The consequences of closing down Flint

There are basically two ways which we can deal with any problem which has become a crisis: we can redouble our efforts to fix the problem, or we can abandon the situation—these are roughly the two options which are metaphorized in the phrase “fight or flight.”

The people of Flint, Michigan, who now face a water-supply crisis which has justifiably scandalized the country, must now make a decision of this kind. Is it better—is it possible—to save Flint, or is it better to pronounce it a failed city, and turn to the next most humane option: evacuation? Until now, that question has been pondered individually by each of Flint’s residents, and answered in terms of resources and class. Those who have had the option to go somewhere else—anywhere else—have hurried to do so. By contrast, for many who have remained there was never any decision at all; poverty and immobility have kept them in place. This is a process which has been going on since long before the present water crisis was exposed. Flint, like many economically insolvent cities across the country, has been bleeding people and capital for decades, leaving those who stay behind even more impoverished and less able to escape than before.

Now, Emily Badger, writing in the Washington Post, asks whether we should extend the “flight” option to all of Flint’s residents—to determine, in effect, that Flint is beyond recovery, and that the only moral course of action which remains is to both democratize and hasten its abandonment. Only by starting their life again elsewhere as internal refugees will Flint’s poor ever have a fair chance at a decent life.

This argument is synchronous with a basic principle which has become an article of faith amongst most contemporary economists: that geographical mobility and economic opportunity are closely linked, such that the most effective way to help the disadvantage is to make it as easy as possible for them to pick up their bags and move to places where jobs are hot, taxes are low, and services easy to come by. This, of course, is an explicit rejection of the idea that it is possible to equalize economic opportunity across many different places, or to plan for an economy in which a wide variety of communities, from mass cities to rural hamlets, are viable place to live and work. Economists are almost unanimously opposed to the idea that governments should intervene to save dying industries, under the reasoning that dying industries are dying for a reason, and propping them up is folly. In much the same way, economists often agree that it is pointless to intervene in a dying city. Under this logic, dying cities (or dying towns, or dying regions) deserve to die, and the only thing we can or should do is to make sure everyone has an equal chance at getting in a lifeboat. Perhaps there is something in the inheritance of our national consciousness that predisposes us to this conclusion: after all, the vast majority of Americans can trace their origins back to immigrants who, concluding that conditions were impossibly bad in their home countries, abandoned them.1

But communities are something more than just places for workers to sleep at night. People care about the places they live in for reasons that extend well beyond good jobs and thriving industries. Vast amounts of capital, material, time, effort, commitment, and love go into making places that are good, just, humane, and beautiful places to live. We should be very cautious before we declare all that a loss and condemn an entire place to obsolescence.

Which is why I am torn about whether we should make it easier for Flint’s residents to choose “flight.” Certainly it is only fair to extend Flint’s poor an opportunity which has long been the preferred option for its rich. But it seems like a dangerous precedent to follow a policy whose logical conclusion is to hasten and ultimately complete the abandonment of a city. And it is depressing indeed that we live in an era where it seems somehow more feasible to relocate people en masse than to assert their fundamental right to basic public services no matter where they might choose to live.

And besides: all these people need places to go. In two separate comments, here and here, on the question of whether cities like Washington or San Francisco should upbuild to solve their out-of-control housing affordability crises, I used Flint as an example of the problems created by a winner-take-all geography—problems which afflict the winners as well as the losers (and this was before the water crisis came to light). Flint is only the most obvious example of a pattern replicated throughout today’s America, in which disinvestment and economic restructuring are undermining hundreds if not thousands of tertiary and quaternary cities and towns, setting off unstoppable cycles of poverty and insolvency in those places, and exacerbating the vicious competiton for space in the few thriving cities that remain.

No matter how much more housing is built, assholes, San Francisco (and New York and a half-dozen other hot cities) will never be able absorb huge swathes of the American population—which is why Flint’s problem is also San Francisco’s problem, and New York’s problem, and so on. I absolutely understand why “flight” may be the choice of Flint’s residents, and why well-meaning advocates would want to help them in this. But I would much rather see us recommit ourselves to a fight for geographic equality—for a fair regional balance that offers many, rather than a few, good places to live.

  1. John Stilgoe makes an argument similar to this one in Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820–1939 (New Haven: Yale Unviersity Press, 1990).