Hoch Associates, a progressive architecture, engineering, urban and interior design firm with offices in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis is talking about the Flint crisis in a series of blog posts over the next few days. The Flint Crisis: Failure In Leadership is sharing a few additional stories on our trip to Flint recently. While we understand our core of a company is architecture, we also believe in the importance of community and how it drives us. We believe that no matter where we are in location or in life, our responsibility is to create better, healthier, stronger and more vibrant communities. We are happy you decided to follow along over the next few days as we dive deeper than water in Flint Michigan to get to a bigger story on how we design and plan our cities IS our responsibility.
It’s important to note that we are not CNN, NBC or any of the major news outlets covering the actual water crisis. While the headline news is devastating and our hearts reach out, we are leaving that coverage and information to the national news outlets. You will see throughout our coverage of the Flint Crisis small inserts about the current situation, however, the focus will be on the city itself and how urban design has played a roll in where Flint stands today.
THE FLINT CRISIS: MEET JOHN
“Not everyone’s going to win, But now, everyone’s losing” – Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee
After driving around Flint and meeting with several citizens, I pull up to the banks of the Flint River in my Jeep Liberty. I get out of my car to snap a few pictures when I meet another stranger on my journey. John Apple, or so he calls himself says “the problem is that there’s too little evidence of what the politicians are doing to our city.” As I begin to ask him more about his statement, he stops me in my tracks and says “Michigan is seeing a budget surplus, but you see how they are spending it on us. All we hear from Trump, Cruz and Snyder are we’re broke and we can’t spend anything. They want to cut food stamps, they hurt the poorest people in Flint, they want to cut higher education, my neighbor's son can’t go to university, they want to cut healthcare and cancer victims continue to die. It’s a real shame we have to live like this in America, we just need a do-over.” As I stand a little dazed by his moving sentiment to the problems facing our country, he puffs on his cigarette one more time before flicking it into the vacant street nearby and says “dammit man, have you seen the wood boards holding up the Interstate?” It’s obvious that John is passionate about the issues and topics, and he simply has had enough of people not feeling the reality of the situation.
John and I continue to converse about Flint, a city he has called home since 1961. He tells me the story of how his parents both from Flint worked for Buick and General Motors. He grew up on a quaint street where every Saturday he and his brother would play a game of catch football in the middle of the cul-de-sac. “It’s sad now, the house is gone and the weeds have overtaken the driveway. I take my son there now but only to look at it as a sign of our city’s past, my fond childhood memories are now just dirt and grass and rocks.” As we stand to look at his phone of pictures he has taken around town he explains each in a very detailed way. “That purple house, yeah that’s my cousin Mary’s and the city can’t afford to take it down it’s in so much debt. Now we have this damn water to worry about, we keep losing and every time we ask for a new coach, they bring in another loser,” says Apple. As I begin to ask him about the water crisis that the city is currently facing he quickly changes the topic back to “Flint’s problems are so much worse than water, although it does have a bad stench. We have a good mayor now, but she can’t afford to fix the city (speaking of newly elected Mayor Karen Weaver). The lawsuits are rolling in by the barrel and well, simply put we just can’t afford it.”
THE FLINT CRISIS: POOR
As I make my way around the winding Flint River and into another unsuspecting neighborhood, I see signs punched into the ground with wooden stakes or metal hangers. Of course, it’s election season and I would assume to see a Bernie Sanders or Marco Rubio sign, but instead a neon fluorescent green one with handwritten words that say “I’ve Been Poisoned By Snyder,” followed by “Why Does Lansing Hate Us?” While politics always played an important role in the history of Flint, these signs were aimed at making a statement rather than pushing any one political candidate. The lead-poisoning crisis by many has been laid at the feet of Governor Rick Snyder who took admission of the problem during his State of the City address in January. You could read countless articles and see the reaction of thousands on Facebook and Twitter throwing the Republican governor under the bus on the issue, but is it really Snyder who poisoned the city of Flint? After my conversation with John at the city park, I could see where the mixed signals came from, while he was frustrated with current and future leadership at a city, state and national level his anger was also pointed at years of neglect by previous leaders.
Shortly after passing the protest house, I stop in at a corner convenience market to fill up on another cup of coffee. As the door rings, I read a sign that says “we brew coffee by hand” and an Aquafina sticker stuck underneath as if they were the sponsor of my third cup of joe for the day. Joanna Miller comes to take my coffee order before grabbing another bottled water from under the counter as she says “we don’t want to take any chances.” As my coffee is coming toward me from a fresh hand brew, she washes her hands with another bottle of water and says “This is the last case of Cher water,” referring to the pop-stars donation of bottled water to the city residents. I stand and talk to her for another 30 minutes of my trip learning her story and what trials she has been going through as a resident of the city. “I just wish they would stop taking shortcuts if they have to charge us $200 a month for better water than so be it.” Joanna is obviously upset that in 2014 to save the city from going bankrupt, leaders switched sources of water from the Great Lakes to the Flint River in a temporary measure til a new connection could be made to Lake Huron in 2017. I ask her, is that the biggest problem facing Flint today and she nod quietly “no” before heading to the back to grab a dry towel.
