FLINT, Mich. — The marks of the Flint water crisis are mostly internal. They’re hidden in the water mains underground, in the bathtubs and kitchen sinks and hot water heaters inside residents’ homes, in their children’s blood.
But from the outside, Flint looked like a disaster zone long before President Obama declared a federal emergency over lead contamination in the water supply. The vacant lots and crumbling houses that line a vast majority of the city’s streets are evidence of Flint’s descent from the home of General Motors — a bustling company town with a population of close to 200,000 — into the country’s murder capital, with a population down by roughly half from its peak in 1960, and a poverty rate of more than 41 percent.
In recent years, Flint has only continued to become more like a shell of its former self. Over the last decade, more than 20 schools have joined Flint’s collection of abandoned buildings.
In March 2015, the last remaining supermarket within the city limits closed its doors.
“It’s like a fire sale,” said James Chad Richardson. “Everything must go.”
Like other Flint natives, Richardson has watched his hometown become less and less recognizable. His childhood home, at one time worth $80,000, sold for $9,000. Across the street are two vacant houses, one of which is burned down. He recalls being able to walk to school or the grocery store as a kid and playing outside with his friends without fear of getting shot. And, he added, “Of course, I would drink out of the faucet or the water hose.”
But now, Richardson said, the city’s contaminated water supply has made him “extremely” concerned about the health of his children, ages 22, 18, and 9, so much so that he’s thinking about starting fresh somewhere like North Carolina, or maybe West Virginia — places he’s passed through while on the road for his job as a telecommunications engineer.
“I had already planned on moving because of the crime, the schools and the abandoned buildings,” Richardson said. “Then the water is like, OK, wow. How many punches to the head am I gonna take?”
Richardson is not alone. The water crisis — and in particular the recent projections that replacing the city’s contaminated lead pipes could take as much as 15 years — is prompting a growing number of Flint residents to consider relocating.
Nine months ago, Iler Carter, 27, and her 3-year-old daughter moved out of the house she owns in Flint into an apartment in Flushing, a suburb in Genesee County where residents have been assured that their water system was never switched from Detroit. But she still can’t get away from the Flint water.
Carter is a nursing assistant at Flint's Hurley Hospital, and all of the relatives she relies on to help take care of her daughter while she’s at work live in Flint.
“If she goes to stay the night at dad’s, aunt’s, cousin’s, she’s in that water,” Carter said. “I fear for her safety.”
Carter said that before they moved out of their house in Flint, her daughter was in and out of the hospital with pneumonia for five months straight. Just two months ago a blood test revealed that the 3-year-old’s lead levels were elevated. Now Carter’s afraid she might have ADHD.
“Her behavior is terrible,” she said. “And she’s a very intelligent kid, so I know she understands the things she’s not supposed to do.”
Maybe it’s just a phase, she said. But “you know your kid — something’s not right.”
Like Richardson, Carter laments the demise of her hometown.
“We don’t even have grocery stores in the neighborhood I grew up in,” she said. “My middle school doesn’t exist anymore, my elementary school doesn’t exist anymore. The neighborhood has changed, you see a lot of vacant houses.”
Still, Carter said, aside from the water she has it pretty good here.
“I have a decent paying job. The cost of living isn’t that high. You can work, save money, go on vacations. You can do a lot of things, actually, staying in Flint,” she said. “But, who wants to stay somewhere with dirty water?”
The stress of constantly trying to make sure her daughter doesn’t bathe in the Flint water or use it for her play tea parties is driving away Carter, who often works overnight at the hospital.
“It’s gonna take 15 years to fix. So for the next 15 years, you gotta watch how your kid does everything,” she said. “It’s like you gotta walk around in a bubble. Nobody wants to live like that.”
When the lease on her apartment expires in June, Carter plans to move to Houston, where she has a cousin.
“I just want to move and put her in a better environment,” she said, thinking ahead to when her daughter is 15. “She’ll say, ‘Yeah, there was a point in time when the water didn’t work.’ It’s almost like a fairy tale. It’s unbelievable.”
Mena Young bought a house in Flint less than two years ago, but in 30 days she’ll be on her way, also to Houston, with her 10-year-old son in tow.
“I’m moving fast,” Young said. “It’s going to take a long time to fix [the pipes], and I’m not going to be the one to sit around and hope and pray that it gets fixed.”
Young, who works as a bartender in Flint, had already been thinking about moving, once she’d saved enough money to open a nightclub of her own. But now she figures she and her son would be better off living somewhere else while she saves up.
“I work three jobs to try and buy a house and get a car and try and live right, and I feel like I just got punched in the face,” she said.
Young said she’s moved around a few times before, always returning to Flint for family reasons. But even her cousins, who never thought about leaving Flint, or even Michigan, are also talking about relocating. One is considering Atlanta, she said, another Washington, D.C.
Young knows there’s no guarantee that what’s happened in Flint couldn’t happen anywhere else, and she will certainly continue to drink bottled water once she gets to Houston. “But I won’t have to worry about taking a bath,” she said, and that enough is reason to go.
