The water is poison in Flint. That story is getting a lot of necessary attention – finally. But Flint has been suffering for many years. It was not always that way. Flint, like many other American industrial cities, was a powerhouse of manufacturing production and pride. Then industry pulled out. Here’s what it was like 45 years ago.
It was a vibrant neighborhood. 24-hours a day, seven days a week the big trucks rolled in depositing their rolls of steel and plastic, paint and wire. Vast worker parking lots ebbed and flowed, shift to shift, with over 40-thousand workers. The factory buildings sprawled over many acres, maybe a mile’s worth, strung like haphazard blocks of brick and steel. They had soot covered windows and grimy stone faces. Some buildings roared with the crunch and bang of huge three story stamping machines. Some flashed with the fire of arc welders, some hummed with powerful generators. There were cafeterias, low slung office blocks, the constant traffic of forklifts and men and women grunting and grinding away at their spot welders, screw machines, and upholstering knives. They were oil-stained, tough, and often funny. This was Buick City, circa 1969, Flint, Michigan.
Workers trekked from the parking lots at 7:00 a.m, 4:00 and 11:00 p.m. and clocked in with time cards on punch machines. They’d walk to their jobs sometimes through three or four other buildings. You needed a guide to find where to go the first few times. Walk through the stamping building, take a left on the other side, go through the assembly line building, take a right, wend your way to Section 10. Find the foreman. Get assigned to a machine. Push the foot pedal, turn the lathe, inspect the blades for the transmission …there were hundreds of different jobs, some easy, some requiring extraordinary skill. Those jobs paid solid wages. You could feed and clothe your family. Take them to the doctor when needed. And with lots of overtime you could afford a vacation and maybe, eventually, that little summer cottage on a lake up North, nothing elaborate, but away from the grit.
On Industrial Avenue just outside the plant there were rows of worker bars. A shot and beer after work. Drive home, do it again tomorrow. Nothing fancy, but real work making real things.
A few blocks away downtown had a good hotel, department stores, supermarkets, special tailors, banks and even an art gallery. There were people on the streets. The stores were bustling with business.
On the west side of town the Chevrolet factories dominated. On Chevrolet Avenue and along both sides of the Flint River people and machines spit out millions of cars. These were people who built trucks for WWII, and kept America supplied with slick new models for generations. Flint had a paint factory, a spark plug factory, and hundreds of small factories that made car parts, scrap tubs, sun visors and everything else to feed the big General Motors beast. There were truckers who only hauled cars to hungry dealerships all over the country. It was a tough vital town that knew how to make cars. Then GM bailed out.
Most of what was Flint is gone. That gigantic Buick factory is mostly a huge, empty concrete slab. The Chevy plants along the river were bull dozed. Drive north from downtown out North Saginaw Street and it looks a war zone. Take in the decaying buildings, vacant lots where frame houses once stood and the sad forlorn looking people on the street. The population was over 230-thousand in the 1970s; it’s now under 100-thousand. The unemployment and the crime rates in Flint are twice the national average. You can buy a three bedroom house for twenty-five thousand or less. The city struggles to survive. It has reeled from financial crisis to crisis and is still trying to figure out how to reinvent itself. There are some stable neighborhoods and university buildings have been built downtown, but Flint has been through, and it still going through, hell. The water is the latest blow and is devastating.
When you hear glib pundits proclaim we should let cities live or die on their own, or go bankrupt, think of Flint. And then multiply Flint by hundreds of American towns and hundreds of thousands of families. If Flint is the future, of abandonment, of unregulated pollution, of disdain from politicians, that future is bleak indeed.