To spread awareness of National Water Quality Month, I decided to post an excerpt from one of the titles featured last week on our “Happy National Water Quality Month!” recommended reading list. This excerpt is from the Preface of Katrinell M. Davis’ Tainted Tap: Flint’s Journey from Crisis to Recovery. Assessing the challenges that community groups faced in their attempts to advocate for improved living conditions, Tainted Tap offers a rich analysis of conditions and constraints that created the Flint water crisis. Flint, Michigan is still dealing with unsafe water till this day. If you’re interested in donating to help the people of Flint get clean, safe water, feel free to visit Little Miss Flint’s Clean Water Fund GoFundMe page. There are other funds and organizations you can and should donate to, but this one is special because it’s run by a 12 year old black girl from Flint named Mari Copeny.
I mustered up the nerve to write about Flint, my hometown, as I drove down US 23 South toward the National Poverty Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The radio was tuned to an urban gospel station, WFLT 1420 AM, out of Flint. A local pastor introduced his guest, a single mother, who spoke about her trust in God despite her ongoing struggles providing for her family. Moved by her testimony, the pastor urged communities to help working parents. He cited gaps in social supports as he prayed for this mother and others in Flint facing similar hardships, and my mind drifted to my own childhood. My single mother, too, had in many ways depended on help from our church family as she raised us. How much—or how little—I wondered, had changed for Flint’s working-class parents and children?
I grew up on the northwest side of Flint. We lived on Philadelphia, off of MLK Street, just a ten-minute walk from Stanley’s Meat Market and its plentiful bins of penny candy and crunchy, salty, fatty, delectable junk foods. This was a working-class neighborhood, and its streets boasted bright lights, thanks to the efforts of the neighborhood block club. Things were usually calm.
By the mid-1980s, however, conditions in the neighborhood had declined significantly. Crack cocaine had arrived, just about the time General Motors plants began closing. Chevy in the Hole—the Chevrolet factory and home of Flint’s 1936 sit-down strike—went in 1984, then the Buick City plant in 1987. Just before they could become members of the United Auto Workers’ bargaining unit, temporary workers were hit with several rounds of pink slips.
Communities like mine began to empty out. Homeowners, including folks who accepted GM’s early retirement buyouts and others frustrated with neighborhood changes, moved away. More and more, the houses weren’t family homesteads but rentals. It might not have mattered before then that the neighborhood police station was closed, but now, when danger emerged, we could have used the protection. Houses were burglarized; cars were robbed in broad daylight. Crack houses proliferated, and neighborhood residents installed steel bars on their windows and bought guns for protection.
My most vivid memory of this time, as we watched the neighborhood—its identity and cohesion—fall apart, features the local grocery store Landmark. Every time we needed groceries, instead of walking the short distance to Landmark, we had to fire up my mother’s mint green, boat-length Buick Skylark and go to another store. I hated that car. It was like Christine’s cousin with a busted radio. But it got us around, despite its need to stop at least every two to three blocks.
I remember asking my mother why we couldn’t just get our groceries from Landmark. She’d tell me, “I ain’t spending my money in there.” And there were good reasons she, like the other north-end residents, chose to travel at least twenty minutes away to find another affordable neighborhood grocery store. Landmark was their store of last resort. The moment you entered, you could smell the rotting meat and stale bread. The browning vegetables limply signaled that things weren’t quite right in this place. Still, the store seemed to have a consistent line of patrons, willing to pay almost double the cost of goods in other, larger Flint area grocery stores. That, in particular, struck me as odd. I was a magnet program student, touring Flint’s north and south sides in my daily travels to and from school, and I knew there were grocery stores in specific communities in Flint and just outside of the city that didn’t seem to be ripping people off to this degree. What made my neighborhood a mark for this overpriced, abysmal food? Food is a source of life. Why wasn’t Landmark out of business, either forced out or abandoned by customers? Didn’t we deserve the best? Like the unexplained fires that burned throughout the night and the domestic bouts that ended in bloodshed without any police intervention, Landmark was another diss to our neighborhood. A big diss.
Katrinell M. Davis is associate professor of sociology at Florida State University and author of Hard Work Is Not Enough: Gender and Racial Equality in an Urban Workspace.