FLINT, Mich. — Zaniyah Burns was born at 10:35 on a cool September night. Even as a baby everyone said she favored her father, with his full cheeks and wide brown eyes, but as she grew from a quiet toddler into a smiley little girl it became obvious she also had her mother’s kind spirit. Every morning she gave Miss Laly, her bus driver, a warm hug before stepping off. At tight-knit New Standard Academy, which she entered as a shy pre-kindergartner, she would often finish her own work and then look to help other kids, leading the teachers to think she might have her own future as an educator. Last spring, after easily collecting eight or nine eggs at the school’s annual Easter egg hunt, she walked across the gym and offered several to a little boy who had only collected one.
And one evening in October 2018, Zaniyah was in her bedroom, getting ready for a bath, when two bullets ripped through the window, striking her in the head. She was 7 years old, and her death was Flint’s 21st of the year from gun violence. “It’s just sad around here, you know?” says her father, Laquan Burns. “It’s just sad. That’s all you can say.”
Since January 2016, when Michigan’s former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency over lead poisoning in Flint’s water supply, the Vehicle City has been synonymous with the worst public health disaster in recent American memory. But the majority black city, whose trajectory has also been marked by decades of systemic racism, was in crisis long before the lead contamination began. Now, as global attention on the water disaster has faded, Flint remains plagued by entrenched poverty and blight, moribund municipal services and crime rates that are among the country’s highest.
“Nobody’s talking about Flint because it makes America look bad when you have a city like this,” says Ariana Hawk, an activist whose then 2-year-old son was featured on an iconic 2016 Time Magazine cover. “Do you not care about these black folks? Do you not care about these kids?”
State leaders, including Michigan’s new governor, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, have promised to help the city, and nonprofits and community groups are focused on a resurgence. But can Flint really be fixed?
The city’s struggles are made only more stark considering its past glory. After General Motors Co. was founded in Flint in 1908 its population exploded, adding nearly 150,000 residents within three decades. Detroit, 70 miles to the south, would remain the far larger city and industrial power, but it was Flint that took on an outsized importance in the American labor movement: in 1936 its local auto factory workers initiated the country’s first major sit-down strike, ultimately setting the course for American unions.
“It gave the UAW (United Automobile Workers) a bargaining power which they used to benefit their workers,” says Larry Massie, a Michigan historian. “Then you saw the rise of the middle class.”
By mid-century, with General Motors driving an estimated 90 percent of the local economy, Flint was an American success story. Young families thrived in handsome two-story houses; downtown boomed with theatres and department stores.
Two decades later, following the 1973 oil crisis and a round of layoffs, Flint had the country’s highest unemployment rate. By 1990, after multiple plant closings, General Motors employed only 23,000 area residents, down from more than 80,000 a decade earlier. By 2006 the number was 8,000.
The devastation wrought by the closures was also magnified by failed planning and rampant suburbanization. Decades of racist housing practices — including by General Motors — had ensured Flint’s black population remained concentrated, while the city proper, researchers Andrew Highsmith and Richard Sadler argue in a 2016 report, was also deliberately disadvantaged by policy. In the 1960s and ’70s, as the metro area expanded and people and money bled outward, suburbs — mostly white — passed laws that strengthened their own municipal power in order to hoard resources and block Flint’s expansion attempts. The state, embracing an economic model that espoused competition among municipalities instead of regional collaboration, cut off some $55 million in revenue to the city between 2003 and 2014 — only to appoint an emergency manager who would initiate the fateful water supply switch.
For years Flint has ranked among the poorest cities in the United States. The most recent census data shows a median per capita income of about $16,500, around half the state median. Sixty percent of Flint children live in poverty; despite cratered real estate values, residents who don’t own their homes spend roughly half their income on rent, the highest ratio in the country. Unemployment in the metro area has dropped to below 5 percent, but the problem is that city residents, along with transportation and other limitations, often lack education and skills required for better paying jobs. Last year, after Lear Corporation, a General Motors seat supplier, announced it was opening a new facility in the city’s shuttered Buick City plant, hundreds of people, including Hawk and several acquaintances, lined up early for a series of job fairs.
“Nobody I know got hired,” says the activist.
Flint has a blight problem, with some 20,000 unmaintained properties. It also has an opioid problem, with a recent surge in heroin and prescription overdoses. But no issue impacts the city more urgently than crime. For years the city’s violence rates have ranked among the nation’s highest: In 2010 and 2012 Flint suffered nearly 70 homicides; the 2017 tally of 37 was down from 2016 but still ranked as the seventh highest murder rate among American cities with populations over 50,000.
