If you stop by Berston Field House on Flint’s north side on any given day, you’ll find people of all ages engaged in a variety of activities. It’s a safe place for children and adults to learn, dance, box, exercise and study, among many other things.
Located at 3300 N. Saginaw St., Berston has become a hub for the community — a trusted place and a recreational facility that’s open and welcoming to everyone. But it wasn’t always that way.
A decade ago, Bryant Nolden, who is now the executive director of Berston, simply wanted to keep the doors open. Nolden was elected to Flint City Council in 2009 and asked the mayor if he could have the keys so he could open the building to let young people in the neighborhood play basketball.
“I felt like, if I was able to give them an opportunity to come and play basketball for two or three hours at the end of the night, they would be tired, they would go home and then they would go to sleep. We wouldn’t have to worry about them getting into any trouble,” Nolden said.
He started cleaning the building and bought an old plow truck to clear snow in the winter. He cut the grass in the summer and did anything else he had to do to keep the building open.
“After a year or so, we started having conversations about how we could keep this historic building open and what we could do to make it more sustainable,” said Nolden, who once again went to city officials. “I wasn’t asking for any resources from the city, just asking if they would allow me to continue to be in the building. They covered the lights and water bill here. I told them — everything else — we will find a way to be able to do it.”
Nolden became the volunteer director for Berston Field House for the next seven years before officially becoming its executive director in 2016. The right community partners started coming his way to make Berston much more than just an open building, he said.
In 2014, Friends of Berston was launched as a fundraising mechanism. That fall, it officially became a nonprofit.
Since 2017, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has provided support to help the organization develop its internal capacity, hire additional staff and improve core facility functions.
The prior year, Berston Field House became one of the first grant recipients under the Ruth Mott Foundation’s newly unveiled north Flint focus. Many more organizations and supporters have gathered around Nolden and Berston ever since.
“A lot of different people have really stepped up to the plate and helped us out,” said Nolden, who also serves as 1st District County Commissioner.
Building on its legacy
Wes Patterson knows firsthand the important role Berston Field House plays in the community. Patterson, who is now 50 years old, started spending time there when he was 10.
Born and raised in Flint, Patterson would come to Berston as a kid to play basketball, box and have a safe place to hang out. As an adult, Patterson frequents the facility five days a week, using the weight room, playing basketball with the Berston men’s basketball team or teaching youth to play the game in the evening. And now he brings his son with him.
“We all loved it growing up. All the kids of the neighborhood would come to Berston,” Patterson said. “It’s great to be able to help now.”
Most days cars line Saginaw Street in front of the field house. Residents come and go, waving to friends and neighbors. Nolden hopes to build on Berston’s legacy, strengthening community ties that have been created over the years.
Berston Field House was built in 1923. Since then it has been utilized by the community for a variety of sports, dance and art activities. At one time, it had a branch of the Flint Public Library, a swimming pool and a medical clinic.
Many athletic greats, such as Claressa Shields and Morris Peterson, honed their skills at Berston Field House. Nolden is confident there will be many more celebrated athletes to come out of Berston.
In the summer, hundreds of kids can be found at the field house for camp, learning about gardening, participating in dance classes, playing games and learning about the arts. Throughout the year, seniors participate in line dancing. Younger and older residents alike use Berston’s success center to strengthen their literacy skills, update their resumes, apply for jobs and work on homework.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Berston hosts community softball games every Sunday. A total of 2,000 people might be out there on any given Sunday to watch and participate, Nolden said.
Back when Nolden first asked for the keys, only two nonprofits — Chosen Few Arts Council and Creative Expressions Dance Studio — used the space. Now, 10 years later, Berston also is home to FWC Berston Boxing and Berston Bicycle Club, and the field house is part of the YMCA Safe Places program.
Nolden is looking toward the future and what he hopes Berston will be for the community. He envisions renovations and new opportunities, like soccer, football and lacrosse fields.
“I want Berston to be a full-fledged recreational complex where we have different things in place that will benefit the entire community, not just north Flint,” Nolden said. “I want to be able to introduce kids to things they might not have been introduced to before. Giving kids and the community a place they can be proud of and something they can say has been beneficial — that’s one of the things I’m most excited about.
“There’s always been a negative connotation about north Flint. I’m trying to change that mindset. This is one of the shining lights in north Flint, and it’s one of the shining lights in Genesee County,” Nolden said. “And actually, it’s a shining light throughout the country because you have so many people that have fond memories of Berston. It’s a beacon of hope for the community.”