A return to hometown Flint shocks entertainer Sandra Bernhard.

Sandra Bernhard leans against the tree she used to meet her friends at after shul. (Photos by Harry Kirsbaum)
Sandra Bernhard leans against the tree she used to meet her friends at after shul. (Photos by Harry Kirsbaum)

I couldn’t get Sandra Bernhard to pose in front of her house on Concord Street in Flint because she said it was “too creepy,” and she was right. I wasn’t about to stand in front of my old house around the corner, either. In fact, everything about our old neighborhood and everything about the trip up to the old neighborhood could be described as “creepy.”

Sandy — comedian, singer, performer, actor and one of my best friends from kindergarten through fifth grade — was bringing her show to the Ark in Ann Arbor on a February weekend, but she came in a day early on Jan. 31 so she could visit Flint. She’d been having dreams about the neighborhood, but wasn’t sure what was real or not, and who better to take her back home than me?

My wife, Mary Ann, and I picked her up at the airport that morning, then took her to her Ann Arbor hotel to drop off her four bags filled with clothing, essentials and “merch” and then made our way up to Flint.

On the same crappy, horrible day of the huge pileup on I-75 in Detroit, we were stuck in traffic because of another huge pileup in Fenton that closed off the southbound lane. As emergency vehicles sped north up the wrong side of US-23, we inched through occasional snow squalls that reduced visibility to zero. The whiteout conditions seemed to transport us to a different world. And Flint, on the best of days, can be considered a different world. Staring at her house from the street, Sandy pointed out the features her mother designed — a brick addition to the front of their modest house, a super Danish modern design with a modern entrance.

“My parents built it the year I was born,” she said. “I smashed my finger on the door once and lost a fingernail on Rosh Hashanah.”

She also pointed out the collapsing eaves, the paint job needed on the garage door, the general run-down condition of the house and the neighborhood in general.

The former Congregation Beth Israel in Flint, now a Baptist church
The former Congregation Beth Israel in Flint, now a Baptist church

Driving through the 20 square blocks that identified our world so many years ago, Sandy rattled off the names of the families living in many of the homes. We’d see the occasional burnt-out shell of a house with a big yellow sign stuck to a remaining wall offering $5,000 for information leading to the arrest of the arsonist responsible.

“I don’t think this is going to dissipate those dreams I’ve had,” she said. “They might be in better shape than the reality.”

Back In The Day
These were once beautiful middle-class homes in a neighborhood teeming with children. No one locked their doors, and most kids had “refrigerator privileges” with several other homes — they could just walk into a house and take something to eat. It is now known as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city.

Mary Ann Kirsbaum, Sandra Bernhard and Harry Kirsbaum in Columbus, Ohio,  last year
Mary Ann Kirsbaum, Sandra Bernhard and Harry Kirsbaum in Columbus, Ohio,
last year

We stopped at the Mackin Road Units around the corner from my old house, where elderly teachers like Miss Miller, Miss Rolloff and Mrs. Eckstrom taught kindergarten through third grade in a row of one-room schoolhouses that shared a common asphalt-covered playground. A place where Sandy and I — two scrawny, strangely imaginative Jewish kids — played made-up games like Santa and Rudolph at recess, hopping around the asphalt, passing around invisible presents to kids, then playing on a jungle gym shaped like a rocket ship made of unforgiving galvanized steel. The jungle gym still stands in the corner of the yard, but the Units have been converted to a Baptist church.

“I threw stones where they were building houses behind the playground, and they landed in the wet cement,” she remembered. “Lenny Fink told Miss Rolloff what I did and she kept me after school.”

For someone who left Flint at 10 years old and never looked back, Sandy has a remarkable memory of her childhood. She still doesn’t know why the family moved to Scottsdale; she only remembers spending her last night in Flint in 1965 at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge on Pierson Road.

“We left behind everybody we knew — you get plucked without any real explanation,” she said. “A week and a half later, you’re living in a motor court hotel in Phoenix with a kitchenette and a gas stove.”

A City Transformed
We drove throughout Flint and through streets that were once so familiar.

“Out of all the places I’ve ever gone back to in my life, it’s a place that’s changed the most remarkably,” she said. “It bears no resemblance to where I grew up. It’s shocking.”

My wife, Mary Ann, a family law attorney, has traveled in the worst neighborhoods of Detroit, blocks filled with rubble, where even the street signs have been stolen. Driving around Flint, she said, “At least in Detroit, they board up the burned-out homes.”

