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.
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.”