Living in Flint is a humiliating experience.
We are surrounded by deterioration, decay, and degeneration. It is a daily reminder that we have been abandoned, neglected, and left for dead.
Our environment has been raped. The Flint River that runs along acres of automotive graveyard was GM’s toilet for 75 years. The land has been saturated with toxic ‘industrial strength’ poisons.
Our city has shrunk but the murder rate has increased.
The streets, once ‘paved with gold’ are full of potholes. Storefront window displays feature plywood, sometimes with gang graffiti.
Housewarmings have become burning homes. Empty schools, shopping centers, and churches are everywhere.
Acres of unused parking lots have more grass and trees that the city parks.
There are as many abandoned houses as homeless residents. Six hundred newly leveled houses are the unmarked graves where our shared memories lay.
Over a third of the population is ‘starving’ on food stamps. About the same percentage is obese. “Stop and rob” convenience stores are ‘real food deserts’ that supply the inner city residents with their staples of soda, cigarettes, alcohol and lottery tickets. Recycling beverage cans and bottles is the new cottage industry. Flint’s historic ‘Coney Island’ restaurants accept welfare cash cards.
Driving through the ruins of this postindustrial wasteland I experience ‘architectural amnesia’. I often cannot remember what once occupied some of the vacant lots. We have been robbed of our history.
General Motors led the way in erasing much of our past. Acres of blonde brick blue glass factories and marble administration buildings have been leveled. The flattened land has been capped with concrete to seal the soil that can no longer support life.
Twelve-foot high chain link fences are crowned with spirals of razor sharp barbed wire. It looks like an endless empty prison yard. The corporate criminals have escaped. The surviving inmates collect their diminishing life supporting pensions and spend their time navigating through the health care system with their depreciating ‘Cadillac’ insurance cards.
The industrial complex, that put Flint on the map and launched the golden age of the automobile, has been erased. Even the concentration camps from the Holocaust have been preserved but GM vanished without a trace leaving only the poisoned environment and a farewell message to the city that once was their home.
The factories were the driving force of family life in Flint. Generations lived and died in sync to the never-ending production line. Workers once represented every culture in Flint’s global community.
They were given membership into a new middle class that promised a secure future and an even better life for their children.
Three eight-hour shifts disrupted family life where some children only saw their father for breakfast or on the weekend. Being gears in the constant grinding greed machine fueled addictions, destroyed marriages, and deprived families of a ‘normal’ life.
Safe under the blanket of the corporation they became unconscious consumers. The ‘shop’ became their lifeline, their security, and their future.
In a last attempt to revive the dying industrial complex, General Motors annexed the neighborhoods surrounding the factories. The original global village, that once contained churches, bakeries, ethnic community centers, and members of a dozen or so old world cultures, was wiped off the face of the remaining non polluted earth. In its place an ‘industrial park’ was built.
Now it sits abandoned and boarded up. Early morning and late night scavengers strip away the raw materials and salvage whatever can be removed.
Wiping away a community’s history breaks their links to the past. It isolates them by removing their shared memories and experiences. They are left disconnected and disoriented. I imagine that is what my ancestors felt when they left their ancient homelands and ended up in Flint. As my father once said “our government has destroyed the old country and the new one that we built to replace it”.
In another 20 years or so, no one will remember what once occupied this guarded graveyard.
It’s not enough that we’re fat, have mouths of broken and missing teeth, unemployed, sick without healthcare, and uneducated from our public education system. Now we live among the ruins of our once booming culture.
We are gears from a broken Greed Machine scattered like rusted farm equipment in an overgrown field.
We are a broken, divided and lost community. The factories once provided the thread that held this global quilt together. The fabric is now shredded and almost unrecognizable.
These days my ‘social network’ is the neighborhood Laundromats and senior centers. An ongoing conversation recalls the Flint of their youth, the city that they built, where they raised their children, maintained their homes and planted fruit trees. They mourn old Flint the way my grandparents grieved over old Persia.
The Catholic Church seems to be following the same plan as General Motors and the city. Churches and their schools have also been boarded up and abandoned. Several parishes have been reduced to piles of broken bricks and splintered lumber. Their spiritual homes, once the centerpiece of their communities, have been taken away and erased just like their neighborhoods. These were the sacred spaces where they were married, where their children attended school, were baptized and confirmed. Memories of proms, Christmas tree sales, Holy Days, Fish Fries, and funerals lay underneath the rubble.
This generation of seniors have been stripped of their history and robbed of their reward.
They will leave without a trace of their contributions, sacrifices or legacies left behind.
At least for them, the humiliation will end.