Joanna continues our conversation “who wants to move here…hell, I wouldn’t if I had the chance to do it again. Flint is a bomb that has gone off and no one has come to clear away they scraps.” A tear starts to come to her face, “my husband and I opened this place about 10 years ago and business has been on a steady decline since day one. I wish I could say it was something about our business, but look at the Taco Bell across the street, do you see anyone there?” As she takes another swig of the warm Gatorade sitting on the counter, she says “we’ve had every chance as a city to reinvent ourselves but the leaders keep saying GM will come back.” The past three decades have been rough for Flint, once fueled by the auto industry officials refused to adjust the design of the city for a changing culture and economy so it continued to slide. According to the U.S. Census, 40.1 percent of the city’s population is living in poverty which makes it the second poorest city in the nation. Since the company left the town, the number of people using food stamps has increased from 87,000 to over 130,000. The median income for Flint residents is currently $24,000 a year which is well below the state’s median income at $48,000 per year. An even more outstanding number is that since 2005, an expected 6,000 homes have been demolished placing the city population below 100,0000 residents for the first time since the 1920’s. Joanna wraps up our conversation with “If our city can’t afford the basic necessities, when will they say enough is enough and just shut us down to save money?”
THE FLINT CRISIS: THE DESIGN
City leaders in 1910 began seeing the need to expand the daily residential services in the city of Flint by annexing several acres of developed land around the core of downtown. Miles of streets, sidewalks, and underground utilities were being added to connect the residents to the city. This process continued over and over again like it did in most cities with the ever expanding industrialist movement, places like Detroit, Toledo, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids, Youngstown, Cleveland and Flint all spent precious and somewhat limited resources to build an expansive city. By the mid-1920’s Flint was ranked among the fastest growing cities in the entire nation and leaders who all had very close ties to manufacturer General Motors used that to their advantage. By the expansion of the 1940’s, Flint was once again a boom town as the automobile was king and the American Dream was in full swing. What once was a city with nicely quilted neighborhoods connected by vital corridors of city streets and sidewalks was now a grid stretching out miles from the town center.
During the post-World War II era, Flint, unfortunately, experienced two, both of which were sanctioned by the federal government migrations. Companies like General Motors took advantage of subsidies that encouraged the relocation of industry to the suburbs and rural areas. During the same period of time, the home mortgage insurance programs implemented by the FHA and VA allowed millions of white Americans, including nearly 60,000 Flint residents to relocate from downtown and nearby neighborhoods to racially homogeneous suburbs. This drastic shift in population and resident makeup was further enhanced by the fact that African American residents in the 1940’s were often excluded from participating in such programs giving fuel to increased levels of segregation. As the jobs and the majority of residents shifted outward, Flint began seeing issues and flaws with the design. Leaders quickly took to using band-aids to fix leaks and cracks in the foundation with budget shortfall stopgap measures and low-cost infill programs, but all this did be continued to allow the inside to fall apart further. The city was so focused on the industry that built it in the first place, the underlying problems continued to rise, which would eventually be the end of a once thriving city.
As cities on the coasts in the 1960’s began defining their role in a new era, Flint and many other rust-belt designed communities were abrasive to potential change and avoided it at all costs. “Why fix what’s not broken, at least on the surface” said Joanna in our earlier conversation. “Flint in the 1960’s was looking at all time population highs and services were abundant because GM kept feeding us the dream our city had long desired.” Even in the 1960’s, majority of the leadership in Flint still had very close connections with General Motors, and bad publicity of any kind would be considered negative to the company that built the town. As the decades continued, Flint had a glimpse of prosperity and then it all crashed with the single largest employer and contributor to the city coffers decided a slow, painful divorce was the best action between the two. Flint, a city designed and built for the industrial giant was left standing in the courtroom trying to keep the marriage working while the other half was already trying to leave. Now a city, stretched to the max in resources simply didn’t have the financials to keep services at the same level it had offered its residents in the past. When GM began closing shops, houses went on the block and many just fell into states of disrepair. As the housing and industrial components began leaving the city in droves, so did the tax base that the city needed for survival causing many in the city to throw their hands up and walk away. Flint was dying on the vine, and because of years of neglect and lack of ideas for varied industry, the city once boasting nearly 200,000 residents was feeling its entire soul being crushed.