The Rust Belt: Once Mighty Cities in Decline

An auto giant's exit brings the region to its knees

The Rust Belt: Once Mighty Cities in Decline

An auto giant's exit brings the region to its knees

This is part three of msnbc‘s four-part series, Geography of Poverty. Read part one »

This is part three of msnbc‘s four-part series, Geography of Poverty. Read part one »

FLINT, Michigan — Every summer a fresh crop of working girls make their way to Fenton Road, a black eye of a commercial strip that runs through the heart of this city’s residential south side. Some are locals born and bred. Others come from nearby towns or from across the state. Any number are addicted to drugs or hard living, bruised by life in a patchwork of post-industrial cities whose golden days are but a memory, if not a myth.

“They only ever last a summer or two,” said a grizzled man in his mid-40s, squatting beneath the awning of a storefront on Fenton Road. “They come here to get money and end up with their throats slit in the park.”

A couple of the man’s buddies joined him in escaping the afternoon heat, nodding in unison as the neighborhood came alive with folks chatting on sidewalks, kids riding bicycles, and drug addicts and early-shift sex workers streaming together in a tangle of humanity.

A man searching for scrap metal. Flint, Genesee County, Mich. Population is 102,434 and 41.5% live below the poverty level.

Like many others here, Andrea Sarazine, known as “Brandy” in the streets, has found few ways to support herself and her habit beyond the often dangerous dance done in the shadows of Fenton Road.

“No job’s going to hire me,” she said, gulping from a plastic cup of Mountain Dew the size of her head. “We’re a bunch of drug addicts. You can get drugs on every corner but can’t find help to get off ‘em. Can’t find a real job but you can find work out here.”

Sarazine sat down on the steps next to the squatter and his friends as a slice of sunshine cut through the shade from the store’s awning, revealing a youthful, albeit muted beauty hidden beneath the years of addiction. Her blue eyes and baby face (and the Hello Kitty tattoo on her forearm) belie struggle far beyond her years.

By the time the 22-year-old hit Fenton Road this summer, she’d spent nearly a third of her life addicted to heroin, a curse she says was handed down by a boy she once loved. Her addiction has all but destroyed her relationship with her family. She can’t find or keep a job. And the emotional and psychological weight of addiction, poverty and regret has pushed her further onto the margins.

“I won’t be in Flint for long,” she said wistfully. “If you want to do anything with life you have to leave.”

For the last few decades folks have been doing just that, fleeing Flint in droves.

The city was once a major hub for auto manufacturing. Its downtown was booming and vibrant, bolstered by strong working and middle-class neighborhoods. In its heyday there were 200,000 residents, and in the 1960s and 1970s, General Motors employed more than 80,000 of them at its Flint facilities. Today, GM employs about 5,000 workers in Flint. The city has never recovered from the loss, and now grapples with widespread poverty and crime. It’s consistently ranked among the most violent cities in the country.

When GM began closing plants and laying off workers in the 1980s, thousands of residents a year began what would become a decades-long exodus. The tumult brought on by the plant closures was famously captured by director Michael Moore in his 1989 documentary, “Roger & Me,” in which Moore chronicled his pursuit of GM CEO Roger Smith to confront him about the pain the company had inflicted on the blue-collar city.

In the film, Moore boiled down Flint’s suffering like this:

  • “First, close 11 factories in the U.S, then open 11 in Mexico where you pay the workers 70 cents an hour. Then, use the money you've saved by building cars in Mexico to take over other companies, preferably high-tech firms and weapons manufacturers. Next, tell the union you're broke and they happily agree to give back a couple billion dollars in wage cuts. You then take that money from the workers, and eliminate their jobs by building more foreign factories. Roger Smith was a true genius.”
A closed school. Detroit, Wayne County, Mich. Population is 713,777 and 39.3% live below the poverty level.

Unlike its sister city, Detroit, an hour away, which was home to the Big Three auto companies GM, Ford and Chrysler, Flint had only GM. When the company began to divest from the city, it took with it thousands of good paying jobs, not just within GM but also among the associated suppliers and subcontractors down the line. Long gone are the storied days when almost everyone was somehow connected to GM, as an employee or a relative of one.

These days, you can’t turn a corner without tripping over a hole of what had been. Or strike up a conversation with a stranger who won’t recall a mother, father or grandparent who once sweated out a living on the factory floor.

The very first Buick rolled off the assembly line in Flint in 1904. Today, the massive 235-acre manufacturing complex known as Buick City has been razed – now a mostly vacant slab of concrete and memories.

