On the church marquee, there was not the usual welcome for sinners, service times or sermon notes. There were not even the normal biblical proclamations like, “Jesus saves.” Instead, the sign here read,” Free water.” The church, in addition to providing spiritual guidance, is now like so many other places in this city, a point of distribution for water, the most essential liquid for the sustenance of human life.
Here, free water is everywhere. Plastic bottles proliferate and seem to breed on their own, but that, of course, is not the case.
This is Flint, Michigan in 2017.
Flint is just 66 miles northwest of Detroit and, at one time, had a population twice its current size of 100,000 residents. In its industrial heyday, the 1970s and, especially, 1980s, Flint used to pump out exemplars of American automotive engineering many times a day at its respected – and enormous – 235-acre General Motors plant, Buick City.
After combining six plants in the city of Flint to take on its foreign competitors, Buick City employed over 77,000 workers. At that time, GM garnered 40 percent of the automobile and truck market, but that share eventually shrank to just 30 percent. GM manufacturing, and the related offshoots, formed the lifeblood of Flint’s economy as well as its civic life.
“Buick City closed just as I was getting ready to graduate from high school,” said Darren Smith. He, dressed in work clothes, and sitting outside the downtown Flint bus station, expressed how the closing was viewed by many in the city.
“It took the heart out of the city.”
It’s a familiar refrain. You might remember the saga through Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary, Roger and Me, but almost 30 years later, the old GM plant is now a wasteland of concrete the size of a small airport.
Smith’s father, brother and cousins worked there at the time of its closing. That too is common; entire families sustained by a plant that is now, decades after its loss, a barren field of concrete. It’s almost a sinkhole, pulling down the neighborhoods that ring it, where the Tropicana Bar across the street stands, like other businesses, and many homes, a crumbled, boarded up temple of a city past.
Everyone in Flint seems to know someone who worked there. Often you will meet retirees from the plant or other operations related to it. When you bring up the water crisis that has dominated the headlines for the past several years, people tend to circle back instead here: To Buick City and what happened when it left. It’s a wound still so raw that people describe the plant as if it’s human: It was the heart of the city. It was its soul. Some blame it for the water crisis literally, for the toxins in the river that tainted the water supply, and for reducing the residents’ social capital to the point where this was allowed to happen here.
And still is happening here. The water crisis further hobbled a city that still had not fully recovered.
Smith’s facial expression and verbal intonations relayed a longing wistfulness, something you see on most of the faces of people you talk to about the plant. These people had a ready-made plan to work there, immediately after high school, just as previous generations had. Now you find some of them hanging around the bus station, and, within the success stories are people for whom the uncertain path didn’t work out so well.
Buick City, unceremoniously, was closed in 1999, and the heretofore powerful, yet curiously silent and even acquiescent, UAW did nothing to resist it, perhaps to save other jobs before they moved out of the US to places like Mexico. The UAW, who was supposed to protect their workers, let Flint down.
The little city was naturally more than staggered by the event. The city was dealt a near-fatal blow, but it soldiered on. General Motors didn’t move operations entirely, and today there remains a small workforce of around 3,000 according to the GM Media Site as of March, 2017.
Like the little train that could, Flint struggled mightily to rise after this economic disaster which precipitated a civic quandary. How does a city function without its heart? How can we maintain city facilities without this great source of revenue? Flint staggered forward. Before it found its footing, it found itself hampered by an insidious infection growing within the rank-and-file of its own residents. It was from something it ingested: water. And the contaminant: lead.
Water you can’t drink
Lead is a metal and, in small amounts, can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system and kidneys. In children, it can cause mental and physical developmental problems and, even, death. Children, pregnant mothers and the elderly are, of course, the most vulnerable populations. Medical authorities say that the only safe level of lead is zero for children and adults. Government officials advise people to eat more green leafy vegetables to stop the lead from leaching from their bones to their blood, but many of the stores are crumbling carcasses. “Fresh produce,” says one, long ago closed.
Civic leaders changed the water source without performing due diligence; the water was now poisonous; and its value to humans cannot be overestimated.
The people of Flint all have stories: They bathe in the water even though they don’t trust it and end up with rashes; their legs are swollen from the water; they know someone in a coma or who died from blood lead levels; they get tested or are too afraid to get tested. One man working in a Mexican restaurant says his girlfriend was hospitalized from a rash incurred while repeatedly washing dishes.
“Flint is like Chernobyl,” says resident Anthony Allen.
Visiting Flint, a city with a slight African American majority, is an almost eerie experience. This is because of the extreme amount and level of structural and infrastructural decay evident on so many homes there. Journalism student Ed Makowski noted a somber air throughout the quiet city.
There is not a block in the central part of the city where decay is not evident. On many neighborhood blocks, there are multiple rows of houses without inhabitants or windows. Often you can look through the houses from the sidewalk. For example, in a row of five houses, there may be only one that is inhabited by people, and even this one may contain some degree of decay, usually on its front façade-from a crumbling porch, rotting walls, or large sections of peeling paint.
