When we tell people of our idea to spend a day vacationing in Flint for this year’s Summer Guide issue, the typical responses seem to range from confusion to gasps of fear. For whatever reason, we had never visited, knowing Flint only as the ghost town depicted by Michael Moore in his auto industry doc Roger & Me — and the one city that seems to beat Detroit year after year in the top murder rate stats. But why shouldn’t we go? An hour’s drive from MT’s office, Flint’s not much farther away than Ann Arbor. And shit, we’re from Detroit — we know a thing or two about finding fun in Rust Belt cities. So, armed with a camera and a few tips from our friends from Flint, we hit I-75 to and light out for the territory.
Hoffman’s Deco Deli & Café and Carriagetown Antique Center
We’re hungry after our short road trip, but luckily we have a tip about a combination deli and antique store, which sounds sufficiently quirky for our tastes. Owner and Flint native Nick Hoffman greets us, and is the first person not to laugh at our story idea — even excitedly offering his own itinerary of “fabulous Flint.” A self-proclaimed “devotee of the D,” Hoffman started looking for space for his planned antique store down in Detroit, Royal Oak, and the Grosse Pointes, before the former Sears Roebuck Tire & Service building became available in his hometown. Abandoned for 30 years, it was filled with trash and 4 feet of basement water when Hoffman acquired it in 2007. You’d never know it today, though, as the charming store is now packed to the brim with two stories of precious, stylish antiques, from furniture to knickknacks to clothes. Upstairs, creepy mannequins wearing old coats, and even creepier dolls in the toy section, add a certain offbeat charm. Outside, faux Grecian statues and art deco lampposts lie scattered — Hoffman has big dreams for a canopied, flower-lined outdoor patio and, despite his struggles dealing with the city, he hopes to get the lamps up this summer. At his urging, we go next door to the deli, owned by his sons, and order a Reuben and chicken wrap. They hit the spot perfectly, and we’re now ready to explore.
The Flint Institute of Arts
An art museum seems like an obvious destination when visiting a city, so we head to Flint’s Cultural Center. In addition to the Flint Institute of Arts, the Cultural Center is home to performance venue the Whiting, the Longway Planetarium, the Sloan Museum, the Flint Institute of Music, the Flint Public Library, and more — a convenient one-stop tourist strip. At the FIA, we’re immediately impressed by a floral chandelier by world-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly in the foyer, and the rest of the collection doesn’t disappoint. Though a small fraction of the DIA’s collection in volume, the art is neatly arranged in chronological order and features some real gems — such as quite possibly the creepiest Flemish vanitas painting we’ve ever seen. The four-eyed dog is, frankly, twisted — the damn thing seems to be staring at you with double the normal canine intensity. The museum also boasts one of the world’s largest collections of European glass paperweights, so there’s that.
The Sloan Museum
The Sloan Museum is right there across the street from the FIA, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t sample its offerings. In fact, there’s an American Adventure Maze exhibit that, as it turns out, is supposed to be for kids. No matter, we flash our press cards and try our hands as colonists. “Do you accept help from the natives?” asks one sign. Left for yes, right for no. We don’t want to appear racially insensitive, so we opt for “Yes.” Good choice. We then decide (for some ungodly reason) to huff beaver musk from a plastic vial. Bad choice, and a strong contender for “worst idea for an exhibit ever.” It smells like we ran over a skunk and then rolled down the window while it was still thrashing around. Plus, we have to wonder, who the fuck had the task of bottling beaver musk, and what’s his official job title? If it’s fake beaver musk, what’s it made out of? How beavers ever have sex is beyond us. (Ha! We said “beaver.”)