“Flint was it. We had huge numbers of people coming up from the South and everyone was coming to work here,” said Mary Stevenson, who grew up about 20 miles south of the city and remembers the smell of fresh roasted peanuts wafting from downtown shops. “When you talk about a big huge disaster that occurred and just knocked down the entire city in one fell swoop, it was the collapse of auto here.”

As the auto industry waned, so did stability and income for thousands of residents. The shockwaves from GM’s steady departure rippled across the city, crippling its tax base as former workers either left town or stayed put, trapped in debt and eventually poverty.

Ten Years of Fighting Blight and Vacancy in Flint
2005 Registered Land Vacancies in Flint
Previous
Next
Flint officials announced that nearly 2,000 vacant and blighted houses were demolished between 2013 and 2015 as part of a war on blight and decay. The number was unprecedented, but to those in the city, not a complete surprise. Since 2005, roughly 5,000 homes have been demolished, 10% of city properties.
Sources: Genesee County Land Bank GIS data and New York Times and MLive Media Group news reports. Vacancies includes registered foreclosures with the Genesee County Land Bank and registered vacant land.
Sources: Genesee County Land Bank GIS data and New York Times and MLive Media Group news reports. Vacancies includes registered foreclosures with the Genesee County Land Bank and registered vacant land.

In 1965, Flint’s population was about 200,000. In 2013, for the first time since the 1920s, census figures found the city’s population had dipped below 100,000. And the slide hasn’t ebbed: The population in 2014 was just about 99,000, down from 99,791 in 2013.

Block by block, neighborhoods where GM had built houses for its workers were marked by the detritus of abandonment, crumbling homes and overgrown lots. Crime and despair began to fester. And generations of families barely making it replaced those that had once thrived. Often those families were one and the same.

“People looked at GM as if it was God and if you didn’t work for GM you didn’t have a say. That was power in our community,” said Glenn Wilson, president and founder of Communities First Inc., a non-profit affordable housing developer. “When you think about it, you could drop out of high school and make $70,000 a year without $100,000 of student debt. You could work for GM for 10 years without a high school diploma and live next door to a doctor. That all went away.”

Gondola cars carry gravel on a freight train near Duluth, St. Louis County, Minn. Population is 86,265 and 22.1% live below the poverty level.

The population loss and economic collapse has compounded other issues, including access to quality education, healthcare and safety. There are also serious environmental concerns. When industry pulled out of the city, it left behind huge swaths of contaminated land. Aging and decrepit infrastructure, including a deteriorating water system, has meant dangerously high levels of toxins in the city’s water supply.

Just last month, an internal Environmental Protection Agency memo obtained and released by the ACLU of Michigan highlighted growing concerns about high levels of lead contamination, after a local family’s tap water tested at levels nearly three times higher than what would be classified as hazardous waste.

“People are frustrated and tired and hungry,” said Stevenson, who is now the director of development at the local Catholic Charities. “Flint is not a third world country. But it’s a place in great need.”

Between 2009 and 2013, some 41.5% of Flint’s residents lived below the poverty line, compared to just 16.8% of the rest of the state. A quarter of its families have an annual income of below $15,000 a year. The city’s child poverty rate of 66.5% is nearly 10 percentage points higher than Detroit’s.

“Communities with more than twenty percent concentrated poverty is where you really start to see the effects on people's livelihoods,” said Erika Poethig, Director of Urban Policy Initiatives at the Urban Institute. “There is not one community in Flint that is lower than twenty percent. That concentration of poverty is distributed across the city.”

Flint’s Racial Fault line

Compared to many other larger cities, Flint has maintained a sizeable population of poor and working class whites. While the city is majority African American at 56%, whites make up 37.4% of the population.

Flint, like many other cities in the region, is deeply segregated by race. Yet the dire economics of the community generally cut across racial and demographic lines.

For many cities, concentrated poverty disproportionately affects African American households first, then Latinos. Flint is a bit of an outlier.

While the city’s majority black population certainly suffers wide disparities similar to those suffered by blacks in cities nationwide, the south side of Flint is an example of race-neutral poverty. Along Fenton Road and in the surrounding neighborhoods, white residents down on their luck face the same economic realities as their black counterparts.

Poverty and Race in the Rust Belt
Compare poverty rates against populations in major cities
POVERTY RATE
Black population
Pct. in poverty
>55%
>20%
0%
POVERTY RATE
Black population
Flint
Detroit
Cleveland
Buffalo
Sources: Black to white ratio data is computed from the 2013 five-year American Community Survey from the U.S. Census. Census tract poverty rates are from the same dataset. Census tract shapefiles are via the U.S. Census.

