But Flint native India Young wishes people would associate the city with something positive.
“There’s a lot more to us than ‘Flint has dirty water,’ you know?”
Young says the city doesn’t typically get a lot of light or positive exposure in the media, which she says makes outsiders look down on an otherwise vibrant and passionate community.
We traveled to Flint to get a taste of what the natural atmosphere is like, from the people who breathe it every day.
Stepping Stone Falls
The park, at first glance, isn’t outstandingly unique. But when you travel down the main path and the sound of rushing water crescendoes, the view of the quaint dam opens up to reveal an elaborate waterfall made of stone pistons.
Young says she spent a lot of time at this park when she was a little girl. “You still see a lot of families come out here,” she says.
Across the river is a beachfront, scattered with bright umbrellas. Young says that’s Bluebell Beach: another common summer meeting place for locals.
“Bluebell Beach is a favorite memory of mine, whenever it was hot outside and my dad wanted to barbeque, you knew it was a Bluebell Beach kind of day,” says Young.
Stepping Stone Falls is very peaceful, says Pierce Merrow and Kolye Goodman, who were feeding fish at the falls. The pair drop kernels of corn into the water below, and soon enough, massive fish surface to snack.
“Every time we come here we see some really nice views and really nice fish.”
Gary Jones is an avid biker who decided to take advantage of the sunny weather to go for a ride on the Iron Belle Trail, part of which runs through the park.
He explained that although he’d lived all across the country, he was drawn back to Flint as his beloved home.
“It’s like an old shoe, you just know it,” Jones says. “You don’t let the aesthetics get in the way.”
The flamboyantly cosmic Longway Planetarium once held the record for the largest dome in Michigan and employees boast of its state-of-the-art star viewing technology.
Open since 1958, the planetarium was remodeled in 2014 to replace all the older technology and sell as much of it as possible. Small star pieces from the old structure are sold at the concessions for sentimental value.
Murals decorate the walls and crafted planets hang from the ceilings. As you enter the theater, glow-in-the-dark paintings of the star signs and solar system surround you.
Mike Close is a star-show presenter at the planetarium. He says a local artist lent their talent to decorate the walls.
“Some of it is from the original dome, pasted up as part of the murals on the walls,” says Close.
Close says although the planetarium is a big attraction for kids, they have events that appeal to all ages.
A few families wait in the lobby for the next show to start. A gift shop full of space oddities keeps the kids busy before they can enter the theater.
India Young says that although it’s something she especially enjoyed as a child, her love for the planetarium still stands as an adult.
Flint Institute of Arts
The Flint Institute of Arts opened in 1925 as an art school. It’s located in the Flint Cultural Center, an area that includes the planetarium, the public library, and the Repertory Theatre.
The lobby is filled with natural light and a couple of enticing displays. Small groups wander quietly through the gallery, while some people sit in the museum cafe sipping coffee.
The Institute’s goal is to make art “available, approachable, and accessible to all,” says Chene Koppitz, FIA communications coordinator.
The museum has more than 8,000 objects in its collection, making it the second largest art institute in Michigan. Educational programs, guided tours, lectures and community dialogues are available to teach visitors about the vast collection. There are even glass blowing demonstrations. And it’s all very accessible — the institute is free to Genesee County residents.
Young says she has fond memories of having her artwork featured in the FIA while in elementary school, and notes it’s still a field trip destination for Flint schoolchildren.
Young adds that many local artists are often featured.
“[The museum] offers a lot of opportunities,” she says.
Flint’s main street is lined with small shops and restaurants, including a new culinary school. Around the corner is the historic Capitol Theatre, which opened in 1928.
Across from the Capitol is Table and Tap, which is crowded with people enjoying the weekly “Beats and Brunch” event. As advertised, everyone is drinking mimosas while music thumps through the restaurant.
Elijah Blunt is bartending the event. He says Flint’s culture is very distinct.
“Everyone in Flint knows Flint,” he says. “It’s got its own bubble, everyone is growing together…it's very local and very youthful and trendy.”
When asked what India Young misses most when she leaves the city, she says, “The food.”
Young says there are many must-try foods for any Flint visitors. “We have a Big Johns which is really good for Philly cheesesteaks, Sagano’s - a Japanese bistro. Stromboli - I think in Detroit they call them calzones and they’re similar to calzones, but Flint stromboli are so much better, but you can’t get it anywhere.”
Young gave us some tips for date night and hangout sessions. “If you’re a regular Flint native like me, you’re going to want to go to the best taco places like La Familia or El Azteca,” she says.
Banana Boat Ice Cream
Tucked away on a busy road right off I-75, Banana Boat Ice Cream is an unassuming stand that is beloved by the people of Flint.
Young says Banana Boat is the place to be in the summer. And it’s easy to see why. Although the stand offers the typical options, there are a lot of unique menu items: lemon and vanilla twist soft serve, piña colada shakes, strawberry shortcake sundaes.
Banana Boat is clearly another bright spot in the city. When we visited on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the line was looped around the back of the stand. One small family sat under a large tree to eat their cones and hide from the occasional raindrop.
Young says, “There are a lot of hidden gems here, but you have to go look.”
We sit down at one of the picnic tables to enjoy some ice cream. Young says she admires Flint’s endless resilience amid tragedy and judgment from outsiders.
“This is our home. We don’t have control over [the water]. And then, people will say, ‘Well, why don’t you just move?’ Do we have the money to just get up and move? We’re a whole city!”
She says that when she talks to people outside of Flint, they have little knowledge of the city besides the water crisis.
“A lot of people approach us the wrong way because they lack education on what actually happened,” says Young. “There was a time when people would look down on Flint because of the water situation instead of thinking, ‘Dang, these people really don’t have clean water.’ It’s worth the conversation, but if someone is being rude or just making comments, then it’s not really worth talking about.”
Although the city's lead levels are now below federal limits, residents are still concerned. But Young says the city has been forced to keep moving forward.
“We have no choice but to just keep living.”