Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy
by Anna Clark
On a hot day in the summer of 2014, in the Civic Park neighborhood where Pastor R. Sherman McCathern preached in Flint, Michigan, water rushed out of a couple of fire hydrants. Puddles formed on the dry grass and splashed the skin of the delighted kids who ran through it. But the spray looked strange. “The water was coming out, dark as coffee, for hours,” McCathern remembered. The shock of it caught in his throat. “Something is wrong here.”
Something had been wrong for months. That spring, Flint, under direction from state officials, turned off the drinking water that it had relied upon for nearly fifty years. The city planned to join a new regional system called the Karegnondi Water Authority, and while it waited for the KWA to be built, it began bringing in its water from the Flint River. McCathern didn’t pay much attention to the politicking around all this; he had enough to worry about at his busy parish. But after the switch, many of his neighbors grew alarmed at the water that flowed from their kitchen faucets and shower heads. They packed public meetings, wrote questioning letters, and protested at city hall. They filled clear plastic bottles from their taps to show how the water looked brown, or orange, and sometimes had particulates floating in it. Showering seemed to be connected with skin rashes and hair loss. The water smelled foul. A sip of it put the taste of a cold metal coin on your tongue.
But the authorities “said everything was all right and you could drink it, so people did,” McCathern said later.1 Residents were advised to run their faucets for a few minutes before using the water to get a clean flow. As the months went by, the city plant tinkered with treatment and issued a few boil-water advisories. State environmental officials said again and again that there was nothing to worry about. The water was fine.
Whatever their senses told them, whatever the whispers around town, whatever Flint’s troubled history with powerful institutions telling them what was best for them, this wasn’t actually hard for people like McCathern to believe. Public water systems are one of this country’s most heroic accomplishments, a feat so successful that it is almost invisible. By making it a commonplace for clean water to be delivered to homes, businesses, and schools, we have saved untold lives from what today sound like antiquated diseases in a Charles Dickens novel: cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever. Here in Flint, it was instrumental in turning General Motors—founded in 1908 in Vehicle City, as the town was known—into a global economic giant. The advancing underground network of pipes defined the growing city and its metropolitan region, which boasted of being home to one of the strongest middle classes in the country.
McCathern is a tall, bald man with a thin mustache and a scratchy rasp in his baritone voice. At the time of the water switch, he had led the nondenominational Joy Tabernacle Church for about fifteen years. It was founded in the YWCA in downtown Flint, where it held baptisms in the swimming pool. But in 2009, it made a home in Civic Park, when a Presbyterian church closed after eighty-five years and gave its sanctuary over to the young and hopeful congregation.
By then, Civic Park, one of America’s oldest subdivisions, was “a desert of deserted historically significant homes,” the pastor said. Built between 1917 and 1919 by General Motors and DuPont and Company along curving, tree-lined boulevards, the tidy houses were designed for Flint’s autoworkers and their families.2 But over the years, the neighborhood was blighted by vacancy. Empty two-stories with lurching front porches and crumbling roofs sat alongside crisply painted homes where Flint residents—they sometimes call themselves “Flintoids” or “Flintstones”—still lived their lives. When the sound of gunshots on the street outside interrupted services, McCathern gave a nod to the church musicians, urging them to play louder. Some called Joy Tabernacle a “thug church,” he said, but McCathern saw the good. The young men filling his pews built a proud society, if not by getting their names on the honor roll, then by tagging their names with spray paint.3 In the end, people just want to be seen.
The ghosts of the past went well beyond Civic Park. Between General Motors and the United Auto Workers (which won the right to collectively bargain in Flint’s sit-down strike in the 1930s), the city had been a flourishing hub for American innovation.4 There were more than a hundred different manufacturing establishments in town—ten of them employed at least a thousand people—and they made not only automobiles, but paints, varnishes, tools, dies, cotton textiles, and a wealth of other products.5 Flint had one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation and, despite being severely segregated, it was a magnet for African American migrants from the South. When Vice President Hubert Humphrey stopped by during the campaign for the 1964 presidential election, he praised Flint for “zooming ahead with unbelievable economic growth and progress.” Workers earned wages that “are very good,” Humphrey said, “and because of the great labor management program in this community over many years, there has been a constant rise in the standard of living.”6
Away from the assembly lines and the executive suites, the people of Flint felt that the city shouldn’t just be a place to work; it should also be a place to thrive. Charles Stewart Mott, an auto pioneer who became GM’s largest single stockholder and a three-term mayor, created a nationally renowned community schools program that provided education, skills-building workshops, and social services. (His influence is still felt through the C. S. Mott Foundation, a philanthropic power broker headquartered in the city.) The Parks Department had a robust Forestry Division that cultivated a beautiful thicket of willow, oak, and elm trees along the avenues.7 The Michigan School for the Deaf expanded into new buildings that served hundreds of students from around the state. And on a green campus just east of downtown, the city invested in its cultural life by developing the Flint Symphony Orchestra, as well as a state-of-the-art stage and auditorium, schools for both the performing arts and visual arts, a youth theater, a sunny public library, museums of local history and classic cars, the largest planetarium in the state, and the sweeping Flint Institute of Arts, which lined its galleries with everything from Matisse paintings to Lichtenstein silk screens to carved African masks.
