For decades, the residents of Flint, Michigan have endured high rates of crime alongside devastating unemployment, depopulation and blight—and recently, a severe water crisis on top of that. But the energy and commitment of neighbors, business people and key anchor institutions are transforming the historic University Avenue corridor. Crime there, in turn, has plummeted. A Department of Justice community safety grant, with training and technical assistance from LISC, has ramped up those efforts and is helping make the corridor a model of problem-solving, and optimism, for all of Flint.
Five years ago, the northwest corner of University Ave. and Grand Traverse in Flint, Michigan was a place to avoid—unless you were looking for trouble. In the middle of a bleak, litter-strewn parking lot, surrounded by vacant yards and homes sagging in disrepair, sat a convenience store that neighbors still refer to as the “Stop and Rob”—a crime hotspot known for hold-ups and drug deals in a city the FBI ranked as one of the most dangerous in the country several years running.
Flint was in the throes of a financial and civic crisis; from 2005 to 2014, the ranks of the police department were cut by 60 percent, and people were leaving the city, in search of jobs and safety.
For a group of local residents and business people, enough was enough. They began to meet up, brainstorming ways to tackle blight and crime and make the area more secure and livable. They wanted to attract the kinds of businesses that families needed, and putting a stop to the “Stop and Rob” was at the top of their project list.
“The city was in dire financial straits,” recalled Jack Stock, external affairs director at Kettering University, a private STEM school and anchor institution at the heart of the coalition. “Policing, trash pick-up, zoning ordinances—everything was in tough shape. We were looking for things we could do without municipal support.”
Together with other partners from the coalition, Kettering bought the lot. They razed the ramshackle store and landscaped the property. Before long, a spiffy Jimmy Johns sandwich shop opened there, hiring employees from the neighborhood, including some who had been residents at the nearby Carriage Town Ministries homeless shelter, another partner in the group. Crime in the immediate area, including drug-related loitering and assaults and shootings, dropped 20 percent from 2015 to 2016.
That growing band of community members, with the institutional muscle of Kettering, the Flint campus of University of Michigan and others bracing them, has been remaking a neighborhood that’s suffered for decades from nearly crippling depopulation, unemployment and underinvestment. LISC had been supporting a range of community groups and revitalization projects along the corridor since 1988, investing nearly $4.5 million in grants, loans and technical assistance.
Today, an inviting (and expanding) greenway flanks the Flint River, connecting the campus and a series of neighborhoods to downtown Flint. The historic Atwood Stadium, long abandoned, is now rebuilt and hosts thousands of spectators at football and other games. At the corner of University Ave and North Chevrolet, a bagel shop and mini-station for the Flint police replaced another dilapidated convenience store. And in tandem with the Genessee County land bank, the coalition has razed dozens of abandoned homes and turned hundreds of lots into parkland. Foot traffic is up, and so is business.
The University Avenue Corridor Coalition, as the group is known, has been so successful in activating the area and, as a result, lowering crime, that they were awarded a $1 million Innovations in Community Based Crime Reduction (CBCR, formerly known as the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation or BCJI) grant from the Department of Justice, with training and technical assistance from LISC.
LISC's support is tailored to meet the goals of each CBCR neighborhood and ranges from intensive coaching for police-community partnerships to helping grantees implement the CBCR model on the ground. LISC's deep understanding of the relationships between physical improvements to a neighborhood, the use of diverse data sets to customize crime reduction strategies, and cross sector partnerships has helped guide each of the CBCR sites.
In Flint, CBCR has helped the University Ave. coalition intensify its community engagement and revitalization efforts, and collect and interpret crime data—all essential parts of making the corridor safer and livelier for residents and businesses alike. Last month, another Flint cross-sector team, lead by the Hamilton Community Health Network, was awarded a CBCR grant as well.
When Tom Wyatt, an urban planner and organizer, was brought on to coordinate the grant two years ago, Flint’s police department had been cut by a whopping 75 percent. “Most days, there are fewer than a dozen patrol cops for a city of 90,000,” said Wyatt, who is based at Kettering, the fiduciary agent for the grant. “Lots of residents were near burnout because they’d been doing a lot of work to improve their neighborhoods on their own. The grant, along with other support, has helped raise the ceiling for them.”
Part of Wyatt’s job is training residents and other partners in CPTED or Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, an approach to shutting down hotspots by changing the physical environment around them. CPTED principles, in fact, are what inspired the coalition’s first projects, like buying out the “Stop and Rob.” And they’ve spurred residents to form neighborhood associations, plant community gardens, and create “Blight Squads,” volunteer groups that board up and clean up around derelict houses. For Wyatt and Jack Stock, ensuring that coalition participants have the wherewithal and tools to undertake projects independent of large institutions like Kettering is important, too.
The visible changes along the corridor send a critical message to neighbors and visitors alike—that Flint and its residents matter, and that fellow citizens are looking out for each other. “This is about putting eyes and ears on the street, and reestablishing trust that’s been broken for years,” says Ray Hall, chief of campus police for the University of Michigan-Flint. “When you see what these people have been through—the loss of GM, thousands of jobs, high crime, and water crisis on top of it—how can you not want to help?”
University of Michigan officers have been patrolling the communities on the perimeter of campus. They also assess properties for CPTED intervention (Tom Wyatt trained Hall’s team on using CPTED) and work with the Blight Squads. “Our directed patrols are highly visible,” says Hall. “The Urban Safety Corps, which works on community outreach and blight removal, is highly visible. And the River Trail Watchers, [volunteers who patrol the greenway,] are visible.”
The CBCR grant has also helped the coalition partners begin to wrangle a mishmash of crime statistics from various city and academic sources. “Without good data, you never know if what you’re doing is going to work or not, or if it’s been successful,” said Hall. The grant, he added, paid for license plate readers that identify stolen cars and some wanted felons—basic crime-fighting tools that the city had been lacking.
Dallas Gatlin, director of Carriage Town Ministries and a member of the coalition since its beginnings, likens policing a city without crime data to flying a plane without a fuel gauge or an altimeter. “One legacy of the [CBCR] grant may be to make crime statistic available not just to the police department but also to community organizations that need it,” said Gatlin. “We’ll have the information to know what needs to be done.”
Tamika Cordell, a Flint native who runs the single parent program at the Flint-Genesee Job Corps Center, recently attended her first coalition meeting, though she’s long been a neighborhood activist. Cordell sees resident involvement—and the capacity of the community to solve problems locally—as the only ways for Flint to revive and become a safer, healthier city.
“This is one of the last decent neighborhoods in Flint and we don’t want to lose that, too,” she said, referring to her home in Glendale Hills, a leafy subdivision at the western edge of the University Ave. corridor. “When neighbors are close and get to know each other, we make changes together.” There’s still a lot to be done, she concedes, but “things have started to quiet down.”