When I last visited Flint, Michigan, in 2012, I wrote in American Apartheid: “Flint belies our image of urban decay. With no high-rise projects, it is a city of tree-lined neighborhoods of single-family houses where 200,000 people once lived, and half that number remains. But on those streets are hundreds of abandoned and burned-out houses, which remind you that Flint is the most violent city in America.” Flint is back in the news, this time because, in April 2014, its state-appointed emergency manager switched the source of the city’s water to the Flint River to save money. The water was cheap because it was filthy, and the complaints began immediately. Soon the city was telling its residents to boil their water before drinking it, and General Motors stopped using it altogether because it corroded engine parts. But the state government ignored the growing health crisis until it became a full-blown political disaster.
Flint is where environmental degradation meets social neglect. For over five decades the city, the birthplace of General Motors, has suffered the all-too-familiar urban pattern of disinvestment, depopulation and decay, unemployment, poverty and crime.
For a long time in this country, the environmental and social justice movements ran on separate tracks, focusing on different wildernesses. But it’s increasingly clear – from climate change to Flint’s water supply – that the first victims are the same: the poorest and most vulnerable, those who can neither move nor get out of the way. When governments deliberately abandon those people, it seems a betrayal of democracy.