Can blacks in Flint hold onto hope in a half-empty city?
A glorious past greets visitors to the Berston Field House, a 93-year-old temple of black sports in Flint, Michigan.
On a mural overlooking the lobby, Chris Byrd raises his fists in the stance that made him a world heavyweight champion. NBA and NCAA titlist Glen Rice smiles next to Morris Peterson, one of the “Flintstones” trio that led Michigan State to the basketball mountaintop. Running back Mark Ingram Jr. poses in suit and tie with his Heisman Trophy. The 1940s “Yellow Dogs” softball champs, 1970s NBA player Justus Thigpen and actor/athlete Tony Burton from the “Rocky” films are among the legends silently testifying to the toughness and resilience that made Flint athletes great.
Past the lobby, the present is hot and thirsty.
Basketball players scrap for an edge on a stifling court beneath stilled ceiling fans. A bone-dry water fountain sits in the corner of a boxing gym filled with sweating fighters. In a back hallway, dozens of cases of bottled water are stacked six high, a reminder of the lead particles still coursing through Flint’s municipal water system.
Berston Field House is planted in the north side neighborhood once filled with black workers who built Chevys, Buicks, and General Motors trucks for one of the richest companies in the world. Now it’s a desolate landscape of empty-eyed houses and weed-choked vacant lots. Five thousand abandoned houses have been torn down across the city in the last decade, tens of thousands of jobs have disappeared, and Flint’s population is half of what it was in 1960. Of the 98,000 who remain, 57 percent are black and 42 percent live in poverty.
The strength that characterizes the athletes on the mural helped Flint residents survive the devastation of shuttered factories and drug-trade violence. Now, more than two years into the water crisis, residents are relying on that same instinct for survival while hoping for an outcome better than just returning to the grim status quo.
Every day, the people here ask themselves if they should hold onto hope in a half-empty city or leave for better opportunities. Can they persevere? Or will the poisoned water knock out an already staggering community?
The answers to these questions will determine the fate of black Flint.
Even those who love the city the most feel the need to leave.
“I went into the NFL humble,” said Super Bowl champion wide receiver Andre Rison. “I embraced everyone who came before me from my city, whether sports or the hardworking General Motors guy.
“That’s why I say, I am Flint.”
After his 11-year NFL career, Rison coached at his alma mater, Flint Northwestern High School. Rison now lives in Ann Arbor, an hour’s drive south, but most of his family and all of his heart is in Flint.
“This is way deeper than the f—— water,” Rison said angrily.
Flint had 48 homicides in 2015, 19 more than the previous year and enough to qualify as one of the most violent cities per capita in America. Many worry these statistics will get even worse, because lead exposure is known to cause irreversible learning disabilities and dysfunctional behavior, especially in children.
“We got so many school dropouts under age 18, black men that won’t ever leave Flint,” Rison said. “Ain’t been on a bus, ain’t been on a plane, ain’t been on nothing. So imagine the generation that’s coming up under this one. The 10-year-old, the next generation.
“And they been drinking the water for years.”
Like many black residents of Flint, Rison worries about his city becoming a “college town.” It’s currently home to a University of Michigan branch campus, the engineering stalwart Kettering University, Baker College, and Mott Community College. They fear that African-Americans will fit into a college town primarily as low-paid workers rather than as students or professors, and that the black community could be gentrified into oblivion.
Byrd, by contrast, chose to leave years ago. The boxer won a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics and two pro world titles before beating Evander Holyfield in 2002 for the IBF world title. He now lives in San Diego, where he produces an internet boxing show and works as a Christian motivational speaker.
Flint “makes you want to get yours, makes you want to work hard. You just want something better,” he said.
Byrd hopes his hometown can rebuild not only its water system, but the way of life that once provided stable, middle-class jobs for his family and thousands of other African-Americans.
“It can’t get any worse. It only can go up,” Byrd said. “What’s happened makes people, especially the kids, the young’uns, think, hey, people are against us. They don’t care about us. So you got to care about yourself. I got to pick myself up and get out of my situation.”