But in the latter part of the twentieth century, GM closed most of its plants in the city and eliminated almost all the local auto jobs.8 Smaller companies followed suit or simply shut down for good. Between 1998 and 2013 alone, nearly 150 of them exited the downtown area.9 With the shuttered businesses came the shuttered houses and schools. More than half the population, which had reached a high point of nearly two hundred thousand in 1960, disappeared. Some twenty-two thousand left between 2000 and 2010, an 18 percent drop in just ten years, and the fourth-largest population loss in the country, behind only Detroit, New Orleans—which had suffered Hurricane Katrina—and Gary, Indiana. Not long later, Flint’s population plunged below a hundred thousand for the first time since 1920.10 The empty structures they left behind were both disheartening and dangerous, not only because they were prone to break-ins and fires, but also because they literally crumbled onto the sidewalks where people passed by. At the same time, the Flint metro region—that is, the suburbs—grew exponentially. It was a widening circle of wealth with a deteriorating center.11
With so much lost, Flint needed help. An emergency plan. A large-scale intervention of some kind. But not only was there no hope of a bailout—of the kind given to the auto industry and Wall Street banks in 2008 and 2009—the State of Michigan exacerbated Flint’s woes by dramatically reducing the money that it funneled to its cities. In a practice called revenue sharing, the state redistributes a portion of the money it collects in sales taxes to local governments. That plus property taxes are what cities use to pay for public services. But between 1998 and 2016, Michigan diverted more than $5.5 billion that would ordinarily go to places such as Flint to power streetlights, mow parks, and plow snow. Instead, the state used the money to plug holes in its own budget. This was highly unusual. As Michigan made cuts, forty-five other states managed to increase revenue sharing to their cities by an average of 48 percent, despite a national economic downturn that affected everyone. Among the five states where revenue sharing declined, Michigan slashed more than any other, by far. For Flint, this translated into a loss of about $55 million between 2002 and 2014. That amount would have been more than enough to eliminate the city’s deficit, pay off its debt, and still have a surplus.12 But the money never came, and, at the same time, Flint was thumped with the Great Recession, the mortgage crisis, a major restructuring of the auto industry, and a crippling drop in tax revenue.
If you wanted to kill a city, that is the recipe. And yet Flint was very much alive. In 2014, the year of the switch to a new source of drinking water, it was the seventh-largest city in the state. On weekdays, its population swelled as people commuted into town for work in the county government, the region’s major medical centers, four college campuses, and other economic anchors. For all the empty space, teens in shining dresses still posed for prom photos in the middle of Saginaw Street, the bumpy brick road that is Flint’s main thoroughfare. Parents still led their children by the hand into the public library for Saturday story time. Older gentlemen lingered at the counter of one of Flint’s ubiquitous Coney Island diners, and the waitresses at Grandma’s Kitchen on Richfield Road kept the coffee flowing. For about ninety-nine thousand people, Flint was home.
And they did what they could to fill the gaps. When Pastor Sherman McCathern and his congregation at Joy Tabernacle realized that Civic Park was not on anyone’s list of priorities, they launched their own programs to fix up the neighborhood. They covered over the vacant windows and doors “to take the abandonment look away,” helping people to imagine what a healthy Civic Park could look like. They paid young men to mow lawns and board up empty homes. People who never dreamed of owning a place of their own moved into some of the left-behind houses. The church created the Urban Renaissance Center to serve as a social ministry for single parents, seniors, ex-offenders, recovering substance abusers, and anyone else who walked in the door. In its vision for Flint, they adopted President Barack Obama’s campaign slogan, which itself was an adaptation of an old union worker chant: “Yes, we can!” Inspired by these efforts, local institutions such as the University of Michigan’s Flint campus and Habitat for Humanity started to work alongside the church. “The community was at one time totally ignored by everybody,” McCathern said. “But because young people stood up, now everybody came on board.” You could feel a shift in the momentum. You could see the change. “It was a different Flint that was coming.”
