How to Fix Flint After the Water Crisis
Replacing the pipes in my hometown won’t revive the city. It will take the equivalent of a Marshall Plan to save it.
My friend P-Nut was shopping at the Flint Salvation Army in March with Sherman McCathern, the pastor of his church, when he got a phone call.
It was one of his buddies from Civic Park, a neighborhood of houses primarily built for autoworkers that is now one of the most blighted areas in a city often defined by decay and loss.
“You know your house is on fire?” the friend asked.
P-Nut and the pastor headed for their car and rushed home. When they pulled into the parking lot of Joy Tabernacle Church on North Chevrolet Avenue at the corner of West Dayton, two blocks from P-Nut’s house, smoke was wafting through the neighborhood.
“So I knew it was bad before I even saw it,” P-Nut told me. “When I got to my house, it was blazing.”
Long before Flint had a water crisis, it had an arson problem. And decades before Cher and Snoop Dogg arrived on the scene with their PR teams, or the journalists and presidential candidates showed up, my hometown was vanishing in ways both large and small. Shifting global economic trends aren’t big on taking union industrial strongholds along for the ride, and Flint was left behind to fend for itself. Obviously, it hasn’t fared well. Decades of double-digit unemployment, population loss, and artless budget cuts equal crime, abandonment, and burning buildings.
All Flintoids — as we sometimes call ourselves — can catalogue the places that meant something to them that have disappeared. My personal list includes Homedale Elementary, the East Side school my mother and I attended less than a mile from the massive automotive complex known as Buick City. The school was torched and then demolished in 2010. The factory is long gone, too, along with thousands of G.M. jobs. My grandfather’s elegant brick office building downtown, where he earned the money that kept our family afloat, is a parking lot. And the pool where I learned to swim is a grassy field in Kearsley Park.
Now I have to add P-Nut’s house to the tally. Sure, it was just a two-story saltbox that needed a lot of work in a neighborhood that might not exist in twenty years. But it had a meaningful past and, I foolishly thought, a future. It was a symbol of hope for P-Nut. And for me. And hope is a tenuous thing in Flint.
When I got the news, I flashed back to a cold December morning in 2010. I was sitting in the lobby of City Hall in Flint, waiting to shadow the mayor for a story I was writing about my hometown. I was alone because the receptionist I had gotten to know over the previous year had been laid off, a victim of the city’s relentless quest for a balanced budget.
A disheveled guy with an armful of manila file folders tucked under his arm walked into the lobby. He had to angle his head toward the offices behind the desk and call out, “Hello, anyone home?” A staffer finally emerged and asked if she could take a message for the mayor.
“Well, I’ve given up on Flint,” the man said, “and I wanted to see if he could give me a reason not to give up on it.”
The staffer took his name and number, promising to pass his message along to the mayor. The guy left with his folders, more disappointed than angry.
I couldn’t really relate to his request at the time. I was cautiously optimistic about the city’s future. But after years of steady decline and the ongoing water crisis, I understand him a lot better. In fact, I think I’m becoming that guy now, desperately searching for some evidence that things will ever get better in Flint. And worried that I won’t find it. For someone who once naively thought he could help solve the city’s problems, it’s not an easy thing to admit.
As a journalist who has written about Flint for more than a decade, I’ve been lucky to meet dozens of smart, inspiring residents like Pastor McCathern and P-Nut who are fighting to save this troubled spot on the Michigan map. But I’ve also talked to enough economists, urban planners, and politicians to know that all their efforts will never be enough to pull Flint out of its socio-economic free fall. It will take a monumental national effort to reinvigorate Flint and cities like it. That means an investment of federal and state money that gives Flint a chance to prosper but might not pay dividends for years. And I fear our bitterly divided country does not care enough to make it happen.
I hope I’m wrong. I don’t like thinking that bad things are likely to keep happening in the city where four generations of my family lived. But I also know that Flint is a place where reality destroys the best laid plans, and optimism gets its ass kicked on a regular basis.
