The Unraveling of Flint: How 'Vehicle City' Stalled Long Before the Water Crisis

Many long-time Flint, Michigan residents feel they've been abandoned by city and state officials after revelations that 30,000 homes are at risk for lead contamination.
January 26, 2016, 8:25pm
Photo by Kayla Ruble/Vice News

Johnny Lee has been through Flint, Michigan's good times, and its bad. But the 79-year-old Flint native never expected that his city wouldn't be able to provide its residents with clean water, much less for it to be thrust into the national spotlight for a scandal in which local and state officials allegedly ignored complaints and evidence that the city's water supply was contaminated with lead.

"[The water would] come out and it's like 'what's this?'" Lee said, explaining how the water in his home began to stink, and run brown and yellow, more than a year ago. "Now, you know, I ain't using it, but if you let it sit for two or three days and turn it on, it will come out rusty-like."

Lee is just one of many residents across the city who became concerned about his water at that time, and months before officials admitted there was a problem. He regularly purchased cases of water to drink and cook with, and he would also travel outside the city to draw water from houses not hooked up to Flint's piping.

Now with revelations that the city's 30,000 plus homes are in fact at risk for lead contamination, residents like Lee, who have suffered as tens of thousands of autoworkers lost their jobs in recent decades, have finally been pushed to the edge with a sense of abandonment by city and state officials.

Residents started raising concerns about the water shortly after the city starting pulling its water from the Flint River in April 2014. For decades, Flint got its water from Detroit — which sits less than 70 miles to the south. But in 2013, Flint voted to build its own pipeline and create the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). This vote led to a dispute with the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, which threatened to cut off its largest municipal customer.

At the time, both cities were run by emergency managers, a state-appointed system implemented to turn around financially struggling cities and school systems across Michigan. These officials failed to shore up an agreement that would allow Flint to stay on Detroit's water system. Instead, the city of just under 100,000 people opted to go it alone until construction of the KWA pipeline was completed and instead pull water from the Flint River — an effort that necessitated the use of anti-corrosives and an update to the city's wastewater treatment plant that for decades existed solely for backup purposes.

As residents' complaints about the water grew louder in Flint, by last summer researchers from Virginia Tech University and the city's Hurley Medical Center found elevated lead levels in people's homes and spiking lead levels in children's blood. Eventually, in September 2015, after months of ignoring or denying a problem existed, state officials began to acknowledge that lead contamination in the city's water was a danger to residents.

Related: Protesters Demand Michigan Governor's Resignation During State of the State Speech on Flint Water Crisis

The American Civil Liberties Union and local media outlets determined that not only had officials been made aware of potential issues with the water, but they had also failed to put the correct amount of anti-corrosives into the water system — a national guideline regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The corrosive water leached the lead pipes causing the contamination that is now making headlines across the country. As more and more information surfaces about who knew what, and how long they knew it,the state's top politicians are under increasing scrutiny, particularly Governor Rick Snyder, as to how they handled and responded to the situation.

"They were trying to cut corners, to save money, or they say they was, and they cut us from Detroit," Lee said while eating breakfast at the St. Luke's N.E.W. Life Center, a community center run by a group of ambitious nuns on the city's north side. "It makes me want to pack up and leave, to tell you the truth. And I'm still thinking about it… Buffalo, New York, I might go [there]."

***

Lee arrived in Flint in 1968, and like the thousands of people who left their homes all over the country to make their way to Flint around that time, he moved from Chicago to take a job at GM. The factory gig with the automaker didn't last long, and Lee didn't like being cooped up on the assembly line. He eventually transitioned to working with a railway company and has been in the city ever since.

"Oh I've seen Flint booming," he recalled. "Everybody was happy, spending money, stuff like that."

While most of the recent discussion about Flint relates to crime and abandoned houses that resulted from economic decline of the 1990s, Lee arrived at a time when GM's workforce in Flint, and nationwide, was still growing.

People began to flock to the city in the early 1900s after Buick and Chevrolet opened plants along the Flint River, according to Flint native and Genesee County Historical Society President David White. There were so many people heading to Flint by the 1920s that the housing market couldn't keep up. White said people were sleeping in makeshift shacks along the river because there wasn't enough housing.

"Stories go that they had shifts in boarding houses, so when you left for work, somebody else took your room and that happened all 24 hours," White said. "GM was strong, the [United Auto Workers Union] was really strong, [and] they ran the city right up until the 1980s."

The city saw its population reach nearly 200,000 people by the 1960s. GM's nationwide growth wouldn't peak until 1979 and the loss of jobs in Flint wouldn't occur until the late 1980s and early 1990s. At its height, the car manufacturer employed some 85,000 people in Flint alone at plants throughout the city.

