Once at a party in Lafayette, Indiana, I met a grad student from another English program who told me she was from one of the moneyed little towns between Flint and Detroit. This was in 2011, my first year living out of Flint, and mine was a barbed and complicated homesickness. I’d applied to MFA programs because my partner had died of a drug overdose and I wanted badly to get out of the city. I’d been mostly unemployed, living in between my mom’s house and housesitting gigs. I needed to get out of Flint and I needed something I could be good at. I’d been a scholarship kid, pride of the Flint Rotary Club, so grad school it was.
I’d decided I was never going back to Flint. At 25, I was largely ignorant still of environmental racism, the opioid epidemic, capitalism, and the privileges of being a straight white person in Flint. The water crisis was still a few years away. It was easy to believe that Flint had betrayed me personally. With all its failings writ large in blight and arson and population loss, no one questioned me leaving.
Still, I was grieving Flint awfully. I yearned for someone who understood it, with whom I had the shorthand of a shared home.
And here this woman was from a small town 20 miles away, close enough to delight me.
“No way,” I said. “I’m from Flint.”
She said it as if it was a reflex, in the way people told me they were sorry when I told them my partner had died. “I would never go to Flint.” She turned to talk to someone else.
I hadn’t lived out of the city long enough yet to know what people knew about Flint, what they felt so certain of they could just say it to my face, without even knowing my name. That place you’re from, that broke your heart, that haunts you, I don’t need to go there to know it’s a shithole.
In his debut documentary Roger & Me (1989) Michael Moore tries to get an interview with GM chairman Roger Smith while General Motors closes most of its Flint plants. The Flint Journal and Detroit News headlines flash on the screen with the plant closure announcements, the rising layoff numbers. Blocks of boarded homes and graffitied businesses roll past. A news anchor says that the rat population has surpassed the human population in Flint.
Moore talks to former autoworkers now raising rabbits in a backyard (“Pets or Meat,” the sign says), rolling burritos at Taco Bell, selling Amway out of their living rooms, posing as living statues at country club parties. A pink-slipped autoworker has a breakdown listening to the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” on the radio and checks himself into a mental health facility. General Motors closed, everyone with the means left town, and the people left lost their minds or their homes or both.
It was being called crazy that Flint objected to. Flint was on its knees, and here Moore was, some asshole who really grew up in the middle-class suburb Davison, simultaneously beating his breast and gnashing his teeth for his “hometown” and pointing and laughing at the people trying to hang on.
An episode of the talk show Donahue was filmed at Flint’s Whiting Auditorium, with Moore its guest. People lined up overnight to air their grievances or offer their thanks to him for bringing the world’s attention to how General Motors was decimating its own hometown.
The turnout was so overwhelming Donahue filmed a second show and then Channel 12, Flint’s ABC station, sat down with Michael Moore, responding to pre-recorded clips from a watch party at Galaxy Lanes bowling alley. Moore is frumpy, in need of a haircut, big owly glasses rounding beneath his Warner Brothers cap. One of the anchors struggles to hold in her contempt of him.
At the bowling alley, one woman stares into the camera eye. “You showed the slummiest areas,” she accuses.
“The only people who look foolish are GM,” Moore says. You wait, he says: soon because of this movie there’ll be Flint tours. People across the country were falling in love with Flint and its people and they were on their way.
Since the internet was invented, Flint has bottomed out on those Worst Cities in America listicles. There in the murk with Detroit, East St. Louis, Baltimore, and Gary, Indiana. There’s usually a photo slideshow: razor wire hemming in factory lots, faceless people walking down the middle of snowy, unplowed streets in raggedy coats in sunless weather. Always abandoned houses: kicked in doors, trees of heaven shooting up from split shingles, charred foundations. Ruin porn. In the captions, grim statistics on unemployment, poverty, and population loss. None of these articles say it, but what they mean is: you should never go there.
These photographs, this narrative of places like Flint and Detroit and other Worsts, strip away history and nuance and the way despair, privilege, and resilience are all present and true at once. Just out of frame, someone’s returning their library books, or watering their flowers. In other words, someone is killing rabbits in their backyard for meat and someone’s teaching third graders about frogs or getting a cavity filled. Someone’s clawing for survival and someone’s luxuriously bored. These images are true and not. You can show an empty house and report accurately that Flint’s lost over a 100,000 people since the 1960s. But to say Flint is a ghost ignores the 80,000 people who live there still.
The task in presenting Flint to a wider audience seems to me to have the lens wide enough to show it all: how these houses came to empty and decay. Who left and who’s still there and what is true for both of them.
I’ve always been hungry for Flint stories. Beyond the children’s books of Christopher Paul Curtis, like Bud Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham, which I love, there’s little I’ve found. As a teenager, at the same time as I was beginning to think of myself as a writer, I realized Flint was a difficult and particular place. I recognized traces of Flint in the class struggles. When I first encountered Flint in a novel it was on fire in Jeffrey Eugenides’ multigenerational Detroit epic Middlesex. “When a Greek Orthodox church in Flint burned down, Milton drove up and salvaged one of the surviving stained-glass windows.”
None of Toni Morrison’s novels are set in Flint, but the city reappears with a tone of dread. Always someones’s moved to Flint and regrets it. Toward the end of Song of Solomon, which takes place in an unnamed Michigan town, Milkman gets a ride from a man who says he has an aunt who moved to Flint. “What kinda place is it, Flint?” Milkman asks. The answer: “Jive. No place you’d want to go to.”
From Sula, “Pearl married at fourteen and moved to Flint, Michigan from where she posted frail letters to her mother with two dollars folded into the writing paper.”
