I live in Flint. I have made neither a big deal of this nor have I acted as if it’s a blessing or a burden. I love Flint. I chose to live here and I choose to live here. I got involved with Flint at 20 when I first started coming down here for hall shows and to hang out with friends. That was a time when we would hang out at the mall then go downtown to sit out on cars and talk in the parking lot of the venue or just go in and watch bands and hang out inside. Some kids got into drugs, some got into sex, I was just into movies and hanging out. I got emotionally invested into Flint in 2005 when I got a job at a small bookstore downtown. I had been desperate for a job and had done a book signing there and from there I was lucky enough to get a job as a clerk. Suddenly I was in Flint all the time. I lived in a small town about fifteen minutes to the north called Mt. Morris but Flint was where I would hang out. It was where my friends hung out and where I was getting involved with the arts scene. Later that same year, 2005, the guy that ran the venue I used to go to saw my friend and I wandering around near a local football stadium where high school teams played and he asked me where I was living, I told him, and he proceeded to shame me for living out where I did. It was a ploy. It turns out this guy was looking to rent out a studio apartment in his building. Ahhhh… Flash forward a couple months and I was a resident of Downtown Flint. I moved into the studio which was bigger than my old place and, while I had very little light, and no ceiling to my bathroom, it was amazing. I lived in a building with a close friend and where another friend was living as well. There were only four apartments and it was down the same alley as my old stomping grounds, the Capitol Theater – an Italian styled theater desperate for new life. My adult life started in that apartment. My writing was reborn. My art was reborn. And many, many events were born in that place. I was active in the arts. I had new friends. I got a job next to where I lived and worked there on and off for five years. The apartment wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it was magical for those five years I lived there, where some summer nights I would sit on the roof with friends and my girlfriend and we’d talk about what we’d do if the zombie apocalypse happened – well before people bothered with such talk and there even was a Walking Dead. On the first floor of that building we held art shows and other events. It was amazing.
I say all of this as a preamble, as a way to say – while I am not native to Flint, this place is my home.
I moved into a house in 2012 and it became the home for myself, my wife, and our dog. It’s where we live now. We live in a nice neighborhood, near an elementary school and with people that are involved and care about the city. I tend to keep to myself but Flint is where I created the Flint Horror Convention and where we held it for four years and where we are holding a new con the fall of 2016. This is where my friends live. Where I work. And where I am emotionally invested. Saying all of that, a lot of that, you can perhaps start to appreciate why I wanted to tell my story, such as it is, about what is happening with Flint and its water, to look at this from my own eyes. That’s the story I can tell best.
When the word came down that Flint was going to switch its water source from Lake Huron water that was shipped through Detroit pipes I was skeptical. This was a money decision. Flint was under an Emergency Manager for years and years of poor leadership, poor spending, and an inability to adapt to the fact that we lost our biggest employer and tax payer. Maybe all of that is spreading blame, if so, then so be it. To me they are just facts as I see them. We were told though that the Flint River was cleaner than it had been in years. Efforts had been made to reclaim it and make it a resource and asset and it has become both. The problem wasn’t with the water, which may have posed no issues at all as a water source, no, the issue was that we switched sources without a dry-run. Or wet-run in this case. Detroit was talking about raising their rates again and the thought was that by switching to Flint water it would 1. Save the citizens and city money and 2. Would allow us to prepare for the switch to our own pipes using the same water source, which were being built. Great plan, only they never tested things to see if it’d work. They just figured it out on the fly. Not a great idea. Not when you’re dealing with a resource that people NEED to survive. They fixed our internal systems, they added this, they added that, they experimented like kids with a new chemistry set but the water wasn’t right. We noticed it when our dog kept getting sick in the yard. My wife had heard story after story of people claiming that the water was ‘bad’ and that pets had died because of the water and people were getting rashes so we got a filtered water bowl and suddenly the dog was OK again. Word came out that there were things in the water, chemicals in the water– we got a shower filter due to the over saturation of chlorine, which made the shower smell and feel like a pool – and even bacteria. We were using a filtered water jug but every week I had to clean it out because of the yellow particulate that was gathering in the container itself. Not near the filter but in the drinking water. My wife drinks bottled water. I never really drink much water. We did then and we still use the tap water to brush our teeth and bathe in. While we can afford to buy water, buying water in such quantities needed to bathe in and brush in and all that is too much.
We were lied to, again, and again, lied to by those that we looked to for guidance, who told us that the water was fine, the water was safe – drink up.
But it wasn’t fine.
It wasn’t safe.
What we noticed along with water that smelled like chlorine, and with occasionally yellow water, when they were cleaning the hydrants out, was that our water bill never went down. If anything it went up a little. We heard that bills would go down, eventually. Some day. But when? And if it was outrageous for us, what was it for people who had children, or who had lower paying jobs, or who were on some form of assistance? They were lost in all of it.
