The Problem In Flint

Flint River. Photo by Black/Land Project.

Flint River. Photo by Black/Land Project.

Everybody across America now knows what many health and political figures have known since 2014:  adults and children in Flint, Michigan are quickly being poisoned by water filled with lead. Many people are looking for someone to convict, to hold responsible or to blame.

What most people do not understand is how this disaster has happened. Many of the people of Flint do not themselves understand why their taps are spewing murky, unpotable water, or why the cost bringing that poisonous water to their taps is so high. Print journalists interview experts and political leaders.  Late arriving national news shows images of bottles filled with rust-colored water. Rarely do either focus on the lived experience of people in Flint.

In 2012 and 2013, I spent a lot of time in Flint, interviewing residents about their relationships to land and place. I learned that the majority of Flintonians are African-Americans whose families were part of the Great Migration from the rural Deep South.  They know a lot, and care a lot, about water and land.  Others had been Michiganders for generations. They shared stories of grandparents who fished in the Flint River, or grew their kitchen gardens on its banks.

These people expressed more resignation than anger when I asked how it felt to learn that their river is still poisoned by chemicals from CSX rail lines and heavy metal by-products from GM’s Buick City plant that thrived there in the 20th century.  They shrugged as if to say “We didn’t have a say in those decisions. How could anything have been different?”  It seemed to be the price of those good-paying industrial jobs, jobs that are now mostly gone.

What they were actually angry about was their water bills.

The high cost of water and sewer service in Flint is such a frequent topic of conversation that, as a stranger, I could use it to engage even the most reticent person in an exchange. Hey, how much was your water bill last month? I’d ask. And I would hear an earful. I heard stories from people who borrowed to pay a water bill that was greater than a mortgage payment. I heard tales of hauling bottles and buckets of water from a neighbor’s house until the shutoff bill got paid.

Yet when I asked people *why* their water bills were so high, they looked at me dumbfounded.  Many of them had never considered that there was any reason beyond government malfeasance for the cost of water and sewer service in their city to be so high. The average monthly water bill for a household in Flint is $140, although residents in neighboring suburbs pay less than half that.

Here’s a truth about Flint and its poisonous water that no one wants to talk about. The problem in Flint is not just children with damaged brains and bones from drinking lead; it did not start with brownfield runoff into a river that is now so toxic it corrodes the pipes that deliver water to homes, leaching rust and lead. Flint’s water crisis is the aftermath of decades of urban sprawl, followed by decades of population loss.  The problem in Flint is that every solution to this problem inflicts greater suffering upon people already in pain.

House marked for razing. Photo by Black/Land Project.

House marked for razing. Photo by Black/Land Project.

Urban sprawl is not sexy.  Its results rarely make headlines anymore. It was last a hot public health issue at the end of the 20th century, as we began to understand the environmental consequences of unfettered expansion of infrastructure for cities that spread across more and more rural land.  As we have accepted increasing urbanism as inevitable, something we did not imagine has emerged: great, sprawled cities were left vacant when the people who once lived there moved away.

As factory jobs moved to Mexico, thousands of adult children of Flint’s auto workers followed opportunity to megacities like Chicago and Atlanta and the suburbs of D.C.They left behind housing developments without young families to purchase them; aging parents living on fixed incomes; entire neighborhoods blighted by vacancy and arson after the home mortgage bubble collapsed. By the early 1970s, 196,000 people lived in Flint; General Motors alone had 88,000 employees. After 25 years of recession, only 99,000 people live in the entire city today.

Yet Flint still has a water supply network that was built for almost 200,000 people spread out over 34 square miles. The problem in Flint is that there is nobody left to pay to their upkeep.  The two years of cover ups are indefensible, but the search for a cheaper water supply was not born of a desire to do intentional harm. No Mayor or emergency manager can pay to maintain this level of infrastructure with a tax base that has fled.

So, the problem in Flint is that everyone who wanted to leave has already packed and gone. That leaves behind to deal with the current crisis only the people who’ve paid off their homes and deeply love their city, a group that strongly overlaps with those too poor to flee.

Closed Fire Station, Flint MI. Photo by Black/Land Project

Closed Fire Station, Flint MI. Photo by Black/Land Project

If you talk to people in Flint, you know that the people who are living with un-filterable levels of lead in their water are the same folks who refused a plan to “right-size” the city in 2010 by reducing the boundaries of municipal services. Urban planners saw them as short sighted and stubborn. Flintonians say they recognized a redlining scheme when they saw one. They have already lost police protection. Half of the city’s fire stations are closed and boarded up.  They are unsurprised to lose their municipal water service, too.

When I asked the scores of people with outrageous water bills what they thought should be done about the mismatch between the size of the city’s infrastructure and the number of taxpayers left to support it, they answered that Flint is a good place. The seemed naïve when they told me that they are “just waiting for people realize that, and come back.” They are looking for a silver bullet, and praying for a corporate savior.  And when I listened a little while longer, they told me about how their parents came to Michigan because they were cheated and threatened and forced off their land in the South. They won’t be forced out of the place they call home ever again.

Were I Governor of Michigan, I would not want to be the one who had to tell those 99,000  people that the place they live is dying, poisoned by water from the river that gives the city its name.  I’m sure he’s anxious about what will happen to the few jobs left in Michigan if the local Nestlé Pure Life bottling plant feels endangered by the public image of Michigan’s water as something other than live giving and pure.

The problem in Flint is that people from across the country are now watching, and they want simple answers and quick political fixes to complex long-term environmental problems.  They offer no insight to Flint’s struggle to integrate the politics of race and environmental place into sustainable tax policy, urban planning, and financing public works.  And they don’t help the people of Flint understand why this has happened to them, and what they can do about it.

There are post-industrial cities all over America testing their tap water while you’re reading this essay. The leaders of those cities are worried. They are worried about many things, but one of them is that we still haven’t learned how to think about the problem in Flint.