The Fall of Flint

“You know what my biggest fear is? That people are going to forget about us.”

Matt Black
Apr 21, 2016 · 6 min read

Editor’s Note: Photographer Matt Black has profiled over 100 cities across 39 states for his project The Geography of Poverty. He recently went to Flint, Michigan, for The Development Set. All photographs Matt Black/Magnum.

Once a thriving industrial city of nearly a quarter million people, with most residents’ employment tied in some way to automobile manufacturing, Flint’s population has dwindled to less than 100,000 in the aftermath of auto plant closures during the 1980s. The city has demolished over 5,000 abandoned houses in the last decade. Today, not one grocery store exists within the city.

The hometown of General Motors, Flint, Michigan, is today one of the nation’s poorest places, with a poverty rate of over 40% and some of the highest crime and murder rates in the country. Crippled by debt and declining revenues, the city switched from sharing Detroit’s water system to drawing its water from the Flint River, but then neglected to treat the water properly or refurbish the city’s aging network of decaying pipes.

Painful rashes, hair loss, lead poisoning, and at least 91 cases of Legionnaires’ disease have been reported to date. The youngest of Flint are showing signs of lead toxicity, which can have long-term effects on learning and behavior, and 12 deaths have been attributed to Legionnaires’ so far. Organizations and individuals have donated and distributed thousands of gallons of bottled water, but residents still struggle to cook, clean, and keep themselves and their children healthy.

Yesterday, criminal charges were brought against three officials for their role in the crisis. The charges, which include criminal neglect, official misconduct, and tampering with evidence, come three months after a Federal State of Emergency was declared in Flint.

“We still don’t know the end of all this,” said Darnell Ishmel, director of local aid agency Flint H2O. “There are the working poor, and then there are the poor. We are the poor.”

Tim Monahan, a 58-year-old carpenter, caught Legionnaires’ disease in June 2014. “We’d been on Flint River water for two months,” he said. “It was the Fourth of July when I went to the hospital; I was sick as hell. My temperature was 104.6. I cooked. For all intents and purposes, they are getting away with murder.”

“I’m not in health enough to carry water,” said Cynthia Grant, 57. “Cooking, washing, trying to tote water and all that. Who got punished for it? To me, it’s never going to end.”

Tiantha Williams with her son Taylor.

Above, Tiantha Williams, 38, bathes her son Taylor in a tub of bottled water. She was diagnosed with listeria during her pregnancy, and her son was born two months early. “He’s a miracle baby,” she said. “He came out, he wasn’t breathing.”

“The disease specialist came in and told me I had listeria,” Williams said. “I cooked in the water, I drank the water, and I was hurt by it. The water caused my baby to almost die. We need to fix it. He’s still getting exposed to it because we wash his clothes in it. I wish I could move, but money right now is not allowing it.”

“We’ve kinda created our own Hiroshima,” said resident Chris Gibson, 29. “Generations from now, we’ll still be feeling the effects.”

Deborah Hayman.

“I’m just so afraid, I’m terrified,” said Flint native Deborah Hayman, 58, whose granddaughter was born in 2013 and is now being tested for lead. “There’s that fear. About a month ago, I’m going to tell you the truth, it got to me. I thought, ‘I need to see a professional.’ You know what my biggest fear is? That people are going to forget about us.”

“If this city was not 60 percent black, 40 percent poor, this problem would have been fixed already,” said Darnell Ishmel.

Abandoned mobile home park.

“There’s been a lot against this community. The poverty, the crime, the high rates of incarceration — those are the hard things to look at,” said Chrissy Cooper, a development specialist for Catholic Charities.

“Nobody understands what we go through,” said Deborah Hayman, who supervises adoption and licensing at Catholic Charities. “You don’t know, until you have actually lived it.”

Above, Bonnie Hammond, 87, bathes the skin infection on her legs. She moved to Flint in 2004. “You would not purposely put yourself in this position,” she said.

Two months ago, her hair started falling out and she developed the infection. “The doctor said it’s from bathing in the water,” Hammond said. “It has a sunburn-y, tingly feeling to it.”

“People were saying how it tastes bad, it smells bad, it’s a different color,” said Chrissy Cooper. “But the city was saying, ‘The water is fine; there is nothing wrong with it.’ Then the next day they were saying, ‘It can kill you.’”

Water distribution at Catholic Charities. “I went through eight gallons [of water] just for my Easter dinner,” said Deborah Hayman.

“This is a place of poverty,” said Pastor Maurice Horne. “Who’s going to notice? Who cares? It’s a big battle, trying to find hope in the midst of a city where there is no trust.”

GM assembly plant.

“Flint is the one that has gone out in the open, but there’s plenty of other [cities] that are no good either,” said Horne. “I do believe that Flint is going to recover.”

“Can’t bathe in it. Can’t cook with it. Now they say you can’t even flush the toilet in it,” said LaToya Jordan, 23. “They say the water in the bottles is no good either. I’ve got two little kids. I don’t bathe them in the water. Most of the time, I just wipe them down with the baby wipes. The whole government is responsible. I want to leave Flint. I’m scared to have my baby here now, and I’m due in two months.”

“We’ve got nanotechnology, and putting people on the moon, and we can’t fix this water situation? Are you kidding me?” Darnell Ishmel, director of Flint H20, said. “We figure out what we want to figure out.”

“You’d never think this could happen here,” said Chrissy Cooper. “This is a city that used to be gigantic, and then we just went down and down, and finally, we’ve hit rock bottom.”

The Development Set is made possible by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We retain editorial independence.

The Development Set

Stories and conversations about global health and social impact.

Matt Black

Written by

Matt Black is a documentary photographer. He is a nominee at Magnum Photos and a Senior Fellow at the Emerson Collective.

The Development Set

Stories and conversations about global health and social impact.