Did you know Flint has four sister cities? What is a sister city, you ask? As you might imagine, designating cities and other types of small regions as sisters (or “twin towns”) is related to goodwill ambassadorship.
The concept as it currently stands was invented in 1947, after World War II, to foster peaceful relations and cultural exchange between countries. The history of town partnerships, however, is much older, with the first “twins” joining forces in the year 836 CE. These were Paderborn, Germany, and Le Mans, France, united by two Frankish bishops in an eternal brotherhood of love in the wake of Charlemagne’s consolidation of the Holy Roman Empire. Whether in China, Canada, Poland or Russia, Flint’s sister cities have several things in common – they are automotive and industrial centers, places that resisted oppression in the World War II era or both. Truly a “family” to be proud of.
Changchun, a metropolis of more than 7 million people, is the capital of Jilin Province, one of China’s northernmost provinces. The province shares borders with North Korea, Inner Mongolia and Russia. Its name comes from a word in the Siberian Manchu language, meaning “by the river.” The name “Changchun” is Chinese and means “long spring.”
You might be wondering, “Why Changchun?” The answer might have something to do with the fact that it’s known as China’s “City of Automobiles.” It’s also about the same age as Flint – only a couple of decades older. Like Flint, it was established as a fur trading center in the 1800s.
Changchun is also known as the “Forest City.” Although pollution is a terrible problem in many parts of China, Changchun’s 40 percent forest terrain helps keep the air fresh. The area boasts incredible scenery, including Heavenly Lake high on Changbai Mountain. There are four seasons, including a monsoon.
“The City of Film” is another nickname for Changchun, with northeast China’s biggest film studio situated there. But things weren’t always rosy in Changchun. During the Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s, Japan occupied and controlled the city; this conflict merged into the World War II theater, with the Chinese emerging victorious in 1945.
Hamilton, Ontario, situated between Niagara Falls and Toronto, is a stone’s throw from Flint compared with its other sisters. Around the same age as Flint, Hamilton became a city in 1846. Like Flint, it is known for being a thriving industrial center with a history of labor activism and unions. It has been called “Steel City” and “the Ambitious City.”
Also like Flint, our Canadian sister has a burgeoning arts community that is drawing creatives to the area. Musician Tom Wilson, a native of the city, once said Hamilton was punk rock in a time before punk, according to a 2017 article in the Hamilton Spectator. The same could be said of Flint. Both cities have a gritty, industrial edginess exemplified by the factory aesthetic and attitude.
Similar to Changchun, the greater Hamilton area is a metropolitan powerhouse boasting upwards of 8 million residents. Not only are its industrial and artistic endeavors a great draw, but the beauty of the natural area, with Niagara Falls so close by, also attracts thousands of visitors each year. The Niagara Escarpment, called “the mountain” by locals, runs right through the city and features nature areas and waterfalls. Interested in a visit? It’s a great time of year to see the fall colors along the Bruce Trail, parallel to the escarpment.
Kielce, in the heart of southern Poland, is a “little sister” to Changchun and Hamilton, but factoring in Flint makes it more like the middle child. With a population of nearly 200,000 – about twice as many people as in Flint – it is the capital city of the Świętokrzysie Voivodeship.
You might be distracted at this point by the thought “What the heck is a Voivodeship?” Short answer: it’s kind of like a province. Its governor is called the voivode. It also has an elected assembly and an executive board. It’s divided into counties called powiats and cities called gminas, like Kielce.
Kielce may take its name from the same root word as “Celtic” because the area was home to a number of Celtic tribes way back in history, starting from about 2,500 years ago. But it wasn’t until the 11th century that it became a city, and at that time it was known as a grain trading and honey production center.
In World War II, Kielce was subjected to the horrors of Nazism and became an important center of resistance against Hitler’s invasion. A sizeable percentage of its citizens at that time were Jewish. Many of them lost their lives in concentration camps as well as in the Jewish ghetto the Nazis built in the city. Jack Sal, an American artist whose parents survived the Holocaust, created Kielce’s first monument that honors the 42 victims of the Kielce pogrom in 1946. Today, in more peaceful times, the city boasts many fine attractions, including museums, nature reserves and the beautiful Świętokrzysie Mountains.
Togliatti, also spelled Tolyatti, Russia, lies where the Volga River and the Samara River meet, in the Samara Oblast (another term, used mainly in former Iron Curtain countries, that can be loosely translated as “province.”) Togliatti is part of a tri-cities area with Samara and Syzran. All together, this metropolis has a population of about 3 million.
Togliatti shares with Flint the distinction of being one of its nation’s great automotive centers. It’s home to the AvtoVAZ company, which makes the Lada car. The brand takes its name from a kind of Viking longship, and the cars are rugged, solid machines designed with owner maintenance and rough roads in mind.
Togliatti first came into existence in 1737 as Stavropol, a fortress. Curiously, it now has an Italian name. That’s because in 1964, it was rechristened to honor Palmiro Togliatti, a leader of the Italian Communist Party who became a Russian citizen and died that year. In his lifetime, he was known for his anti-Fascism and for resisting Nazism.
If you look for Togliatti on a map, one of the first things you’ll notice is a large green peninsula in the Volga River, right across from the city. That’s the Samara Bend Peninsula Zhiguli Nature Reserve and the Samarskaya Luka National Park. The peninsula contains forest, steppe and wetland environments with perhaps 1,000 plant species, including as many as 50 considered archaic, according to the preserve’s website. But don’t expect to go traipsing through the pristine area if you visit our sister city – the reserve is for scientific research, and only a very limited amount of tourism is allowed.
So who knew – Flint is one of five fascinating sibling cities! With their successes, history of human rights movements and individual quirks, these communities make up an interesting cross-cultural family.