Wherever we drove in Flint, it was hard not to notice the lack of people on the streets. Throughout the day, we barely saw a dozen people; and it made Flint look, sadly, post-apocalyptic.

We stopped at our old shul, Congregation Beth Israel, which holds special memories for Sandy.

Sandra Bernhard on stage at the Ark in Ann Arbor
Sandra Bernhard on stage at the Ark in Ann Arbor

“I remember Morrie Bickoff’s mom, Sophie, did all the catering. She’d come in with her rolled-down stockings, and she worked her tuchas off. She did all the bar mitzvahs and weddings,” she said. “When you think about all the people that you knew in your life, you’d also run into them at shul because people don’t go to shul like they once did. That was a real gathering place.”

Just like the Units, the gathering place turned into another Baptist church, with a multi-colored glass cross embedded in the front lawn.

We wanted to go inside and see the sanctuary, but it was closed. She posed beside a tree by the Hebrew school entrance that she used to hang out under with other kids from shul.

Sandy’s Spiritual Side
When her grandfather, George Schwartz, was older, he went every day to morning minyan and evening services, and he led the family seders.

“He was from Russia, and when you think about how much has happened in the last 100 years, and families totally re-establishing themselves in a whole new world, it makes you more compassionate toward people who also want come to America and establish their lives,” she said.

“In many ways, we all snuck in just the way people from South America and Central America and Mexico do. Most people want a better life, and we’ve stopped offering the better life because everybody we know got in under the wire? I have a big problem with that.

“If anybody should be leading the charge to opening this country to other people, it should be the Jews,” she said. “Jews have had it the hardest and have been through more than most people and were turned away. We should open our hearts and our arms to people who are also having a hard time in other places.”

She attends Shabbat services every week at a shul or a Chabad house, no matter where she is. In Ann Arbor, we went to University of Michigan Hillel.

Sandy, also known as one of the people who introduced Madonna and Hollywood to Kabbalah, is still profoundly spiritual but — as in the rest of her life — on her own terms.

“I like a lot of the things that I picked up at the Kabbalah Center,” she said. “I found the center a little bit dogmatic and limiting. They have their own thing. They want to control people to a certain extent and dictate how people are supposed to live and how they’re supposed to practice their spirituality. That’s when I started getting turned off.”

She said that Judaism “needs an overhaul.”

“The super ultra-religious Jews have gone over the edge. They’re repressing women. What they did to the 8-year-old girl in Israel, spitting on her. All religious fundamentalists have disregard for women and treat them like chattel.

“People have to stop having so many children, and the ultra-religious are baby machines. It’s antithetical to the way we live in this world and the environment, and it’s no good for anything,” she said.

“How can you really raise your child the right way when you have 10 others to deal with? They just raise each other, and you have no real connection to your child. I find that really strange.”

A New Friend
Before we left Flint, Sandy wanted to finally meet Shawn Colton, a singer and writer who lives with his wife and son in Flint. He wrote Sandy on Twitter and they became kindred spirits through the Twitterverse. Shawn is writing Legends of the Boo-Monster, a children’s book based on his autistic son, David.

Shawn Colton and Sandra Bernhard belt out an REO Speedwagon song at the Ark.
Shawn Colton and Sandra Bernhard belt out an REO Speedwagon song at the Ark.

Sandy planned to invite Shawn on stage to sing a duet for her closing number, which is a rarity. She has traveled all over the world appearing in her one-woman shows filled with stories that blast Hollywood, politics, American culture or anything else that crosses her mind. And the lady can sing.

Later that night over dinner, Sandy said she’d incorporate some of what she saw in Flint into her show.

“The great thing about doing your own work, you can constantly weave in your day-to-day experiences and keep evolving your show and making it fresh. It’s also relevant for the people who come to see you.”

She loves performing live but would like more television work. She has appeared on Roseanne’s Nuts and will appear on The Neighbors, as a driving instructor.

“It would be nice to have a more regular presence on television, so I wouldn’t have to rely on this so heavily. It’s just exhausting to travel; it takes its toll,” she said.

“It’s not the end of the world that I have to — it could be a lot worse. The good news about being a self-starter and writing your own material and doing what I do, you can sustain your career your whole life.”

At the Ark on Friday and Saturday night, Sandy mentions the weather and her tour through Flint, but she doesn’t make it funny. She skewers Whole Foods, and Barney’s Christmas catalogue, describes Jane Fonda’s 75th birthday party and everything else that crosses her mind.