Four-and-a-half years ago, a series of unelected “emergency managers” began running Flint, part of a controversial move by the state to seize control of Michigan’s financially troubled cities. Flint’s managers tried to save money by temporarily switching the water supply from Detroit’s municipal system to the polluted Flint River.
On April 25, 2014, Flint River water entered the city’s system. The water was corrosive and improperly treated, which drew lead out of the city’s old pipes and into people’s homes. Problems with bacteria and chemical contaminants also emerged. Despite a flood of complaints, and tests showing that the percentage of children with high blood lead levels had doubled, state officials minimized evidence the water was unsafe and failed to follow federal safe water rules.
More than 18 months after the switch, on Oct. 16, 2015, the city finally went back to the Detroit water supply.
On May 4, President Barack Obama visited Flint. During his press conference, he took a small sip from a glass of water. “Filtered water is safe,” Obama declared.
Few people in Flint believed him.
“He should have took a real swallow of water,” said Arnett Rison, Andre’s cousin, sitting inside his Flint home. “Obama didn’t prove nothing to me. Let me see your Adam’s apple move.”
Rison wears yellow rubber gloves to wash his dishes with tap water, then rinses them with bottled water. He throws the gloves out every few days, when white cracks start to eat away the rubber. Everything metal in his house touched by Flint water turns orange – faucets, the shower head, Jacuzzi jets.
To bathe his 11-year-old son, Rison fills a 20-ounce electric kettle with bottled water, boils it, empties the kettle into a rubber bin, then boils a second kettle and empties it into another bin. He carries the bins to the bathroom, sits them in the tub, and fills a third bin with room-temperature bottled water. The three bins of water get mixed together to reach the right temperature.
Rison douses his son with the briefest possible splash from the shower. Flint officials say the water is safe for bathing, but Rison doesn’t trust them any more than Obama. He soaps his son up while wearing rubber gloves, then rinses him off with water from the three bins. Teeth get brushed with bottled water.
Then Rison goes back to the kitchen and repeats the process for himself. Each day he empties three dozen 16-ounce bottles of water, which are distributed free by federal authorities.
Rison, 47, grew up in an autoworker family, ran the streets as a young man, got involved in the hip-hop scene, and now supports himself with various ventures ranging from health food to medicinal marijuana. He purchased his three-bedroom house, a few blocks from his parents’ home, for $7,800 in 2009. It’s practically worthless now.
Rison is a frequent participant in a variety of water protests, marches and other activism, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of the crisis. He calls Flint “ground zero for what they want to be a New World Order.” Rison describes “they” as 13 families who control most of the world, the Federal Reserve, major banks, Google, Apple …
It all sounds so conspiratorial, until you remember that for more than a year, Rison and his family drank poisoned water the government insisted was safe. That the governor of Michigan pushed through the emergency manager law allowing outsiders to take control of Flint and other majority-black municipalities. That Rison’s city crumbled when one of the world’s biggest corporations moved tens of thousands of jobs to other countries, where they could pay workers less.
“You can’t trust anything right now,” Rison said.
The only solution he sees is flight. “All these children affected by the water, even if a kid is a genius, they still live in Flint. They still live in a vacant city with no jobs. It’s not smart to get well and then stay in the same hellhole.”
Yet a part of Rison refuses to abandon Flint. Resistance, after all, is about refusing to let “them” control your destiny. Rison believes that inexpensive reverse osmosis filtering systems can be built to purify the water. He wants to secure trust funds for potentially brain-damaged children. Black Flint was built, he said, by people from down South determined to create a better life. It’s time to do it again.
“It’s in our DNA to strive for something better,” he said. “This has always been a city of people trying to get out of a hole.”
Joe Byrd Sr., Chris’s father, remembers what brought blacks to Flint to start with.
Born 80 years ago to cotton sharecroppers in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Joe Byrd arrived in Flint at age 16 in 1951. In his first month of pumping gas, he made more money than his whole family – mother, father, five brothers and eight sisters – back on the Clarksdale plantation.
