- Associated Press - Sunday, August 10, 2014

FLINT, Mich. (AP) - Every time you cross Saginaw Street in downtown Flint, you’re walking on history.

Downtown Flint, like most U.S. cities, has several emblems in the dozen or so blocks it calls downtown — the First Merit weather ball, The Mott Foundation Building, the arches over Saginaw Street — but it’s the street itself that is the most well-known, the Flint Journal (https://bit.ly/1o7Thkm ) reported.

Or rather, what the street is made of: Bricks.

People love the bricks. They love to look at them, to complain about driving down them, to steal them.

Everyone loves the bricks, but here’s the test: Who knows where they came from?

If it seems like they’ve been there forever, it’s because they almost have — at least for 116 years.

That’s according to David White, president of the Genesee Historical Society and archivist at Kettering University, who said the first time Flint was paved with bricks was in 1898. According to Flint Journal files, the bricks replaced wood blocks that had paved the street before.

“My grandma and grandpa walked across those bricks, that’s kind of cool,” said Joel Rash, who has been putting on concerts and living downtown or in the area for about 30 years.

He’s done his share of traveling and has seen lots of old brick streets in cities, but said they mean something special to Flint.

“I think they’re important as an identifier. They let you know you’re in downtown Flint. The meaning of that has changed over the years, and now it’s a pretty positive thing, kind of like the arches. It’s a symbol of the downtown area, and I’d like to think that means there are opportunities and things to do.”

The bricks mean something special to Gail Odom, of Flint, as well. Although her personal history is a bit different.

Her great-grandfather, Martin Owens, helped lay the bricks. Before coming to Flint, he’d lived in Canada. Before that, he’d been a slave.

“I have an appreciation for family and what was,” she said.

One day, when part of Saginaw Street was being torn up, she said her mother and sister were able to get and keep one of the iconic red bricks.

Her sister still has the brick, she said, but it wouldn’t have been one their great-grandfather possibly laid. The bricks we know today didn’t come until a bit later.

They aren’t the only ones with bricks. People want them — even if it means stealing.

“That’s been an ongoing problem,” White said, who added that the bricks are not only stolen during construction but also from a yard where the city keeps a store of the bricks.

The project wasn’t just downtown.

“Most of the streets in Flint after 1910 were done in brick,” White said.

Downtown Saginaw Street was repaved with bricks in 1936, White said, as part of the Works Progress Administration — a giant effort to put people to work with public works projects.

According a Flint Journal article from that year, 750,000 bricks were used in the project, sitting on 13,000 tons of concrete and 120,000 pounds of steel.

It took 40,000 man-hours to complete the project from March 16 until its completion in July.

The total cost for the project: $142,950.

Over the years, more streets went from brick to pavement, but downtown has kept that old image, one that has allowed the street to keep its allure over the years.

In 1955, The Flint Journal wrote a story titled: “‘One-Street’ Town? — But what a street!”

“Business, industry, religion, education, government, the professions, entertainment — all have front doors opening onto Saginaw Street,” the story reads.

In 1977, when working on the Saginaw Street bridge crossing the Flint River, an English technical consultant found an unexpected treasure behind a wall of bricks supporting the bridge.

The surprise: more bricks.

They were old ones, hand-hewn from rock.

“No Flint historian has been able to determine who quarried the rocks, but a likely candidate is M.C. Barney, who had a marble and granite business on S. Saginaw from about 1880 through the early part of this century,” a 1977 Journal article reads.

The bricks still hold their power.

When a group of auto enthusiasts decided to start a little car show that would grow to draw hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country to downtown, there was only one thing to call the event: Back to the Bricks.

They called it that because the bricks were emblematic of what it once meant to cruise in your car in Flint. Even now, during the Back to the Bricks car show, there is no higher prestige for someone showing off their car than being on the bricks themselves. People line up in the wee hours of the morning for the chance to park their ride on some of the most revered ground in the city.

In a recent Flint Journal poll asking readers whether the city should keep the bricks even though the upkeep can be costly, about 75 percent said that yes, they should stay.

The bricks of Saginaw Street now run just up to that bridge people were so eager to cross, south of the river, running south to Court Street. They run the stretch of downtown, an area that has for years failed to really stretch to the east or west of Saginaw Street, though local developments like the move of the Flint Farmers’ Market has officials hopeful they’ll stray beyond the main strip of Saginaw.

It makes you wonder why it’s been so hard to start that trend, to break that mentality of what defines downtown - has it simply been a long-held prejudice, or does no one want to leave the red bricks that have defined the heart of the city for longer than any of them can remember?


Information from: The Flint Journal, https://www.mlive.com/flint

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