Going Home Again
I left Flint in the eighties for college around the time my mom moved to Florida after a series of robberies at our house in Civic Park. I didn’t give our departure much thought. It felt like everyone I knew was getting out. Flint was already a place people left.
Maybe it was a mid-life crisis, but after living in San Francisco and working as a journalist for 20 years, I felt compelled to reconnect with the place my grandparents moved to from the cornfields of Iowa nearly 100 years ago. My half-baked plan was to buy a house. I thought that I’d be doing Flint a favor by fixing up one of the thousands of empty eyesores marring the city.
It was a heartfelt quest but also pretty stupid. I not-so-quickly realized that Flint did not need another underfinanced homeowner, especially a well-meaning but distant one on the West Coast. Nostalgia just doesn’t get you very far in Vehicle City. Flint needed committed residents who were willing to endure the inevitable setbacks that come with home ownership in a troubled city — breakins, fires, and abandoned houses on your block. I had to admit that wasn’t me, and I wasn’t sure what to do next.
Pastor McCathern gave me the answer. He understood my desire to help the city that, I had come to realize, made me who I am. After all, he believed God was calling on him to save Civic Park and minister to its remaining residents. “When G.M. is through with it, let’s see what God can do with it,” he boomed at a nearly four hour Sunday service I attended.
He told me about P-Nut, a young member of his congregation who was fixing up a house that had been donated to the church. P-Nut was raising three daughters with his girlfriend, Raevyn, and they were struggling to make ends meet. I decided to donate the money I had saved to buy a house to P-Nut and made plans to help him work on his new home.
When I met P-Nut, he was wearing a black baseball cap emblazoned with his nickname in gold script. “Everyone said my head looked like a peanut when I was a little boy and it just stuck,” he explained. He asked that I stick with his nickname when writing about him.
He spent most of his teenage years in a juvenile correctional facility in Pennsylvania after he was arrested for stealing a car at 13. When he got out, he earned money working as a mechanic, but it wasn’t enough to support his growing family. He wasn’t above breaking into empty houses in search of anything he could sell. He was a scrapper, an all-too-common scourge in Flint’s troubled neighborhoods.
“It was wrong, but I had kids, no job, and no money,” he said. “I didn’t want to sell drugs or go out and rob somebody.”
It turned out I was no stranger to P-Nut’s Band-Aid beige and brown house on the corner. It was the childhood home of writer Ben Hamper, the autoworker and bestselling author of Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line, a searingly funny book on factory life in Flint. I’d stopped there dozens of times over the years when I carpooled to St. Mary’s School with Ben’s younger siblings. He had moved up north to Traverse City long ago, but he understood my attachment to Flint: “It’s a dismal cascade of drek,” he emailed me, “but it’s home.”
P-Nut, Raevyn and I spent one afternoon prepping and painting a sunroom in the front of the house, looking through the windows at a row of abandoned houses across the street as we worked. Their three girls played on the front lawn, wrestling and chasing each other, their laughter mixing with the chirping birds in the otherwise silent neighborhood.
I noticed a series of dates tattooed in black ink on P-Nut’s arm as he reached up to paint a section of wall near the ceiling. I asked him what they meant. “These are my daughters’ birthdays,” he said, “so I don’t forget what I’m here for. So I don’t forget my life has a purpose.”
I returned to San Francisco feeling pretty good about myself. I felt like I’d done my part to make Flint a better place. And I could keep helping. I worked with local residents to raise money to demolish an abandoned house that was dragging down their otherwise healthy block in the North End. I spoke to journalism classes at UM-Flint about how to cover the city in a meaningful way. And, in the ultimate act of journalistic hubris, I thought that by writing about Flint I could raise awareness about its plight. Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, my book about my return to Flint that profiles Pastor McCathern, P-Nut and the other people I met there, came out in 2013.
When I saw a photo of P-Nut’s burned-out house on Facebook, I was ensconced in my San Francisco house — a poorly constructed, 700-square foot “cottage” purchased with a series of toxic, no-money-down loans that is now inexplicably worth close to seven figures. The city is so awash in money that neighborhoods getting too nice is considered a real problem. It was a beautiful day and my infant daughter was sleeping nearby. My wife, Traci, and I suffered only from sleep deprivation and excessive joy. So I won’t claim that I have any right to complain, especially compared to everyone who actually lives in Flint.
