Heavy water: Flint, Michigan, has become a symbol of American dysfunction, but the city is operating just as intended | The Monthly

Flint, Michigan, has become a symbol of American dysfunction, but the city is operating just as intended


American Dispatches by Richard Cooke

American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.

October 10, 2018

Heavy water

By Richard Cooke
Flint, Michigan, has become a symbol of American dysfunction, but the city is operating just as intended

The seeds of cities are waterborne. Towns tend to germinate on harbours, streams, river mouths and flood plains, and most of the megalopolises of the future will retain these humble elemental foundations. Water is the thing that makes most people live where they do (half the world’s population takes sustenance from the watershed of the Tibetan Plateau alone). Perhaps that is why the city of Flint, Michigan, has become so internationally notorious. As the place with the poisoned water, it betrays what a city is for. “Is Flint habitable anymore?” the MSNBC host Rachel Maddow asked, and some Flint residents objected, wondering what the question meant about their own vital condition. “‘Is Flint viable?’ would be a better question,” one Flintstone said to me. I was sat with a small coterie of retirees, reporters and editors, and a sometime radio host, overlooking the black steel arches of Saginaw Street, one of the first places in America to be lit electrically.

An hour’s drive north-west of Detroit, Flint was founded on the Flint River near Lake Huron, first as a lumber town, then a centre for car manufacturing. “America is a thousand Flints,” Carl Crow wrote in 1945, when he was the Buick car company historian, foretelling an apparent future illuminated by beacons like Vehicle City. America is again a thousand Flints, only this time they describe a decline, what looks like the end of viability. Ass-kicked post-industrial wastelands, company towns minus the company. “Shrinking cities” is one preferred terminology, places where the talent and initiative is siphoned away, and the primary industry left behind is trauma production, and vestiges of a few others: medical care, vice, a trickle of journalists and activists practising concern tourism.

Flint sits at a junction of dysfunction with a single, easily digestible cause: General Motors employed most of its residents, and then it stopped employing them. After decades of taking clean water from Lake Huron, corrupt bureaucrats instead chose to pipe their supply from the polluted Flint River, as a cost-saving measure. The water was not treated properly, and so it corroded lead pipes, becoming contaminated in the process. An unknown number of children will have developmental consequences as a result. There were outbreaks of legionnaires’ disease, and 12 people died. There was a shoddy attempt at a cover-up, and Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, made mendacious claims that everything was fine. Four years later, it is still not fine.

Perhaps most lasting were the psychological miseries for Flintites. Back in Detroit, historian Anna Clark, author of The Poisoned City, had told me that the water crisis had felt “apocalyptic” for people in the community. “Even for those who had endured a number of other indignities living in that city over the last many decades,” she said. “They’d learned to be sceptical and grudgingly patient with things that are slower or not of the standard that they should be.” The water “being damaged”, as she phrased it, had made people reach for the language of Biblical plague, or genocide. “Other life-and-death issues that can be related to those same decades of disinvestment in Flint – water still has a connotation they don’t. It feels mythic, of mythic importance. Without it we die, and quickly.”

“There are two sources of lead here: the water and the bullets,” one rueful local joked, and those decades of disinvestment have left the city’s trophy cabinet full of wooden spoons. Not every year concludes with Flint judged the poorest or most dangerous city in America, but it is usually a podium finisher. When the city is represented in the media, which is often (it is the centrepiece in Michael Moore’s latest documentary), it is as a warning. A routine and well-warranted complaint is that its human stories are not shown, that its population is caricatured or victimised. Only their “resilience” is showcased, as though it is a chronic disease.

Part of the exasperation comes from stagnation. The reports don’t change anything. At the turn of the 20th century, the proliferation of the camera helped end child labour practices; 50 years ago, televised atrocities sapped public support for the Vietnam War. In the meantime, some link has gone missing between representation, humiliation and action. The media is voyeuristic, but the deal used to be that the voyeurism would catalyse action. Instead, the economy of attention hyper-inflated until it crashed, and only the voyeurism is left. The coverage of Flint is exhaustive to the point it is almost extractive. It becomes award-winning, then multi-award-winning, until … nothing happens.