But on that sweltering summer day, there was that water pouring out of the fire hydrant, as children sprinted back and forth through its spray. Dark as coffee.
This is the story of how the City of Flint was poisoned by its own water. It was not because of a natural disaster, or simple negligence, or even because some corner-cutting company was blinded by profit. Instead, a disastrous choice to break a crucial environmental law, followed by eighteen months of delay and cover-up by the city, state, and federal governments, put a staggering number of citizens in peril.
Their drinking water, it turned out, was full of lead and other toxins. No amount of lead exposure is safe. There is no known cure for lead poisoning. The threat invaded the most intimate spaces of people’s lives: their bodies, their homes, their meals, the baths they gave their children, the formula they fed their babies. Yet it will be years before we can fully assess the effect of lead exposure on a whole generation of children. We must wait for them to grow up and see.
The tainted water also triggered an outbreak of deadly Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia caused by waterborne bacteria that can be contracted by inhaling tiny droplets. And, according to one research team, the water switch correlated with a serious drop in fertility for women in Flint and a 58 percent increase in fetal deaths. In an echo of how women once ingested lead to control their reproduction, an estimated 275 fewer children were born than expected during the emergency.13
When residents noticed that there was something odd about their water, they asked for help. But they were routinely dismissed. Among the many ravages attributed to the water crisis—the rashes, the hair loss, the ruined plumbing and pipes, the devalued homes, the diminished businesses, the homeowners who left the city once and for all, the children poisoned by lead, the people sickened or killed by Legionnaires’ disease—the lost faith in those who were supposed to be working for the common good was among the most devastating. That this happened in the Great Lakes State, which is surrounded by one fifth of all the freshwater on the face of the Earth, makes it all the more haunting.
Fifty years ago, civil unrest tore through American cities—Flint included—and revealed how inequality was built into their very foundations. It cued a national reflection from which the Kerner Report emerged, a six-volume investigation into the riots of the 1960s by a bipartisan presidential commission. With passion, the Kerner Report urged the country to recommit to its cities and to rebuild them as places of opportunity. “These programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance,” the authoring commission wrote, “but they neither probe deeper nor demand more than the problems which called them forth. There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the Nation’s conscience.”14 Avoiding the issue, it warned, was itself a choice. And it was one that would send cities on a downward spiral.
That’s exactly what happened. After decades of negligence by both public and private actors, the well-being of residents in twenty-first-century Flint sat atop a teetering tower of debt, dysfunctional urban policy, disappearing investment, disintegrating infrastructure, and a compromised democratic process. It didn’t take much to tip the city into catastrophe.
Flint was not alone. Thousands of communities across the country are in a similarly precarious situation. From Akron to Albany, South Bend to St. Louis, Baltimore to Buffalo, Flint is just one of a large class of shrinking cities. Once among America’s finest communities, they have been hollowed out by generations of public policy that incentivized suburban living. The subsidized freeways, shopping malls, and segregated real estate all contributed to an outmigration of mostly middle- and upper-class people—white folks first, and then, more recently, African Americans and other communities of color. The cities they left are pressured to cut spending at all costs while at the same time maintaining the services and infrastructure designed for a much larger population. It is impossible. There isn’t enough money to fix a broken window at city hall, and there certainly isn’t enough to upgrade the aging lead-laced water infrastructure.
The Flint water crisis illustrates how the challenges in America’s shrinking cities are not a crisis of local leadership—or, at least, not solely that—but a crisis of systems. Paternalism, even if it is well meaning, cannot transcend the political, economic, and social obstacles that relegate places such as Flint to the bottom. The chronic underfunding of American cities imperils the health of citizens. It also stunts their ability to become full participants in a democratic society, and it shatters their trust in the public realm. Communities that are poor and communities of color—and especially those that are both—are hurt worst of all.
If “Watts” came to represent the twentieth-century urban crisis, then “Flint” represents that of the twenty-first. Systemic inequality and disenfranchisement are at the heart of both tragedies. But what happened in Flint reveals a new hydra of dangers in civic life: environmental injustice, the limits of austerity, and urban disinvestment. Neglect, it turns out, is not a passive force in American cities, but an aggressive one.
