Blood and Water

Flint is a city of tremendous loss but also of tenacious DIY vitality; a city long betrayed by state politics and big business that is forging its own reinvention.

| Winter 2016

  • "Boiling YOUR water does not remove lead"
    Photo by Kelsey Ronan
  • Call it a ghost town, and you will be reminded that yes, one hundred thousand people have left in the last thirty years, but one hundred thousand people still live there.
    Photo by Kelsey Ronan

After my grandfather retired from the assembly line, we used to take long drives around Flint together. Both ghost tour and history lesson, these drives showed me the city I’d been born into as well as the city Papa waxed nostalgic for. Riding past boarded windows and social service offices downtown, he drew lines in the air to show where the movie theater crowds had wrapped around the block on Saturday nights, pointed out the ritzy department stores where he bought dresses for my grandmother, and the point on the sidewalk where, walking toward the Flint River, you could begin to smell the doughnuts frying at Kresge’s. The working-class neighborhood where he’d grown up was long razed and the University of Michigan–Flint campus occupied its place. His first memory, he told me, was of playing with his brothers on a street that no longer existed and seeing a rainbow in a puddle of oil. A thrill of wonder moved through him that when he was older he learned to identify as beauty.

Years later, after Papa passed away and some of my friends and I forged adult lives elsewhere, my Flint tour evolved into a kind of morbid Christmas ritual. My friends and I would meet a few hours before Christmas Eve family gatherings and drive around the city listening to Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. We looked for Flint at its worst: boarded up schools, houses scrapped so clean you could see through the kicked-in front doors to their backyards, trees of heaven sprouting up where cape cod roofs had sloughed onto front lawns, untended parks grown into prairies for urban deer, acres of empty land where Buick City, Chevy in the Hole, and AC Spark Plug had employed thousands.

Though the borders expanded year to year, these were parts of another city we sought out specifically, driving out of our way to find it. Through the rest of the break we’d meet up at Coney Islands and Middle Eastern restaurants on the west side business strips or at the bars of Flint’s gentrifying downtown. We’d sit around eating leftover Christmas cookies made by our parents, who were old enough to remember Flint at its “Generous Motors” height and disapproved of the way we drove around gawking. While we were fascinated with Flint’s decay, they were mournful and fearful of it. They didn’t understand our need to survey what of our hometown had been lost, what was receding into ruin and wilderness, and what might someday be unrecognizable—places we could point to and identify only through stories.

When my mother fell ill during the Flint water crisis, I drove five hundred miles from Saint Louis, my new home. My mother had been among the skeptics when in April 2014 the city switched its water source from Detroit’s system to the Flint River in an alleged effort to save money. Immediately residents complained of foul-smelling, sludgy water. A series of boil advisories were issued, but the state insisted the water was fine. While Mayor Walling and the state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager Darnell Earley appeared on television with glasses aloft, my mother refilled gallons of water at the supermarket and quietly dissented. We cooked two Thanksgiving dinners with bottled water. She wouldn’t even give tap water to the cats.

By summer 2015, pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha stated that children in Flint showed elevated levels of lead in their blood. Virginia Tech researchers debunked the state’s false test samples and led a GoFundMe to buy water filters for Flint. Dr. Karen Weaver won the mayoral election with the promise to have Flint declared in a state of emergency. An outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease killed ten people. My mother realized that despite two years of the burden of buying bottled water, she’d still been using tap water to fill the humidifier she sleeps beside to help her asthma and had been breathing in lead vapor all that time.

By February, not long after Governor Snyder and then President Obama signed emergency declarations, my mother complained to me on the phone that she felt relentlessly tired. Before leaving for work, driving a school bus in one of Flint’s more affluent suburbs, she used her nebulizer to fortify her lungs against the 5 AM Michigan cold, but still reached for her inhaler between runs. I nagged her to get tested for legionella. My mom and my sister Bunnie are the last of the family still living in Flint, and I longed for a battalion of aunts and uncles and grandparents to call and confer with, to dispatch to her house. Instead Bunnie monitored her and updated me via text, my mom occasionally coughing as she watched Downton Abbey, or ate salad, or read in bed.

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