Related: Obama Declares State of Emergency in Flint, Michigan Amid Ongoing Water Crisis

But then came the recession of the 1980s, along with high gas prices, that tanked sales for US automakers. Meanwhile, Japanese companies saw their fuel-efficient cars get a boost in the American market. GM's employment began to drop by 1988, with plant closures throughout the 1990s and 2000s. As thousands of people in Flint lost their jobs and many were forced to move away for employment, White said the decline left a visual mark with a new cityscape of empty factory lots and abandoned houses.

"The effect was dramatic and hit home," he said, explaining that with other industries in other cities, companies closed down their facilities, but left the abandoned factories in place. That was not the case in Flint. "General Motors made a point of demolishing everything they owned behind them as they left town."

"You don't realize how large a property they had control of until it becomes vacant," he said, explaining that GM's departure left vast areas of vacant property. In a town where people lived in the neighborhood surrounding the factory they worked in, the blocks near and around the plants began to empty out as well.

(Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

One of the more notable vacancies lies on the city's north side near what became known as Buick City, an area where a 235-acre Buick plant sat until 2002 when much of it was demolished. Now, all that remains is a chain link fence topped with barbed wire around an empty expanse of land overgrown with grass and weeds. Just outside of the property, a Buick City UAW building remains equipped with a sign on its premises barring any non-union made or foreign cars from using its parking lot.

As White explained, the city continued to operate as usual without making any major changes to cope with a massive loss of tax revenue. The exit of GM, and white flight that started in the 1960s, resulted in Flint losing a large portion of its tax base by the 1990s. Flint was the first city in the country to hold a popular vote in favor of an open housing referendum in 1968, but an exodus of wealthy white residents to the suburbs soon followed. Once the GM jobs were gone, anyone who could leave found a way out. By 2014, estimates indicate that half the population left, and now less than 100,000 people remain within the city limits — 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line. According to the most recent census, nearly 60 percent of the population is African American.

"They kept acting like it was you know just another day, [they] kept spending the money," White said, explaining that finding quality local leadership over the years has been a challenge. GM's declining role in the city and poor management put Flint in dire financial straits and forced the city to go under state-monitored financial management for two years starting in 2002. A second bout of emergency financial management took hold in 2011 — this time with increased and almost absolute powers that were approved by Governor Rick Snyder — which forced schools to close down, saw public workers lose their jobs, and demolished more and more houses.

"Flint was declared an all-American city in the fifties.... we had one of the best school systems in the country," White said. "So it's very sad to see where it has come to. Schools are in the worst shape that they've ever been. Period. And the city is, too."

***

Ray Tyler, 34, grew up not too far from where the remnants of Buick City now lie. As a kid in the 1990s, he said life in Flint at that time was still relatively good. The city had just started to register on lists for the most dangerous American cities.

"You know we wasn't rich, but the crime rate was lower, people's parents had jobs. General Motors was still around, so people was okay, for the most part," Tyler, who now owns the Luxe Lounge nightclub just outside the city-limits, said.

He stressed that the public school system still felt like it was in good shape, although the decline was imminent. Tyler's parents even used someone else's address so that he could attend high school in the suburbs and have a better shot at getting out, which he managed to do. He attended Ferris State University, located a three-hour drive away on the west side of the state.

By the time he returned home after graduation in 2005, however, Flint was noticeably different. The city earned the number four spot for most dangerous cities based on FBI statistics in 2002, the same year the Buick plant dismantling began. For its size, Flint was the most dangerous city for three years in a row starting in 2010, and saw 66 murders in 2012. The murder rate has declined over the last several years, but there were 48 homicides last year.

An abandoned lot on the city's north side where houses have been demolished in recent decades to rid the city of its notorious blight. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

Tyler himself moved to a neighborhood outside the city limits in Flint Township in pursuit of a better life. He said only a handful of families still live on the block he grew up on.

"You go there, you go to your old neighborhood, that house might not even be there anymore. There might only be two houses on that block," he said. "A lot of people are moving out of the inner city, taking their kids out of the inner city to go to school."

Tyler still spends a lot of time in the neighborhood with friends and family, even more so now as the water crisis hit and he felt the need to get water to people. But similar to residents like Johnny Lee and others Vice News spoke with in Flint, the lead contamination and the birth of his first daughter last year have inspired him to get even further away from the city where he grew up.

"I was very close to just getting my family and getting out… I gotta get my daughter out. I just want her to see something different," Tyler said, adding that his love for the city and feeling like he had a duty to stick around during the crisis have kept him there for the time being. Over the last year, Tyler has regularly donated water to local schools while using the club he owns as an unofficial free water pickup center. His efforts were eventually given a boost through help from organizations he connected with in Detroit.

