Letter from Michigan — From the January 2017 issue

Over the River

Returning home to Flint

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Seldom can major national news be distilled to a single boneheaded decision, particularly one that poisoned a city. This circumstance alone could determine a narrative of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Yet when I arrived there on a Sunday afternoon last spring, I found myself driving the city’s grid, trying to find a certain house that might reveal some historical explanation. This is the city where I was born, and I know of a larger story.

A dam across the Flint River in downtown Flint, Michigan (detail). Photographs by Brian Frank

A dam across the Flint River in downtown Flint, Michigan (detail). Photographs by Brian Frank

My destination was not much of a house, not even when it was new, just one cracker box among many in the old neighborhood of Mott Park. A few blocks northwest of downtown, Mott Park was designed in the Twenties as a workers’ paradise: each street curbed and sidewalked, a bungalow in every lot, patches of lawn to mow, and trees that yielded leaves for raking. Returning after sixty-five years, I noticed first the empty spaces, like gaps in a hockey player’s grin. Flint’s main public-works project these days is razing a thousand houses a year, a number limited only by available funds. The supply of abandoned houses delivered by the collapse of the auto industry, the financial crisis, and now poisoned water has, at least, created work for bulldozers. Most of the houses not yet razed are falling in or filled with trash, or have been gutted by fire. Some have been boarded up against squatters, but hardly any people remain here, in this treacherous part of a city routinely ranked among the most dangerous in the country.

Against the odds, as I turned onto Raskob Street (named for John J. Raskob, a board member of General Motors) I found that the house I was seeking, number 2751, still stood. Barely. The roof had sagged. The siding was painted yellow — in Flint, the color of dirty water and denial. Someone had fastened a thick steel hasp to the front door and padlocked it, but the back door’s window was broken in a way that would allow an arm to reach the dead bolt inside. It seemed to suggest that I enter. As I approached the concrete stoop, shards of glass ground beneath my boots. But I couldn’t go in. I couldn’t find the will to ascend the steps that I had climbed as a toddler. This was my first home, but it had been many years, and it wouldn’t be safe to trespass, I reasoned. So I backed off, snapped a photo, and drove away.

My reckoning of what happened in Flint really begins with another photo, taken on July 4, 1942. My grandparents are in standard American Gothic pose, flanked by a neat, stair-step line of four skinny young boys in fedoras and suspenders. The backdrop is their farmhouse, which stood and still stands a couple of hundred miles north of Flint, on Manning Hill. Within ten years, all four of those boys would be working in Flint, mostly in construction. The photo does not show my aunt, already in Flint by then, working at a defense plant. It does not show the tin shack a mile away, where my mother lived with no plumbing, nor her father and two brothers, who within a couple of years would be shop rats in Flint, and continue as auto workers their whole careers. Most critically, it does not show the four of my paternal grandmother’s ten children who died as children.

The best explanation I have found for the connection between this photo and the one I shot on Raskob Street last spring appears in a recent book, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Over some 800 pages of exhaustive fiscal and demographic analysis, Gordon, an economist at Northwestern, argues that the boom during the middle of the twentieth century, which created much of what we still think of as the American dream, was a one-shot deal, an unprecedented and since-unequaled anomaly that spanned the dates on the picture at my grandfather’s farm and my own high-school graduation photo, taken several miles away in 1969. These dates mark the period when innovation made the whole country thrive. Then the dream of shared prosperity died. It’s over. If you think otherwise, ask Flint.

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’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Trouble with Iowa,” appeared in the February 2016 issue.

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