wandering career. Champion’s path was a unique one — he was a Frenchman and champion bicycle racer who loved a crowd, a “skirt chaser,” as one Bricks official called him, who met his end at the hands of a jealous husband. The other bronzed men he stands with have a more familiar story to tell, even if it’s not one everyone knows — in fact, that’s the reason they’re there.
At the same time people were gathering around him at Back to the Bricks, people in Detroit, an hour’s drive to the south, are taking part in the Woodward Dream Cruise, the annual car show in Detroit known throughout the country. No doubt in Detroit, the Motor City, people were proudly driving their American-made cars — Chevrolets and Buicks, but it is Louis Chevrolet and David Buick who stand alongside Champion as the Back to the Bricks crowd gathered and awaited the unveiling. Between them in the center of the plaza is William “Billy” Durant, founder of General Motors. This is not the Motor City. It is the lesser-known but aptly named Vehicle City, and just a short walk from the statue plaza is Factory One, the place where GM was birthed.
[blocktext align=”left”]It’s about celebrating — and reminding people — of America’s automotive roots.[/blocktext]For many car enthusiasts, Back to the Bricks is just one of two huge car events the third week in August. For others, like Al Hatch, who founded Back to the Bricks, it’s symbolic of something bigger. It’s about celebrating — and reminding people — of America’s automotive roots.
“We hear a lot — Woodward this, Woodward that, Detroit — and the true automotive historians recognize Flint as the epicenter and the place that had given birth to the auto industry as we know it today,” Hatch said.
After 11 years, he and the organization he started have spread that message to thousands of people. They’d like to spread it further. The only issue is whether or not they can keep the car show that celebrates Flint…in Flint.
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In 2005, it was just an idea. In its infancy Back to the Bricks had more to do with the Dream Cruise being so congested (and expensive; cruising the 16-mile stretch of Woodward Avenue is free, but some businesses charge as much as $80 to park in their lots) that Hatch wanted to see an alternative. And, of course, why not Flint? Didn’t it deserve its own event? Even a small one?
That first year it drew a grand total of about 600 cars to Saginaw Street. Downtown, at the time, was perhaps not the ideal place to hold an event. It was before restaurants and cafes were popping up and people like Beth White were showing it off to friends. It was a place many people didn’t go, at least, not anymore.
Hence the name. It’s called Back to the Bricks for a reason. There was a time when downtown was thriving. In 1954 GM was filling the pockets of 80,000 employees, and in a town built on building cars, gearheads abounded — and they needed places to drive.
“If you wanted to go to a drive-in restaurant — they weren’t called fast food back then — you would go to the A&W on Beech Street, and then come up Saginaw Street right on these bricks [to other restaurants],” said Hatch, sitting in the shade of a tent during Back to the Bricks. “That’s what they did on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s what I did, too. … A lot of older people understand that. That’s where the name came from.”
The next year, it got a little bigger, drew a few more people. And the next year, a few more. People may have liked the more laid-back atmosphere, or perhaps — at the organizing committee’s insistence — that everything was free, but whatever the reason, it only kept growing. In time it went from being a one-day car show to an entire two weeks of events, starting with a week of “Tune Up” parties held each day in one of the various outlying communities around Flint. Each Tune Up party is a small car show in itself, usually held in the large lot of a business around that community’s downtown. The parties are followed the next week by a Tuesday night drive-in movie, where people would park classic cars and some women would dress in poodle skirts, and then two days of sanctioned cruising through downtown Flint to the southern edge of the county, followed by a short Friday-night show that would be cleared out to make way for the people who would start lining up as early as 2:30 a.m. for the Saturday show, sitting in cars with blankets and falling back asleep to get a coveted spot on the bricks (on some side streets, the bricks, decades old and still there, are buried beneath an inch of asphalt). If the statues aren’t enough for you, you can get even closer to the dead that drew you there. The Saturday show now includes, in addition to the show itself, free shuttle rides to Flint’s oldest cemetery, where actors in period costumes will stand beside the graves of Flint’s automotive founding fathers and tell their stories.
