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