By KEVIN WALKER
FLINT, Mich. — Michigan State University faculty members Troy Hale and Geri Alumit Zeldes hit upon something when they produced a few short film clips of an urban farming venture in Flint, along with some of their students.
The clips featured Dora and Jacky King’s idea of combining karate lessons with urban farming just outside the city in Mount Morris Township. Newspapers locally and nationally noticed, so Hale and Zeldes decided to expand the film, called “The Kings of Flint.”
Hale said they now have about 30 hours of unedited video. A 30-minute version of the film recently aired on a local public television station and the two are working on expanding that into a one-hour version.
“We found out that the Kings are a couple of interesting characters,” Hale said. “We just started going up and started to capture what we could capture. The Kings are really passionate about it. The main thing for them is these kids, teaching them some life skills. I think it’s a sense of community, as well.”
The film features the husband and wife team talking about what they’re doing and why, in between clips of young adults exercising in tandem as part of a karate lesson, and then working in a greenhouse tending lettuce and other vegetables. They also raise a few chickens on the small parcel of land.
Just getting the junk and debris off the property was a major effort and took much time. “It took us two years to get all of it off,” Jacky King said.
Both the Kings and Hale and Zeldes have obtained grants for their projects. Hale said there are a number of other urban farming projects around Flint. The 60-minute version of the film will feature more of these other ventures.
Geri Alumit Zeldes, who now teaches at MSU’s school of communications and journalism, spent her high school years in Flint.
“I remember when I was young, growing up in the 1970s, we could go out to eat (in the city) and do other things,” Zeldes said. “Things started changing in the late 1970s when GM started to leave. Shops started to close.”
According to statistics provided in the film, between 1970 and 2009 Flint lost 42 percent of its population, as General Motors basically folded up its tent and left. But in 1970 Flint was bulging with 193,000 people, many of them drawn to the city from other states because of high-paying union jobs. By 2009 that population was down to about 111,000.
“Lots of good jobs in the auto industry; when that collapsed, Flint depopulated,” says Michael Hamm, professor of sustainable agriculture at MSU, at one point in the film.
A long time has gone by since Flint started to hemorrhage jobs. Hale said some people, such as the Kings, have taken on a proactive attitude of self-reliance. “It’s like the people are saying, you guys aren’t helping us, we’re going to help ourselves,” he said.
There’s some tension between local government and urban farmers, in Flint and other cities, such as Detroit.
“I don’t have any problem with folks doing some urban gardening, with some hoop houses, but I think it’s important to put it in perspective that that’s about 5 percent of the solution that we need for jobs and economic development in this city,” said Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, in one version of the film.
He said many people haven’t been doing what needs to be done to make Flint better, including people in government. “There hasn’t been good planning, there’s been a lot of just managing decline,” Walling added.
The 30-minute version of Hale and Zeldes’ film isn’t on the Internet, but there are several shorter versions available on YouTube.