Flint: A Vehicle for Change

Flint and I go back a few years. I met my wife at college, and I had no idea what her hometown was like. After visits over a decade, I grew to see Flint as a midwestern town like most, with its strip malls in various states of decay and a downtown trying to reinvent itself.

But since becoming a permanent resident a short while ago, I have had to confront a lot of things I never fully appreciated about Flint. And it’s taught me a lot about The American Dream, those would-be petty kings who would kill it, and the ragged, motley contingent that wants to see it restored.

Living here in Downtown, I have witnessed a lot of things that give me hope, and I shake my head at more than a few that demonstrate how so much hardship in our society is entirely preventable. I, too, have felt the anger and frustration over trust betrayed by our government officials and the fear of our infrastructure crumbling beneath us.

With international press over Flint’s water, many are wondering how many more times Flint will be a whipping post. But I do not believe this has to be the case.

The root of the problem here in Flint is not simple to discern. There are callous capitalists and venal politicians who have harmed and still harm our citizens. There are racial prejudices and a generation gap that skew perceptions and drive a wedge between the major players in our community. But none of these things are unique to Flint, Michigan.

The underlying cause of much of the misery here, as elsewhere, is a kind of blindness. I perceive it when people toss off the bullsh*t phrase “that’s Flint for ya”. The phrase is utterly meaningless in itself, yet it implies the kind of apathy I cannot and will not ever embrace.

Flint is ugly, and Flint is beautiful. There is beauty everywhere. There is hardship everywhere. I have worked with people who have more money than I will probably ever see who rail about infinitesimal, petty gripes while lounging in the very lap of luxury. And I have received the best kind of sincere hospitality in neighborhoods so poor they can’t afford to pave their streets or collect the garbage. All here in the United States.

A phrase like that about Flint can only be an expression of grieving for a loss. This points at the kind of blindness I’m talking about: the inability to learn from previous mistakes, and the unwillingness, even when standing knee-deep in evidence, to change your view.

In 1946, a study by sociologist C. Wright Mills and economist Melville Ulmer compared and contrasted the economic contours of Grand Rapids, a patchwork of smaller, less-flashy industries, and Flint, the GM thoroughbred. The study predicted the dramatic difference in outcomes each city would experience over the coming generations, and, no surprise, Grand Rapids was favored for its less-glamorous embrace of diverse trades and industries, which would help sustain its economy. Hard times for one industry did not necessarily mean dire straits for others; diversity helped level things out. Flint however, was the thoroughbred that might have been more wisely seen as a one-trick pony.

My first real encounter with this situation was twelve years ago when my wife-to-be sat me down and screened Roger and Me. I was aghast at the brutality with which an entire city was denuded of its economic resources, stripped of its pride, and slapped in the face by a few greedy people. But what I was, and am still even more amazed by is that no one seemed to have learned the lesson everyone hears as a child:

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Wishing for a past which will never return won’t help. Idle complaining won’t help. Selling out to Buick for corporate sponsorships really won’t help. When a branch goes bad you tie it off. Instead, cultivate the new shoots that will give a fresh, abundant flowering and produce good fruit.

The cure for this blindness is taking a long, hard look at ourselves, and realizing that the change we want to see starts with that person each of us sees in the mirror. And the best way to cultivate a new and better attitude is with free and open discourse. It’s really why The Flint Phoenix was started – to be an alternative news source that isn’t ashamed to look in the mirror and isn’t afraid to speak its mind.

We firmly believe that this clarity of vision can turn the tide for our community. We admire the bravery and persistence of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who raised the alarm about lead in Flint’s water. Even after the state publicly denounced her findings, she kept on telling the truth about children suffering from government negligence. And when we speak up for what we know is right – from starting a neighborhood watch to telling your friends to shop local – we become the difference we want to see around us.

It’s time to update those signs downtown to read “Flint: A Vehicle for Change.”


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