Flint's Economic and Environmental History How the Water Crisis Fits

A history of boom-and-bust economics, structural racism, environmental degradation, and corporate politics helps to explain the conditions of contemporary Flint that have led to the water crisis. The city’s inability to reinvent itself after economic decline created conditions of high poverty, unemployment, and large debts, all of which contribute to continuous economic crisis and led to the appointment of budget-oriented Emergency Management. De facto segregation and disenfranchisement wrested economic and political power from Flint’s majority black population, creating an environment in which Emergency Management was believed to be the viable solution. And pervasive pollution represents and reinforces the institutionalization of downplaying the environment and its health impacts to advance corporate interests. While not an inevitable outcome, the water crisis is not separable from this systematic marginalization of Flint City residents.

"What's good for GM is good for America."

Flint, the city of General Motor’s founding, has long been a place whose politics has been intertwined with corporate interests. When then-president of GM Charles Wilson was being confirmed as a cabinet member for the Eisenhower Administration, he stated, “I thought that what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa. The difference did not exist” (Highsmith 2009, 202). This remark has commonly been transcribed to be, “What’s good for GM is good for America” (202).

This philosophy operated at Michigan’s state and local governments, especially in Flint, which had come to depend on GM and the auto industry for prosperity by the middle of the 20th century. Even when this partnership between government and the auto industry was assumed to be working, the relationships among the various social groups and the environment, including the now notorious Flint River, were far from harmonious.

The early years and the big auto strike of 1937-38

The auto industry, beginning with Buick, began to influence the economic development of Flint in the early 20th century. The city quickly became a major hub for automobile production. During World War II, industry shifted to being a major producer of war materials before “Vehicle City” once again became a dominant auto manufacturer (Marcus). In 1949 GM sold 2.8 million units, setting a record for an American industry’s profits at $656 million and by 1955 was making $10 billion per year while employing over 80,000 residents of Flint (Highsmith 2009, 208).

But even in the earlier years of Flint’s auto industry, there was tension between the industry and its workers. A massive strike beginning in December 1937 lasted 40 days and included thousands of workers at the Fischer Body Plant No. 1, making it the longest sit-in strike in US history (Zinn 2007, 35). Government, to no surprise as this writing will show, backed GM, bringing in police and the National Guard to break the strike. These forces used tear gas and live ammunition, injuring 13 strikers (36). However, labor was extremely dedicated and well organized; the strikers held classes, assigned duties, and organized courts to manage their community. The sit-in resulted in a partial victory over industry and government, landing workers a new contract and empowering the union (36).

A long history of pollution

While autoworkers were able to organize this victory early in Flint’s automobile history, Flint communities were taking losses in the form of pollution that the developing industry produced. Analogous to low wages or extraneous workdays, environmental degradation strips the people of money and health for greater profits. The burdens of industrial production are placed on local communities rather than producers or consumers. Flint’s long history of industrial pollution illustrates this ordering of priorities, which comes into play with the decisions that led to the contemporary water crisis. Pollution started becoming a problem for Flint in the early 1800s with the lumber industry and intensified with the establishment and evolution of the auto industry, affecting the Flint River and communities near industrial plants most profoundly (Carmody 2016). During this era of industrialization, “the Flint City Commission‘s Air and Water Pollution Committee generally abstained from regulating industrial pollutants,” only doing so more seriously in the 1970s when the auto industry was in decline and federal and state officials pressured the city government (Highsmith 2009, 424).

Industry centered on the river for power and shipping (Fasenfast 2003, 154). By the 1930s industrial waste and dumping, both legal and illegal, began to visibly affect the ecosystem. Fish reportedly died in the thousands, which reverberated up the food chain (Carmody 2016). Eutrophication was common. Pollution increased through the middle of the century, peaking in the 1950s and 60s along with the auto industry, yet the Flint River remained the city’s source of drinking water until 1967, when officials switched the water source to Lake Huron due to concerns regarding the rising costs of water treatment and water availability for the growing city (Carmody 2016). Though the river has since become much cleaner, the past focus on pollution and the costs of abatement should have clued-in officials on the hazards of the Flint River and the dangers of cutting corners when dealing with basic human needs (Atkinson 2014).

Air pollution around auto plants also swelled in the mid-20th century. One particular neighborhood that suffered the consequences of industrial pollution was St. Johns, a primarily low-income, African-American community. Over St. Johns existed “dense clouds of soot and ash that emanated from Buick‘s smoke-belching foundry”(Highsmith 2009, 423). Charles Winfrey, a local activist, said that the factory “[emitted] soot like rain” over the neighborhood’s inhabitants (424). Winfrey made this comment in 1971. In 1966 a different community member claimed that “ a heavy smog…which [had] been in existence for about eighteen years” (425). These conditions persisted for decades despite the conclusion that the area was “an unfit environment for human habitation” and led to the city‘s highest rates of asthma, infant mortality, and lung and throat cancer” (425).

