Building Bel-Aire: Flint native leads neighborhood renewal efforts

Building Bel-Aire: Flint native leads neighborhood renewal efforts
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Shawn Hairston’s childhood memories include carefree walks around the block and visits to his neighbor’s house to drink soda.

Evenings in the Bel-Aire Woods neighborhood were typically calm and quiet in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Flint was a beautiful, vibrant area, with grass and trees,” he says.

Though it was far from resembling the wealthy suburban California enclave of a similar name, Bel-Aire Woods was home to many upper-middle-class General Motors employees, who made it a safe, stable community. Today, as president of the Bel-Aire Woods Neighborhood Association, Hairston does his best to help return the community to prosperity for both younger residents and many of the GM workers who retired there.

“I sat down and started looking at what I wanted to do in our neighborhood, so I had to listen to the people first,” he says.

“Don’t wait for others to come in and save you. You have to save yourself.” – Shawn Hairston, President, Bel-Aire Woods Neighborhood Association

Hairston returned to Bel-Aire Woods after living in Pontiac for about five years. While in Oakland County he’d done some political campaign organizing that lent itself to the new leadership role he would inherit from his aunt, who then was the block club’s president. Elderly residents with fixed incomes complained outliers were taking advantage of them by charging as much as $50 to mow their modest-sized lawns. That gave birth to Bel-Aire Woods Lawn Service about three years ago.

Not only did the newly formed organization serve seniors at much lower cost, it became a job program that hired local youth, training them to operate professional-grade lawn mowers. At first, the operation struggled. Its $15-per-house rate barely covered basic expenses like gas or maintenance, but with support from Abundant Life of Faith Church of God in Christ the fledgling company persevered, even tending abandoned neighborhood lots.

Now, with a core staff of five, including Hairston, three students and another adult, the fledgling company expanded from providing lawn care at the request of neighbors to maintaining 40 vacant lots between May and September through the Genesee Land Bank’s Clean & Green anti-blight program.
Along with cutting, trimming and edging lawns, Hairston and his team began snow removal service. Heeding the call of Bel-Aire Woods residents, he even formed a safety patrol, giving the community bordered by Clio Road, Holmes, Fleming, and Pierson a new, more secure presence.

Shawn Hairston, President, Bel-Aire Woods Neighborhood Association
Shawn Hairston is transforming his neighborhood and raising the hopes and aspirations of area residents.

“A lot of people don’t really understand block clubs. Block clubs play a major role,” Hairston says. “Once you bring a group of people together who are paying taxes in the city, and they have some logical concerns that need to be addressed when they go down to city hall and have someone to speak for them, city hall has to listen.”

Bel-Aire Woods’ efforts will ultimately help return property values to the homes that once priced out at $75,000 to $80,000, Hairston says. Some of the same houses are appraised now for as little as $5,000.

Hairston’s model for block club self-empowerment recently won a $500 prize at the annual Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium, designed to promote innovative ideas that will improve cities like Flint. The award will be used to help develop a program model to be shared with other neighborhoods and communities, Hairston says.

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W. David Tarver, Founder, Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative 

“We engaged the Flint community at all levels this year, and that proved to be a key contributor to the event’s success,” says W. David Tarver, founder of the Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative, the symposium’s sponsor. “We were pleased to provide a forum for conversation, ideas and strategy and to help Flint re-imagine and rewrite its story to one of renewed spirit and business and entrepreneurial opportunity.”

Hairston is pleased to help rewrite Flint’s story, and particularly to contribute to the chapter that focuses on moving Bel-Aire Woods in a positive direction. One excerpt involves a simple lesson he likes to share.

“Don’t wait for others to come in and save you,” says Hairston. “You have to save yourself.”

Photos by Paul Engstrom

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