"It's sad because I look at my kid everyday," he said, explaining that this has changed how he views all the children of Flint who will deal with the lifelong effects of lead poisoning. "You just see some kids are going to have to go through that when they get older, it's just sad."

An icy road on the Flint's neglected north side. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

Residents across the city complain about the decline in public services over the last 10 years. Firemen and police officer positions have been cut, the sanitation department has been privatized, and the local farmers market was also sold off to private investors. Roads and sidewalks throughout the city are clearly the victim of poor maintenance, and often neglected by services like snow and ice removal.

But not everything has been in a downward spiral in the city in recent years. Local investors, with the help of the city's main charitable organization, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, pushed for development in Flint's historic downtown along Saginaw Street that is still lined with the original iron arches used to light the road in the early 1900s when horse drawn carriages were the mode of transportation being manufactured in Flint. Buildings along the main downtown strip were renovated and rebuilt as part of a state renaissance zone initiative, in an area near one of three college campuses in town. This attracted business owners like Robb Klaty, who relocated to Flint with his wife and six kids seven years ago. As he started to feel a part of the community and engage in city issues, he decided to open up a brewery and several restaurants downtown.

These Vehicle City arches welcome residents to Flint's downtown. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

While Klaty said the estimated 3,000 residents in the downtown area aren't necessarily enough to keep business going, he and fellow entrepreneurs have courted people from the suburbs to come in and spend time in the neighborhood.

"There is some kind of a pride to be able to thrive in a place that is difficult... It feels difficult and it feels pretty good when you can win in that," he said. "Somebody said if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere and I've heard the same thing in Flint. And I think both are true in totally opposite reasons."

Sitting at a high top table at one of his restaurants just off the main drag, a bar called Table and Tap that only serves beer made in Michigan, Klaty wore a t-shirt with the phrase "Hard as Flint" which showed off his tattooed arms. The father and former suburbanite talked about the fact that business was down in recent weeks as the water crisis consumed the city. His restaurants use a special filter system and self-conducted tests show there is no lead in the water, but overall people seem to be steering clear of local restaurants. But Klaty isn't too dejected by the slow start to 2016, the warmer weather months are better for business anyway and he said he believes the water crisis will only bolster the people of Flint who are committed to seeing the city succeed. He said he's already heard from people wanting to see how they can help and invest.

"I think we are going to attract the right people who want to take a place that's really been hit left and right and turn it around," Klaty said. "There are certain people in this community that are galvanized by hardship. I think that should be attractive for people who want to support the underdog and be part of the solution."

***

On a cold Tuesday in mid-January amid growing controversy over the unraveling Flint water crisis, Governor Snyder prepared to give his annual state of state address at the capitol building in Lansing. Outside, dozens of protesters gathered holding signs that read "Arrest Snyder" and they marched to the building's steps chanting "Snyder Must Go."

Among the demonstrators were UAW members, local political activists, and parents who have spoken out against the water contamination. But there was also a line of young black protesters marching around the back of the building holding signs that said "Flint Lives Matters." The group consisted of people in their 20s and 30s, but it was the teenagers and school children in their ranks that stood out compared to the middle-aged adults populating the bulk of the crowd.

Leading the group was Luxe Lounge nightclub owner Ray Tyler, who found out about the rally just a day earlier and chartered a bus to take some of the families and teens from Flint's north side over to Lansing. He funded the trip, he said, not only because he supported the rally, but because he wanted the younger kids to see this kind of social action. He's organized other public demonstrations around the water crisis over the last year.

"These guys are young teenagers and I had 'em all out, and the experience was crazy," he said as he reflected on the demonstration a few days later while sitting at his club before opening. "One of the parents was thanking me today… [these kids] would have never done that."

Related: Michigan Calls in the National Guard to Distribute Water to the City of Flint

Like the others, Tyler hasn't been able to abandon the city during the crisis, despite wanting a better life for his daughter. In fact, he's become increasingly emotional about the issue, especially when he sees the kids at a school where he was donating water to last year. The city council recognized him in November for his work bringing safe water to Flint Community Schools.

"I used to get back to my car and tear up. You see some kids struggling, you always see it on TV, it's home now," he said. "That stuff happens in Africa, when they be like one cent a day you can get water for these kids and it's like, really? This is it. This is Africa right now."

The current situation may seem to put Flint residents up against one of their biggest challenges to date, and it may be forcing people to look elsewhere for opportunities — but Tyler emphasized that people of his city are nothing if not resilient.

"One thing else about us, this little water thing, we built to survive you know what I mean, we built for it," he said. "What don't kill us can only make us stronger, that's how we live."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB