Christine Rice lovingly reflects on her hometown of Flint and reviews its once rich history, now tarnished by the water crisis that residents continue to suffer.
My mother, now 94 years old and living with me in Chicago, cannot believe the news about her town. After all, she lived there for over 30 years—until my family moved just outside of Flint proper, where she lived another 50 years.
“It’s big news,” she says, heartbroken, telling me that even Cher has been talking about it on The View. She shakes her head, saddened by this latest disaster, still protective of her town, sincerely asking, “And what’s Cher got to do with it?”
Those of us who grew up in the area know Flint’s rich history. We know that, to talk about Flint, you also have to talk about General Motors. Even now, the two are inextricably linked. Flint’s pulse depended on General Motors’ vigor. The rise and fall of both is etched in our collective memory.
We know that, in the first years of the 20th century, an entrepreneur named Billy Durant capitalized on the infrastructure built to accommodate Flint’s logging past. Most people don’t remember Durant. His father, a gambler and a drunk, left the family when Billy was ten years old. But Durant’s grandfather, Michigan Governor Henry Howland Crapo, was a powerful influence on Durant. He let his grandson make his own way financially, but the old man’s grit (combined with Durant’s father’s penchant for risk) inspired Durant to transform Flint into one of the most powerful manufacturing towns in the country.
In the 1880s, with the pine forests depleted, young Durant began selling cigars for a Flint cigar company and quickly outsold the company’s three veteran salesmen combined.
From there, Durant turned his sights to Flint’s poorly run, privately owned waterworks. In Billy Durant, Creator of General Motors by former Flint Journal reporter and editor Lawrence R. Gustin, one of the most comprehensive and well-researched books about Durant and Flint, Gustin (prophetically) wrote,
“Part of the job was to collect overdue bills. Water service was so poor that many customers were simply refusing to pay. Durant soon became a familiar figure to Flint residents. He went to every house, interviewed wives as well as husbands, wrote down their complaints, and tried to solve them. After about eight months of intense work, he had the waterworks back on its feet.”
Durant went on to build his fortune manufacturing carriages. The “VEHICLE CITY,” a familiar slogan known by every Flint resident, did not originally refer to automobiles but rather the fact that carriage makers produced more than 100,000 carriages, buggies, and carts annually in Flint.
In 1900, Durant set his sights on a risky venture: the horseless carriage. His friend, Judge Charles H. Wisner, had built an automobile in the carriage house behind his home and took Durant for a ride. Of that ride, Gustin wrote,
“By 1902 Judge Wisner felt that his car was in good running order, and he asked Durant if he would be interested in it as a manufacturing possibility. Durant was not very interested, but the judge was a friend. So one Sunday when Durant was in Flint, he and Wisner started out at 5 am and drove the car around the city all morning. Eventually they stalled at a raised crosswalk at Church and Court streets, where any moment crowds would be assembling to attend the nearby churches. The very thought of all their friends finding the judge and the carriage king stuck in an automobile at the center of town struck them as so funny that they laughed until they had to sit down on the curb.”
Durant’s drive in Wisner’s car persuaded him that the future was in automobiles. Eager for a new challenge, he bought a venture owned by David Dunbar Buick and, infused with cash and energy, ramped up Buick production in Flint.
In four short years, Durant launched General Motors.
Billy Durant is a personal hero of mine. He was exceptionally charismatic, loyal to his friends and those he employed, and battled the bankers until the day he died. He could “charm a bird down from a tree,” became one of the wealthiest men in the world, and by 1930 had lost everything.
In GM, The First 75 Years of Transportation Products, published in 1983, the editor wrote, “General Motors has produced over 235 million vehicles worldwide since its incorporation in 1908.”
General Motors’ success in the early 1900s is what lured both sets of my grandparents to Flint. On my father’s side, my grandfather, an immigrant from the Steppe Region of Russia, worked for Buick. My mother’s mother brought her eight children to Flint via Nova Scotia (where they’d settled after emigrating from Lebanon) to work first at Hamady Brothers, a Lebanese-owned grocery, until they opened their own neighborhood grocery stores in Flint.
When I was coming up in the late 1960s, we lived on Court Street, right across from a neighborhood grocery store that eventually became Mitchell’s Finer Foods. Albert Mitchell was my mother’s twin brother. Before that, my Uncle Tommy and Aunt Lillie Mitchell owned Mitchell’s Food Fair on Eighth Street (since my grandparents couldn’t speak or write English, the name Mitchell was most likely changed from Mansour when the family came from Lebanon).
