Jeanne Aaronson, one of the last Jews left in this majority black city, still recalls the nagging afterthought at the bottom of the letter she received after Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager hooked up its water supply to the nearby Flint River.
The letter from the municipality assured residents at length that the liquid coming out of their taps was still safe following the switchover from Detroit’s water system to the cheaper local source, but then added at the end, “If you are elderly, contact your caregiver.”
Aaronson, who is 86, legally blind, lives alone and gets around with the help of a walker, was reluctant to bother her primary care physician. He had just come out of back surgery. Instead, “I looked around to see if people were getting sick or died, and nobody did,” she recalled. “So I started drinking the water.”
Now that the toxic levels of lead in Flint’s water — and the state government’s failure to address this over two years — have become a full-blown crisis under national spotlights, things have not gotten much easier. A trip to the local fire station, where alternative water is available, requires Aaronson to hire a driver to help with the pick-ups—no minor expense on her retirement income.
A recorded phone message she got from the Genesee County sheriff after the crisis advised her just to use cold water. “I can’t wash my dishes in cold water,” she observed dryly.
Aaronson’s attempts to call back the sheriff led to a disconnected number. Her attempts to call the local hotline yielded only voicemail announcements asking her to leave a message. It took multiple messages from her, but when someone finally called back, that person told her to call the local agency on aging — where she left another message. When someone from the agency for the aging finally called back, that official advised her to call… the county sheriff.
It wasn’t until Aaronson attended services at Temple Beth El, her Conservative synagogue, now located in the suburbs, that she heard Steven Low, executive director of Flint’s local Jewish federation, tell worshippers that his agency was “taking care” of members of the community who needed water.
“I wasn’t contacted, and I’ve been a member of the community since 1958,” Aaronson said. “I’m not like a hidden secret.”
She told Low, “You certainly know my number when you want money.”
According to Low, a big man with a bushy white mustache and a shiny white head who is suddenly facing huge responsibilities, the time it took to reach out to all those affected was slowed by his small federation’s lack of staff. Only last week was an intern found and added to the roster. Her first job was to call “everyone on the list, including Jeanne,” he explained. “It wasn’t that she had been overlooked. No one had been called at that point.”
Since then, Low said, the federation has put together a list of 66 Jewish households still in the city limits — just a remnant of the number of Jews that used to live in the city. “Oh yeah, there used to be more,” Low said.
But that was decades ago. Almost all of Flint’s Jews now live in one of the more prosperous suburbs surrounding the now economically depressed city. And some of them, with the federation’s leadership, are doing what they can to try to mitigate the situation. Their help is much appreciated. But delivering bottled water, which is the majority of the help volunteers are providing, is a palliative solution to a crisis that exists within a longer history that many Americans seem unconcerned about or unaware of.
In many accounts of the city’s water crisis, Flint’s endemic poverty is a given, like it was always there. But the switchover in the water supply was just one of many cost-saving measures dictated by the state-appointed city manager to deal with a massive debt — more than $25 million — that the city has accumulated over the past few decades. Among urban analysts, two main factors are usually cited to explain the city’s demise that led to this debt: First, through the 1960s, racially discriminatory housing practices catalyzed “white flight” from many cities across the country, including Flint — a process catalyzed further by the natural desire of increasingly prosperous families to seek newer, larger homes in places with better services.
Second, in the 1980s, the auto industry that was the city’s foundation began to crumble. General Motors Co. began closing plants in the city and opening new ones in the suburbs. By 2010, just 8,000 of the 80,000 people remained that worked for the company during its best years in the late 1970s. Over the past half-century, the city has lost 100,000 people — more than half its population.
“Really the population loss, which kicked off around 1960, is the heart of the problem,” Victoria Morckel, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan–Flint, told me in a phone interview. “When you have population loss you’re losing tax dollars, and when your tax base erodes you don’t have the funding to sustain infrastructure.”
My own encounter with Flint made the reality that resulted from this process so much more palpable than any urban sociology paper. To be honest, despite living in Ann Arbor for the past four years as a student at the University of Michigan, I had never thought much about the city beyond its status as a nearby, dangerous place.
But several days before I spoke with Aaronson, I spent a day with Low and other federation volunteers, observing firsthand their efforts to help the residents of the city most of them had left behind years before.
My encounter began on a Friday, with a group of 10 or so congregants gathered outside Temple Beth El, in suburban Flint Township. They were there to deliver water to a church supporting immigrants affected by the water crisis. Outside the synagogue, Low paced the sidewalk in a long black pea coat. As the federation head, Low functions as a centralizing force of the three synagogues and some 10,000 Jews in the area.
As we chatted by the open car trunks waiting to be loaded to the brim with water bottles, one gregarious woman in a stylish red coat and sunglasses ensemble summarized for me Flint’s Jewish story in a nutshell: “Kids growing up and now they’re no longer here,” Judy Kassle said. Flint’s Jews, both in the city and surrounding it, are an aging cohort.
Like all the volunteers present, Kassle lives in one of the suburbs surrounding the city. And like all the volunteers except one man in his late 20s, Kassle was at least 50 and probably closer to 65.