Sidewalks in the city also provide a testimony of the city’s former glory. They seem to go nowhere, and stop abruptly in the middle of what used to be a proud block often punctuated with boarded up businesses that once represented someone’s dreams. These public walkways besieged by time, neglect and lack of use, instead of relaying the dominance of man, reveal the power of mother nature to subsume all even concrete, bold grass terminating man-made paths.
While driving around the city, you notice a frequent thudding, rattling, vibrating of the vehicle. This was because, apparently, needed infrastructure repairs had not been done for some time. After a while, you get acclimated to the jarring irritation, but the awareness of it never completely leaves your mind. An annual front-end alignment is an absolute necessity here.
Houses would never have been allowed to stand with this level of dilapidation in Milwaukee. Some commercial buildings are in much worse shape.
“It looks like some areas in Iraq,” said Dave Watters, a journalism student and Iraqi veteran. A team of 15 journalism students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in town to cover the water crisis and its people, struggle to find the right metaphor to describe the landscape.
It looks like a tornado cut through town, one says.
Watters offers up another analogy: It reminds him of a post New Orleans Hurricane Katrina
Treasure, who lives around the corner from the charred wreck of an old home, says her infant has a neck rash and a friend is in a coma. The 26-year-old mother of three lives on a block of worn down homes, empty lots, and yards of brown grass and mud.
Showing the harsh reality, Treasure grabs a clear glass off her kitchen counter and runs the water from her faucet. As it fills, the murky, cloudy water appears. “We have to use bottled water, and it’s very time consuming,” she says. There’s a water filter in an unopened box on her floor that she says is useless, and an education meeting with EPA officials down the street that she doesn’t know is happening.
Points of water distribution abound (they are called water checkpoints), and water bottles are everywhere. The city delivers water bottles to people’s doorstep if they ask. Otherwise, you can drive through a checkpoint, and they will load free water into your car. At one such place on the parking lot of a local sorority, Delta Sigma Pheta, Inc. Flint Alumnae Chapter, was energetically doling out boxes of water to the community. They gave an average of six boxes to a small family. Each box contains four gallon-sized bottles of water. Residents were told to use bottled until the pipes are repaired in 2020.
“No one is reporting the waste of bottled water,” said 64-year-old John Bednarski as his voice rose speaking about the issue. “Stacks sit outside in the sun, and I asked how can that be safe with the plastic bottles but get no answer.”
In a short version of the story, in April 2014, Flint switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. This is analogous to Milwaukee changing its water supply from Lake Michigan to the Milwaukee River. Protective, responsible anti-corrosive measures were not taken. Soon, the water flowing from faucets changed color. Now, it was a pale orange. You still can’t drink it.
The new water caused rashes in children and red marks on shoulders per reports.
A hardy resilience
Yet, despite all, there is a stubborn beauty to the place. You see it emanate from the people, if not the landscape, which, outside the quaint downtown anyway, shocks the eyes with its deteriorating housing stock. The closer you get to Buick City, the worse it looks.
Why do they stay, people like Treasure and Smith? A hardy resilience, not unlike a flower pushing through concrete. Necessity (one woman in her 80s, who lives marooned in the sole home on a block of rotting, foreclosed homes, a few blocks from Buick City, says she stays because her home is paid for and now worth “two cents.” Her roof has a blue tarp over the portion that is caving in. All around her stand the rotting edifices that once housed neighbors.)
They stay because of family. Because Flint, despite all of its challenges, is home. They want to make it something. They want to make it better. In some spots, they have. New businesses thrive (like a downtown crepe shop), there’s a buzzing farmer’s market with cooking classes, and attempts to mold Flint into a college town.
This is Flint, 2017, too.
As you walk inside one downtown business, 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.
“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.
On the other side of Carpenter Road, the Water is Life conference was held in the New Standard Academy Charter School’s McCree Theater. The crowd gathered to talk about activism, and all of the speakers emphasized water as a human right- from the Flint water crisis, to the Dakota access pipeline to oil spills.
Gyasi Ross, an author and public speaker took the stage in the theater.
“If you recognize somebody as being fully human, you’re not going to allow lead to be in their water, because I value you,” said Ross.
The air of Flint Crepe Company is filled with the smell of crepes and the screeches of the espresso machine. If it weren’t for the exposed ceiling and the old timely bicycle hanging on the wall, Flint Crepe Company would look like any other coffee place.
Underneath the bicycle next to the sugar and crème is a stack of papers asking people how likely they are to recommend the restaurant to a friend or colleague and why. The restaurant manager says they listen to every single bit of feedback so they can apply whatever changes they need to make to improve the quality of their service.
“We definitely want every single person to walk out of here excited and sharing that with other people, and that ensures business,” said Flint Crepe Company Manager Brad Burk. “If you can excite people about your business – get them talking about it – people are going to come back.”
When approached to discuss their city, residents pause with expectant hesitation, then sigh before answering any questions about the water crisis. They say they’re fatigued of discussing it, and would rather talk about the positive things going on in the city, or at least other problems the city is facing.
“If water was our only problem, Flint would be fine,” said one resident. The employment rate is more than double the national average of 5.3%, and Detroit’s 5.4%, at 11.8% per the US Depart of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics 2017 numbers.