In January 1954, The Flint Journal headline read: “FLINT NAMED ‘ALL-AMERICAN CITY.’ ” Things were good. Downtown Flint had the Capital Theater, old-school Coney Island diners, restaurants, Whiting Auditorium, Mott Community College, the library, Flint Institute of Arts, the IMA sports complex, and a vibrant shopping district including Smith Bridgman’s (and no one worth their salt could leave out Halo Burger and Angelo’s Coney Island and Koegel’s hot dogs).
Twenty-eight thousand workers took home paychecks from GM during its peak-production years. Doctors, lawyers, plumbers, builders, teachers, small businesses—everyone—relied on GM.
Until, they didn’t.
By the 1970s, and over the next three decades, automotive competition and regulations, as well as union/management tensions, increased. By 1999, General Motors employed just a fraction of the 28,000 employees of its heyday.
In the 1980s, Flint’s leaders, desperate to diversify, opened AutoWorld. I remember going to AutoWorld’s grand opening celebration marked by thousands of balloons and daytime fireworks. City organizers were optimistic, hoping that AutoWorld would be the first of many attractions to revive the city. I walked through the indoor amusement park, wondering at the IMAX, the indoor Ferris wheel, all centered around Flint’s automotive history, and distinctly remembered trying to shake off the sinking feeling that AutoWorld couldn’t possibly be the answer to Flint’s economic woes.
Within eight months, AutoWorld closed its doors.
Fast forward to last year. On October 13, 2015, General Motors announced a temporary agreement to buy Lake Huron water from Flint Township for one of the few remaining truck plants operating in Flint. They made this decision because “chloride levels in treated Flint River water are so high that General Motors will no longer use it at its engine plant here because of fears it will cause corrosion.”
Flint residents—adults and children, the majority of them people of color—had been using water that was too corrosive to make trucks.
You’ve most likely heard the rest but, in case you haven’t, this piece by MLive’s John Counts is one of the most comprehensive looks at the crisis.
I write this fully aware that I abandoned my hometown. Of my huge and extended family (my mother comes from a family of eight, my father comes from a family of twelve), I am one of only a handful to leave the state. The majority of my family stayed, built successful lives in the Flint, Detroit, and Lansing areas.
Growing up, I caught carp in Thread Creek (one of four creeks that feed the Flint River), played kickball in our cul-de-sac, snagged frogs in the ponds behind our house, skated on those same ponds in the winter, built go-carts and forts from wood stolen from the thousands of homes springing up around us, visited my Aunt’s and Uncle’s grocery stores, shopped at the vibrant Flint Farmer’s Market on Saturdays with Mama and Aunt Lillie Mitchell (stopped every two steps by former Food Fair customers who would wrap her in their arms and inquire about her health), had dinner every Sunday with my extended family. My husband and I were married in St. Paul’s Episcopal, where I also went to Sunday school as a child.
Having just recently sold my mom’s house, where we spent summers, I pine for the area’s great beauty (even in its decline), and the sense of being enveloped by a big and loving family, the people who paved my way.
Flint’s tax base has been decimated, decades of corrupt politicians and state-appointed city managers have further injured the city, and Governor Rick Snyder’s criminal neglect and mismanagement of the crisis—the poisoning of Flint residents—will have staggering and long-lasting health and economic implications.
In the meantime, however, Flint had been reinventing itself. Late last year, Flint community organizers learned that Flint’s Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood (where the Durant-Dort Carriage Company headquarters and Factory One once stood) would receive a Michigan State Housing and Development Authority grant to “invest in and encourage neighborhood and community economic development.” This is the same program that helped turn around Traverse City’s vibrant Grand Traverse neighborhood.
As of my last visit, a string of new restaurants—including a tapas restaurant, a wine bar, and a crêperie all opened on Flint’s main drag Saginaw Street.
At an event just the other day, during a group introduction, someone asked me where I was born.
“Flint,” I replied. This response was immediately followed by laughter. As the next person introduced herself, I wanted to interrupt, tell them everything that has been left out of the headlines.
I am bracingly aware that abandoning Flint gives me no right to claim it as my own. And yet I do. As a writer, I cannot escape Flint. The place, the people, all of it, gave me my foundation. I find myself thinking about it at odd times—when I begin writing a story, or in the middle of teaching a class, or when I say goodnight to my children. It was where I spent the first half of my life and, though I have little to offer in return, I owe it everything.