In 1958, Joe Byrd got hired at GM. The company was founded in Flint in 1908, and by the time he arrived, employed about 80,000 workers. GM was surrounded by a constellation of parts suppliers and other manufacturers, which combined to create more jobs than there were people to fill them.
“Ooh, my God, that was good living,” Joe Byrd said from a wide easy chair in his ranch home just beyond the Flint city limits, where his well water is clean. “The money I was making, $8.50 an hour in the 1950s and ’60s, I couldn’t believe it. They would give out vacation checks, $150 in your first year, my last one was $1,200.”
“It was such a big opportunity,” Joe Byrd said. “I wonder if I would still be living today if I never got out of Mississippi.”
Joe Byrd also boxed professionally, once facing Sugar Ray Robinson in an exhibition. After 34 years at GM, Byrd retired from the Chevrolet V-8 Engine Plant and became a full-time boxing coach. Several of his eight children were fighters, including Chris.
Joe Byrd watched crack cocaine sink its claws deep into Flint in the 1980s. “A lot of good high school athletes started going to the streets, [messing with] the girls. They went from fist-fighting to shooting. GM started moving out and the working people moved to other cities. Kids were just out in the street shooting and killing.”
Watching Flint fall apart made Joe Byrd feel sad and unsettled. His children tried to get him to leave, but he refused, and still coaches kids at the Joe Byrd Boxing Academy.
“Flint scratched my back when I needed it, I’d be wrong to leave when it needs me. Flint will turn around. They’re going to make it a college town,” he said.
“It never will be the old Flint,” Joe Byrd said. “There will be a new Flint.”
Isaiah Oliver describes a vision for this new Flint from his office at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, located in a pleasant downtown area filled with boutiques, cafes, small businesses, a farmer’s market and the neatly landscaped grounds of the University of Michigan branch campus.
Start with several new public school buildings – Flint’s last new school was built almost 50 years ago. Establish a cutting-edge academic curriculum and after-school support programs. Cultivate new neighborhoods around those schools, then entice businesses to come serve these revitalized neighborhoods.
Oliver, a 35-year-old foundation vice president and former chairman of Flint’s school board, describes this process with the earnest detail of a professional optimist. But Oliver grew up in black Flint, and lives in the city with his wife and two daughters. He and his babies drank Flint River water for that first year.
“I don’t trust there is a system that will fix this. I think people will fix it,” he said. “We always do and we always will. You trust yourself. That’s all you have.”
The foundation, which dates to 1950, has raised more than $7 million in donations from 15,000 people to help Flint recover from the poisoned water. Some gave $2, some $500,000. It will take much, much more to make the water safe and build new schools and new neighborhoods and set up health care and behavioral interventions for lead-poisoned kids and attract jobs and reverse Flint’s decline. Oliver said international publicity about the water crisis has caught the attention of people who want to do something huge.
Will it take $100 million? $500 million? The calculations stretch the bounds of even Oliver’s optimism.
“Am I hopeful? I have to be. We don’t have control. But I trust that God has Flint’s back and this is going to work out. Sometimes I doubt it, because of the system. But I trust the people. The people here in Flint and the people that care about Flint will prevail. We have the potential, after this crisis, to make a huge difference.”
Less than three miles to the north, a few blocks from Berston Field House, this bright future seems invisible to Jeff, Antonio and Anthony Funches, two brothers and a cousin, lounging on the porch of their dilapidated house. From their vantage point, all they can see are weeds growing where neighbors once lived, and a porch roof lying on the ground after falling off its house across the street.
“Flint don’t have no chance,” said Anthony Funches, 27. “It’s gonna still be the same regardless.”
The family members laugh at Obama’s water stunt, refusing to believe Flint water was in his glass. They talk about how common it is to hear gunshots and the long drives to find even low-paying work.
Jeff Funches, 24, has a job caring for nursing home patients. He’s worried about his 1-year-old son. He wants America to know that he’s a regular person, just like them, and he should be able to drink the water that comes from the faucet in his house.
“I don’t want to leave, but I got to leave,” he said, although where he might go is left unsaid. Somewhere. Anywhere.
The fight ahead of Flint is to keep him home.