When the woman with the synagogue keys finally arrived to open up the building, we started hauling the pallet of water from the lobby out the doors — some 72 plastic cases of plastic bottled water stacked up and organized in a cube all wrapped in more plastic. One of the volunteers grabbed two food carts from the kitchen and wheeled the water back and forth from the pallet to car trunks. At one point, Low came back in and grabbed a camera from around his neck. “Look this way, guys, I wanna get some pictures,” he urged. A few volunteers crowded around the water awkwardly. I imagined the blog post on the federation’s website next month.
I followed Low’s car north through suburban Flint Township, an independently incorporated town, 15 minutes to the church just outside Flint itself. Flint Township looked like a typical suburb, though with more green and with houses that looked a bit worn. Like most of the surrounding suburbs, its population has grown by more than 50% over the past few decades as the city has depopulated. We turned into the parking lot at a building with a mural of Jesus Christ above the doors. Hand-painted signs with arrows reading “Agua—Water” directed us around back, where volunteers from the church were waiting under an attached overhang. Their hands were gloved, and I could see their breath vapors in the cold winter air. They quickly took over the operation, unloading most of the water from the trunks and carrying it inside.
As I headed inside the church, a shabby tan sedan pulled up 10 feet from the building. No one got out. Instead, a church volunteer went over and loaded a few cases of water into the trunk. The car drove off without a turned head. That was the crisis, subtle and shocking.
The church, located just north of the city limits, is called Our Lady of Guadalupe, Low told me. It serves a community of mostly Latino immigrants, many of whom are undocumented. Due to their lack of English, some are still unaware of the crisis, I was told, and most are scared to open their doors for anyone in a uniform, even if someone might just be trying to deliver water.
The building turned out not to be the church — that was next door — but rather a large recreational facility. It was mostly vacant, aside from a growing mountain of water bottles stacked up against the near wall, and a foldout table in the center, where two volunteers were giving out lead filters and baby formula to those who needed them.
For the federation volunteers, the whole exchange was very quick. They were in and out in a couple of minutes. Low exchanged some words with the pastor coordinator and then headed to his car. He invited me to a communal Sabbath meal at the synagogue later that evening, and I accepted. Among other things, I saw this as my best chance to find Jews affected by the crisis. Meanwhile, I decided to stick around the church a bit.
Inside the recreational facility, the coordinator, Deacon Omar Odette, told me that the support, especially from the interfaith community, had been unbelievable. They had received truckloads of water the previous week from churches in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, and were expecting another 30 pallets the next day. I asked if he thought they would have a surplus. He said he didn’t know, but the water bottles were still going fast.
“They don’t speak English. The older ones don’t watch American television,” Odette said, explaining how many have yet to hear about the crisis in their own water. “On Monday,” — January 25 — “a real young mother brought her little baby up here, about a 1-year-old. [He] had rashes all up and down his arm. She had no idea she was supposed to be giving him bottled water in his formula.”
All of the city’s roughly 9,000 children under the age of 6 have likely been exposed to lead toxins, according to a recent Flint public health directive. According to the World Health Organization, the neurological and behavioral effects of lead include reduced intelligence quotient, shortening of attention span, increased antisocial behavior and reduced educational attainment. The effects “are believed to be irreversible.” One increasingly accepted theory identifies increases in lead exposure in poor neighborhoods as an important factor in the crime surge that America experienced from the 1960s through the ’80s. The crime rate decreases of the past two decades correlate closely with mass lead abatement programs, just as the surge tracked with increased exposure.
Whatever the roots of the city’s broader long-standing crisis, the fault of the immediate water emergency lies clearly with those in charge. The calls for Governor Rick Snyder’s resignation have been loud and heated: Over 600,000 people have signed a petition created by documentary filmmaker (and Flint native) Michael Moore, calling for his arrest.
Recently, two Ann Arbor residents heckled the governor as he left a restaurant on Main Street. “How was your water? Was it clean?” one woman yelled.
The same day, a story broke that the governor’s administration had been trucking in bottled water to state buildings in January 2015—three months before the city publicly admitted the danger—while assuring Flint residents like Aaronson that the water was still safe to drink. Then another story broke that Snyder’s administration knew of a connection between an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease and the Flint water source in March 2015. The inevitable question was now ringing loudly: What did the governor know, and when did he know it?
As I headed out of the church recreation building, a group of college kids were unloading water from two SUVs. I spotted a gold chai around one of the boys’ necks. “You Jewish?” I asked. They all were, it turned out, from a frat and sorority at Michigan State University, in Lansing, about an hour away. Together they had raised about $6,500 to support the Flint community. Odette thanked them effusively. Someone called for a picture. The students procured a poster with the frat’s Greek letters prominently emblazoned on it to advertise their role and memorialize the moment. The students and church volunteers gathered around the water for the portrait. I imagined the photo on the kids’ Facebook feeds later that day.
In most articles about Flint’s water crisis, its start is traced to 2012, when Snyder appointed the city’s first emergency manager; or to 2013, when the city council voted to switch the city’s water source to the Flint River, or even to 2014, when (in hindsight in a piece of bad press), officials opened the spigots for the new water source with a hearty toast to each other, taking small sips of the toxic and corrosive liquid that residents would then unknowingly poison themselves with for the next year and a half.