But I was stunned, nonetheless. I guess I thought all the time and effort that had gone into P-Nut’s house would preserve it. There were hundreds of abandoned houses lining the deserted blocks of Civic Park, practically begging for someone to torch them. Why hit one of the survivors? It was cruel, in a cosmic sense, which is the only way I could describe it because I’m no longer religious, despite — or because of — all those years in Flint Catholic schools.
P-Nut never checked in with the fire inspector about the cause of the blaze. He didn’t have homeowner’s insurance and the house was totaled, so what difference did it make? But he figured it was arson. When he walked through the shell of the house a few days after the fire, the spot that had burned most intensely was the sunroom we had painted together. He speculates that it must have started there.
No Quick Fix
Thanks to the international coverage and widespread outrage over the Flint Water Crisis, some money and resources have finally started flowing to the city to replace the damaged pipes. But these upgrades will simply get the city back to the dysfunctional place it was a few years ago, if we’re lucky. It won’t dramatically change the lives of most Flint residents. Keep in mind that with the city’s continual population decline a good number of the houses that get new pipes will be abandoned or demolished in five or ten years.
In the seemingly never-ending discussions of what it would take to “save” Flint, it’s tough to even define what success would look like. The glory days in the fifties, when Chevys were rolling off the assembly lines and it had one of the highest per capita income levels in the world, are not coming back. Automation has eliminated roughly 80 percent of industrial jobs, so even if globalization disappeared, long dead factories like Buick City and Chevy in the Hole would not magically spring to life.
In downtown Flint, faint glimmers of life in the form of new restaurants, lofts, and renovated buildings have sparked dreams that the city can transition into a smaller, safer, greener place. There’s hope that Flint might emerge as a quiet county seat with colleges, some industry, a few good medical facilities, and a quaint downtown that lures suburbanites — many of whom are too terrified to visit the city — on a regular basis.
But even that modest proposal will be a daunting task in a place where 41.4 percent of adults and 66.5 percent of children live below the poverty line. It’s called entrenched poverty for a reason. Once it’s there, it tends not to leave.
Poverty reduction strategies typically involve getting more money into the pockets of poor people with minimum wage hikes or through supplements like social security and tax credits. Or by providing services like affordable housing, improved schools, or easily accessible healthcare. Obviously, these kinds of fundamental, long-term reforms require money and foresight. Lots of it.
I can’t imagine anything more untenable in today’s delusional political climate, where trickle-down economics is embraced and climate change is denied. Keep in mind that the Republican-controlled Michigan state government had to be sued to replace the corroded lead pipes in Flint, a problem they created with their own policies and political appointees who were running the city. And Republicans in Washington, who control both houses of Congress and the White House, are obsessed with taking healthcare away from millions of Americans and trying to slash a host of other entitlements.
But Dan Kildee, Flint’s Democratic congressman, is more optimistic, which is one of the many reasons he’s a successful politician and I’m a struggling journalist. We both grew up in Civic Park at a time when the city was slipping but still had a lot to offer. Neighborhood kids had to decide which of the dozens of free summer programs to attend. It was a far cry from today’s Flint, where the police station is closed to the public on weekends, and there are times when not a single cop is patrolling the streets.
Kildee believes that a massive program that devotes as much as $1 trillion to rebuilding the country’s infrastructure has the greatest chance of bipartisan agreement in Washington. President Trump has said this is one of his goals to make America great again. And Kildee believes if special emphasis is given to Flint and other distressed cities, it could function as a new Marshall Plan to “reset” these troubled places, much the way the U.S. helped rebuild Europe after World War II.
The city — like other poverty stricken municipalities — has the vexing ability to resist broader economic upturns. Real growth, let alone bubbles, never seem to visit. The city continued to decline during the boom years of the Clinton administration and kept sinking during the modest but historically long-running economic recovery that President Obama orchestrated. Clearly, a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats. Kildee, who is an exuberant practitioner of metaphor, describes these cities as “anchored to the bottom of the ocean.”
