Josette Malone, 41, and Derrick Webster, 44, stand outside waiting for a ride from a friend after picking up cases of bottled water from the Berston Field-House in Flint on April 22, 2018. Following the closure of the state run water distribution sites, community centers and churches stepped in to help the few residents that were able to find transit to a very limited amount of water donations.
ART WORKS Projects’ mission is to use design and the arts to raise awareness of and educate the public about significant human rights issues. Join AWP for a conversation with Brittany Greeson + Clauda Perkins-Milton for the launch of A City in Limbo on February 11th at 5 p.m. CT. Click here to register for the Zoom event.
Standing out front of the City of Flint Water Plant, Gail Morton came to a pause. The 64-year-old Flint resident had tears trickling down her cheek, halted by chilling winds.
Her gaze shifted to a dense crowd growing near the plant’s front gates. Descending from a church over a mile away were thousands of Flint residents and allies. The chants and signage differed, but all were present in protest of the city’s ongoing water crisis. A state of emergency had been declared just over a month before, thrusting the mid-size town into the national spotlight.
The scene pulled Ms. Morton into a state of dejavu. Her generation had already been here. Her parents’ generation had built the foundation for this. “As a small child growing up, you could almost see what our parents went through. We didn’t have the rights. We didn’t even have the rights to live in certain neighborhoods,” Morton said. “I am so proud today, I mean, I am really proud.”
Like many industrious towns dotting the rust belt region, Flint, Michigan, was thought to be the embodiment of the American Dream throughout the first half of the 20th century. Here, without a higher education, workers could make middle-class wages on the factory floor of General Motors. They could give their children a stable life, buy a small home, start dreaming of the “good life.” The promise of such dreams also attracted a large share of the African-American workforce migrating north from the Southeast to seek the possibility of upward mobility.
Still, while working shoulder to shoulder with their white counterparts, they were not without subjection to the racist policies dominating every other aspect of life. Midway through the 20th century, as deindustrialization took hold, those with greater generational wealth, often white, fled to the suburbs or other metros. The decline of industry, as Flint’s tax base eroded and policy makers shifted funding to these predominantly white suburbs, would spark the decline of public goods in the city and ultimately the decline of public life. Today, Flint is synonymous with its water crisis. It’s population has shrank from 200,000 at its peak to under 95,000. While the city’s pipeline replacement project is finally nearing completion, most residents will never drink from their taps again. Still, those who live in Flint, or have spent a great deal of time there, will speak of it with an impassioned affection. Because of the tenacity, generosity, and grassroots efforts of its people, Flint has the potential to embody a new American dream. A dream not dependent on industry or government but a connection to one another and sense of community.
Flint is not a city easily defined by its tragedy, neither is it innocent or untroubled. Perhaps what makes Flint is an ebb and flow of both.
For now, Flint is a city in constant waiting, a city in limbo. This visual essay, begun in 2015, chronicles that balance and the often simple acts that make up daily life for residents amid the city’s water crisis. The most recent intiration examines life in the city as shaped by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the overlap of two ongoing crises.
As a small child growing up, you could almost see what our parents went through. We didn’t have the rights. We didn’t even have the rights to live in certain neighborhoods.
— Gail Morton
I want to stay in Flint, because I was born and raised in Flint, but if I have to move to better my family, I will.
— Brittny Giles
Timeline: Part I
Nov 29 2011
Governor Rick Snyder appoints an emergency manager for the City of Flint, under significant financial stress, through Public Act 436. Critics argue the act strips away the power of local officials as chosen by voters.
In hopes of a significant savings, Genesee County creates a plan for a pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint with hopes of joining the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) upon its estimated completion in 2016.
Apr 25 2014
Under emergency management, the City of Flint begins relying on the local water plant, which hadn’t been used in nearly 50 years for daily water treatment, and formally switches to the Flint River as its water source. The switch was said to be a temporary solution until the completion of the KWA pipeline. Officials decline to treat the river water with corrosion inhibitors in an attempt to save roughly $100 a day.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services marks this date as the starting point of a Legionalla outbreak in Genesee County.
Residents begin complaining about the taste, odor, and color of their tap water. Boil notices for E.Coli are sent out to residents by August.
Oct 13 2014
General Motors announces it will stop using the Flint water after noticing corrosion on engine parts. The plant reaches an agreement to buy water from Lake Huron via the neighboring Flint Township.
Jan 1 2015
Local officials send out a notification to residents that their water has elevated levels of TTHM, a carcinogenic byproduct, and is in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Jan 20 2015
Noting complaints from Flint residents, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department offers to waive the $4 million reconnection fee so that the City of Flint can resume service. Flint officials decline based on an analysis that a return to the DWSD would cost the city upwards of $12 million per a year.
Mar 23 2015
Flint City Council votes 7-1 to reconnect Flint to the DWSD. However, it has limited power to initiate the change as the city is still under an Emergency Manager, Jerry Ambrose, who claims the Flint water is no less safe than the water from DWSD.
Local citizens and a team of Virginia Tech scientists including Dr. Marc Edwards, an expert in municipal water quality and civil engineering professor, released the results of 252 water samples taken from Flint homes. The study revealed that 40 percent of homes tested had levels of lead over 5 parts per a billion. The study concludes that the Flint river water is far more corrosive than the water from Detroit.