Since 2010 Back to the Brick’s has also staged a promotional tour, taking drivers of classic cars throughout Michigan, sometimes into Indiana, stopping each day in a different city for a one-day show. The first time Back to the Bricks stopped in Cadillac on a routine promo tour stop, the mayor called the day “historic.” Michigan’s smaller cities have been vying for a spot, and in 2014, Back to the Bricks held its first franchised shows in both Cadillac and Mt. Pleasant — shows separate from the promotional tour.
One of the Brick’s committee’s proudest accomplishments is the Back to the Bricks statue project, which started in 2012 with the erection of the statue of Billy Durant. Financed by donors, both businesses and individuals who give the $40,000 it takes to have the statues sculpted, bronzed, and placed on granite, seven statues have been placed throughout the area. They’re sculpted by Joe Rundell, a Back to the Bricks committee member and well-known gun engraver who started dabbling in sculpture. After showing Hatch a bust of the Greek goddess Athena, Hatch asked him if he could do full-size sculptures of some automotive pioneers. At the time Rundell was 71. He said, yeah, sure, he could figure that out. In 2014, he was featured in The New York Times for his work on the statues.
The most recognizable names, perhaps, are the ones downtown. But there are other names, also notable, in other places around town. Take for example, Walter P. Chrysler, who stands atop a baggage claim at Flint’s Bishop International Airport. In Michigan, Chrysler is generally associated with the iconic building that bears his name in Auburn Hills — a suburb of Detroit. But it is in Flint that he now stands for eternity next to an electronic sign that tells the story of how before he ever bought a car company that would become the Detroit-based Chrysler — long before the iconic Chrysler building was built outside Detroit — he’d cut his teeth in the auto industry when Durant had hired him to oversee Buick in Flint.
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In 2014, Back to the Bricks made what was considered my many a radical — and, to some, an offensive — change. It was only its tenth year, and yet the Back to the Bricks schedule — a week of Tune Ups, the drive-in movie, two nights of cruising, the Friday-night show, and the Saturday show — was now something taken for granted, as permanent as the bumpy red bricks themselves. But there was a problem. Until that year, Back to the Bricks hadn’t had to chip in to pay the extra cost for public safety that accompanied the event. Rather, local municipalities created an annual joint task force to police Back to the Bricks. The city of Flint, as well as neighboring cities, townships, the county, and state, had absorbed the extra public safety costs — more than a million dollars over eight years, according to Flint Mayor Dayne Walling — through 2011, with Flint bearing the majority of the costs. That same year, Flint was appointed an emergency manager by the governor due to financial distress, and the city stopped taking on the public safety costs. In 2012 and 2013 the city wrote grants to cover the extra costs ($111,348 in 2013) but in 2014 decided not to continue. At the time a spokesperson said that writing the grants wasn’t something they did for any other organization. Now Back to the Bricks — a nonprofit that runs primarily on donations — had to pick up the tab. Hatch said they couldn’t afford it. And besides that, he doesn’t think they should have to.
[blocktext align=”right”]“We’ve seen some tremendous growth, and I know people disagree with me and that’s fine, but I think Back to the Bricks led the renaissance of downtown Flint, because we proved that if you build it properly, people will come.”[/blocktext]“We’ve seen some tremendous growth, and I know people disagree with me and that’s fine, but I think Back to the Bricks led the renaissance of downtown Flint, because we proved that if you build it properly, people will come,” Hatch said.
The Friday-night show, a three-hour affair from 6-9 p.m., historically included a concert. That year, to cut costs, Back to the Bricks took the concert to Grand Blanc, a suburb at the south end of Genesee County. Instead of the Friday-night car show, they added a third night of cruising. To some, this was nothing short of heresy. The Friday-night show itself hadn’t even existed the ten years, and yet already it was something to be counted on.