"soot like rain" engulfed St. Johns on Flint's north side --Charles Winfrey, local activist
A photo of the Buick Plant in St. Johns neighborhood. Taken in 1971, the same year as Winfrey's vivid proclamation, the photo presents the polluted air St. Johns' residents had been breathing in for decades.

During the mid-twentieth century, Flint and the state of Michigan were considered powerhouses for the industrialization that provided economic opportunity and contributed to a growing middle class. How then does a community in the heart of this so-called opportunity become so adversely affected by corporations and government that are said to provide it? The economic boom that these actors sought to promote came with consequences not felt evenly by the beneficiaries of this development. These consequences are most easily pushed on a society's most marginalized populations that lack the resources to effectively fight large corporate interests. Rob Nixon defines the environmental costs borne here as a form of slow violence: “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space” (2011, 2). The costs of industrialization are undoubtedly real, but who bears these costs is determined by corporate and public policy. The distribution of harm is both political and oppressive. Nixon argues that slow violence persists in part because it exists outside society’s dominant narrative, the principal way in which most of society perceives an object, structure, or institution (9). Politicians, the media, and social groups all contribute to this narrative to the degrees of power they wield in society. For Flint, ignorance of slow violence was very much present. Its nickname, “Vehicle City”, proves as much. Flint’s narrative was one of economic output, technological innovation, and mass consumption and omitted structural inequality, racism, and environmental pollution. Thus, even as Flint was touted as an auto capital of the US, the city was suffering behind this veil of economic prosperity.

Mid-century suburbanization

While pollution assailed Flint’s residents from the inside, government-sponsored suburbanization pulled opportunity out of the city, commencing Flint’s economic decline decades before the well-documented late-20th century deindustrialization. Corporate and public strategies and policies encouraged suburbanization for a variety of reasons, including limited urban land availability, federal regulations and subsidies to decentralize (for Cold War national security reasons), lower taxes in the suburbs, and innovation to reduce the costs of production (Highsmith 2009, 212-16). These factors led to labor and capital migration from the city to the suburbs despite inadequate or entirely absent infrastructure, requiring local government to divert tax dollars to infrastructure investments outside the city, effectively subsidizing further suburbanization (218). From 1930 to 1960 the share of the county population living in the suburbs compared to the city increased from 25 to over 50 percent (227).

Flight from the city contributed to depression of the city’s housing market, and FHA cut support to city housing, resulting in 80 percent of the area’s vacant residential lots existing in poor or rejected city locations (237-38). Urban manufacturing jobs declined from a high of 87,000 in 1955 to 70,000 in 1963 (223). The commercial sector contributed to a vicious circle of decline by moving away from the city to follow new markets and abandon declining economic opportunity in the city (226).

Flint officials attempted to rectify the situation they had help create by proposing an expansion of the city’s borders to recapture some of the lost taxable wealth; however, advantaged suburban homeowners blocked the proposal (274). The politics that played out during the era of suburbanization led to greater disenfranchisement and loss of opportunity for the most vulnerable city residents despite a common narrative of prosperity and development.

"Children are coming home with sewage clinging to their clothes."

This quote from a suburban mother demonstrates both the neglect for a healthy, safe environment and the need for Flint to invest in suburbanization despite the economic flight it would bring.

Late-century deindustrialization

A new wave of deindustrialization hit in the late-20th century, leaving Flint in the position it finds itself in today. Economic crisis and increased competitiveness in the auto market, particularly from Japan, were among the primary causes (Fasenfest 2003, 158). In the early 1980s, 250,000 autoworkers in Michigan were laid off (153). In Flint, the number employed by GM dropped from 70,000 in 1963 to 66,000 in 1974 with an unemployment rate of 20 percent overall and 50 percent for young black men (Highsmith 2009, 595). GM would go on to cut 40,000 jobs in the 70s and 80s (592). Ben Hamper, writer and auto worker, described his experience in Flint at this time:

“Over the past two years I‘ve been bounced back and forth from the bread line to the rivet line to the benefit line to the axle line so many times, I feel like some experimental human ricochet that GM is testing out just how much they can dribble one‘s world before it drops right into the lost and found with a severe case of job lag” (621).

Hamper is not alone in his criticism of GM actions in Flint. A 2009 study interviewed 15 former employees, and 12 believed GM to be at fault for the outsourcing and offshoring of Flint’s manufacturing jobs (as opposed to greater economic forces necessitating GM to do so) (Baker 2009, 80). One interviewee accused GM of poor management and leadership, and another argued that GM acted unethically by leaving its workers, who were also consumers of GM products, behind (82-82). Overall patterns the study found were that former employees felt that GM’s leadership was responsible for financial failures leading to unemployment, GM could or should have avoided the job loss, and GM’s policies negatively affected Flint’s residents (84).

Failed rebirth

Economic decline compelled government to attempt to spur new development, but this ended in failure. One focus was on shopping and tourism (Highsmith 2009, 593-94). However, commerce largely remained outside the city where there was a greater probability of success. And the amusement park Autoworld that cost the government 10s of millions of dollars ended in colossal failure (620).

