The Flint River

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I was ready to roll out all of the Flint platitudes – adroit references to urban decay, birth of the middle class, corrupt unions, corrupt politicians, globalization, pollution, crime, GM, Michael Moore, shuttered factories, and white flight. The latest tragedy out of Flint practically demanded it, to somehow explain what went so tragically, catastrophically wrong.

For those that don’t know, the story goes, basically, like this: For years, Flint was getting its water from Detroit. And the city government and residents believed, perhaps rightfully, that they were getting ripped off. So when regional officials hatched a plan to build a new pipeline to Lake Huron, separate from Detroit’s, Flint was all ears.

Trouble is, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was listening too, and responded by increasing Flint’s water rates for the umpteenth time. So Flint – under the totalitarian rule of an unelected emergency manager –
said fuck it and started drawing water from the Flint River, a heavily industrialized waterway brimming with contaminants. The unsafe, highly corrosive water that resulted leached lead from pipes and, on bad days, looked discolored. It was a humanitarian crisis.

About two months ago, Flint switched back to using Detroit water, which has special corrosion inhibitors in it. But this was only after alarming amounts of lead were detected in the blood of numerous Flint children. That’s what it took to finally get change.

Well, that and GM complaining about the water at the company’s Flint engine plant. The water was actually corroding parts.

It’s like an American horror story.

I decided I needed to see how Flint was doing for myself. I’ve always had a soft spot for the city. My grandpa worked there for GM, and would take me up to Huckleberry Railroad to ride the old steam train. Flint Coneys may or may not be the best Coneys in the Midwest. And how could you not respect the city’s history as an auto industry giant? It’s the birthplace of GM.

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William Crapo “Billy” Durant, co-founder of GM. He tried to and nearly did buy Ford in 1909, but was unsuccessful. Could you imagine? 

I arrived expecting the worse. You read all these terrible stories about crime and unemployment in Flint. But to have your water supply compromised, too? How could it get any worse? Visions of vacancies and abandonment danced solemnly in my head, to a terrible dirge, Motown on acid.

But the real story of Flint, I quickly realized, is its resiliency. I don’t know, maybe I’m way off base (delusional, even) but I could swear the city looked like it was in better shape than the last time I saw it about 2 or 3 years ago. Sure, if you want to gawk at torn up neighborhoods, you can still find plenty of that. And the city has as many problems as ever.

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Yet in and around downtown, you’ll find plenty of hope. They’ve got hip eateries, a trendy brewery, a new farmers market, and a college campus buzzing with thousands of students. The streetscaping is attractive, the main drag festooned with decorative arches.

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It could just be a bunch of hipster Neros fiddling while Flint burns. Compare Flint to a city like Gary, Indiana, though, and it’s clear that Flint’s prospects for the future are better. The city will have to downsize, but the Genesee County area has viable economic assets, diamonds in the rough.

The people in Flint have refused to give up. It’s in their DNA. Amid warnings and advisories, they continued patronizing local restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. Business continued as normal, with a few prudent precautions.

There’s this perception that people in Flint are lazy or incompetent, that they should’ve seen the deindustrialized writing on the wall, or stopped voting Democrat. Well, I don’t buy that narrative. Flint takes prime Mike Tyson knockout punches on the chin from corporations and the government and keeps on fighting.

Locals – for example – demanded accountability over the water situation and got it, bit by bit, with the story eventually breaking nationally. That’s damn impressive.

It was quite an experience, for me, to walk along the Flint River. Here, quite literally, was the source of so many recent problems. But ignoring the occasional smashed TV or pile of garbage, the river looked peaceful. Bucolic, even, slowly rolling through the city, hearkening to a simpler, bygone age. I spotted a belted kingfisher and a northern cardinal, along with the ubiquitous robin. There was even a guy fishing by a bridge.

Because life goes on, and great cities don’t just disappear.

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One thought on “The Flint River

  1. There is something to be said about staking out a spot and taking a stand. It’s good to hear that the people of Flint are fighting for what’s right. Thanks for keeping us informed, George.
    Ω

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