A research team and pediatrician Dr. Mona Hana Attisha of Flint’s Hurley Medical release findings that the number of children with elevated blood lead levels in Flint had doubled, and even tripled in some wards, since the city switched its water. The MDEQ later refutes then verifies the findings and begins its own testing.
Sept 25 2015
Flint sends out its first lead advisory to residents.
The MDEQ finds three Flint public schools with severely elevated levels of lead in its drinking water. The city finally switches back to the Detroit water system, but residents are advised to continue using filters or bottled water as it’ll take time before anti-corrosion treatments can work effectively.
Dec 14 2015
The City of Flint declares a state of emergency.
Jan 5 2016
Governor Rick Snyder declares a state of emergency in Flint freeing up state resources. “What we found was contrary to everything that’s been going on in the country and in the City of Flint. The percentage of children with lead poisoning had increased,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha said. “Here we are in 2016, in the middle of the Great Lakes, and we don’t have access to safe drinking water, and we have just given an entire population lead.”
Jan 12 2016
The Michigan National Guard is deployed to Flint to distribute water, using many of the City’s fire stations as hubs.
Jan 16 2016
President Obama declares a federal emergency in Flint freeing up federal resources, up to $5 million in aid.
Mar 4 2016
The Fast Start program, an initiative to replace lead water service lines to Flint homes, is officially launched.
Mar 31 2016
Lawfirm Cohen Milstein files an initial lawsuit in federal court agaisnt several state and private entities claiming responsibility in the Flint water crisis. Several additional law firms join as an interim co-counsel and the lawsuit goes on to spend 5 years in litigation and multiple amendments are made.
Apr 11 2016
State health officials recognize that 12 people have died in connection with a 2014 -2015 Legionnaires outbreak. However, the total fatalities remain unknown as some individuals were diagnosed with pneumonia or other respiratory illnesses. A study later asessed the outbreak was caused by low chlorine levels.
Nov 10 2016
A district court judge rules that local officials must deliver bottled water to Flint residents if the household does not have an operational water filter.
Dec 10 2016
The Senate approves $100 million in funding for Flint to address lead contamination. Much of the funds remain unspent.
Jan 24 2017
The MDEQ reports that Flint’s water is below 15 ppb for lead, the federal action limit. However, they recommend residents continue using bottled water until lead service lines are replaced. This project is still ongoing.
Apr 06 2018
Governor Rick Snyder announces that free bottled water distribution will end in Flint, citing the MDEQ’s reports that Flint had met testing standards for four six month periods consecutively.
Apr 18 2019
A federal judge rules that the residents of Flint are able to sue the federal government concerning Flint’s water crisis. This amendment widens possible defendants in the 2016 class action lawsuit to include top government officials.
Jun 13 2019
Under a new attorney general, state prosecutors announce they will be dropping all criminal charges filed against state and local officials and will start their investigation from scratch. The team cited concerns for how evidence was collected for the investigation, calling it incomplete.
Oct 10 2019
The EPA announces proposed changes to the Lead and Copper rule. The changes would apply to testing for when and if municipalities find lead levels above the allowable limit, remaining at 15ppb, and would change the response time for lead pipe replacement within communities impacted. However, according to both the EPA and the CDC the contaminant level goal is 0ppb and no known amount of lead in drinking water is considered safe.
Mar 20 2020
The first known cases of COVID-19 are announced by the Genesee County health officer.
Apr 08 2020
Genesee County reports 14 COVID-19 related deaths, one of the highest daily totals in the first initial wave of cases according to data provided by the State of Michigan.
Aug 20 2020
A preliminary settlement for $600 million is reached in a civil lawsuit for residents impacted by Flint’s water crisis, primarily children.
Nov 17 2020
An agreement for $641.25 million, potentially the largest in the State of Michigan’s history, is reached on behalf of Flint residents, mostly those under 18, who were impacted by Flint’s water. According to the settlement terms, “The Fund will also provide local school districts and public school academies within the Genesee Intermediate School District with financing to provide special education services for students who lived in Flint during the Exposure Period and who require such services.” The total legal fees remains unknown but is capped at one-third of the settlement. The majority of funds, 79.5 perecent, is set aside for children impacted.
Born in Houston, Texas, Brittany Greeson spent the majority of her childhood between the great heights of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina and the rolling hills of Western Kentucky. Growing up in the South taught her to appreciate the quirks and little instances of beauty in the world. She is a photojournalist based in Detroit, Michigan. She has interned for The Oregonian, The Roanoke Times, The Flint Journal, and The Washington Post. Her work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, the Scripps Howard Foundation, College Photographer of the Year, the National Press Photographers Association, and the Kentucky News Photographers Association. She has also had the privilege of working with Reuters, The New York Times and CNN. In 2014 she was an International Photojournalism student at The Danish School of Media and Journalism in Aarhus, Denmark. She is a graduate of Western Kentucky University where she received her degrees in Sociology and Photojournalism. She has been featured as an Emerging Photographer with GroundTruth for her coverage of the Flint water crisis. In 2017, she was a fellow with GroundTruth on the Crossing the Divide reporting project.