It has become perverse. The Midwestern United States has become a world centre for the Ballardian phenomenon of “ruin porn”. In Detroit, the abandoned buildings, the necrotic Gilded Age mansions of what used to be called “the Paris of the West”, are constantly molested by film students and art majors making chiaroscuro images of decrepitude, residents be damned. It’s not just the amateurs who are at it either: in the acclaimed (of course) documentary series Flint Town, one of the most disturbing scenes starred a ratty apartment succumbing to arson. It wasn’t the fire that was unnerving, it was the shot: a cinematic overhead in crisp HD, taken from a drone that made the silent flames beautiful. “We could have kept shooting, as Flint really never stops,” Zackary Canepari, one of the creators told Creative Planet Network.

When flying cameras come to a place without potable water, you can sense the tension in what the Detroit reporter Thomas Morton called “having your hometown overrun by a bunch of smug assholes with their reductive analogies” (the most documented “faulty visual metaphors” in Detroit have nothing to do with the city’s bankruptcy, and have been closed for many years). It takes a novel strain of inhumane abstraction to travel somewhere as apocalyptic as 7 Mile in Detroit, or Martin Luther King Avenue in north Flint (“it feels like a very long two miles,” one local said), and register these tragedies as pages in a coffee table book.

There’s not much value in adding a catalogue to the ruin porn exhibition, even if it has the saving hypocrisy of hand-wringing. Flint can speak for itself. Treasure Hernandez, the “urban” novelist who began writing her series of books set in the city while she was still in jail, calls it a “dead city”, “a city where dreams are lost”, “literally a war zone”. “Most of the people who lived there were poor, and not because they wanted to be,” she writes. “But because it was the only way to be.” “Because of its ruthless atmosphere, the city produced some of the grimiest dudes, the sheistiest females, the most strategic hustlers, the baddest bitches and the most talented authors. Whatever the person’s game was, they were usually the best at it because survival depended on it.” That’s her rendition of resilience, one a less talented author can’t better.

I myself would be tempted to bear witness to Flint silently, seeing that the calls for action are loud enough already, except there is a facet of the city I have not seen mentioned anywhere, one noteworthy enough to be recorded. In all that poverty smut, there’s never a mention of Flint’s two small university campuses, its medical school, its international airport, or its farmers’ market. Downtown, or in the better suburbs, it could be anywhere in middle America, until it isn’t. The singular image that haunted me afterwards was not shuttered factories or aimless citizens, but the Swartz Creek Municipal, a creek-side golf course, with a well-reviewed 9-hole executive option. A 15-minute walk from its fairways, an 87-year-old woman was robbed and raped at noon, and it is this closeness between the good and the bad, that same little distance you see between a hacienda and a favela, that so starkly demonstrates what Edgar B. Holt, of the NAACP’s Flint chapter, called “the magic lines for racial discrimination”.

The dirtiest secret of the worst city in America is that much of it is quite nice. Take Riverbank Park, continuous with the biggest of the campuses, the University of Michigan-Flint. It is a Lawrence Halprin–designed modernist concrete labyrinth, where the strolling lunchtime students look like they’re auditioning for a pastel-drawn artist’s impression. Birds dive in the river, and fat carp sit on the stones at the shallow base of a cascade. One minute’s drive away, just across a bridge, is the start of north Flint, one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in America, a lattice of streets that could be in another country, not one enjoying good diplomatic relations with its neighbour. That border, created by the river, is a division between safe and unsafe, pleasant and unpleasant, comfortable and poor. No one much “crosses over”, and not just because of smattering of security guards standing sentry.

It was hard to look at, but it was even harder to see, and, except as a no-go area, seemed to occupy little space in the consciousness of white Flint. “I have much felt that so many whites have never seen any black ghettos,” the lay theologian William Stringfellow wrote in 1970. “It is an almost incomprehensible blindness which afflicts most American whites … they have not turned the corners or glanced away from their highways or crossed the tracks to see the black ghetto adjacent to their own lily-white ghetto.” The effect this had on whites, Stringfellow said, was that “they do not realise that they are captives, and, hence, can they exist in a profound moral confusion, entertaining their own captivity as if it were their freedom”. There had been progress since – the white Flintites I spoke with knew they were confined in this way. But they had no idea how to get out.