“I don’t think we can chip away at the problem,” he told me recently. “We need a big, bold, and very significant effort to help areas where you have chronic poverty. Until we fix the fundamental problems, we are really just managing the decline.”
Not that Kildee hasn’t done his share of chipping away at Flint’s problems. He helped pioneer the use of land banks to deal with abandonment in shrinking cities and oversaw several redevelopment projects in Flint as the Genesee County treasurer. He went on to found a non-profit to help distressed cities. In Congress, he focuses on urban policy as the vice ranking member of the house Financial Services Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Urban Caucus.
Kildee envisions clearing away the thousands of abandoned structures in Flint, Youngstown, Gary and cities like them around the country. Extra funding would be used to evaluate and rehabilitate abandoned factory sites, and provide increased tax credits for developers to build on them. Cities would also get resources to right-size their aging, inefficient water and sewer systems, often built for much larger populations. Because these projects would take years to complete, job training and apprenticeship programs could train the chronically unemployed to complete some of the work.
It’s a clear-eyed plan that doesn’t sugarcoat Flint’s problems, but I doubt that any of this will come to pass in my lifetime. It’s hard for me to imagine any meaningful infrastructure plan emerging from Republican-controlled Washington, let alone one that emphasizes troubled cities with large African-American populations that tend to vote for Democrats. President Trump’s August press conference on infrastructure spending devolved into an angry rant about the violent Nazi rally in Charlottesville. He abandoned his nascent Advisory Council on Infrastructure soon afterwards.
Kildee doesn’t try to reassure me. He simply points out that there aren’t very many alternatives, other than tinkering around the edges. “It may well be that this does not happen anytime soon,” he said,” but it will never happen if we don’t define what the real solution is for Flint. And it will never happen if we don’t try.”
Another House, Another Fire
The past and the present have a way of intertwining in Flint. Long-gone Flint expatriates who remember a happy place are inextricably linked to the current catastrophes. Today’s residents aren’t safe, and neither are the memories of those who have moved on.
I was reminded of this when another Civic Park house that I know well on Greenway Avenue caught fire in June, just a few blocks away from P-Nut’s house. Two teenage girls named Amber and Autumn burned to death, along with their 61-year-old father. Their mother escaped by jumping out a second-floor window.
It apparently started in the middle of the living room, and the cause is still under investigation. A quick search for the property on Zillow captures the falling fortunes of Flint real estate. The handsome, 1,872 sq. ft. house with four bedrooms and two bathrooms last sold for just $7,027 in 2014.
A group of us from the old neighborhood quickly filled a Facebook post about the fire with memories of the Greenway house. My friend Jim Holbel, who now lives in Atlanta, grew up next door, and a state police sergeant did a live remote for the local TV news on his old front lawn.
“It was hard to watch because the girls who died are about the same age as my two kids,” Jim emailed me. “I’ve taken them back to Flint to show them the old neighborhood, but it’s impossible for them to really imagine that this used to be a great place with great jobs. When my young son first saw a store with full bullet-proof glass inside and asked if it used to be a giant aquarium, I knew they were too far removed to understand.”
When we were kids in the seventies and eighties, the Scieska family lived at the house that burned. Louis, a middle school principal, and Shirley, a nurse, raised six boys who became legendary for their misadventures — a car crashed through a garage but repaired before their parents returned, and the invention of street hockey played with a tennis ball soaked in gas and set on fire. Jon, the second oldest, attended Culver Military Academy, which seemed exotic, and went on to become a best selling children’s book author.
The house was later home to Reverend Timm High and his family. I wrote about him in Teardown. He was fresh out of the seminary when he came to Flint in 1986 to run the nearby Community Presbyterian Church, which was then exclusively white in a neighborhood that was increasingly diverse. The only African American connected with the church at the time was the custodian.
High had no shortage of ideas to change the situation, but he met stiff resistance from many longtime church members. “There was almost an attitude that they wanted to turn back the clock to the 1950s,” he said. “That’s a hard mentality to overcome. I tried, but I couldn’t do it.”