“Flint is a bit distinct in relation to this pattern of poverty as it affects white people too,” Poethig said. “It’s a more broadly shared challenge in the city of Flint compared to cities like Chicago for example, where the racial and economic segregation is much more acute.”

Andrew R. Highsmith, author of “Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the fate of the American Metropolis,” said that during the city’s development in the early part of the 20th century, Flint was overwhelmingly white and racially homogenous. Later, GM began to expand into the near suburbs, allowing white employees who lived in Flint to stay there and commute to work. As such, Flint has taken a much longer, slower transformation into a majority black city.

“A lot of whites in Flint would like to leave, they just can’t,” Highsmith said. “A lot of them are trapped with these underwater mortgages that many of them can’t get out of. The mortgage crisis in the city has in some ways stabilized it demographically. Had the market been healthier I’d be willing to bet that tens of thousands of whites would be fleeing the city.”

Highsmith, an assistant professor of history at University of California, Irvine, said that to understand Flint’s transformation and economic trajectory is to understand the historically outsized role GM played in shaping almost every aspect of life in the city.

“The connection between the city’s economic transformation and the persistence of racial inequality, I think is the Flint story,” he said. “Some argue the real issue is class and economic inequality,” he said. “Others argue the true fault line is race or gender. The Flint story brings into sharper relief the connection between economic inequality and racial inequality. They are really inseparable. It is class and race.”

Industrial Heart, Beats No More

Flint’s fate has been similar to other old industrial cities across the Eastern U.S., from central New York through western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana, and over into Michigan and the Great Lakes region. The shuttered factories and abandoned industrial plants that dot cities across the North and Northeast offer an apt illustration of what has been described as the country’s Rust Belt.

While dismal poverty, hunger and employment rates are spread throughout the region, there are also distinct local factors at play, making it hard to gather a kind of aggregate, generalized picture at the region.

This area once served as the industrial heart of the U.S. Rail lines connected cities that were home to manufacturers of heavy industrial materials and large consumer products like cars and trucks.

Today, the goliaths of industry that once loomed large in these areas are mostly gone, leaving behind urban decay and blight. The decline of America’s steel and coal industries, gutted by a globalized market that has sent manufacturing jobs overseas and traded manpower for automation, has stripped the economic engine from this region.

A shopping center with half vacancy in Toledo, Lucas County, Ohio. Population is 287,208 and 27.2% live below the poverty level.

The loss of manufacturing jobs also meant the loss of power for the unions who represented those workers, leading to falling average wages. One third of the growth of wage inequality over the last three decades can be attributed to their decline.

Once-great cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and Flint have all struggled. While some have fared better than others, many are mere shells of what they were in the heyday of heavy industry. Where workers could once find steady employment on a factory floor or assembly line, poverty and crime have risen and populations have declined.

Shuttered train terminal in Buffalo, Erie County, N.Y. Population is 261,310 and 30.7% live below the poverty level.

For generations, this region served as the country’s beating barrel chest. But as manufacturing crumbled, so did the heft of these cities that once drew millions from the South, including many blacks fleeing Jim Crow segregation and violence, as well as European immigrants chasing the American dream.

Places now mired in poverty and crime, like Camden, New Jersey, once served as home to proud and wildly profitable companies like Campbell’s Soup and RCA that employed thousands while offering a way into the middle class. In Pittsburgh, steel was king. The Kodak company in Rochester, New York, employed thousands before advancements in photo technology led to the company's demise.

Poethig, who served in the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary for policy development in the White House Council for Strong Cities, Strong Communities, described many of these struggling cities as “a canary in the coal mine for other places to be thinking about how to be more resilient in the face of major industry loss.”

She said the cities best positioned to pull themselves up are those with strong leadership, committed community stakeholders and a clear plan of action. The city of Flint has developed an ambitious master plan called “Imagine Flint,” a multi-phase, 20-year plan that includes rewriting the city’s zoning code, creating a 5-year capital improvement plan and a $108 million blight reduction program.

A website dedicated to Imagine Flint described the plan as “a blueprint for the future” — one supported by the White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities.

“The role of the state is really important, how the state funds education and some of the core services that we know are related to economic mobility, particularly for those on the poorer end of the income distribution,” Poethig said. “Do they fund those through property tax? If they do, that really disadvantages a place like Flint. If you generate more resources through income tax, that can be more progressive in relation to how you fund schools or other types of services.”