Instead of cars on the bricks that year, a local businessman fenced off two blocks of Saginaw Street, rerouting the cruise around the heart of downtown, for a party called “Bermudas on the Bricks.” It was a block party of dancing and drinking you could attend provided so long as you were willing to pay the cover charge of ten dollars, and that you happened to know what Bermuda shorts were. It was supposed to be an annual tradition. The mayor declared August 15 “Wear Your Bermudas to Work Day.” In 2015, the show didn’t return.
But the drama behind the scenes didn’t stop. Hatch still isn’t sure how to keep up with public safety — or if he even wants to. This year, he said, almost everything “was maxed right out, turning people away. They told me they ran out of parking at the Tune Up parties; the rolling cruise, throngs of people; the movie theater, they had to close it down because there was no more parking, that’s never happened. … You look at the national Buick club [Buick Club of America] is starting their annual reunion down here, making it a fun event and bringing people from all over the nation. That could bring tremendous and positive results if it takes hold. They should he helping out all they can.”
“They” in this case is not limited to the city or public safety costs. Hatch said he’s upset more community organizations aren’t doing all they can to pitch in — whether that’s in terms of actual dollars or promotion of the event. He said he’s had pressure from local organization leaders to start charging for the event, which he and other Bricks committee members refuse to do. “They’re the damn show. Why would you want to charge the people who are the show to come in?” he said. While Back to the Bricks has long been known as an economic boon to downtown and the surrounding community (some restauranteurs were among the most upset to see the Friday-night show leave) he said he’s heard from at least one local business owner who went out of his way to tell him Back to the Bricks doesn’t do anything for him. He said there’s only one sponsor from the downtown business community.
It’s enough to make him consider something he doesn’t want to do — take Back to the Bricks away from the Bricks.
He said he and Back to the Bricks committee members are meeting to create a list of things they’d like from the city when they hold the event.
“These are our requirements,” he said. “You don’t want to meet them? Then we’ll move. That’s the least desirable. We don’t want to do that. But we’ve got other communities that would love to have this, and do it for nothing.”
Flint Mayor Dayne Walling said now that the city is no longer under the control of an emergency manager, he wants to work with Back to the Bricks to keep it here. That might not mean the city takes on the costs, but he said he’d be willing have the city write grants and raise support as they had in 2012 and 2013.
“I’m a huge booster of Back to the Bricks and I’ll do everything I can to keep the event growing here year after year. I want the event to build on the 11 years of success. I’m willing to fight to keep Back to the Bricks,” he said. “I think the additional funds can be raised so it doesn’t fall on local taxpayers to support.”
He stresses that moving the show isn’t something he wants to do but he’s not counting it out, even knowing how angry people would be to see it leave. He said he doesn’t think people would blame him, or Back to the Bricks, if it comes to that.
“We’ll win the PR battle hands down. There’s no question,” he said, but if he’s right about winning the battle, he’s also right that it will certainly be a battle.
When he says it though, there is no battle — or at least no evidence of one. There are just a whole lot of cars, and a whole lot of people wandering the streets, looking through windows and under hoods, some inevitably making a remark about how far downtown has come whether Back to the Bricks had anything to do with it or not. A few blocks south from where Hatch sat, Christy Hill, a 44-year-old Flint woman was sitting behind her ’69 Dodge Charger with her daughter, watching as people stop to admire the car she’s dreamed of since she owned the Matchbox version as a little girl and helped her dad in the garage. She’s been a gearhead her whole life and has been to every single Back to the Bricks. She’s just happy to sit in the shade in a lawn chair and raise her own little bit of hell, showing off her Dodge to the GM aficionados — in her car she has a welded skeletal hand, its middle finger raised. She’s got a decent spot this year, right on the Bricks, but already she’s thinking about how to get a better one next year.
“Last year I got here at 5:30 and it was perfect,” she said. “I should have got here this year at five.”
Scott Atkinson is a freelance writer based in Flint, Michigan. For the past several years he has been an award-winning features writer for The Flint Journal. He teaches writing at The University of Michigan-Flint.
All photos by Scott Atkinson