Along the downtown Flint Saginaw Street strip, the Mad Hatter marquee stands out above all others. The hat and menswear store has existed in different locations and been owned by multiple people in its near century of hat sales.
As you walk inside the Mad Hatter, to your right, brass shoeshine footrests dangle below a row of seats. The cavernous walls go straight back and offer a wide selection of assorted colors of fedoras, flat caps, pork pies, and Panamas. But the business has also moved beyond the vintage era with a broad offering of baseball caps and contemporary menswear. Employee Charles Collins toils away shining shoes while owner Ok Hui climbs a rolling staircase with armfuls of shirts and hats.
When asked about the water in Flint, Collins looks up from the boot in his hand and is full of opinions. By his open and inviting manner, it’s obvious he’s spent years honing the art of conversing with the stranger in front of him.
“You gotta live here to know. They’ll tell you anything on TV. Look outside of here. There isn’t one city truck, or tore up street, or plumber out there working. I haven’t seen one,” said Collins. “The only construction is downtown. Everywhere else – forget about it,” Collins said.
In three days in Flint, over a weekend, no trucks or employees appeared to be working on underground pipes. But a settlement has since been announced, and by 2020, the State of Michigan has agreed to pay $87 million to replace lead or steel service lines leading to at least 18,000 Flint homes.
A new Michigan State campus recently opened in downtown Flint, sharing the city with University of Michigan – Flint, and Kettering University (formerly known as the General Motors Institute). Of the new university presence, Collins was equally dismissive, “You can build universities, and education is great, but who’s going to come here if you can’t use the water? My boss and me – we don’t use the water,” Collins said.
Ok Hui said that the new college hasn’t had much impact on her business. “Flint is a college town, but I don’t really see many college kids in my store,” said Hui. “Most of my customers are older men,” Hui said.
Decades ago, Flint was a bustling hub of production. But throughout the 1980’s, General Motors plants, and the businesses that supported the employees, gradually shut down. In the wake of auto plant closings, a Six Flags theme park called Autoworld opened in downtown Flint on July 4, 1984, providing an ironic homage to the city’s ailing industry. By December, Autoworld was only open on weekends and its visitor assembly line closed for good within six months of opening. Today, the downtown area of Flint still seems to be waiting for Flint to “happen” again.
After working in retail for more than 20 years, Ok Hui purchased the Mad Hatter from previous owner Bob Kittel. Kittel still owns the building, and Hui rents the business from him, adding that every day she’s at the store from open to close. Hui was born in South Korea and when asked what brought her to Michigan, Hui offers the most direct answer. “My kid’s father is American,” she says, with a no-nonsense laugh.
When asked about the water in Flint, Hui shook her head side to side. “I don’t drink the water, I’m scared to drink the water. So many people get that rash,” said Hui.
A study of 122 patients with skin problems, published in August 2016 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that more than 80 percent of the patients’ issues were possibly related to water exposure in Flint. This was following the city’s switch to water from the Flint River, which was more corrosive than water purchased from Detroit, and came from Lake Huron.
“My sister moved back here from Maryland two years ago and said the water is bad, that she had rashes all over,” said Hui. “I told her she had sensitive skin and don’t blame the water. I didn’t want to hear bad things about the Flint water. But the problems came out about the water and suddenly I said – Oh! That’s why!” Hui said.
Hui said her sister had since moved back east. “Her skin cleared up when she moved back to Maryland,” Hui said.
But Hui said that being comfortable with what she drinks comes at a cost. “So many bottles of water. So much trash,” said Hui.
When asked if Collins plans to stay in Flint, he had one thing in mind. “I’m here because of my daughter. She’s 16, she’s a junior. She’s real smart, on the honor roll, and when she graduates, wherever she goes off to college – I’m gone.”
Dwayne Lee contributed to this story.