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First Person: 4 Hours in Flint, Michigan Guide

I see that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will be taking their Democratic roadshow to Flint, Michigan—my hometown—on March 6. They will be holding a debate there (location TBD), invariably to do grandstanding and waxing lyrical about what a tragedy has befallen Flint. Yes, it is a terrible horrible shame, for certain. And as a journalist, I know that it is often easiest to focus on the lowest common denominator, especially with such an easy target as Flint—murder capital of America, high unemployment and poverty, derelict neighborhoods, the blight of an industrial city that was the birthplace of General Motors, and now this water crisis that seems to have gripped the attention not only domestically but internationally as well. Currently in Addis Ababa, I have had several Ethiopians ask me how something like this could happen in 21st century America. I have no answer. I read today a New York Times article about the crisis where one local woman was quoted at the end of the story saying Flint will become a ghost town. I truly doubt that, but what a good quote to end another depressing story on about Flint.

Yet, despite all the negatives, there are so many wonderful things about my hometown—a fascinating city rich with history (first lumber, then motorcars, now higher education and health care). Over the years, Flint developed and has become a dynamic mosaic of a multicultural, multiethnic and religiously tolerant society. My classmates were the children of immigrants from places like India, Korea, Poland and Mexico, and their parents did everything from run hospitals, own kosher butcher shops and teach at local colleges to working on the line in one of the then many assembly lines. I grew up going to bar and bat mitzvahs, first communion celebrations and parties held during the Greek and Lebanese festivals which took place every summer.

So considering that many of my journalists colleagues will be spending time in Flint investigating and deconstructing this water crisis (as well as blowing into town for the debate), I wanted to give a travel guide to Flint. When I was at Newsweek, we used to do a section called “4 Hours In…” so this is my “4 Hours in Flint” guide to give a taste of a city that despite everything, is still a thriving community full of good people who are proud of where they live and are tired of being the butt of jokes (thanks, Michael Moore, for starting that trend with “Roger and Me” –when I told someone once in London that I came from Flint, they said, “Oh, I thought Michael Moore made that place up”). Nope, we exist—hear us roar. #FlintStrong #FlintPride.

ANGELOSJust Eat It: One place I never miss when I come home to visit my mom is Badawest. Absolutely excellent Lebanese, on par with places I have eaten in Washington, London and Beirut. Downtown, there is Cork on Saginaw, a wine bar that serves up everything from spinach artichoke dip with lobster to red wine braised short ribs. The farmers’ market, which was a such a treat to go to as a child, has now moved closer into the center of the city  and sells everything from artisan cheeses to organic fruit and veg. There are also a few restaurants in the complex including Mexico at the Market and Chubby Duck Sushi. Angelo’s Coney Island is an institution and there is still a raging debate between who makes better coney dogs—Flint or Detroit. If you crave high end Italian, try Da Edoardo’s in nearby Grand Blanc or for more casual (and a high school favorite of mine), try Sorrento’s in the Flint suburb of Flushing.  You can get great burgers also in Flushing at Johnny’s Pour House  and at Little Joe’s in Grand Blanc. For a quick burger, try Halo Burger, another famed Flint eatery that has been around for over 90 years.

Better Shop Around: If you are anchoring the news and you forgot your suit, head to Craig Ryan in Grand Blanc; they carry brands from Vineyard Vines to Hugo Boss. One of my favorite stores since I was a kid is Gloria’s—they sell everything from fab stationary to cute coats, sweaters and dresses. The Iron Grate, in nearby Fenton, sells wonderful soaps, linens and women’s clothing. If you head there, be sure to stop into The Laundry for excellent—and massive—sandwiches that are just as good as Zingerman’s down the road in Ann Arbor. There is a very comprehensive Barnes and Noble at the Genesse Mall Center, in case you want to stock up on books about Flint’s history, like Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City by San Francisco-based Flint native Gordon Young. Or if you are on the prowl for art books, head to the Flint Institute of Art’s (FIA) shop, which also carries lovely jewelry, gifts and kids activities.

Culture Vulture: Yes, we do have culture—and lots of it. The Flint Cultural Center is a “campus” of a number of institutes including the FIA, the second largest art museum in the state of Michigan, which holds in its permanent collections works by artists including Auguste Renoir, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Lucian Pissaro and Andrew Wyeth.  The Sloan Museum tells the story of Flint’s 300+ year history  while the Longway Planetarium has Michigan’s largest star gazing facility . The University of Michigan-Flint has loads of events including plays, lectures and concerts, many of which are open to the public. Every school year they also hold a number of “Critical Issues” lunches that bring in experts from across the US to talk on everything from science to economics and, yes, journalism. The Whiting, is where locals and visitors go to see everything from the Flint Symphony Orchestra to the Nutcracker at Christmas and Broadway musicals and revues throughout the year. I have never been to Buckham Gallery but I am for sure going to check out their exhibitions and events when I am home again this spring.

old schoolHistory’s Mysteries: If you are interested in a bit of Flint history, Whaley Historic House Museum  is a good first stop to get a feel for the city’s past and how residents of Flint built their community (though the museum suffered a fire in November of last year, they are reconstructing the home and will hold a number of events offsite while they rebuild). Crossroads Village, a slight drive out of town, reopens in May and offers a chance to see what life was like in 19th century Michigan; they also do awesome Christmas lights displays every year. If you want to see some beautiful historic homes, head to the neighborhood of Woodcroft (dubbed “Miller Road Mansion”); in “Roger and Me” Michael Moore inaccurately described some stately homes he showed as being in Grosse Pointe (a tony old money Detroit suburb) –nope, they were in Woodcroft.

Get out of town: Stuck in Flint for the weekend? Spend a bit of time out of town in several nearby places including the kitsch but fun Frankenmuth, a Bavarian village about 30 minutes from Flint. The town boasts two good German restaurants (honestly, Zehnder’s chicken livers are the best I have ever had) and Bronner’s boasts it is the world’s largest Christmas store. If you want to go skiing but don’t have time to head Up North (there are several ski resorts in the upper lower pennisula), try Mt. Holly, where countless Flint kids first learned to ski. If you are more into hiking, head over to the Holly Recreational Area, which is dotted with lovely lakes and forested trails. Nearby Lapeer is horse country, where they hold annual hunts and you can take horse riding lessons. Make sure after you have put your tack away to to pop in for a cozy lunch or dinner at the White Horse Inn.

Give a Little: Flint obviously has its problems and if you want to give a bit of a helping hand—or donate money to good causes—there are numerous local agencies and organizations that do everything from provide food for the homeless to giving education scholarships to children and young adults. The Community Foundation offer all sorts of support for the local community while the Shelter of Flint provides emergency shelters for families across the city. I volunteered at the North End Soup Kitchen while I was in high school  and they are in constant need of volunteers and donations. The local branch of the Red Cross need volunteers to help with the water crisis while Hands on Genesee has a website dedicated to all sorts of volunteering opportunities you can do while in town.