Opened in 1984, Autoworld closed 6 months later and was demolished 13 years later.

The state also turned toward its decades-long partnership with the auto industry, hoping that new subsidies would reinvigorate a sinking relationship (Fasenfest 2003, 159). One way in which the city tried to continue the mantra “What’s good for GM is good for America” was through highway construction. GM clamored for improved highways, which had become integral to the decentralized assembly line it had built during the suburbanization era. The auto industry “effectively blurred the boundaries between public policy and private business interests,“ once again subjugating the people of Flint, who were adversely affected by highway construction that required relocation of homes and businesses and brought new sources of pollution (Highsmith 2009, 406). This partnership did not only fail to bring greater economic opportunity to the city but also actively exacerbated the economic struggles of the area by subsidizing further suburbanization, removing taxable property, and hurting local commerce (474-75). Criticism of corporate politics was rampant, though not necessarily heard. Flint attorney Barry Wolf said,

“This old friend [GM]… has used the city the way a pimp uses a whore” (598).

Moreover, activist Fred Dent connected government support for industrial desires to the continuation of slow violence in St. Johns:

“We‘ve already got a dirty river on one side and a dirty factory on the other. The expressway will be another barrier” (454).

The city’s policies trapped one of the most marginalized communities of Flint in a cage of corporate pollution. This photo demonstrates the proximity of St. Johns residences to pollution sources

In addition to harming residents, these policies failed to bring new development or industry to Flint. Plants continued to close and workers continued to lose their jobs in the 1990s and 2000s (Highsmith 2009, 625-26). By 2006, GM employed around 15,000, down from the 1955 high of 87,000 and 66,000 employed during the beginning of the second wave of deindustrialization in 1974 (638). Total employment decreased from almost 70,000 in 1970 to 40,000 in 2006 (Hollander 2010, 139). Additionally, suburbanization and deindustrialization combined to compel one-third of the population moved out of the city between 1950 and 2000, leading to abandoned or degraded housing and higher crime rates (137-39).


Structural factors, governmental incompetence, favoritism toward corporations, and marginalization of citizens have pushed Flint toward the situation in which it currently exists. Economic crisis, suspension of democracy and Emergency Management, and environmental racism are legacies of Flint’s past. Institutionalized slow violence has systematically deprived residents of opportunity, services, liberty, and health. The Flint Water Crisis demonstrates that slow violence is not static; it chipped away at the people’s basic entitlements, fostering an environment ripe for crisis and “quick” or normal violence, violence that does not escape media cycles and politics. Governor Rick Snyder ignored democracy when appointing Emergency Managers to run Flint. The appointed officials ignored the corrosiveness and pollution of the Flint River when ideologically cutting costs. And government at both the state and local levels ignored the explosion of health hazards and concern among citizens when discounting early signs of crisis. All of this ignorance is a product of the historical marginalization of Flint’s residents economically, racially, and environmentally. As it stands, this structural inequality continues to lurk silently while the “immediate” crisis is addressed, albeit half-heartedly.

Works cited

Atkinson, Scott. "The Flint River Isn't What You Think It Is, and Here's Why You Should Check It Out." MLive.com. August 11, 2014. Accessed April 27, 2016. http://www.mlive.com/entertainment/flint/index.ssf/2014/08/the_flint_river_isnt_what_you.ht ml.

Baker, Darryl Brent. Life after Job Loss for Former General Motors Employees in Flint, Michigan: Outsourcing's Impact. PhD diss., University of Phoenix, 2009. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Accessed May 15, 2016. Proquest.

Carmody, Tim. "How the Flint River Got So Toxic." The Verge. February 26, 2016. Accessed April 26, 2016. http://www.theverge.com/2016/2/26/11117022/flint-michigan-water-crisis-lead-pollution-history.

Fasenfest, David, and Jacobs James. "An Anatomy of Change and Transition: The Automobile Industry of Southeast Michigan." Small Business Economics 21, no. 2 (2003): 153-72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40229284.

Highsmith, Andrew R. "Demolition Means Progress: Race, Class, and the Deconstruction of the American Dream in Flint, Michigan." PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2009. Accessed May 8, 2016. https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/62230/ahighsmi_1.pdf.

Hollander, Justin B. "Moving Toward a Shrinking Cities Metric: Analyzing Land Use Changes Associated With Depopulation in Flint, Michigan." Cityscape 12, no. 1 (2010): 133-51. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20868735.

Marcus, Karin. "Flint, Michigan: As the Birthplace of General Motors, Flint Holds a Rich History in Manufacturing. Despite Its Nickname, "Vehicle City," Flint's Municipal Appeal Goes Beyond Its Automotive Roots." Gale Academic OneFile. Accessed May 8, 2016.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Zinn, Howard. "Flint." Race, Poverty & the Environment 14, no. 1 (2007): 35-38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41555134.

Photo sources (in order of appearance)





Highsmith, Andrew R. "Demolition Means Progress." 2009. pg.423.




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