She belts out four songs with a three-piece band she put together locally and invites Shawn on stage to sing REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” to close out a sold-out show.

They kill. 

By Harry Kirsbaum, Contributing Writer

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  1. This story brought tears to my eyes. I grew up on Wolcott St. 4 houses down from Longfellow school Flint was a wonderful place to grow up in during the 60’s and 70’s . So many stories and memories.

  2. Very sad story about the state of Sandy’s old neighborhood. She’s mentioned in my book “Remembering Flint, Michigan” when she was a contestant on Chuck Barris’s $1.98 Beauty Show and won.

  3. i also grew up on wolcott st………went to longfellow for jr. high……………then we moved and i went to northwestern for highschool……………your right our old neighborhood is not safe to drive thru now and it is a shame.

  4. I was born and raised in Fenton MI, and we were in Flint for everything, It was once a Great city, it is so sad. I miss it so much, but there is nothing left to go back too.

  5. I grew up on the southside. I moved away at 23. I go back every year or two and although it is a place of void and disparity, there are some great things happening. Check out the FB page Flint Expatriates. It’s a page for all of us old Flintoids to talk about old times and new rebirth. No matter what, it’s always home to me.

  6. My young life (1960’s) was spent on Concord St. At the time, my grandparents lived at 1613 Concord. It was a great place with many fond memories.

  7. Hello from long ago to now…It’s me! From the corner of Mackin Road and Forest Hill Ave. Remember our bicycles? Our speedy, sturdy ships that took us far away (like Ballenger, or Welch, or Forest Park). I’m wiping way tears, remembering walks to school, the city bus to Central H.S. and the ever shifting boundaries as the Flint Public Schools tried -or, did they?- to dole out students to districts in ‘proper amounts’.

    I keep thinking of the Jackson St. hill….from Colby St. down to, to…Brownell? Rankin? Civic Park’s beautiful (I thought) homes and the wonderful mix of trades, national identities, and maple trees to climb. The first house in Flint that I remember (Colby) now has an online designation…’Make an Offer’. I wonder….What about the trees and trails in Forest Park? The Farmers Market has been saved and revived. Knob Hill Meats is there now…But, no more WFBE? With Flint students learning radio production. Music. What about that? I want every student in Flint ot have the same opportunities I did, growing up. That’s instrumental music private lessons, drama, debate, art, sculpture, foreign languages, producing student newspapers, riding all over town and especially to the Library.

    Thanks for the comments about “too many children”! Yes indeed. Class of ’66 here, waving to you from my farm, on Lake Superior. Raising honeybees from the Lake Baikal area of Russia. (They winter over well…) Wondering why my classmates haven’t shouted out and stood up for Flint’s children to have the same cultural opportunities they had, once upon a time. Remember the scholarships to Interlochen?

    Once again…after ll over the world, back here in Michigan. Now seemingly ruled by battalions of dumbasses and legions of southern white trash trying to turn our State into nothing but the lowest common denominator of worker-drones, and greedy buttheads. Out Now! There are those who are working their very own butts off trying to green the discarded and marginalized areas of Flint. Bless them, and their efforts.

  8. I really enloyed reading your story, It really hit home with me since I grew up on Seneca St. So many kids back then and so many great memories. Thanks for the story. Very well written Harry.

  9. thanks for a wonderful story. My gosh! what a memory. I cannot believe someone can remember Shopie Bikoff’s rolled down stockings after leaving Flint so young. Her son Morris, also mentioned by Sandy, was the greatest Dentist ever, Lenny Fink was my Nephew. I can’t believe he wasn’t throwing the stones right beside Sandrah instead of telling. He always spoke highly of Sandra when their paths crossed again years later in NYC. Did she see get to see the Dentist’s house and family next door that she used in later comedy routines?

  10. Harry-Nice article…..Did you have armed protection when you toured the old neighborhood and Temple Beth El? Suzanna- The days you spoke of are long gone never to be seen again….The UAW and the wages it bargained for GM workers made Flint what it was…..Corporate Greed Killed it!

  11. This story was very disappointing. I lived in this area. It was based on observation from someone who has not lived in Flint for the last 40 plus years. The writer and interviewee did not choose speak with anyone else in the Flint Jewish community. The portion of the article regarding Congregation Beth Israel is very misleading, as the synagogue relocated in the early 70’s and to this day has a following of committed Jewish individuals. In addition to the synagogue, there is a temple and a Chabad house. The article chose to focus on the negative vs positive Jewish and other thriving cultural aspects of Flint. The JN must be hard up for stories if this actually made the front page.

