Rode into Flint, Michigan, this week, where you could fire a cannon in the downtown at “rush hour” without hitting a car.
This once-mighty industrial city, home to General Motors, was brought to its knees by the downsizing of the local automobile-related industries. Remember the 1989 Michael Moore documentary on Flint and its unemployment? Well the situation today is worse. The film Roger & Me introduced us to Flint’s boarded-up homes and businesses, but now we see its enormous depopulation and soaring crime rate.
The FBI this year named Flint the most violent city in the United States, and people here have little faith that any politician can help them. Based on interviews here – and the complete absence of any election signs or activity – voter turnout next month could be almost non-existent.
The first person I stopped to interview – a 40-something, clean-shaven white man in a parka – turned out to be a convicted murderer, recently released from prison. Ouch. He said he killed two men in a drug deal gone bad. “What else are you going to do in Flint?” he asked. “All I want now is a job.”
“It’s bad, really bad,” said 86-year-old Maurice McQueen, who is trying to preserve his old neighbourhood known as Carriage Town (named when the city was making horse-drawn vehicles).
Every day he pushes his wheelbarrow and picks up the litter, greets some of the local toughs passing by, hoping his propriety will rub off.
“It’s the killing that’s got to stop,” he said. On Tuesday night, one man was gunned down just down the road; the night before, another man was murdered.
The situation has given people like Arnie Wells, 45, a fighting chance. The former boxer, turned security guard, patrols the main street of Flint all day. He and several others are paid by the business association that’s trying hard to restore faith in the city. There’s not a real policeman in sight.
In nearby, more peaceful Macomb County, the economic fallout is also being felt.
Jay Sylvester, 40, a millwright, has been laid off for the past 2 1/2 years. In the 1990s, he said, he made $83,000 a year as a second-year apprentice. Today, he and his wife have divorced; he’s run out of unemployment benefits and has cashed in a pension to make ends meet. The Obama administration’s bailout of the automotive industry helped, he said, but led to the rehiring of only 500 of the 2,500 millwrights in the area.
“I voted for Obama,” he acknowledged, but said he’s disappointed in both presidential candidates. “I’d vote for Reagan if he were running,” he said. “But I think I’ll just stay home.”
In Romeo, a town where the Ford engine plant is still at work, Bridget McManus, 48, a married mother of two, explained why the family’s front lawn was a display of pumpkins and mums.
“My husband’s been laid off,” she whispered, leaning forward so he could not hear. “I’m selling these to make money.” There’s a lot of such shame here. “He’s a carpenter, but there’s no building going on.”
The couple’s 18-year-old son, John, is proud of the job he found in one of the few businesses that is expanding – a pawn shop. It’s John’s first election, but he said he hasn’t given any thought to voting.