Married with two children, High had his own share of grief on Greenway Avenue. Burglars once injured the family dog, a Norwegian Elkhound named Thor. “They must have used a bat,” High told me. “The dog was never really the same after that.”
He left in 1995 to run a church in New York. Despite it all, he doesn’t regret his stay in Flint. “I’ll always be grateful that I lived there,” he said, echoing the loyalty many people, including me, feel toward the city after they leave.
In a way, the changes High wanted to make came to fruition. When Community Presbyterian closed, it was sold for a song to Pastor McCathern and became Joy Tabernacle, the predominantly African American church that has become a beacon for P-Nut and many of the remaining residents of Civic Park.
The Next Crisis
When I talk to P-Nut about the fire at his house, he displays the trait that all Flint survivors seem to share — the ability to absorb bad news while simultaneously spotting encouraging signs.
He tells me he’s been through this before. His house and all his possessions went up in flames when he was 9-years old. He’s used to this kind of thing. And he didn’t really own much anyway, so it’s not like he’ll miss the few possessions he had. Then he tells me that he and Raevyn are no longer a couple. They are still friends dedicated to raising their three daughters together, but she and the girls live together in a house on Cadillac Street. (Most of the G.M. jobs have left Flint, but numerous reminders of the city’s automotive history remain.) This sounds like another defeat, but P-Nut points out that there was no chance of them getting hurt when his house burned because they were not there. A silver lining, Flint-style.
It’s hard for me to accept this line of reasoning at first. I launch into a rambling soliloquy on the guy with the file folders, and how I’m struggling to keep fighting for Flint when any sort of success — regardless of how you define it — seems so unreachable. I confess that I’m confused about my role as a Flint expatriate, wondering what the hell I should do at this point. I finally realize how self-absorbed this sounds. How petty. So I stop talking.
There’s a long pause. I wonder if P-Nut is making sure I’m done, or if he’s checking his email, which would be a more efficient use of his time.
“It hurt to see the house after the fire because that was my little piece of Civic Park,” he said evenly. “But nobody died. We’re all safe. So my situation is not really bad enough for me to think about leaving Flint. This is still home.”
P-Nut credits Pastor McCathern and Joy Tabernacle for his ability to roll with the body blows that Flint delivers on a regular basis. He appends his emails with “P-NUT THE ONE AND ONLY,” which is hardly the sign off of a defeatist. When P-Nut says things could have been worse — like the fire on Greenway Avenue — it’s not a throw-away cliché.
It’s a sobering reminder that anyone trying to change Flint’s trajectory must accept that there’s a good chance things might never get significantly better, but make the decision to keep trying anyway. I realize this is not exactly an inspiring marketing slogan. A self-help book with this realistic theme would tank. But it’s probably the best approach for anyone who wants to have a long-term relationship with Flint.
So I stop moping and post something on Facebook about the fire at P-Nut’s house. I ask for donations, however small, to help him and his family out. Several people — none of whom know P-Nut personally — respond and send around $300 his way. A few offer to send regular monthly donations. It won’t save the city, but it will help one family when they need it. Sometimes making life a little less bad is all you can ask for.
It’s a realistic approach, definitely helpful in hanging onto your sanity, but P-Nut and other Flint residents shouldn’t have to use it. The United States is the richest country on Earth. What’s happening in cities like Flint is morally wrong, and we could fix it. Kildee’s infrastructure plan — or something like it — would be a good start. But we, as a nation, choose not to do anything about it. As a result, water gets poisoned, kids wallow in poverty, houses burn, and people die. I wish we could remember that we’re all Americans. We are in this together. And it’s time to start doing the right thing.
Otherwise, we are left to help in our small way, easing a little pain but knowing things probably won’t fundamentally change. We are left to admire stoic survivors like P-Nut and applaud the minor improvements in Flint — a restored downtown theater, an art walk, a federal grant to hire a few more firefighters — even as we prepare for the next crisis. Because history and common sense show us that another crisis is on the horizon. It’s only a matter of time.