“It shouldn’t be a part of normal life,” says the Rev. Jeffery Hawkins, a Flint pastor who lost two sons to gun violence and is active in prevention efforts. “It shouldn’t be anything that anyone should have to get used to.”
Yet the tragedies keep coming. Trashawn Macklin, 9, killed in a 2013 triple homicide. Sasha Bell, a 19-year-old mother and a leading plaintiff in the water crisis, killed in a 2016 double homicide. Landon Speirs, 3, killed in 2017 while he waited alongside his twin sister in a car parked at a Sunoco station. The bullet was intended for Speirs’ stepfather, with whom the shooter had a dispute years earlier.
“Two weeks before his fourth birthday, dead,” the boy’s grandfather told the press. “It’s so pathetic.”
Curtailing the epidemic, of course, is central to improving Flint’s fortunes — and the trendline, at least, has veered positive. As of December violent crime for 2018 was down 12 percent. Tyrone Booth, a Flint police spokesman, also credits the current chief, Tim Johnson, with improving the department’s relationship with residents. “People are beginning to buy back into the fact that it takes them and us,” he says, “to make things change in the city.”
But the department remains drastically underfunded — currently the city employs around 120 officers, down from 265 in 2007 — and neighborhoods remain awash with guns. In a 2011 University of Michigan analysis, nearly a quarter of adolescent and young adult patients being treated for assault injuries at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center reported owning firearms themselves, most obtained illegally. At a meeting in 2017, Flint council members, deliberating over what to do with a cache of confiscated weapons, voted to sell them online as a municipal fundraising measure.
“The city needs money,” said council member Jackie Poplar, who argued the sale would not contribute to crime because illegal possession was already so rampant. “You can basically go to any 12-year-old child in the city of Flint and they can tell you where to buy a gun.”
On Oct. 12, three days after Zaniyah Burns became the fourth Flint kid slain in 2018, Johnson and two officers stood at a podium set up in front of a window at the department’s downtown headquarters. After nonstop investigations, they announced, officers had apprehended “several individuals” related to the case. But residents were still worried about guns on the streets, one reporter said. “What’s your response to that?”
The chief audibly sighed. “We need more police officers in this city, and right now we’re working with what we have,” he said. Despite 12 hour shifts, the department was making great strides. “I think our property room would speak to that … We’re bursting at the seams with guns. Guns, guns, guns.”
Many American cities have made remarkable transformations. Once-struggling Pittsburgh has emerged as a thriving research center. Erika Poethig, chief innovation officer at the Urban Institute, points to Lowell, Massachusetts, which recovered from the 1992 bankruptcy of a large tech company by refocusing on the economic success of its Cambodian refugees. But substantial revitalization requires both strong policy and bold leadership, and broader demographic and economic trends mean dozens of smaller post-industrial cities are fighting an uphill battle. “Not every city is going to come back,” she says.
Yet Flint, despite its obvious challenges, has a lot going for it. The city boasts four colleges, including a University of Michigan campus; a major medical center; and a vibrant arts scene, recently buoyed by a countywide millage. A large philanthropic network, headlined by the multinational Mott Foundation, helps buffer a depleted city government and finances ambitious projects like an ongoing $37 million riverfront restoration. Grassroots organizations offer creative initiatives like an urban gardening project intended to improve access to healthy food.
“We have great bones in our community,” says Glenn Wilson, a co-founder of Communities First, Inc., a nonprofit that in 2014 completed a $5 million conversion of an old school building into affordable senior housing. “Flint definitely can be fixed,” he adds, but only if various coalitions — government, large institutions, neighborhood groups — work effectively together. “I believe right now that our best asset is momentum … We’re heading in the right direction.”
Downtown, at least, is already experiencing a development boom. Recently the famous 100-year-old Ferris Wheel office building reopened with dozens of new tenants, while the vacant former YWCA was demolished to pave way for a $19.5 million mixed-use development. At a ribbon cutting in early December, residents gaped at the long-anticipated $37 million restoration of the 1,600-seat Capitol Theatre, shuttered since 1996. Even a series of recent soft openings, including a Moth Mainstage event, have injected new life into downtown core, says Amy Fugate, board chair of the Flint Cultural Center Corporation.
“All of the restaurants downtown just got smashed with people,” she says. “I’m not sure anyone truly expected that it would really happen like that.”
Imagine Flint, the city’s 20-year master plan, offers a vision of a far more livable, sustainable city, based around concentrated economic development, green spaces in place of neglected properties, and improved transit. It’s a highly ambitious plan, but many are buying in. The water crisis, experts and residents say, has also served as a kind of catalyst for change, bringing fresh energy and resources to decades-old problems — and channeling anger into activism.
