January 26 marks Michigan’s 179th birthday, and so to honor my beloved Wolverine State, I’m going to talk about one of the Mitten’s least-celebrated communities: Flint.
Now unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Flint’s water crisis has been in the national spotlight lately. Long story short, Flint’s water system was recently diverted from Lake Huron to its own Flint River in a cost-saving initiative. Unfortunately, toxicology reports showed that the water was nineteen times more corrosive than Lake Huron, to the point where it burned through the lead pipes of most Flint residencies, rendering their water completely undrinkable. Presidential candidates and talk show hosts are chiming in on the issue, even calling for Governor Rick Snyder to resign.
Flint is an interesting place that even most Michiganders know little about. Most are aware that it’s an industrial community whose economy was spawned by the ripple effect of Detroit’s automotive industry. But since then, “Vehicle City” has been replaced by more dubious nicknames that reflect its crime-ridden present. Flint is like Detroit’s competitive-but-less-popular younger brother, battling for credence in tenacity, grit, and toughness, but dragging poverty, racial tension, and homicides along for the ride. While Detroit is big enough to capitalize on its Rust Belt grit, Flint has even more street cred but none of its fandom.
Because I travel everywhere in Michigan for the sheer novelty, a trip to Flint was inevitable. This past fall some fellow middle-class white boys and I acquainted ourselves with Vehicle City. After cruising through apocalyptic suburbs, we stopped at a little drinking establishment downtown called Tenacity Brewing. It’s a little early to start throwing around the term “gentrification,” so the joint stands out like a CEO at a trashcan fire. But Tenacity was nonetheless proud to be a part of Flint, and I liked that. I filled up my growler with a beer called ‘Basic Bitch,’ mostly because the name was amusingly incongruent with the city’s flinty ambiance. Nothing says Flint like spandexed white girls wielding Starbucks cups.
There wasn’t much going on in Flint that afternoon, but one panhandler strolling by caught our attention. A tattered backpack was slung over his oversized sweatshirt, and his unkempt beard and yellowed teeth suggested homelessness. He saw us in the brewery courtyard, swigging beer and playing cornhole, and approached us to speak. “You fellas wouldn’t happen to have some spare change for a red Faygo, would ya? I’m heading to the gas station. I need eighty-seven cents.” Seeing our skeptical reactions, he added, “I ain’t no druggie. I promise. I just need my red Faygo.”
Bryan fished through his pockets and held out empty hands. “I’ve only got a debit card, but if you come over the fence I’ll buy ya a beer,” he offered. “We need a fourth guy for cornhole.”
He contemplated this for a second, but eventually declined and trudged past.
About a half hour later, our friend came back, proudly chugging a bottle of—lo and behold—red Faygo. He flashed it through the fence as if to shame us for doubting his intentions. And I’ll admit, I was indeed doubtful. Then we drove away with our growlers full of craft beer (the bourgeois equivalent of brown-bagged whiskey) and went camping.
We did take a gander at the rusty Flint River, which oozed along like old mustard seeping out of an overturned glass jar. Interestingly enough, it had the same color and smell as the Faygo-drinker’s teeth.
But enough of my snide remarks; last week our governor made a few that were even, well, Snyder. During last week’s State of the State address, Rick Snyder spent a somber half hour talking about Flint, explaining the timeline of events that lead to the disaster, groveling profusely, and laying out plans to fix it. “I know there are long-term consequences,” Snyder noted gravely, “But I want [Flint residents] to know we will be there with long-term solutions.” And long-term is right; Snyder’s released emails show that it could take up to fifteen years to right the wrong. That’s a long time to get billed for poisoned water you can’t drink.
But it’s hard to be mad at your governor when he looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy and sounds like Kermit the Frog. Snyder doesn’t have a crooked bone in his body, does he?
Maybe I’m being naïve; I hope not. Various sources point to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) as the point where the ball was dropped (or punted into the woods, or stolen, or replaced with a grenade, however you want to analogize it). It’s worth noting that the DEQ’s director, Dan Wyant, stepped down soon after the crisis went viral. DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel did too, probably because who wants to talk to the media, the public, the citizens of Flint, and the POTUS after your department “misinterpreted the water safety regulations?”
Last spring I interned for the DEQ, though only one of my assignments remotely brushed on Flint River toxicity levels. I created a map that matched Michigan watersheds with environmental nonprofits, so the closest I came to busting open the water crisis was entering “Flint River” into an Excel table among hundreds of other fouled watersheds. Alas, had I only dug deeper into the Flint River’s atrocious state I might’ve joined the ranks of Dr. Hanna-Attisha in exposing the controversy.
At the end of the day, we must remember that we cannot change the past, only the future. Water bottles by the millions are pouring into Flint daily, including those sent by Calvin College. As an optimist, I believe Governor Snyder will work his hardest with local, state, and federal politicians to get Flint’s water situation back on track.
Flint is not some degenerate swillhole of poverty, but a beautiful, tenacious city of unparalleled resolution worthy of our respect, admiration, and assistance.
And, when this whole thing boils over, our tourist dollars. I am quite serious. Flint is a neat place, with roots in the automotive industry, a seventeen-mile river trail, and a waterfall that—with a keen imagination—looks like Rivendell. I even planned out a roadtrip date to Flint. (Taryn, if you’re reading this, it’s still on. We’re going to the place where they used to make Buicks!)
I usually celebrate Michigan’s birthday by snowshoeing the North Country Trail, jumping into a freezing river, or drinking Michigan craft beer. And while I’ll probably still do those things today, I’ll also be buying water for Flint. Because helping your fellow Mitten Stater…is Pure Michigan.
Nick Meekhof (’15) graduated with a major in writing and a minor in geography. A farmer for the first twenty-three years of his life, Nick currently works for the Michigan Department of Agriculture. When he’s not traversing the state conducting orchard inspections, he can be found exploring the rivers, forests, and small towns all throughout the Great Lakes State. His current goals include kayaking one hundred Michigan rivers, swimming in Lake Michigan during every month of the year, and visiting as many Michigan breweries as possible.