“I say [up to] this day that I bet it was champagne,” Aaronson told me, referring to the liquid the officials were drinking.
On my return to the synagogue that night for the Sabbath meal, I found 20 or so tables spread around the dining room, and a few congregants busy in the kitchen. Low was by the drinks with a cup in hand. He told me he had received a call the previous week from Brian Shapiro, owner of the century-old Shapiro’s Delicatessen, in Indianapolis: “He wanted to do something for the Jews in Flint and offered to sponsor a meal.” Low said he was expecting about 100 people. A few more than 50 showed up.
As a line formed for corned beef and pastrami, a volunteer from earlier introduced me to his ex-wife, Sue Ellen Hange. Hange still lives in the city, but out of convenience; Mott Community College, where she’s a professor of chemistry, is in the city center.
Hange has lead in her faucets. She bought a reverse-osmosis filter, which is more robust and expensive than the filters the city is offering, but she can afford only one for her kitchen sink. “I’ve stopped taking a shower every day, “ she said, “but I still have a nasty little rash.”
I asked her about the future of Jews in Flint. “My kids were the last Jewish children to attend the Flint city schools and both now live in Chicago,” Hange said. “One of my kids spent two years here desperately trying to find a job — just a bottom-of-the-line job — and in two years he never found one. Guess where he is now. Back in Chicago.”
I asked her what she would do about the crisis if she had a magic wand. “This is not an accident,” Hange said, suddenly heated. “This is not a natural disaster. This is done to us. Even if they fixed the water, we won’t be able to sell our homes. I think the Feds should step in.” The line for corned beef was dwindling, and we both got dinner.
Could the city survive another hit like this? I scanned the room for a place to sit. I counted three children. As with the volunteers, everyone else looked to be at least 50, and many looked older than that. Was this the last generation of Jews in Flint?
I found a seat at a table with two men discussing the crisis. I figured out it was a father and son. Their story, in its essentials, tracked that of most of the Flint Jews I met. William Bernard, the father, grew up in Flint and recalled a pretty vibrant Jewish community. A few years after his son, Seth Bernard, was born in the late 1960s, the Bernards moved to the south end from the north.
The son said a lot of the Jewish community migrated to the south end around this time. He remembers Jews living “up and down the street” and that growing up in the city was a lot of fun. Though he was pretty young, he thought the family’s move to south from north had less to do with the fact that “blacks were moving into the area” and more to do with his dad “making more money.”
“Westgate is a much nicer neighborhood,” he said, “and the houses are bigger, and I think it was more about that… I think [white flight] happened more after we left.”
In the late ’80s, after Seth Bernard went off to college, his father moved to Grand Blanc, just outside Flint. He has lived there ever since.
“Most of the people I hung around are either dead or got out of [the city],” William Bernard said. “There are no new young families moving in.”
In the ’90s Seth returned to Flint after medical school and settled in Grand Blanc, like his father. This was an unusual move. “Most of my generation’s just left in general,” he said, many for warmer climates. “There just wasn’t a lot of opportunity anymore.” Seth Bernard mentioned that he also had a daughter about to graduate from the University of Michigan. Unlike him, “I don’t think she’ll come back to the area,” he said.
Who could blame her? The water crisis, and the likely exposure of all the city’s children to lead, has only further battered Flint’s already history-beaten future. It will be years, maybe a decade, even, before the effects of this lead exposure on the learning and behavioral capabilities of these thousands of kids will be known. That’s a bit longer than today’s news cycle. Perhaps there’ll be a check-in at some point: “The Children of Flint: X Years Later.” But overall, the country will likely have long since moved on.
“Don’t forget about us. This crisis will pass and the city will still have a bunch of problems as it did prior to the crisis,” Morckel told me at the end of our interview. “This is a lead issue, but it’s not only a lead issue. There are issues with food access in the city, issues with our roads, serious concerns with our crime… I’m personally pleased that the city is getting a bunch of attention but…this needs to be about investment in our city and its people.”
Congress, meanwhile, is now paralyzed along partisan lines over a Democratic proposal to appropriate $600 million to help pay for immediate and long-term health needs arising from the water crisis, and for the replacement of the contaminated pipes. The measure requires a dollar-for-dollar match from the state, which would cover the cost of the project.
I wondered about how the way we tell and consume stories — for instance, what we choose as their start, and when we choose to move on—affects our own sense of connection to a problem. Whether or not one agrees with filmmaker Michael Moore’s call to arrest Governor Snyder — and most of the Flint Jews I talked to agree — what kind of empathy and charity would a look in the mirror produce?
Our plates were scraped clean, and everyone seemed happy. William Bernard looked around, pointing at an older man at one table. “That’s a Flint-stone,” he said, and then pointed at an older woman at another table: “That’s a Flint-stone.” He said that’s what they call each other, the people that grew up in the city but have since moved away. I laughed. The term was so apt, on multiple levels.
Contact Yardain Amron at firstname.lastname@example.org