Gordon Young has focused his journalism work on his hometown in Michigan as it deals with the Flint Water Crisis
When I traveled to my hometown of Flint, Michigan in the summer of 2009, I was hoping to rediscover and help a place that once boasted one of the world’s highest per capita income levels, but had become one of the country’s most impoverished and dangerous cities. What I found was a place of stark contrasts and dramatic stories, where an exotic dancer could afford a lavish mansion, speculators scooped up cheap houses by the dozen on eBay, and arson was often the quickest route to neighborhood beautification.
I described these experiences in Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, a book filmmaker Michael Moore described as “a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city.” I chronicle a once-thriving place still fighting—despite overwhelming odds—to rise from the ashes. I was lucky to meet a collection of urban homesteaders and die-hard locals who refused to give up as they tried to transform the birthplace of General Motors into a smaller, greener, more livable town.
I continued to write about the city where four generations of my family lived—in the New York Times, Slate, and Belt Magazine. Often, I was covering the incremental steps the city was taking to turn things around, such as improvements in Flint’s historic district or an influx of international students to local universities. I also worked with residents to raise money to demolish a burned-out, abandoned house in an otherwise healthy neighborhood.
But Flint is now in the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons after it emerged that state officials ignored clear signs of lead poisoning in the city’s water supply. One of the most agonizing aspects of what has come to be known as the FlintWater Crisis is that it was entirely preventable. And yet, given that state officials seem intent only on balancing the city budget and not solving the city’s problems, it shouldn’t be all that surprising when bad things happen.
“This was the ultimate curse of a shrinking city,” I wrote in Teardown. “The economic collapse and declining population actually necessitated more city services as crime and poverty skyrocketed. As Flint got smaller, it needed more money to manage the transformation from a thriving industrial powerhouse to something else. Instead, the city was being forced to slash its budget.”
For me, the water crisis is the ultimate proof that Flint needs a comprehensive plan to stop the suffering and stabilize the city.
“I may be delusional, but I’m hoping that some sliver of good can come out of the water crisis,” I wrote recently in Politico Magazine. “But simply dealing with the latest calamity without having a national conversation about why these bad things happen to places like Flint—and coming up with systematic, long-term solutions—ensures that in five or 10 years we will be right back where we started. Flint’s problems may seem outsized, but they are not isolated and hold dire lessons for the rest of America. A growing number of places throughout the country look a lot like my hometown, defined by persistent poverty, crumbling infrastructure and a populace that feels betrayed and abandoned. If you think your community is immune from these problems, I’d ask you to reconsider. A familiar line I’ve heard more than once around town is a warning we should all heed, regardless of where we live: ‘Flint, coming to a city near you.’”
Gordon Young grew up in Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors, where his accomplishments included learning to parallel park the family’s massive Buick Electra 225. After reaching an uneasy truce with the nuns in the local Catholic school system, he went on to study journalism at the University of Missouri and English literature at the University of Nottingham. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Utne Reader, and numerous other publications. Young has published Flint Expatriates, a blog for the long-lost residents of the Vehicle City, since 2007. He is a senior lecturer in the Communication Department at Santa Clara University and lives in San Francisco.