The Flint of Morrison’s novels was a stop on the Great Migration. A city of false promise, where General Motors was “Generous Motors” for whites and “GM Crow” for Blacks; where men of color were given the poorest paid, most dangerous work in the foundries, forced to pay dues for union facilities they were barred from, and redlined into neighborhoods where the rent was jacked up and the paths to home ownership few.
In a Rolling Stone essay from the 2000 presidential campaign trail, David Foster Wallace follows John McCain to Flint. “The big tactical shift starts in the F&F Room of something called the Riverfront Hotel in the almost unbelievably blighted and depressing Flint MI.” The problem with taking a smoke break, he says, is you have to go outside and look at Flint.
I’m not mad at Toni Morrison. This Flint is undeniably jive.
I raise my eyebrows at the sainted ghost of David Foster Wallace, though. Having been to the Riverfront Hotel (I took my GRE literature test there, delighted to find a Thomas Hardy poem assigned for my analysis essay) and having smoked many a cigarette on that downtown sidewalk: unbelievable to whom, I’d like to know.
In grad school, when I was first sending out short stories, I got a personal rejection from a literary magazine. While they’d like the writing, they said, they’d ultimately decided that the ending was “too heartwarming.” The story took place in a homeless shelter during Flint’s 2010 arson spree. The characters were rock-bottom poor, the city in flames, and still: it needed to be sadder. These made-up people were begrudged even their love for each other.
In college, a guy I dated who grew up in a small town in Michigan’s thumb, used to mock me by sing-songing, air violin sawing at his shoulder, “I’m just a poor girl from Flint. Poor girl from Flint. Poor girl from Flint.”
Before I broke up with him, I found an essay he’d written for his economics class that began with an anecdote: his girlfriend telling him the story of when she was a little girl, standing in line with her mother at a warehouse on the North End of Flint, waiting for a box of government surplus.
When I was working on my thesis, a professor told me that autoworkers were a glaring absence in my fiction. I needed a story on the line. I needed a car story.
The only autoworker I’d known was my grandfather, who took a buy out from Mazda after being pink slipped by Ford and General Motors, driving up and down I-75 from Flint to Detroit. When I was growing up, through the 90s, the factories closed and the shoprats went with them. I remembered biking through Chevy in the Hole as a little kid, the broken factories and barbed wire fence, and passing Fisher Body on the way to my grandparents’ house on the South Side, half-demolished, a pile of twisted rebar. All that was steamrolled, then AC Spark Plug, Buick City. The only plant left was the truck & bus on Van Slyke, with its white smokestacks even as teeth.
I didn’t know a thing about cars, and I didn’t care. The idea of it—a story set in Flint, birthplace of General Motors—seemed like rust belt kitsch.
In the first short story I published, a middle schooler, burdened by grief for her recently deceased grandfather and a mother suffering from mental illness, attempts to burn down an abandoned school. The editors nominated this for Best American.
I grew paranoid, what it was about this story that people found satisfying, why other stories were hard to place. My partner at the time was recovering from a psychotic break. The neighborhood where I set the story was the East Side one I’d worked in, leading after-school writing workshops and homework help at a shelter for women and children. The story was invention but the landscape it inhabited—geographically, psychologically—was home. Still, it was a story published with a photo of a row of boarded up houses that made my stomach knot. From the me the poor girl from Flint. Me the Flint ruin pornographer.
The story Michael Moore tells in Roger & Me isn’t untrue. It does, though, collapse years of institutional racism, white flight, and downsizing to a simpler cause and effect: General Motors moved its factories to Mexico and Flint fell apart. The film threads shots of crumbling houses and boarded up shop fronts with headlines from Flint and Detroit newspapers announcing the next closing. It doesn’t give you time to ask how long it takes for a house’s roof to slough off, how long for the insulation to hang like stalactites.
At the bowling alley watch party, a woman asks Michael Moore, “So are you going to make another movie showing the real life of Flint?”
No is the answer. “I made this movie to show the real lives of the 30,000 people that have lost their jobs. There are other movies and anyone can make their movie,” Moore says. “Kodak still sells film.”
“That’s a cop-out,” the anchor who obviously dislikes him says.
“Then I’m sorry I gave a voice to the little person.”
You have your Flint and I have mine, I think is what Michael Moore was saying, and while I think that’s true, I also think he can go fuck himself.
There’s a genre of YouTube videos I’m partial to where the content creator drives through Flint with their iPhone anchored to their dashboard, giving a windshield view of the city. Many of the videos have all caps titles like HOODS OF FLINT MICHIGAN and LATE NIGHT IN FLINT MICHIGAN WORST AREAS and THE MOST NOTORIOUS HOUSING PROJECTS IN FLINT MICHIGAN.
I like best the ones where the YouTuber serves not as voyeur but tour guide. The videos become rolling memoirs, where the driver tells you what used to be there, parties they went to, people they used to know, how things used to be. They describe what they see: burned down houses, vacant houses, stripped siding. The unseen guide breathes their lamentations. “It’s so sad.”
The comments have their share of racist vitriol, GOP sneering, and outsiders rubbernecking at the ruins. But mostly they’re scrolls of homesickness, crie de coeur. Like those “frail letters” Pearl sent home.
I attended Civic Park Elementary school from 1978-84. It was a really great neighborhood at the time.
I went to that church, my mom taught sunday school there in the late 50’s, we lived on Arizona just east of Western rd.
one of my closest friends lived there from 1978 (year he was born) till 1993 when it started getting really bad . but yeah its sad i mean all of flint is sad .
And sometimes, a rare glimpse, a ghost—
Just seen my old house.
Kelsey Ronan’s novel Chevy in the Hole is available now via Henry Holt.