NEW YORK, NY — They say you can make your own small town in big cities, and one small town in New York looks a lot like Flint and other places around Michigan.
In the city that's home to about 8 1/2 million people, there's a small expatriate community of Flintoids and Michiganders that, over the years, have gotten to know each other. They have made a point to keep knowing each other.
"There are definitely a lot of Flint natives here, a lot of Michigan natives here, and we all kind of intersect," said Shawn Chittle.
Chittle is Flint native who visited a friend in New York in 1997 and "fell in love" with the city. He bounced around after that between New York and Seattle, but eventually settled in New York. He's happy there and makes trips back home now and then. He recently returned over the holidays with fellow Michigan native Alvah Holmes to shoot a short film — based on Flint — with a group of local filmmakers. And when he's in his adopted city, he gets a dose of Flint and Michigan now and then with the dozen or so people who have formed their ad hoc expatriate community.
It started because of a college in another Michigan city, East Lansing, even though Chittle never went to Michigan State University.
He got an invite to go to a friend of a friend's apartment in New York to watch a game. There were other Flint and Michigan people there. Then more. They started going to a bar, Josie's, in the East Village, where many of them live. And from there it grew.
It was how he met Jason Hammond.
"It's always nice to meet people where you're from, (who have) similar sensibilities, being raised in Michigan," Hammond, 40, said. Like Chittle, he works in media and is a filmmaker (he also didn't go to MSU). Film and the arts are something many of their group has in common, though they say there's something special about the Michigan bond.
That's especially true when talking about Flint.
Hammond said he'll usually bring up Detroit first when talking to New Yorkers — it's the city people most easily recognize — but that he will often steer the conversation toward Flint. The cities are something people are interested in, probably from the headlines of the struggling auto industry and violent crime, and being an authority on the subject, or at least having a connection to it bring a sense of pride, Hammond said.
"I think there's a street credibility. I don't know why that is, I think just because it's been through so much in so little time," he said.
He moved to Philadelphia first, and then back home to Michigan (he grew up in downtown Flint and Goodrich) but said he just couldn't live in Michigan. It's the Flint culture and community, however, he said, that have shaped his identity today.
"Every one of my family members was a union auto employee. Just growing up in that security and then seeing it pulled out from under them is what pushed me to be an artist," said Hammond, who'd first gone into nursing.
And even though he's on an island with millions of people, he said big cities are hard places to make friends.
"It's so acquaintance-based. I lived in Philadelphia for three years, and it became so acquaintance-based. It was really difficult to make deep friendships. You don't have any common ground," he said. "Once Shawn and I met, and Alvah and a few other guys, it's nice to have that common ground."
They still get together now and then, but not as often as they used to. Many of them have been there for more than 10 years. They're in careers and have families. Time is tight. Still, every couple of weeks, Chittle said, a few of them will meet up.
"I wish I could say there was four or five of us hanging out all the time like on (the TV show) 'Friends,'" he said. "But everyone works."
Gordon Young doesn't live in New York — in fact, in San Francisco he's about as far away as you can get in the Lower 48 — but he knows Chittle, "a great guy," and also knows a thing or two about Flint expatriates.
Before he was the author of the Flint-based "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," Young was, and remains, the force behind the Flint Expatriates blog, something he started as a way to stay connected to his hometown and which has gained a legion of former Flintoid followers.
For him, that's not surprising. Flint is a unique place, a place people don't want to forget, even if it's changed.
"There were a lot of prosperous factory towns during the industrial era, but Flint was an outsized example. The auto plants pumped a lot of GM money into Flint, and that translated into a place that's almost impossible to imagine today — a hard-drinking factory town where workers could earn a good living, the middle class could thrive, and the wealthy created cultural amenities that everyone could enjoy," he said. "Obviously, Flint wasn't perfect, especially if you were African American, but when you look at the economic landscape of the U.S. today, it's hard to believe that scenario ever actually existed, but it did in Flint."
He continued: "So I think that when the old Flint disappeared, a lot of people hung on to the memory. They want to preserve it and get back to it somehow. Who wouldn't? So maybe they try to stick together in other places. They shared a unique experience and they like being around other people who shared that experience."
Young said he grew up during a time when Flint was "falling apart," but said it was still a unique and "very weird experience."
That kind of weirdness -- the Flint weirdness -- can be binding.
"I don't have many friends from other places who explored abandoned buildings as a child or knew how to give a succinct police report after a break-in. I also don't know many people who feel that their hometowns had such a profound impact on who they are as adults. So I feel like I have an instant connection with people from Flint, and I go out of my way to connect with them, even in San Francisco."
Chittle said there's also more of Flint in New York than most people realize — especially New Yorkers.
"Another rare bit of trivia about Flint and New York, our favorite skyscraper here without question is the Chrylser Building. We love the Chrysler Building," Chittle said.
They love it because of its namesake, Walter P. Chrysler. He's got the building in New York, another near Detroit, but his roots were in Flint, when he was working for the railroad before General Motors founder William "Billy" Durant offered him a job that would pave the way for him to become the president of Buick.
"He took that money that he made in Flint working for Buick and he went to Manhattan and built the Chrysler building. And I don't know if people realize this, but without Flint there would never be a Chrysler Building. They don't mention it on the tours," Chittle said.
"That's a big source of pride for me, personally."