“You must read Demolition Means Progress,” one retired reporter told me, to general consensus that it “explained it”. In this book, subtitled Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis, historian Andrew R. Highsmith documents the pervasive fabric of Jim Crow in Flint, decades of prejudice expressed through employment, schooling, housing, loans, real estate practices, zoning, charitable foundations, churches, infrastructure, politicking, policing, and frank violence and intimidation. Segregation soaks the city down to the raw material used to build it, a current as powerful as the river’s. Until 1964, the partition continued post-mortem: almost all cemeteries in the region were covered by restrictive burial covenants that kept white and black separated, past the point where those bodies had skin. “Ironically,” the author notes, “this occurred during an era in which northern cities such as Flint enjoyed strong reputations for racial progressivism.”

Northern hypocrisy could, in its own way, be worse than Southern bigotry. Those projects to “overcome” segregation instead enhanced it. By the late 1970s, Olive Beasley, sometimes called the matriarch of the civil rights movement in Flint, realised that a sluggish but ambitious program of urban renewal was really a policy of “Negro removal”, as she put it. Tolerance, though flourishing in the abstract, died in the specific. In 1973, when the black homemaker Rosaline Brown moved her family to the nearly all-white Manley Village, she wanted to raise her children in an interracial setting. “I felt that the only way to improve this world is to get to know people as persons,” she said. Two years later, 20 of her 24 white neighbours had sold their houses.

Some shifted cities, others moved to white-flight satellite townships that still exist. One, on the outskirts of Flint, sees the per-capita average income almost double down a six-mile stretch of road. The place is called Grand Blanc, in case you missed the point. This is not subtle, and works in tandem with a wider American tendency to build new things instead of repairing old things, especially if the new version can be resegregated. In 1958, executives proposed founding a fresh city called “New Flint” almost next to the old one, as a de facto Caucasian duplicate where the car plants could be corralled. The city executive was happy to collude in its own impoverishment, enamoured of a decentralised model of living referred to as “suburban capitalism”.

These pockets of prosperity still exist in the city proper, a scenario now uncommon in these areas. What realtors call the College & Cultural precinct (how’s that for prospective buyer flypaper?) has a row of Tudor-style mansions, with stucco colonnades and too-big lawns. They made me think of the British-English slang term “fuck-off houses”, and help answer the question “why would anyone want to live here?” The National Review writer Kevin D. Williamson, visiting Owsley, the poorest county in the nation, realised that “for the smart and enterprising people left behind, life can be very comfortable, with family close, a low cost of living, beautiful scenery, and a very short climb to the top of the social pecking order. The relative ease of life for the well-off and connected here makes it easy to overlook the real unpleasant facts of economic life.” He too noted a golf course in what he called “The White Ghetto”, but “so little in the way of everyday necessities”.

You do not have to be rich to live in a big house in Flint – a seven-bedroom house on Woodlawn Park Drive can be bought for $249,000 – and the College & Cultural set do what they can. Still, I was taken aback the first time someone said “Phil Shaltz is one of our billionaires” – one of? Perhaps it is not up to these Phillionaires, as they are known, to fill the holes left by the absent state. Along with the charitable Mott Foundation (once a powerful force for the colour line), they have tried to spruce up the downtown, refurbishing the theatre, making space for some pop-up stores, applying the “creativity first” models that have given ballast to other teetering cities. Shaltz’s eccentric interventions focus on a campaign called “I’m Concerned About the Blueberries”, which began with a cryptic purple billboard bearing those words. It has not become much clearer since.