During one afternoon rush hour last April, more than two years after the governor’s emergency declaration, Hawk and about a half dozen other protesters with the group Flint Lives Matter drove onto Interstate 69 — an expressway that cuts through Flint and is largely used by nonresidents — and parked across all four lanes, creating a total barricade. The idea was to remind travelers, and the larger world, of an urban tragedy that never ended. “No one believed it,” says Hawk. “No one that stopped in that long 30 minute traffic jam believed that the water crisis was still actually happening.”
Flint’s water supply began testing below the Environmental Protection Agency’s required lead standard in July 2016. In April, then-Gov. Snyder, citing the tests, announced he was ending the state’s free bottled water distribution program. Residents were infuriated. Flint’s water system had thousands of potentially dangerous lead service lines that were in the process of being evaluated; as of December an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 still needed to be checked. Official tests may show the water is clean, but, especially while the digging continues, virtually no one is willing to drink it.
“We were told before that the water was fine,” says the Rev. Hawkins, referring to authorities’ claims even after lead was discovered. “I don’t see trust being on the top of anyone’s agenda.”
The result is a city locked in a state of low-burning emergency. Residents still line up by the hundreds outside churches for early morning water deliveries; families maintain military-like shower rituals. At New Standard Academy, as in schools throughout the city, students are long accustomed to filling cups with bottled water from large coolers. Yet many kids have suffered health problems like skin rashes and hair loss, says Brandi Fisher, the school’s dean of K-3 students, and tension remains high. Older kids yell at younger siblings not to approach drinking fountains, while even kindergartners have internalized the collective sense of trauma and institutional distrust.
“That is my fear,” says Fisher. “What are we showing the children?”
The psychological damage the crisis left on the city is likely irreversible. One study, based on research from 2016, found that 54 percent of Flint residents were considering leaving, in most cases citing the water crisis.
“We don’t know what percentage were considering leaving before,” says Victoria Morckel, a professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan–Flint who co-authored the report. “But longer term, I think it’s important to think of the crisis as just another layer of the story of Flint … It’s not just about the water, but it’s also about streets that are in disrepair, houses that are vacant, crime that’s too high.”
Both Flint’s and surrounding Genesee County’s populations are projected to continue declining, compounding the region’s economic challenges. Flint, despite a small 2018 budget surplus, remains burdened by legacy pension obligations and unsustainable operating costs projected to wipe out its general fund and saddle the city with an $8 million deficit by 2022-2023. Infrastructure built for a much larger city means inefficiency and high costs. The tax base has been ravaged, but higher rates might only lead to more distress.
Real economic recovery also largely depends on the city’s ability to include its more disenfranchised residents, and while Flint’s downtown surge is encouraging, many areas remain neglected. Current trends, says Morckel, point to an increasingly widening gap between the central city and its neighborhoods. “So if anything,” she says, “I think Flint is going to become more so the cliche tale of two cities.”
New policy could help. A sweeping national urban initiative — something like former President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society — could reverse decades of disinvestment in hardluck Rust Belt cities, says Eric Scorsone, an economist at Michigan State University. Regional tax systems, like the one implemented in Minneapolis-St. Paul, represent another option.
But with new investment, and state and federal government involvement, Scorsone says, a new Flint is possible. “It’s not going to be 1950 Flint again, with 200,000 people,” he says. “But it can be good again. I do believe that.”
During last year’s campaign, Whitmer, Michigan’s new governor, unveiled a broad mission to reduce urban poverty; days before assuming office, she also promised to restore the state’s free bottled water distribution, an important symbolic gesture. Karen Weaver, Flint’s mayor, has promised to focus on the city’s burgeoning economic development.
But in the short term, to attract or keep residents, experts say, Flint still needs to improve basic quality of life services — trash pickups, grass mowing, blight removal.
And citizens need to feel safe. The evening of Oct. 12, hours after police held the press conference announcing apprehensions, a crowd of mourners gathered outside Zaniyah’s home on West Austin Avenue, where a child’s bike lay toppled in the driveway. Through tears, neighbors and friends prayed and lit candles; Hawkins offered a fiery denunciation of violence. Around dusk the group released dozens of balloons into the gray sky — one was pink, in the shape of the number seven. Three days later a 17-year-old, who allegedly intended the bullets for Zaniyah’s 16-year-old uncle, was charged with her killing.
“People who shoot kids go to jail forever?” her 6-year-old sister, Zyonna, asked their father.
Zaniyah’s family has been drinking bottled water since the outbreak. They’ve adjusted to that crisis, but the weeks since Zaniyah’s death have felt like a never-ending nightmare. “Her beautiful laughter,” says Sonya Long, her grandmother. “She wasn’t a loud person, so that’s what made her laughter so special.”
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