WPA Federal Writers' Project team begins guide to mid-Michigan

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Photo of downtown Flint

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers' Project first assisted in providing jobs for unemployed writers, editors, and research workers during the Great Depression in 1941. Now in 2021, the WPA Federal Writers' Project is getting a fresh purpose in lower mid-Michigan.

A team of 46 writers, composed of UM-Flint students, alumni, faculty, and professional journalists and novelists, have started efforts to publish a pilot guide titled Exploring Mideast Michigan's Empty Spaces: A Traveler's Guide. The pilot project, made possible by the MI Humanities Grant and community partners, aims to update the existing 1941 WPA Federal Writers' Project guide to Michigan. 

While legislation to restart the Federal Writers' Project is in the works, the Michigan team has begun the writing process early. The goal of the pilot project is to create a useful guide with accompanying app that motivates readers to explore lower mid-Michigan. After writing, researching, and photographing the area, the project may be completed in 2022. 

To spark tourism in the area, the 1941 WPA guide of Michigan originally characterized the state and the city of Flint through an automotive industry lens. According to UM-Flint Associate Professor of English and project lead Mary Jo Kietzman, the updated guide will highlight the lesser-known, vibrant stories of mid-Michigan that extend beyond industrialism. Folk history, oral histories and essays will add a new perspective to how Michigan's place-making is documented.

"It struck me how the 1941 WPA guide covered Flint with the main focus being the rise of the automobile industry and the 1937 Sit-Down Strike. That was pretty much it. They barely touched on the communities and everything else about Flint," Kietzman said. "This guide is going to give people the confidence and the curiosity to go out, see what else is out there, and feel safe doing it."                   

The rich folk history examined in the pilot guide is enabled by the diverse background of the team. The ethnicities, ages, sexual orientations, and upbringings of the 46 writers closely align with each research topic. One writer who has experienced homelessness is observing a community of homeless people on the north side of Flint. A Black writer is researching Shay Lake, a safe haven for Black families in Detroit from the 1950s to the 1990s. The history of gay clubs in Flint and the thumb of Michigan is analyzed through the eyes of an older, gay writer. 

"It is important to have this diversity because the world is changing, communities are changing, and the issues are much different from what they were in 1941," Kietzman said. "All of this is important to documenting our diverse peoples as best as we can."

In addition to human geography, the guidebook will also cover more natural landscapes of the area, which the writers are exploring in a hands-on manner. Kietzman says that one writer is conducting research by kayaking and walking the entire 73 mile length of the Flint River.

"Although these cities are formed with grids, streets, and interstates, that whole network is imposed on something that's much more interconnected and natural. We're hoping to recover those natural connections through walking, paddling, riding, and exploring," Kietzman said.

The accompanying app of the guidebook will allow users to "choose their own adventure." Users will choose from topics such as community, nature, and spirituality, and then receive appropriate directions. In addition to Flint, users can also rediscover other cities, such as Saginaw and Bay City, as well as towns in Michigan's thumb. 

Kietzman hopes that through the guide, people learn more about Flint, Michigan outside of its connotation with the Flint Water Crisis. 

"I want to lead the way in showing everybody else that life goes on. People here are still living here in communities and finding ways to regroup," Kietzman said. "With the guide, we can make people interested and make them love the city enough to be curious about it, contribute, and explore."

The group hopes to later expand the project into other regions across the state if the pilot project is successful. 

To become involved with the project or suggest material, contact Mary Jo Kietzman at mkietzma@umich.edu

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