FLINT, MICHIGAN — The north side of Flint is largely a food desert, the result of a steady decline in jobs and economic security compounded by the city’s enduring water crisis. But Mark Baldwin wants to change that.
“Especially for young folks, there’s an amazing amount of opportunity in Flint,” he says on a crisp Thursday afternoon, gesturing around his greenhouse, which he hopes can be translated into a wider-scale effort to provide the neighborhood with healthy, cheap food.
Meandering past a tangle of bright-red tomatoes, Baldwin shows off his labor of love — a hoop house where he grows vegetables using almost exclusively rain water, allowing him to avoid the city’s much-mistrusted tap alternative.
As Flint’s economy has tumbled over the past 50 years, its grocery stores have slowly closed. Several more have shuttered since the water crisis began four years ago for unclear reasons, leaving residents with few affordable options. Of those still open, one grocery store was described by locals as “like a jail” due to its tight doors and limitations on carts, all meant to prevent theft. That approach has deterred residents, even as they face fewer and fewer nearby options.
Baldwin has big dreams to change that, but his efforts haven’t come easily.
Since he began his project several years ago, Baldwin has run into numerous hiccups, including having his tomato crop stolen, his tires slashed, and his house shot at, a byproduct of city crime. But he isn’t interested in leaving.
The neighborhood activist teaches youth in the city about gardening and he doesn’t plan to abandon them. Instead, he has put up signs reading “You are loved!!” in front of his home and greenhouse.
That display of resiliency is common in Flint, where residents have long had to rely on each other rather than elected officials.
Once nicknamed “Vehicle City” due to its status as a leading car manufacturer, Flint sank into an economic depression beginning in the 1970s as General Motors slowly laid off workers. Pollution from the auto industry plagued the city’s river and sickened locals. Residents left by the thousands and the city’s population halved, while houses were abandoned and crime rates spiked. In the past two decades, Flint has declared a state of financial emergency twice — once in 2002 and again in 2011.
Then, in 2014, failure to treat the city’s water supply exposed around 100,000 Flint residents to lead. Subsequent tainted water issues led to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, resulting in the deaths of a dozen people. And while the local city government is working to replace Flint’s pipes and restore public trust, state officials and the federal government have largely been missing in action.
Anger still abounds in Flint. Residents often leave plastic water bottles in front of city hall as an expression of frustration with inaction by elected officials. But many in the city also say they are tired of being seen by outsiders through the lens of the water crisis.
“It’s offensive to me that the water is all people think about,” says Dr. Debra Furr-Holden, a professor with Michigan State University’s division of public health.
That doesn’t mean, however, that figures like Furr-Holden don’t want outsiders to see the realities of Flint’s problems.
“What happened in Flint is first and foremost racism,” she asserts. “Second, it’s classism. Poor Blacks and poor whites is why this happened in Flint.”
Without accounting for undocumented members of the Latinx community, Flint is almost 55 percent Black with 42 percent of residents living below the poverty line.
Many advocates say that acknowledging the systemic inequalities that have hurt Flint is the only way to rectify the city’s problems. Those that have are generating increasingly creative and innovative ways to shift how Flint is perceived and to allow residents to feel pride and autonomy.
“We won’t know if there’s another Serena Williams … if we don’t give them the opportunity to develop that talent, develop that gift,” says Linn Jones-McKenney, who proudly notes that she herself was the first woman to be drafted out of Flint to play professional basketball many years ago.
Retired from playing professionally, Jones-McKenney now coaches young people at the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village in Flint, where attendees can receive exposure to everything from sports to journalism. In a city with dwindling schools and few after-school opportunities, the youth center can be both a lifeline and a source of skill-building.
In other parts of the city, residents are turning their eyes to green spaces like parks. Edna Sabucco has lived in Flint’s Eastside neighborhood since she was a teenager and watching houses fall vacant and abandoned has bothered her. In October 2015 she began the Eastside Franklin Park Neighborhood Association and now the area is slowly sculpting public green space in a lot that once held between six and eight houses.
“I’ve seen the neighborhood go to hell in a hand basket,” Sabucco says, shaking her head. She hopes the park will counter that, allowing residents to come and enjoy the space, pick fruits like strawberries and blueberries, and perhaps host holiday parties or even yoga sessions.
Other Eastside residents are still primarily focused on the city’s water problems. Flint’s large Latinx community includes many undocumented members as well as a number of people with limited knowledge of English. San Juana Olivares has spent the past few years working to convey information about the water crisis to residents largely overlooked and forgotten by officials.
“None of our families knew what has happening,” she says, noting that her own nephew became ill with lead poisoning due to a lack of information surrounding the situation.
Fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents has also largely dissuaded many people from seeking medical care relating to the crisis, Olivares says. To work around these issues, Olivares has partnered with other activists from Flint’s communities of color to spread information and awareness without having to rely solely on officials. Her organization, the Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative, offers document translation for members of the community, along with assistance in navigating Medicare and Medicaid.
Those displays of resiliency may not be dominating headlines, but they are changing life for everyday Flint residents, arguably the only motivation the city’s advocates need. Locals largely point to such efforts as a source of pride and a morale-booster, even as the rest of the state and country continue to largely see the city through the lens of the water crisis and economic depression.
Whether or not the crisis is over is largely a source of debate. Michigan has ended free bottled water in the city, but residents remain mistrustful and many say they are still getting sick. However, the city is slowly replacing service lines and locals are pushing to redefine themselves.
After admitting that the constant vandalism of his crops and home have “hurt a lot,” Baldwin the greenhouse manager emphasizes again his reasons for remaining in the city, namely his dedication to his neighbors.
And, as if to drive home the point, he gingerly lifts a large, green, freshly-grown cucumber, and smiles.