They weren’t silent though.
Slowly but surely voices began to rise in the city. From activists to ordinary families people were beginning to ask hard questions. They wanted to know why we were being told to boil water, or buy filters. Why we were being charged some of the highest rates in the state of Michigan for water that we were told may not be good for us. Why the state and its Emergency Manager weren’t acting quickly enough. And why people in the city, people that ran the city, weren’t doing more to address these questions and others. The chorus gained power when medical professionals and scientists became involved and started to find out how dangerous the water we were getting was. Not because of its source but because of the pipes that were getting that water too us now. There is much being made of how terrible the river is, making this our grand villain, our dangerous enemy, but not seeing that the river was poisoned by the machinations of consumerism and industry but that it had been reclaimed and had become an asset once more. Now, whether it should have been made the go-to source for a city’s water is a question that can be debated but to act as if the river was the culprit to what is happening here is to over-simplify things and to ignore the true villains. Villains elected, appointed, and entrusted.
As for my wife and I, we are lucky as I said before. We haven’t shown any outward signs of illness. We adapted to the water situation. But we should not have had to. We shouldn’t have to. We shouldn’t have to watch as the value of our house falls because who on earth wants to move to a city where you can’t even trust the water? We shouldn’t have to wonder if there is a shadow over us that we won’t fully understand for years. We shouldn’t be paying outrageous water rates for water that cannot be trusted. Oh, and if we don’t pay – we will get our water shut off and eventually lose our home. That’s where we’re at here. This is where the city is at. We shouldn’t need to be bailed out. We shouldn’t need to rely on the kindness of strangers from near and far. We are tired of having our hands out but unfortunately this is the position we’ve been put in.
And what of our city?
Yeah, what about Flint.
Let’s pan out, way out. Let’s not look at the children, the families, the elderly, or anyone. Let’s look at the city itself. A city that has never quite recovered from the loss of its main industry. We are a city trying to rebuild itself and just as inroads are being made that could change the future for this place we are hit with this. We are hit with a disaster that will live well beyond any of us today. People are afraid to come here. Businesses are reconsidering locating here. Events are turning their eyes elsewhere. We have to work here. We have to live here. This is where we love but we are a punchline and a head-shaking tragedy AGAIN. A symbol of the failure of the American dream. People are shown a city of black snow and sad faces. You don’t see our award winning farmer’s market. Or the vibrant arts culture. Or the people working with our youth. Or anything else good. You see the standard cardboard cutout of Flint, the ‘poor, black town with its hand out’. And that’s not what we are. This isn’t us crying wolf. This is us trying to survive. And that’s the thing. This catastrophe, made by foolish, short-sighted, arrogant people isn’t just harming one person, or a hundred people, or a thousand, no, it’s hurting generations, and beyond that it’s hurting a proud, strong city that has weathered storm after storm and now we are left to wonder what next? What do we do when in a week, a month, a year the world tires of hearing about Flint, poor Flint, and they move on to the next disaster, or tragedy, and we are forgotten? What happens when more people have moved away? When jobs have been lost? When thousands upon thousands of dollars from visitors and events is gone? Who is going to stand up and take the blame then? Who is going to make up for that shortfall? Who is going to repay the tens of thousands spent on bottled water we all have relied on just to survive? And who will help Flint five years from now? And what will any of this matter to the world at large? And even if YOUR water is fine…what of your home’s value? Your life’s value? Your future’s value? What is that worth?
The scope of what is happening here is greater than just ‘bad water’ but that is the best way to describe it. The most basic thing humans need and rely on, the thing we are made up of, the thing this world is made up of, and the thing that we all take for granted in this nation is the one thing that has been taken from us. And bottled water won’t cut it. And apologies won’t solve the problem. And that’s the hell of it. We are seeing ‘solutions’ but none of them deal with the problem beyond a handful of years when this is something that we will be living with potentially for decades. But we’re a strong city. A resilient city. And those of us that have been fighting will keep fighting. We have no choice. When the cameras leave, when the people lose interest, and when the government moves on we will still be here to pick up the pieces. People will get rich writing books and making documentaries about this. People will give talks and teach seminars on this. But what good does any of that do us, the people who are living through this? There are a lot of lies being told on both sides – that the water and it’s people are all poisoned – and that there’s nothing to see here. The truth lies in the middle. It always lies in the middle. We have filters. We have water being donated. People are here to help us. There is hope, but we have a long road ahead.
And I am mad, for myself, my family, my friends, for people I have never met, for children I’ll never see, and for a city that has been a punching bag time and again. But the anger will fade and in the end we’ll still have a city where there is a foundation of people who are willing to fight for it, to work for it, and who see not a city of crime, and poverty, and bad water but a city waiting to be reborn and desperate to shine once more. There will still be a city that will rise from the mud and rebuild because we have no choice.