While there is moral cowardice in the story of Flint, there is also heroism. It’s found most especially in the lionhearted residents who chose, again and again, to act rather than be acted upon. They turned themselves into top-notch community organizers and citizen scientists, and they built relationships with a diverse ensemble of professionals—including journalists in Detroit and Ann Arbor, a regulations manager at the Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago, an engineer who was working from her suburban home, a pediatrician at a local hospital, and a team of scientists and civil engineers all the way down in rural Virginia—to make themselves visible.
This city did not deserve what happened to it. Neither does any other shrinking city. Half a century after the Kerner Report tried to inspire a new approach to urban life, we are at another crossroads between how things were once done and how we can choose to do them in the future. In a way, public drinking water systems are the perfect embodiment of the ideal that we might reach toward. The sprawling pipelines articulate the shape of a community. House by house, they are a tangible affirmation that each person belongs. They tie the city together, and often the metropolitan region as well. If only some have good, clean water and others do not, the system breaks down. It isn’t safe. The community gets sick. But when we are all connected to the water, and to each other, it is life-giving—holy, even.
1 For the story of Joy Tabernacle and Civic Park: Sherman McCathern, phone interview with the author, January 2016; Gordon Young, Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Jennifer Kildee, “The Torch Has Passed: Flint’s Joy Tabernacle Church Moves into Community Presbyterian Church Building,” MLive— Flint Journal, October 30, 2009. Some of this material first appeared in an article for the website of the New Republic (“Flint Prepares to Be Left Behind Once More,” March 3, 2016).
2 Technically, the first 133 houses in Civic Park were built by the city’s board of commerce, but it strug gled in the war time economy. DuPont (which was GM’s controlling shareholder) took on the development proj ect. Over about nine months, 950 more houses were built. This history is recorded on the Michigan historical marker in Civic Park, erected in 1982 (Registered Site SO543). See also the writing of Civic Park native Gordon Young, especially his Flint Expatriates blog (www. flintexpats. com) and his book Teardown.
3 And, McCathern added, those who didn’t get a chance to wear their high school colors have strict rules for the colors they wear on the street. Sherman McCathern, phone interview with the author, January 2016.
4 The United Auto Workers (UAW) was chartered in Detroit by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1935. But the UAW first made its mark when the sit- down strike began in Flint the following year. It ran from December 30, 1936, through February 11, 1937, with workers occupying three plants. The strike’s victory won recognition of the union by the auto industry.
5 S. W. Wiitala, K. E. Vanlier, and R. A. Krieger, Water Resources of the Flint Area Michigan. Geological Survey Water- Supply Paper 1499- E (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963), pp. E6– E7.
6.Hubert Humphrey, “Remarks of Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, Flint, Michigan,” September 25, 1964. Typescript from the Hubert H. Humphrey papers at the Minnesota Historical Society. It is among a collection of speeches that is available as a pdf: http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00442/pdfa/00442-01363.pdf.
7 The Parks Department has a marvelous collection of photo graphs that document the dedicated work of its Forestry Division, as well as its other activities that made Flint’s green spaces lively. The author thanks city planner Adam Marshall Moore for allowing me to peruse them.
8 As late as 1978, more than eighty thousand people worked in the Flint- area auto plants. But over the next de cade, hit by an oil crisis, industry restructuring, and automation, that fell to twenty- three thousand in 1990; eight thousand in 2006; and, in 2015, about seventy- two hundred at eight facilities. Eric Scorsone and Nicolette Bateson, “Long- Term Crisis and Systemic Failure: Taking the Fiscal Stress of Amer i ca’s Older Cities Seriously. Case Study: City of Flint, Michigan” (Lansing: Michigan State University Extension, 2011); Melissa Burden and Michael Wayland, “GM to Invest $877M in Flint Truck Plant,” Detroit News, August 4, 2015; and Ryan Felton, “What General Motors Did to Flint,” Jalopnik, April 28, 2017.
9 They took 20 percent of the downtown jobs with them, too. Stephen Henderson and Kristi Tanner, “Beyond Bad Water in Flint: Held Back by Jobs and Isolation,” Detroit Free Press, February 20, 2016, pp. 15A–16A. The analy sis uses U.S. Census Bureau zip code patterns and Google maps as its sources.
