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Downtown Flint Michigan taken from Genesee Towers, which was demolished. This view of Flint is now no longer possible. Photo by FlintMichigan.

Don’t Forget About Flint

My hometown is Flint, Michigan which has been in the news lately because of lead contamination of the water supply. I’ve been busy helping my congregation here in Minnesota collecting water filters to send to Flint and I’ve written some articles on other blogs about the crisis.

The crisis has made me focus on my hometown like never before. I’ve thought about moving back to Michigan from my home of 20 years, Minnesota (if my husband could handle that) at some point and this crisis has made me think about it more (Don’t worry, Daniel, it wouldn’t be for a few years).

But I wanted to take a moment to talk about the city itself, how people view it and why it needs the nation’s attention and help long after the TV trucks and celebrities leave.

Flint is a city that has been on the ropes for a while now, since General Motors contacted its local workforce. But even though Flint has seen better times, there are signs of hope that want to remind people of. Two years ago, I reflected on what was happening in downtown Flint after years of dormancy:

Flint is the kind of city that can break your heart.

Despite all the sadness, something is happening in my hometown, something wonderful.

I’m currently in town visiting my parents. My husband Daniel and I walked through downtown and saw a vibrant area. New restaurants with patios dotted Saginaw Street, the main drag. A busker played music at the edge of the University of Michigan Flint campus. Several buildings were are being remodeled for new uses. The Durant Hotel, that’s sat vacant for nearly 40 years has become apartments. Lofts are showing up in various buildings downtown. The Flint Farmer’s Market moved to downtown from a nearby location and a local business person says restaurants are seeing increases in traffic after it’s grand opening.

Something is happening in Flint’s downtown after a decades of nothing happening. What’s interesting here is that this wasn’t some master plan. It seems to be happening in a piecemeal fashion, a project like the Farmer’s Market here, and art gallery there. Downtown Flint is becoming a place where people gather and live- and it may hold the key to helping Flint transform from an industrial town to….well, I don’t know what.

I added that Flint still has challenges, but there was some hope:

None of this means everything is fine in Flint. There are still neighborhoods of blight, African Americans who make up the majority of the population don’t have access to a good education let alone jobs. The city is still losing population.

But the seeds of Flint’s revival are taking root. As I walked through the Farmer’s Market, I encountered a meeting of young people interested in investing in Flint and Genesee County. Seeing that gave me hope that my hometown will make it. It won’t be saved by a big employer like GM or by blingy projects, but it will happen organically with people who live here stepping up and making a difference one by one.

Flint is a city that can break your heart at times. But this trip reminded me it can also uplift your heart as well.

A commenter left a note on the blog of the former mayor of Saginaw, Michigan that describes the good things happening in the Vehicle City:

How about some good news for Flint? Like: have you been downtown recently? The new lofts, the new businesses, the new restaurants. Back to Bricks that draws about 1/2 million people! U of M ( University of Michigan-Flint) going gangbusters and expanding each year. Look at Kettering University, another school going gangbusters. Look at the School of the Deaf and it’s new campus, look at Powers High School’s new campus. All big and long term investments to the City. Look atDiplomat Pharmacy’s new HQ. Look at the CEO of Diplomat last year donated a couple million $ to U of M Flint. Landaal Packaging, they opened up a tech office downtown. The list goes on. Did you know, if you add up all the college students enrolled in Flint.. (U of M, Kettering, Baker, Mott and others) Flint is a college town. Flint has more colleges students enrolled over all than EMU! Look at the re investment of General Motors. Look at the Mott Foundation that has never left Flint.

Flint is in the world spotlight like never before. People from around the country and around the world are doing what they can to help the people of Flint and I am quite happy about that.

But Flint needs more than water bottles. It needs hope.

Flint is in the mess that is in for a lot of reasons some out of its control and some that are self-inflicted. But Flint is the state that it is in because of the loss of its sole economic driver, General Motors. I’m not blaming GM; the market changed and GM changed with it. But when GM radically downsized, people left and took their tax dollars with them.

What needs to happen now is what is already slowly happening: the growth of new industries and opportunities. But Flint also needs artists and entrepeneurs who might want to live and work in a smaller city. (And where housing is cheap. Really, really, cheap.)You could even live downtown, which is becoming a popular destination to live in Flint.

Flint needs industries that might want to consider setting up shop in a place near the Canadian border and near a major metro area. It needs people who can work with the people who are already there and came help knit the city back together after years of being rent apart.

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The author in front of the Flint Farmers Market, August, 2014.

Listen, I’m thankful that celebrities like Jimmy Fallon, Mark Whalberg and Diddy donate water bottles to help citizens, Flint needs more than just a bottle of water. The reasons Flint is in this mess is because of loss of tax revenue or loss of jobs. What Flint needs even more than water is investment. What Flint needs are people like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark to do more than give money for water but find ways to create new startups or support ongoing incubators like Co+Work. Flint needs those young people who want to come and live ( did I mention the housing is cheap?) and start new businesses like the two the cobblers who started Sutorial Boots and Shoes. We need other kinds of manufacturing to help employ the vast unemployed in Flint.

One business owner has decided to do more than send water. Tom Gores, the owner of the Detroit Pistons, has decided to spend some money to help his hometown economically. His FlintNOW foundation seems to be a long-term effort to help the city, not just now, but years down the road.

By the way, a shout out to the media: I know that this story of lead contamination takes precedence, but I hope you will realize that the city contains a lot of good stories, just like you did when stopped seeing Flint’s big brother to the south, Detroit, as nothing more than similar wasteland that went up in flames every October 30. Flint writer Connor Coyne wrote this about what the national media is missing in a blog post from 2013:

There appears to be something of a custom among national journalists to swoop into Flint — a former stronghold of General Motors, 95% of their local workforce eradicated, half of its peak population, astronomical poverty rates, consecutively ranked by FBI stats as America’s most-violent city, yada yada yada — to chronicle our blight, misery, and desperation, and then usually offer a few token words about the hope and resilience of the 100,000 people who live here. This seems disingenuous to me; why don’t such stories lead with such hope and resilience? Is an abandoned house really more interesting and informative than a network of churches and charities administering to the needs of neighborhoods neglected by the free market? Does the oft-repeated FBI factoid really provide more insight on a place than the hundreds of residents who will each mow sometimes dozens of lawns to keep their communities clean and safe? Is the post-apocalyptic narrative so fragile that it cannot tolerate reportage on our symphony orchestra, the new Michigan School for the Deaf, or the academic cradle of the first female president of a major automaker (appointed just last month)?

Look: I grew up in Flint, and moved away to Chicago and New York for fourteen years, and then moved back to take advantage of opportunities here, and I’m telling you: out-of-town journalists who write “worst of” lists and exposes on my hometown have got it all wrong.

Some in the media are getting a clue, like National Public Radio in its recent story on the Flint Farmers Market which moved to downtown a few years back. East Village Magazine, the local magazine in town, has a great article on bike culture in the city. Yes, bike culture.

Flint will be in the nation’s sights for a while. And while celebrities and politicians come to do what they can, we need people who will help the city revive and thrive in the long run. Flint has some rough years ahead, as it deals with children poisoned by lead. But it’s people are tough. Flint has had it bad, but with help around the nation and world, it will rise again.

It can happen. If we don’t forget Flint.

Written by

A middle-aged pastor living in Minneapolis. I write about politics, religion, sexuality, and autism.

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