by Jennifer Vande Zande

"Sure we have a sordid history of lumberjacks and hookers, but why not have some fun with that and wear it on a shirt." –Adam Wernecke of Bay City

Most of us know that it’s often the effort of a few inspired and hardworking individuals that yields the greatest results. When those kinds of individuals decide to promote their communities by creating a unifying commodity accessible to everyone, they can end up sending an empowering message of city pride. A handful of tri-city locals are doing just that—pushing the positive in the form of a little urban fashion. The t-shirts that they are designing are a far cry from the mass-produced variety that hang in gas stations and gift shops. Instead, these t-shirts deliver original, uplifting perspectives that feed an emerging vibrancy in Bay City, Saginaw and Flint.

Adam Wernecke of Bay City, Paolo Pedini of Saginaw and Michael Clark of Flint are, independent of each other, creating unique tees that showcase their hometowns. The fact that all three cities have been the focus of stories full of doom and gloom is certainly not lost on these creative entrepreneurs. This may, in fact, be exactly what is driving them to inspiration, although remaining positive in times like these can take effort. For some, humor helps. Wernecke, a freelance graphic designer, says his designs make light of the area’s illustrious traits as well as those that may be a slightly more tawdry."Positivity is key in hard times, and nothing helps you stay positive like a bit of humor. Sure we have a sordid history of lumberjacks and hookers, but why not have some fun with that and wear it on a shirt." Wernecke began by making small batches of custom shirts for a few customers out of Golden Gallery in downtown Bay City. He and owner Avram Golden then decided to go a step further, and after a few drafts and prototypes, created their first local pride tee. "We sort of built upon our ideas, and now we have a plethora of offerings for sale. Sometimes these shirts start out as just a wacky thought inspired by local sights, experiences and culture. In Bay City, for instance, we are known for our many bars, which make our 'Bar City' shirt so obvious."

Paolo and Sarah Pedini, owners of Court Street Gallery in Old Town Saginaw, are focusing their efforts on a message of love. The Saginaw Love tee was conceived as a result of Paolo Pedini’s anger over the Sag-nasty hype that’s been appearing on t-shirts and hats around town lately that promote Saginaw, he says, "as nothing more than a dangerous place." He believes strongly in the "positive use of symbols and icons to catch attention and drive viewers’ imaginations" and that that inspiration can be found anywhere. Pedini hopes that through cultural and artistic endeavors, this area will experience a renaissance, much like what’s happening in Detroit. "I believe that times of adversity are essential to stimulate creativity, and give us incentive to strive for achievement."

In 2003, Flint City T-Shirts opened its doors with the intention of offering screen printing services to area schools, churches and local companies. But F.C.T.'s founder Mat Burleson, tired of the disparaging shirts that were representing Flint at the time, decided to offer customers new options. He began designing t-shirts that celebrated what was good about his city. Michael Clark bought the business from Burleson in 2005, and he, along with his employees, continue Burleson’s vision. They are committed to keeping the designs fresh and hopeful. Clark’s customers are a mix of locals, former residents as well as students from Kettering University, Mott Community College and U of M – Flint looking for something Flint-based to wear home. "It’s great to see this town becoming more of a college town," Clark says. "Throughout the years we have seen the good and the bad of Flint. We knew that what it takes for an area like Flint to get out of the bad times is for people to take initiative and work hard at changing the status quo. Mat started the business and I have continued it, in part to make a living, but also to work at changing the image of Flint and to make sure that there are people around that care about our fair city."

Writer Malcolm Gladwell says that ideas and behaviors can become contagious, infecting neighborhoods and touching members of the entire community. We here in mid-Michigan can hope for an epidemic of positivity from the work of Wernecke, the Pedinis, Clark and others like them—choosing, as they do, to look beyond the difficulties, and instead, focusing on creating tangible messages to bring about change.

Check out Bay City t-shirts on sale at Golden Gallery (113 Third Street, Bay City); Saginaw Love t-shirts at Court Street Gallery (417 Hancock Street, Saginaw); and Flint t-shirts at Flint City T-Shirts (629 S. Saginaw Street, Flint).

© Jennifer Vande Zande, 2010