The civic leaders of the city, who were supposed to protect citizens, let Flint down (some criminal charges resulted). President Obama said, “That shouldn’t happen anywhere,” and declared a federal emergency in Flint. During their presidential campaigns both Clinton and Trump espoused concern about the area. Trump has compiled Flint’s critical issues into his $1 trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.
Today, there is not a block in the central part of the city where decay is not noticeably evident.
Collins agreed that it is a haven for vermin. He said he’s leaving next year after his daughter completes high school. He’s not sure where he’s going, but he repeatedly, yet irresolutely, says it.
Flint “Original” Coney Island proudly displays on the front window an excerpt from a USA Today story where Bruce Kraig, co-author of Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America, shares 10 of his favorite hot dog places with Flint “Original” Coney Island being one of them.
The restaurant’s current owner, Atanas “Tom” Zelevarovski, 65, said that his grandfather opened the restaurant in 1919. His grandfather saw Coney Island in New York and decided to bring a little slice of it to Flint. Zelevarovski eventually took over after moving to Flint from Macedonia in 1977.
Zelevarovski doesn’t keep records of how many people he serves, but he said that business has gone down by 60 percent since the beginning of the water crisis. He’s coping by selling bottled water and offering discounts, but now after owning the restaurant for 20 years he said that he’d be lucky if he can keep it open for another year.
“My time for doing anything else is over.”
The place has a reverse osmosis system and the water has been tested with zero traces of lead, as evidenced by the certificate from the state of Michigan which many other restaurants have. But despite that, many people still don’t trust the water. People tell Zelevarovski that the certificate doesn’t mean anything.
Zelevarovski refuses to pay the water bill at the restaurant, saying that he “doesn’t want to pay for poison.”
Numerous commercial buildings missing walls and doors revealed stacks of building refuse noticeable from across the street. You could see the sky by looking through the roof. In some places, mere sections of wall and partial corners were the only thing standing. In one such place, random piles of bricks covered the sidewalk. It looked like the place had been bombed.
Manifold sidewalks in the city provide a testimony of the city’s former glory. There are so many. Sadly, now, they seem to go nowhere, and stop abruptly in the middle of what used to be a proud and populated block. These public walkways besieged by time, neglect and lack of use, instead of relaying the dominance of man, reveal the power of mother nature to subsume all even concrete, bold grass terminating man-made paths.
Flint’s somber silence reflects a city adjusting to the fact that its fading yet glorious manufacturing legacy will most likely never return.
Visible segregation but hope
Flint was once populated by over 100,000 citizens. It had an extensive monied-class as its many expansive mansions and multiple boarded-up entertainment venues attest. It still retains remnants of the past. There’s even a pipe shop downtown, and there’s a hat store too.
The city is visibly segregated. The neighborhoods in the most disrepair have mostly black faces.
At the cooking-with-beer class at the new Farmer’s Market, the attendees were all white, as were most vendors and customers. Downtown nightclubs, too, revealed largely the same demographic mix.
There is good news, however.
Not all areas in Flint were affected by the water crisis. Repairs are, optimistically, projected to be completed in 2020. The re-emerging Flint Cultural Center located in the Flint Institute of Arts has a new pictorial exhibit, titled Women of a New Tribe honoring local female African Americans residents who have contributed to the community.
The city is more than its crumbling buildings. Its heart, perhaps was never Buick City at all. Its soul was in its people. People like the waiter who is building a wall at the river with his bare hands to keep the refuse out.
People like the middle-aged African-American couple from Mount Morris who must put their relationship on hold to take care of their 76-year-old father. Clyde Morris, a merchandise worker, makes a 15-minute trip to Flint, Michigan every other day to bring his father clean bottled water and daily necessities. Noreen Lewis, Clyde’s partner, recently lost her mother due to unrelated health issues but continues to support Clyde in caring for his father. Clyde and Noreen assist in bathing, cooking and cleaning for Clyde’s father.
The driving force for change to the water crisis in Flint is through the people.
“People don’t trust the government. If you don’t trust what’s there then how are you going to step up in their place,” said Terence Muhammad, Advocacy Manager for the Hip Hop Caucus.
“The water was like the icing on the cake,” Lewis said. “Flint had been messed up for so long with the schools closing, businesses being torn down and our neighborhoods being down to one or two houses. We have adapted to being one of the most dangerous cities to live in, so the water crisis was just another thing that we had to adapt to. Flint should’ve been in the national spotlight a long time ago before this water thing came about.”
Honoree, pastor Zsa Zsa Orr said, “greatness is in the making for the city of Flint.” This forward-looking statement embodies the most frequent sentiment espoused by the city’s hardy residents.
Clearly Flint is again transforming itself – this time into an educational hub for Michigan colleges. There are brand new buildings near the downtown area for the University of Michigan-Flint, Central State, and Michigan State. Given its history, the city of Flint is showing itself to be as transforming as the rocky material for which it is named which may be used to make tools, ignite fire, and, poignantly, building material. There is no reason why it should not succeed.
This story was written by Dwayne Lee with reporting from Lee and members of the Media Milwaukee Flint reporting team.