Riverside renewal moves along on Chevy Commons, site of historic labor dispute

Riverside renewal moves along on Chevy Commons, site of historic labor dispute
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A site associated with historic labor conflict is becoming a location for environmental preservation and leisure activity.

Chevy Commons, made famous as the scene of 1936 “sit-down strike” held by Flint auto workers, has gained attention and is attracting more resources to support development of the district. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MEDQ), City of Flint, Genesee County Land Bank, Genesee Parks and Recreation Commission, and Genesee County Commissioners are among agencies that have been collaborating to reinvent the former site of “Chevy in the Hole.”

Sixty acres of pavement is all that remains where the lumber, carriage and auto industry flourished, and where the 1936-37 Flint sit down strike against General Motors changed the course of history. With the factories gone, people in Flint decided it’s time to do something new here and to recognize that history. YouTube video from The Bright Side http://brightsidetv.com.

Advocates of the development along the Flint River are eager to see the area repurposed, and some, like Rebecca Fedewa, say it has potential to become a public destination for regular events and programs in the city.

“I don’t think we’ll ever have the numbers of people we had when this was a center of car manufacturing, but we really think of this area as a nexus of transformation,” says Fedewa, executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition.

The Coalition, which hosts regular outings on the river, recently announced its annual “Press and Friends VIP Paddle,” a two-hour paddle that runs through the Chevy Commons stretch of water. Flint Congressman Dan Kildee, a kayaker, will participate in the event at 9 a.m. Aug. 28. To sign up, please click here.

Sitdown strikers guard the window entrance to Fisher Body Plant No. 3 during the walkout, which started in 1936. Photo: Sheldon Dick

On Dec. 30, 1936 General Motors employees took over Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint, holding a 44-day strike to gain the United Auto Workers recognition as the employees’ bargaining agent with GM. The protesters also demanded a fair, minimum-wage scale, a grievance system and safety procedures to help protect themselves from injury.

Despite other strikes by workers at similar plants, the Flint protest was significant because its facility contained one of only two sets of auto body material used in production of all GM cars. By locking themselves into the factory and refusing to perform, the employees wielded enough power to potentially shut down the entire company. Eventually, with the involvement of President Roosevelt, a settlement was reached, resulting in concessions that included a 5 percent pay increase for employees.

The history of the Chevy Commons labor protest is a stark contrast to the site’s significance 82 years later. A design plan for the community located west of downtown and next door to Kettering University, which has also advocated for its renewal, is being implemented.

Three of the five phases have been completed and are open to the public. Phase four is scheduled for completion in October and phase five will begin after that. The entire project should be done next year.

 

The Environmental Protection Agency awarded the City of Flint $1.6 million through the Genesee County Treasurer to address potential health and pollution issues at the site, such as residual contamination from the former plant.

The MEDQ issued a $315,000 grant to support further development of the area, which is already attracting interest and leisure use by local residents. Trees and other greenery, replacement of fencing, and a non-motorized bridge to connect the Flint River and Iron Belle Trails have all been among initiatives at Chevy Commons in recent years.

“They’ve been doing such a tremendous job of turning this back into usable public space,” says Fedewa, who can see the site from Flint River Watershed Coalition’s office.

The Coalition’s Corridor Alliance Chapter hosted a “Cycling Circles” event to promote bike safety for children, in the circular Chevy Commons trail.

In May the

Fedewa says she’s excited to see improvements and activity at what used to look like “this giant scar running through the city.”

The Chevy Commons stretch of water, with its vantage point including high, concrete river banks, invites rare natural habitat that’s often a treat to Coalition event participants. Several bald eagles have been spotted flying over the location this year, says Fedewa.

“It’s sort of a revival of the area,” she says. “We’re really excited about the dollars that have been put there and the work that continues from here.

“It’s a small part of the river. It’s also a cool part of the river.”

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