Editor’s note (12/30/13): The original title of this article has been changed due to an inaccuracy pointed out by our readers. It originally read “This is America's Most Apocalyptic, Violent City — And You’ve Probably Never Heard Of It.” The word “apocalyptic” and the phrase “You’ve probably never heard of it” were added to the title by our editorial team. Both were meant to convey the serious, oft-ignored nature of the problems facing Flint’s residents, but they did not capture the spirit of the story and we take responsibility for the error. We believe the correction better befits the intent of our writer, and we continue to stand by the story.
Photo corrections (updated 12/31/13): The PolicyMic editorial team mistakenly included several photos that were not current from Flint, MI. These photos were removed and we apologize for the error. In addition, the original header photo was of Detroit, not of Flint, which was fixed on 12/28/13.
We all know about Detroit. We've heard the sad story of this dwindling midwestern city's deterioration into desperate insolvency. We know how they filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, with debt estimated at $18-20 billion following the collapse of the auto industry. The city, which was No. 1 on Forbes' "most miserable cities" list, has 78,000 vacant buildings; 40% of the streetlights do not work, and more than half of the city's parks have closed since 2008. It takes an average of one hour for the police to respond to any call.
But this story is not about Detroit. It's about Detroit's failing and forsaken neighbor, 66 miles to the northwest. It's a story about Flint, Michigan.
Flint was the birthplace of General Motors (GM) in 1908. According to journalist and Flint native Gordon Young, 47, the city flourished on a strong economy built around the auto industry. By the 1960s, it's per capita income for a city of its size was one of the highest in the world, Young says. "That is really hard for people to even fathom now."
Before the Great Recession and at peak employment, there were 80,000 jobs from GM alone. In addition, there was a satellite system of part suppliers for GM, who sprung up around the factories, supplying thousands of more jobs.
Today, there are only 4,000 GM jobs. An average of five people leave the city every day. "The memories of the old Flint made this decline even more dramatic for me," Young said.
The Buick city plant is the largest brown field in the U.S. now. Because it's an industrial site with potential toxic environmental damage, attempts to re-sell and re-purpose the land are highly risky.
In a Slate article, Young wrote, "After the loss of nearly 80,000 GM jobs over the last three decades, Flint has landed on the Forbes list of 'most miserable cities' and 'fastest-dying cities.'" Filmmaker Michael Moore is a Flint native and made the 1989 documentary "Roger and Me" about the city (which was recently inducted into the National Film Registry.) Moore said of his hometown, "The only difference between your town and Flint is that the Grim Reaper just likes to visit us first."
In Young's book, Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, he chronicles his return home after being away for 15 years. One synopsis of the book reads, "There are desolate blocks where only a single house is occupied, and survivors brandish shotguns and monitor police scanners. While the population plummets, the murder rate soars. Throw in an arson spree and a racially motivated serial killer and Young wonders if Flint can be saved."
In the book, Young compares bright childhood memories of Catholic schooling and free swimming lessons to the grim present of abandoned houses and shuttered schools.
"I went back to my old neighborhood," he said. "It’s one of those neighborhoods where outsiders wouldn’t even believe it was the United States. So many burned out houses, houses with trees growing through them."
"Some of these areas would look totally abandoned, but in fact, they're not," he said.
A third of the city has been left abandoned. If all of the abandoned houses, vacant lots, and buildings were consolidated, there would be 10 square miles of "blight" in the city.
Young said, "You can buy houses by the dozen on eBay. You can get houses for $500."
Flint is a small city of about 100,000 people. In 2012, Flint's statistics, per 100,000 people, were: 62 murders, 106 forcible rapes, and 662 robberies. The murder rate alone is higher than Baghdad's.
The numbers have earned it the No. 1 spot on Business Insider's "most dangerous cities" lists for 2010, 2011, and 2012. Violent crimes in total — including murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — reached 2,729.5. The poverty rate is over 40%, and the percentage of adults with a high school degree is roughly 83%.
A 24/7 Wall St. special report stated that, "Like Detroit, Flint has suffered economically in recent years. The median household income was just $23,380 in 2011, the second-lowest of all 555 cities measured by the U.S. Census Bureau."
Photojournalist Brett Carlsen visits Flint whenever he has the means. He wrote, "With close to one third of the city’s homes vacant, those that are left exist in a whirlwind of violence, abandoned homes, and financial struggles unlike many other places in the United States."
Flint is emblematic of a deeper story in America, only one of the many similar tales to emerge from the once thriving, now deteriorating Rust Belt of the United States. These manufacturing and industrial hot spots, spanning from Albany, New York, west across Ohio, Indiana, and through Michigan, were once the great symbols of American innovation and economic prosperity. Today, they're mere vestiges of a bygone era that's been eclipsed by new economic power centers like Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
Proof is in the numbers: Of the 15 American cities that have lost the largest share of their populations since 1960, 14 are in the industrial Northeast and upper Midwest. Flint, like Detroit and Gary, lost about 20% of its population during the first decade of the 21st century. In the 1960s, Flint's population was double what it is today.
Thankfully, there's another side to this story of depression and decay, a side of this city that's easy to forget by focusing on the despair alone.
There's a spirit, a certain resilience, and an undeniable loyalty. Canepari said, "For a place that is so deeply dysfunctional, it has an incredible amount of identity. People are proud to be from there. And you can see why."
The everyday people of Flint refuse to be defeated. Flint native and photographer Justin Clanton, 27, said, "I love it here. Crime is a bitch, but, hey, not every place is perfect. There are few other places I would want to live. I'd choose the 'worst city in America' over a ritzy area any day."
Locals hate that the only story told about Flint is a negative one. "There are people trying very hard to make this city a better place," Young said.
"People who have not given up."