“Flint is a city, it’s not a Third World country,” she said. “We should have clean water.”
With all the ways she’s watched Flint decline over the years, Young feels like the water crisis has removed any last semblance of security for the city’s youngest generation.
“I honestly feel like they don’t want us [the black community] here,” Young said. “First they took our schools, then they started taking our grocery stores, closed them down. Now it’s the water? I feel like they’re trying to kill us or they don’t want us in Flint any longer.” African-Americans comprise more than 56 percent of the city’s population.
It might sound extreme, but Young’s words echo a common sentiment expressed by many of Flint’s black residents, who’ve long harbored suspicions that the city’s vision for its future does not include them.
Local officials have been preparing for Flint’s second act since at least December 2004, when Genesee Treasurer Dan Kildee, now a Democratic congressman, founded the Genesee County Land Bank. Under a newly passed state law, the Land Bank was put in charge of foreclosed properties, a move intended to help control the spread of blight while pursuing a not-so-secret scheme to shrink the struggling city.
In March 2009, then-Mayor Michael Brown made local headlines when he candidly suggested at a Rotary Club luncheon that, in order to control the financial drain posed by Flint’s growing landscape of vacant properties, his office might need to consider “shutting down quadrants of the city where we [wouldn’t] provide services.”
A month later, the New York Times reported that Kildee was proposing to demolish “entire blocks and even whole neighborhoods” in order to condense the city’s population “into a few viable areas.”
By June 2015, the Land Bank had reportedly demolished more than 5,000 abandoned properties.
Meanwhile, between 2003 and 2013, the Flint School District closed more than 20 schools. The brunt of the impact was borne by the city's predominantly black neighborhoods.
In October, Superintendent Bilal Tawwab confirmed that the Flint School District was considering consolidating the city’s two remaining high schools into one, among the goals outlined in a “master plan” adopted by the Flint city council in 2013.
The master plan was the first the city had adopted since 1960, and it outlined goals for the future of what has since become a very different Flint, including plans to further restructure land use and neighborhoods and to combat the city’s rampant crime and unemployment.
In February 2015, Kettering University, a small, private engineering school located near downtown Flint, released a master plan of its own, which includes a number of projects aimed at expanding the school’s urban campus by building brand-new academic, residential and recreational facilities.
Kettering has already made visible progress on this plan, with recently revamped athletic fields, newly constructed fraternity houses, and chain restaurants that practically glow against the backdrop of crumbling vacancies and boarded-up buildings.
And yet just last week, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder made clear that he’s in no rush to begin the costly project of replacing the corroded pipelines that continue to leach lead into the city’s water supply — compounding the sense among many life-long Flint residents that they are not a priority.
Takeisha Major is among those who see the water crisis as part of a larger effort to diminish Flint’s poor, black population. She doesn’t believe it will really take 15 years to replace the city’s corroded plumbing system.
“I feel like they’re only saying that to make everybody move away so that they can turn this town into a college town,” Major said. She admits she has also considered moving but decided against it.
“I went to Atlanta for a weekend and I came right back,” she said. “You’re not gonna run me out of here.”
Despite the list of reasons to leave, Major explained, Flint is still home.
“I love my city ... this is where my family is,” she said. “There’s not a guarantee that if I move I’ll be able to see my family every day. They may end up in a different state than me, you never know.”
Ultimately, Major said she’s standing her ground because she thinks moving would send the wrong message to her two sons, ages 2 and 9.
“I don’t want them to feel like someone can come and push them out of what they call home,” she said. “I want them to have a voice, I want them to stand up for themselves.”
She also wants them to learn that while moving may be an immediate way to escape the Flint water, it’s not a long-term solution to all of life’s challenges.
“I don’t want my kids to feel like just because something bad happens you have to run,” Major said. “Nothing in life is easy, and I don’t want them to ever believe that if they move it’ll get easy, because everywhere you go is gonna be hard.”
Fellow Flint native Kelly Walker agrees. And after enduring this city at its worst, she’s not about to pick up and leave before things get better.
“Flint is going to be pretty,” Walker said. “And then it’s gonna cost you more just to come back. I’m going to be right here and it’s going to be beautiful.”
“It’s gonna take a lot more than some water to run me away,” she added.
The mother of two said she thinks this is a time for the people of Flint to come together, rather than disperse, and to take part in the revitalization of their city instead of leaving it for other people to enjoy.
“I want to see my kids at Kettering or University of Michigan, being able to walk around in the parks and stuff like we used to,” Walker said, recalling the arcades and movie theaters where she spent her childhood, before Flint became a crime-ridden ghost town. “It’s time to bring all that back. These kids have nothing and that’s not fair.”
For starters, she suggested, Flint residents should be training to lay pipe now so that when the plumbing replacement project eventually does begin, they can be the ones to do it instead of outside contractors.
“This is a Flint job,” she said. “There’s crime and bad water everywhere. I’d rather get it together here at home.”