All across the Rust Belt, the largely defunct or decaying rail lines and the absence of factories and factory jobs have left the broader region hobbled by economic and population loss.

  • Erie, Erie County, Pa. Population is 101,786 and 27.8% live below the poverty level.
  • Toledo, Lucas County, Ohio. Population is 287,208 and 27.2% live below the poverty level.
  • Duluth, St. Louis County, Minn. Population is 86,265 and 22.1% live below the poverty level.
  • Binghamton, Broome County, N.Y. Population is 47,376 and 33.3% live below the poverty level.
  • York, York County, Pa. Population is 43,718 and 37.1% live below the poverty level.
  • Erie, Erie County, Pa. Population is 101,786 and 27.8% live below the poverty level.
  • Reading, Berks County, Pa. Population is 88,082 and 38.7% live below the poverty level.
  • Binghamton, Broome County, N.Y. Population is 47,376 and 33.3% live below the poverty level.
  • Buffalo, Erie County, N.Y. Population is 261,310 and 30.7% live below the poverty level.
  • Saginaw, Saginaw County, Mich. Population is 51,508 and 37.4% live below the poverty level.
  • Buffalo, Erie County, N.Y. Population is 261,310 and 30.7% live below the poverty level.
  • Binghamton, Broome County, N.Y. Population is 47,376 and 33.3% live below the poverty level.

“Some people studying population and lifestyle trends suggest the rate of population loss could stabilize, or that Rust Belt cities may even begin to gain population, because of the popularity of urban environments and the low cost of living,” said Claudia Coulton, a professor of urban research and social change at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “At the same time, this population loss has resulted in a number of issues that still need to be dealt with.”

Cleveland, for example, has seen its population diminish along with the loss of blue-collar industry jobs, she said. The foreclosure crisis created a glut of abandoned and dilapidated houses as the city’s municipal budget has been slashed, making it even more difficult for the city to boost the prospects of the most vulnerable residents.

“Cleveland has faced a confluence of changes that make it more difficult for people to make ends meet and harder for the city to thrive,” Coulton said. “The city's urban core has a high degree of racial and economic segregation, an aging infrastructure, and the people who live in it face many economic and health-related challenges.”

“[These struggling cities are] a canary in the coal mine for other places to be thinking about how to be more resilient in the face of major industry loss."

The Detroit, Ann Arbor and Flint metro area in Michigan could be considered the Rust Belt’s industrial capital, and it has shouldered unprecedented social and economic declines.

The late Robert M. Beckley, who served as a professor at the University of Michigan and sat on the board of the Genesee County Land Bank, once called the slow-death experienced in Flint a function of the “cowboy economy” – the result of a Manifest Destiny ethos of “illimitable plains and the reckless and exploitative behavior of American economic activity” that has devastated American cities.

Black Jesus

Every day between 11 a.m. and noon, dozens of people, including families with young children and the elderly and infirm, head to the soup kitchen in the belly of Lincoln Park Methodist United Church, an old structure at the center of the Fenton Road corridor.

The church has been feeding and offering solace to the needy since the Great Depression. On most days, its pastor, Maurice Horne, wades through the assembled lunchers like a shepherd, offering hand shakes, hugs and prayers.

“Many people are a payday away from homelessness and they don’t ever relax,” Horne said on a recent afternoon at the church. “Each day we have people who come in, retired GM workers, who say without our soup kitchen they don’t know how they’d make it.”

“Most of the people who come to us are not homeless … they are just hungry,” he added. “They live in a home with no electricity or running water, they have a house and maybe gas but they don’t have food to cook on the stove. So they bring all five of their children here to the church to eat.”

“There's so much disparity. Things are supposed to be equal.”
“For the most part, it seems like things are getting worse.”
“Money is not evil. People always say it’s the root of all evil. That’s not true. Money is the root of our frustrations and when you don’t have it it causes you to do evil.”
“GM is not all it's cracked up to be.”
“It seems like every day someone is getting shot. It’s because people are broke and they don’t know what to do.”
“The reality is that there is no American Dream. It's like a smokescreen.”
  • “There's so much disparity. Things are supposed to be equal.”
  • “For the most part, it seems like things are getting worse.”
  • “Money is not evil. People always say it’s the root of all evil. That’s not true. Money is the root of our frustrations and when you don’t have it it causes you to do evil.”
  • “GM is not all it's cracked up to be.”
  • “It seems like every day someone is getting shot. It’s because people are broke and they don’t know what to do.”
  • “The reality is that there is no American Dream. It's like a smokescreen.”

