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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.

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.

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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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