Flint is a city long infamous for poverty, crime, and more recently the water crisis that has plagued people here for four years. It seems everyone in America knows what to expect when they hear the name Flint: economic, political and social dysfunction. Flint is a place of struggle, but that’s not all it is.
For the last six years I’ve been working in Michigan on the Flint is a Place project. It’s an immersive dive into a city that is more layered and nuanced than commonly portrayed, telling the story of a community living on the fringes. After 40 years of economic struggle, Flint is a place where the abnormal has become normal.
In the 1980s, Flint had the highest median income for under-35s in America. Today it has one of the lowest. The city has consistently been on the FBI’s top 10 most violent list and has the highest ratio of abandoned homes in the country. Over four decades it went from living the American dream to an American nightmare.
The water crisis continues, and Flint just shut one of its last remaining high schools. Things have not got better, but there are still people fighting for change.
As the water crisis was unfolding, these police cadets were being trained to deal with civil unrest at the Mott Police Academy. The Flint Police Department is barely holding it together. A decade of budget cuts has decreased their number from nearly 300 to fewer than 100 officers as crime continued to increase in a city of 100,000. It’s the lowest ratio of officer to citizen of any comparable city in America.
The officers are disgruntled. They feel overwhelmed and under-appreciated. The veterans, many of whom are from Flint, have endured numerous pay cuts and layoffs and have watched their city decay. The younger officers, who haven’t been around long enough to feel loyalty to the city, are leaving to join other departments that pay better and include a real pension.
Officer Bridgette Balasko was eating breakfast and watching the post-presidential election coverage before heading to work in 2016. “I didn’t know who I wanted to vote for. I didn’t want to vote,” she told me. “I didn’t want to vote for either candidate because I thought they were both terrible.”
These people were handcuffed after police raided a house of drug users. The raid was performed by the crime area target team (Catt), a “zero-tolerance” unit created to focus on drugs and guns in Flint. The raid didn’t yield much – a handful of drug users but not much product. This particular house has been raided multiple times by the police, but they’re unable to evict the owners.
In 2014, the city started drawing its drinking water supply from the Flint river, without using lead corrosion controls. Despite public outcry, city officials insisted the water was safe to drink. It wasn’t, and a public health crisis ensued. By 2015, the water crisis became national news.
One-year-old Hazel Eilber was being given a bath by her grandmother, Sabrina. She would only bathe Hazel in bottled water because she feared that even touching the tap water could make her sick. Sabrina has since moved out of Flint, vowing never to return.