Flint Institute of Music
After leaving the Sloan, we try to get into the nearby Buick Museum. Sadly, it’s closed, but there’s a sign pointing to a doorbell for deliveries. We hover over it for a minute but decide that a “Hey, we’re not deliverymen but, in fact, journalists looking for a quick, unscheduled tour” approach would likely go down like a broken elevator. Instead, we wander into the very empty hallways of the Flint Institute of Music. We’re greeted by a couple of confused security guards, whose confusion only increases when we explain that we’re not here to see anyone in particular, just to see the place. Ultimately, they don’t care and they wave us on in. It’s not long, however, before we bump into Dr. Quincy Dobbs, a warm and full-bodied gent who can’t wait to show us the beautiful old theater organ that’s housed at the FIM (rescued from the Capitol Theatre, which is currently undergoing renovations). Things take a turn for the mildly awkward when one of his students, Austin McGuire, wanders in and Dobbs insists he perform a piano piece for us. McGuire reluctantly succumbs to the pressure and plays an old-timey song. But just as we start to get into it, Dobbs inexplicably cuts him off. Still, Dobbs gives a wonderful, brief history of the school and of the arts in Flint in general. “There are all these rich widows of the motor industry giants here,” he said. “Their kids have moved away, and they have nothing to spend their money on, so they donate millions to the arts.”
Bar 501 and the Torch
Driving into downtown Flint, we’re greeted with an arch adorned with the message, “Welcome to Flint Vehicle City,” which really doesn’t roll off the tongue in the same way that “Motor City” does. It’s like they want Flint to be Detroit’s less cool younger sibling. But anyway, even in the early hours of Thursday afternoon, Flint’s downtown area has a nice buzz to it — although admittedly we don’t venture far outside of the polished areas. We bounce into the first bar we come across, Bar 501, a little swanky for our taste but not unwelcoming. “I’m known as the mean waitress,” bartender Jess Kallie tells us, which is weird because she never stops smiling and, typically of the people we’ve met in Flint, she’s super-friendly. She directs us to the Torch, an awesome joint just around the corner that recently earned a place on the “33 Best Dive Bars in America” on the website Thrillist. As dive bars go, this place is pretty clean and, aside from some squinty glances from one apparently hammered gentleman in a trucker’s cap, it has a warm vibe. We have a couple of IPAs and a hard cider, and take a good look at the patrons. It’s a good, healthy mix of blue-collar guys, couples, and hipsters, all chatting among themselves or watching the World Cup soccer game. Nolan Ward is our bartender, and he strongly recommends that we stick around for their famous burger. We do, and it’s fucking great. The meat is cooked medium and is super-juicy, the lettuce is fresh and the bacon that Ward insists we need is crisp. No fries required — this thing is huge.
The Dort Mall
We get odd looks from people all day when we ask about the Dort Mall. People either seem to have no idea what we’re talking about or don’t understand why we’d want to go to an abandoned shopping center. We hear conflicting reports — some say it’s filled with antiques and other memorabilia owned by its eccentric pack-rat owner, while others insist it’s been completely closed down for years. Though our trip is running a little behind schedule, we have to get to the bottom of this. When we arrive at the mall, the parking lot seems to be empty, and we’re unable to spot an anchor store, but a dilapidated sign in the shape of a pointing clown oddly compels us to investigate further (yes, we know this is how horror movies start). The mall is in fact still occupied, but its only tenants appear to be a head shop, a hockey memorabilia store, and a coney island — all you need, really. It’s filled with some interesting artifacts, though — old road signs, boat figureheads, a busted McDonald’s arch, an entire airplane, and an aquarium housing one ancient-looking fish count among the curios on display. A giant gumball machine with a lonely layer of remaining gumballs seems to serve as a fitting visual metaphor for both the mall and Flint in general — there’s still some fun left in this thing.
And that’s that. We feel obliged to drop by the Machine Shop on our way out of the place, but there’s nothing going on, so we jump back on the freeway and head home with the knowledge that there’s no way of knowing Flint without going to Flint. If Detroiters know anything, it’s how damaging half-assed stories of desperation and slanted stats can be. Let’s not make the same mistake when it comes to our neighbors.