Horne is one of this city’s many contradictions. He’s the first black pastor in the nearly all-white church’s nearly 80-year history. When he arrived in Flint six years ago from his native Detroit, he said some longtime parishioners opted to leave. He said he pushed through efforts to introduce or bolster many of the church’s programs for the needy, including the soup kitchen. Before the kitchen grew to meet the demand, Horne and his wife would make house calls to deliver homemade meals or “TV dinners” if they had them.

Horne said Flint remains highly segregated.

“Many of the whites and blacks come together but there are still a lot of Confederate flags hanging in this community,” Horne said. “I came here and I’m seeing a dozen Confederate flags hanging in the windows, from the trucks and houses. Even while you have a lot of interracial relationships, I find a lot of people crossing lines and being disrespectful. Some of the whites still feel very comfortable using the N-word.”

“Many of the whites and blacks come together but there are still a lot of Confederate flags hanging in this community.”

In the sanctuary of the church, Horne points to a portrait of a black Jesus hanging next to a white one that had predated his appointment.

“There are no racial barriers to Christ,” he said.

It’s actually no wonder this black pastor from Detroit would end up leading a nearly all-white church in the heart of a largely white, hardscrabble neighborhood.

As a child in the mid-1960s, Horne’s family fell on hard times after his alcoholic father mostly abandoned the family. Around the same time, a white pastor named Rev. Harold Butts started a church in the heart of Horne’s tough, all-black West Detroit neighborhood.

After Horne’s family was evicted from their apartment, Rev. Butts helped find them a place to live and made sure they had what they needed to get by. Old photos of the white pastor, standing amid a sea of black faces, line a shelf in Horne’s office.

“That man really helped save my family’s life,” Horne said. “He helped me understand what true ministry is. You knock on doors and you make sacrifices so that others can benefit. Without him I don’t know where my family would be, where I would be. In all of my years of ministry I’ve patterned my life after his.”

Trapped on Fenton

On the other side of town, Mary Stevenson and Vicky Schultz shuffled through a pile of index cards scrawled with prayer requests. Cassie, a mother of four, asked for “a house before school starts.” R. Banks asked for help with a water bill. Audra, with big, bubbly script, asked “for a special prayer for the city of Flint Michigan, for everyone that’s here.”

“For a lot of people we are the only safety or stability they know,” Stevenson said. “There isn’t any place for many of them to go.”

Flint, Genesee County, Mich. Population is 102,434 and 41.5% live below the poverty level.

Catholic Charities of Shiawasee & Genessee Counties operates a one-stop shop for needy families, including a soup kitchen and community closets bursting with clothing and toiletries. Last year, 51,653 people utilized the community closet and the charity distributed 205,000 articles of clothing.

“I think people really want to see the community come back,” said Schultz, the CEO of the organization. “The challenges are just so daunting. But in the face of so much I think the community has really pulled together and proven how resilient it is.”

Back on the south side along Fenton Road, Sarazine’s resilience was being tested. She paced back and forth as men in cars crept slowly by. Most just glared. Some offered subtle nods or gap-toothed smiles. She seemed uninterested or, at the least, distracted.

“This place ... It keeps you trapped.”

She’d recently fallen off the wagon and started using again. A half-dozen freshly picked sores dotted the back of each of her hands, marching over her wrists like bloated fire ants. She said she’d been clean a year. Then she ran into an ex-boyfriend and they used together. It was the third time in seven years that she’d gotten off the stuff, only to fall back on the needle. For 12 months she said she saw some light, some hope and a future out of Flint. And that quickly, she tumbled back to reality, back to Fenton Road.

“My dad moved to Florida. He says if I get clean again he’ll fly me down there to live with him,” she said. “He doesn’t want me using. Older people just don’t understand what it’s like though for kids my age. There’s like, no help and I don’t know what to do.”

Sarazine said there are few clinics in town to help wean folks from drugs. And those that do exist make you jump through hoops to get treatment. You need paperwork and addresses and identification, all mole hills-to-mountains issues that make for easy stumbling blocks.

“They can’t help you that day, and when you need help right now and can’t get it, you just go back to using because you need that, too,” she said. “Everyone around me uses. That keeps me addicted. Everyone around me is broke so you do what you need to do.”

“This place,” she sighed. “It just keeps you trapped.”

She threw up a lazy wave goodbye and headed down Fenton, where a white pick-up truck slowed to her side in the distance.

Photos by Matt Black/Magnum for MSNBC