10 It was in 2013 that Flint’s population mea sured at fewer than 100,000 people for the first time since 1920. On weekdays, commuters brought an additional 35,177 people into the city. According to the Michigan Municipal League, about 86 percent of all jobs in Flint were held by commuters, though their numbers were declining. In turn, 17,436 Flint residents commuted outside the city for work. Only 5,829 people both lived and worked in Flint. In addition, there was a healthy population of college students at the University of Michigan–Flint, Kettering University, Mott Community College, and Baker College. The main sources for these numbers: “Flint, Michigan Population: Census 2010 and 2000 Interactive Map, Demographics, Statistics, Quick Facts,” CensusViewer; and Leonidas Murembya and Eric Guthrie, “Demographic and Labor Market Profile: City of Flint,” State of Michigan, Department of Technology, Management, and Bud get, April 2016.
11 Flint city population pattern, according to the U.S. Census: 1960: 196,960; 1970: 193,317; 1980: 159,611; 1990: 140,761; 2000: 124,963; 2010: 102,434. Genesee County population pattern: 1960: 374,313; 1970: 445,589; 1980: 450,449; 1990: 430,459; 2000: 436,143; 2010: 425,790. Of course, the Genesee County numbers are inclusive of Flint. “The suburbs” also includes northern Oakland County, from which many people who work in Flint commute. The area is about equidistant between Flint and Detroit, so it effectively serves as the suburbs of both cities, and naturally leans more toward the magnetism of the larger of the two. But for perspective, it might be worth looking at Oakland’s population trends as well: 1960: 690,259; 1970: 907,871; 1980: 1,011,793; 1990: 1,083,592; 2000: 1,194,156; 2010: 1,202,970. Unlike Genesee, Oakland County hasn’t seen even the slightest population decline since 1890.
12 There are two kinds of revenue sharing: constitutional and statutory. The latter dipped more or less in proportion to how much less the state was collecting, but the former went far beyond that. The Michigan Municipal League and Great Lakes Economic Consulting are great resources for what is, as they describe it, “the great revenue sharing heist.” “Michigan’s Great Disinvestment: How State Policies Have Forced Communities into Fiscal Crisis,” Great Lakes Economic Consulting, April 2016; Robert J. Kleine, “Rick Snyder Isn’t the Only Michigan Leader Who Abandoned Flint,” Washington Post, February 1, 2016; and Anthony Minghine, “The Great $6.2 Billion Revenue Sharing Heist,” Voice of Detroit, March 26, 2014 (reprint from MML’s March/April 2014 magazine); Anthony Minghine, interview with the author, Ann Arbor, Mich., May 20, 2016; and Robert Kleine, interview with the author, Lansing, Mich., May 19, 2016.
13 In addition to the 58 percent increase in fetal deaths, the research team looking into the reproductive consequences of the Flint water crisis found a 12 percent drop in fertility for Flint women and lower overall health at birth. David S. Grossman and David J. G. Slusky, “The Effect of an Increase in Lead in the Water System on Fertility and Birth Outcomes: The Case of Flint, Michigan,” Working Paper No. 17–25, West Virginia University Department of Economics Working Paper Series, August 7, 2017; George Diepenbrock, “Flint Water Crisis Led to Lower Fertility Rates, Higher Fetal Death Rates, Researchers Find,” KU News Ser vice, University of Kansas, September 20, 2017; and referring to the history of lead as a way to control fertility, see “The Birth Control Pill: A History,” Planned Parenthood Federation of Amer i ca, 2015, https://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/1514/3518/7100/Pill_History_FactSheet.pdf. It’s worth noting that this fertility study was disputed in a seven- page review done by Michigan State University’s Nigel Paneth, who essentially argues that the researchers erred by comparing Flint’s birth data to other cities in Michigan— failing to acknowledge how eco nom ically dissimilar Flint is from most other communities in the state. (His review appears in full at a link in this online article: Kate Wells, “MSU Researcher Finds Fault in Flint Fertility Study,” Michigan Radio, October 3, 2017.) At the time of this writing, the original study was under consideration for publication in a peer- reviewed economics journal, and the research team had communicated with Paneth about his feedback.
14 The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, The Kerner Report (1968; repr. Prince ton, N.J.: Prince ton University Press, May 2016), p. 2. This reissue is edited by Sam Wilentz and features an excellent introduction by Julian E. Zelizer. It is part of a series, the James Madison Library in American Politics. The citation for the original edition is as follows: Otto Kerner et al., Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968), reprinted as Report (New York: Bantam Books, 1968).
Copyright © 2018 by Anna Clark