Hopes of a turnaround in Flint jeopardized by water crisis

AP News
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Posted: Jan 26, 2016 4:24 PM
Hopes of a turnaround in Flint jeopardized by water crisis

FLINT, Mich. (AP) — In a city long stereotyped for despair, some began seeing reasons for hope: A smattering of just-opened restaurants, students filling new college classrooms, fields of green growing where abandoned houses had stood.

The red-brick streets of downtown Flint became lined with once-unlikely businesses like a crepe shop and wine bar, and nearby, hundreds did the previously unthinkable, moving into new apartments at the city's core.

A sprawling new farmers market began drawing hundreds of thousands for everything from mango ginger stilton at a cheese shop to thick, fresh-cut pork loins at a butcher. New programs lured students from around the globe to the city's campuses, an ice-skating rink opened, the planetarium got a state-of-the-art upgrade and performances such as "Blue Man Group" put Flint on their schedule.

Even some signs of blight were beginning to fall, with hundreds of abandoned homes cleared away.

"It felt different," said Kimberly Roberson, a Flint native who directs grant-making in the city for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, "until we hit lead."

A water crisis that has flooded homes with fear and poisonous toxins has taken a tandem swipe at the city's psyche, returning it to the negative headlines it was working hard to escape, drawing a new spotlight to poverty and other wounds it never was able to fix, and bringing a renewed sense of insecurity about what the future holds for a place that's been through so much.

From its founding, Flint's fortunes essentially were entwined with a single industry.

First it was the fur trade, which shifted to lumber, which gave way to the horse carriages, leading to its being called Vehicle City. It was a fitting moniker for its next, most important role, as a powerhouse of auto manufacturing and the original home of General Motors.

Chevrolets and Buicks and lesser-known cars rolled off Flint's production lines, making the city a magnet for workers and ancillary businesses. At its peak in the early 1970s, GM employed 80,000 people in Flint who cashed paychecks strengthened by the United Auto Workers union born in the city. Some 200,000 people lived within the city limits, alongside sprawling factories, booming commerce, model schools and thriving arts.

"This was the most beautiful place on earth," said Pamela Copeland, 72, who was a teenager when she arrived in Flint in its heyday.

No one says that anymore. The oil crisis of the 1970s and corporate cost-cutting in the 1980s and beyond led to the decimation of manufacturing jobs in the city. Its population plummeted; crime soared along with unemployment. The stately Tudors and colonials that were symbols of middle-class prosperity became run-down emblems of urban decline.

By the time filmmaker Michael Moore released his 1989 film "Roger & Me," excoriating GM's managers for the pain they caused their workers and the city, Flint's transition from boomtown to a drab, dangerous shell of its former self was sealed in the public consciousness. Moore was born in Flint and grew up in neighboring Davison, and his father worked at GM. What he didn't know while shooting the hard times in his hometown was it was just the start of the decline — tens of thousands more jobs would be lost, the exodus from the city would be exacerbated, and whole neighborhoods would be left virtually deserted.

"You look at that film now," Moore said in an interview, "it makes Flint look like paradise."

Staggering numbers of houses around Flint are burned out, boarded up or altogether razed. Holdout residents remain on blocks full of desertion and blight. Few neighborhoods are untouched by the devastation. The population, continuing its decades-long decline, has fallen below 100,000. Many schools have shuttered, and groceries are no easy find. But small liquor stores abound, advertising bottles of Olde English 800 for $1 and less.

Jeffery Carney, 48, had read of what was happening in his hometown, but didn't get his first glimpse until last February, when he was released from prison after 23 years for dealing drugs. On the ride to the downtown parole office for his formal release, he thought he was looking at a third-world country.

"I feel like I was in a nuclear holocaust," he said after picking up a case of water at a local firehouse recently. "Is it any hope anywhere?"

The water crisis, slow to gain widespread awareness outside the area, has brought a renewed, national look at the conditions in the city.

Under Michigan law, debt-plagued cities like Flint are put under the control of state-appointed emergency financial managers, who have immense latitude in decision-making. In efforts to get the city's finances in line, its water source was changed in April 2014, from a supply treated in Detroit and piped to Flint, to Flint River water treated and disseminated locally.

It wasn't long before residents began complaining of yellow and brown water from their taps, along with an unpleasant taste and smell. People began seeing rashes on their skin and hair falling from their heads. Workers at a remaining GM plant found their parts were corroding.

The City Council voted last March to reconnect to the Detroit water supply. The state's emergency manager refused.

"If we had access to democracy, we wouldn't be in this whole boat that we're in right now," said Nayyirah Shariff of the Flint Democracy Defense League.

And so the problems worsened even as officials insisted the water was safe. The water being used by families daily for everything from showers to preparing baby formula, had corroded the city's pipes, leaching lead, copper and other dangerous substances and carrying them through the taps. More people got sick. Many are suspicious a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires' disease is due to Flint's water, though the state has not yet announced such a link.

Long before the pipes leached, though, frustration with Flint's stagnation was bubbling. Though abandoned houses have been cleared in neighborhoods dotted around the city, many of the most noticeable signs of progress have all been focused on a tight cluster of downtown streets. Blacks, 57 percent of the population, frequently note the positive developments seem mostly to benefit whites.

Some 42 percent of residents live in poverty, according to census data, and across the city, the average per capita income is just $14,527.

Alfreda Harris, a 60-year-old substitute teacher, came to Flint as a high schooler, her parents drawn by the abundant opportunities. Even as she recognizes some progress in Flint in recent years, she says not all have enjoyed its fruits.

"The hope is there for one segment of society, but it's not for the other," she said. "On the one hand, I can see there is hope. But the reinvention for real people, for everyday people, is not happening."

Sisters Sharhonda Lay, 30, and Shiquise Triplett, 31, echoed those sentiments. What use are new businesses downtown, they wondered, when they don't even have the money to patronize them?

"We're already in poverty, people don't have jobs, they're barely making it," Lay said. "You can't afford to go out and do nothing."

The city is a study in contrasts: The renewal of downtown not far from beaten-down neighborhoods, and a sense of helplessness expressed by residents who in the same breath voice a stubborn optimism.

Melissa Mays, 37, a marketing consultant who started a community group, Water You Fighting For?, to call attention to the water problems, fell in love with Flint after moving to the city in 2001. She observed the toughness of locals, and looked with pride at what she believed was the city's upswing. But after she and her three sons began suffering a bevy of medical problems they believe are linked to the water, she is ready to bid Flint goodbye, if only anyone would want to buy her home.

"Trapped is a pretty decent word," she said.

Daily life has become a trial for many. Megan Crane, a 33-year-old who left work as a line cook to return to school at Mott Community College, hollers at her sons, ages 7 and 8, to be sure to put down the toilet seat before flushing, fearful something toxic from the water could make it into the air. Food is prepared with bottled water. On good weeks, when money isn't so short, the family bathes using bottled water. On bad weeks, they close their eyes and mouths and hope for the best.

She lost 60 pounds as she began feeling nauseated by food and crippled by migraines. Her fiance was hospitalized with pneumonia. Snatches of her cat's hair fell out. It was a painful turnaround for a city she saw making progress.

"It's been setback after setback after setback. And it looks like things are starting to come back," she said. "Things were finally starting to look up for us, instead of being on everybody's top-10 worst list, and then this happens."

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Sedensky can be reached at msedensky@ap.org or https://twitter.com/sedensky.