The Blueberry Ambassadorship is “a reminder to all of us to care about others’ challenges – whether they seem monumental or perhaps as small as a blueberry”. It was inspired by a throwaway comment from a ski instructor, and for three years Phillionaire Shaltz has thrown a party each year with pizza for the ambassadors. Sometimes he dresses as a giant blueberry. In the downtown, Shaltz also opened a New York–themed artisanal cocktail bar called “X”, where, he told the local news outlet The HUB, it takes 18 minutes to make a drink “the way we want to make it”. “Stepping through the door of X, Flint native and developer Phil Shaltz’s newly opened downtown lounge, is a bit like time travel,” The HUB cooed. Set the coordinates for court of Marie Antoinette.

The sheer inessentialness of this emboldened me to ask the critical question out loud: “Why does America so often mistake financial problems for moral problems?” Jan Worth-Nelson, the editor of the local East Village Magazine, blamed the Puritans. “I come from that strain of American history. My people, my ancestors who came over, not on the Mayflower, but that kind of gang. I always feel like we struggled with this whole Protestant notion of individual salvation. Like it’s the individual who is responsible to get right with God. And if you don’t, you’re a sinner. It’s your own fault. That even gets translated into the sort of conflict you’ve always had between the collective and the individual, that we don’t resolve very well.”

“You’ll like Flint,” Anna Clark had told me, and I did like Flint. Flint had promise, after all. But I heard that after 50 years of unrealised promise, perhaps you stop believing. It wasn’t just parochialism or delusion that kept these people here. They were fighting for something, or against something, and the sensation of malign intent behind their circumstances wasn’t just paranoia. Perhaps not deliberate “ethnic cleansing”, as Michael Moore had called it. Palliative negligence? Cut losses? It was like the city was on a “do not resuscitate” order. Power saw Flint as a sunk cost fallacy. Socialism and technology were discussed as solutions. Jan’s partner, Ted Nelson, thought that automation would lead to a universal basic income, fulfilling the spirit of 1968, back when he was an activist being beaten on the street.

But the technology was already here – Phil Shaltz is in the automation business – and the problems were not technical ones. Authorities almost went out of their way to prove this. They kept sending in the cavalry, only to have them shit on the street. When the Flint River water started to corrode car parts in the GM factory, its hydration source was switched back to Lake Huron. Naturally, the town kept drinking the rest. In June 2015 the US Army arrived in town, not with engineers to fix the pipes, but to conduct exercises in “the ability to (operate) in urban environments”, spooking the east side with attack helicopters and midnight explosions. This show was widely received as a taste of what to expect, should there be urban unrest.

Lacking was not only the will to place technology in the service of justice, but also the belief that government should take on that responsibility. States have delivered drinking water for thousands of years, so this new inability means the anti-government manias of the United States have stripped some places back almost to the state of nature. “It wasn’t an act of God,” said Clark. “Not even in a climate-changed influenced way. It wasn’t a private company that discarded all its pollution, and now we have to deal with it. These are the familiar templates that we have for dealing with environmental disaster. This one was man-made by the public sector, by the very departments that are meant to protect us against unsafe drinking water and all these other things.”

It was, she said, “a test of how little government can do in an urban centre and get away with it. They pushed it to the limit. How casually can we treat the wellbeing of these people? How little can we do for them before anybody else cares?”

Sometimes the infrastructure ruin in Flint feels like the abandoned husk of another civilisation, like Dark Ages Italy marvelling at dry Roman aqueducts, but unable to make them flow. This is true of more humble buildings as well, and I wonder if these fallen middle-class neighbourhoods are less hopeful than slums, which at least have a chance of improvement and redemption, instead of the ever-present humiliation of promise spurned into decay.

Flint in its present condition is 55 per cent black, and leaving, I could not shake the feeling that the city was like a purpose-built machine, fulfilling the same function it’d had all along, all the way to the point of self-destruction. Financially, it was being stripped for parts. You could imagine a sociopathic classical liberal argument that the provision of clean water to an economically unviable city was a moral hazard, the same way economists sometimes describe disaster relief as a moral hazard. A disaster of negligence was, in this view, an efficiency, as well as a punitive example, a manifestation of what at different times has been called, with varying degrees of literalness, the whip hand. I was not sure that I liked Flint after all.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 


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