  12. Well I grew up here and still live here In Grand Blanc actually It allways bothers me when I read storys about people who left and come back and are shocked at what they see. What happened here has happened in alot of places big business set up and then one day they just leave and leave a shell of a town. If you are lucky they clean up the mess if not you see lots of rotting bulidings because of all the other business that shut down because the main source left. People leave and then who is left is left with the mess and debt of cleaning it up and of course because everyone left there is no money so go figure how Flint got this way.

  13. Hi Harry ! Loved reading your article. I’m a huge fan of S.B. I remember her house very well -one street over from mine( clement st ) I was saddened by your impressions of our old neighborhood . We drove thru last summer on our way to McLaren. I really was surprised– It wasn’t as bad as i thought it would be. I was expecting to see a cash and Go on every corner on Clio Rd. but that wasn’t the case. Haskle Park looked the same. Most homes seemed occupied and not too many empty burned out ones. The neighborhood is 60 years old. There are thousands that have left Flint, so I think our old
    neighborhood is doing pretty good considering the current economic conditions. If you think Flint has urban blight– go visit St, Louis Missouri.

  14. It’s it funny how differently people see something. Some people can’t go home, some people still call it home.

    This is how we feel about Flint and it’s Jewish community in particular. We are kids who grew up in Flint, who still call home. You helped us to be the people we are. When we needed you the most you wrapped your arms around us and didn’t let go.

    As I aways said – no matter what red carpet I am on – my favorite is still the red of CBI. And if it has 1000 or 10 Jews walking on it – they are mighty and fierce.

    Flint Jewish community – you are our safe haven, our protector, our hug in the worst of times and our cheer leader in the best, you are our family. You don”t lay down and like our ancestors – you don’t give up. Keep going. Keep doing. Keep teaching.

    Rhonda Price

  15. What a great article, Harry!

    Together, my wife, son and I hope to stay here in Flint for the rest of our lives. Hopefully, we can make a contribution to the community. When “Legends of the Boo-Monster” is released, maybe we can put Flint on the map again in a positive light. Sandra has served as my creative coach, as well as being the most beautiful kind of friend, through thick and thin. Hers was the first voice i heard after my wife’s when I came to from my quadruple bypass in November. Hopefully, I can make her, and the city of Flint proud.

    We’re coming back.

  16. David……I wouldn’t want Sandy to never know the real reason why your parents moved to Arizona……Your dad was at our house one day, and I remember him saying how much he wanted to practice in a warmer state…..and he and your mom finally decided to “actually” do it……….Kay cried……..called Sandy…..told her….Sandy cried…etc…etc….and I was left trying to settle them both down!…………Not long after you guys moved……….my parents took all six of us on a road trip…………a long road trip….SO KAY COULD SEE SANDY!!!………….(pass it on to Sandy, please)

  17. I’m reposting for my Mom:

    Shame on you Sandra Bernhard and the Detroit Jewish News for showing only one sliver of Flint and not the whole picture. You missed our amazing cultural center which includes: The Flint Institute of Art, Whiting Auditorium, Sloane Museum, the Planetarium and the Flint Institute of Music.

    We have a state of the art Children’s Museum, a growing and vibrant University of Michigan Flint campus, Mott Community College and the world famous Kettering University, where students from all over the world attend, a reviving downtown area and so much more. You mentioned the old
    synagogue, but what about the newer one on the corner of Dye and Calkins Rd with 2 minyonim every day (more than many synagogues in Detroit!), the reform Temple Beth El and the Chabad House? All 3 of which are in good working order with small but active congregations. Yes we have old
    neighborhoods that are deteriorating but we also have beautiful neighborhoods off Miller Rd., off Court Street near the Cultural Center and in the township near the Synagogue and Temple as well as in the greater Flint areas of Flushing, Grand Blanc, Davison and Goodrich.

    Come back and you can see the rest of Flint that you missed! (and I’m from Chicago originally but after 45 years here I am proud to call Flint home!)

    Gail Shulman
    (with the concurrence of many of the continuing Jewish residents of the Flint area)

    For myself, I find it hilariously ironic that this article appears in a publication whose name includes that of a city that is no longer home to the vast majority of its readers. How many of your readers still live in the City of Detroit? Just saying.

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