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FLINT, Mich.—In a city synonymous for half a decade with disaster, something remarkable happened in February 2019. A team of researchers reported that Flint’s homes—even the ones at the highest risk for undrinkable, lead-poisoned tap water—finally had clean water running through their pipes.

After years of painstaking cleanup and rebuilding, the study’s results were a sparkling capstone. Earlier tests already hinted at good news, and this one confirmed it: In the vast majority of such homes, lead levels were 5 parts per billion or better—far below even the strictest regulations in the country. Local news outlet MLive trumpeted the news, and Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality tacked it to their ongoing list of promising signs that indicated the city’s potable present and future.

But a few weeks later, another, equally remarkable thing happened. As part of a United Nations-sponsored “World Water Day” celebration, the City of Flint parked 12 semitrailers stacked with pallets of bottled water on the city’s street corners, offering them to any city resident who could show an ID. People flocked to the pickup locations. They lined up their cars and popped their trunks to collect cases of water to use in their homes—water in bottles, from somewhere else, that they actually trusted.

The wariness wasn’t out of ignorance. Equally wary was Jim Ananich, a lifelong Flint resident and outgoing leader of the Democratic minority in the Michigan State Senate. Ananich wasn’t in line that day, but he understands why people were.

“I can’t tell somebody they should trust [claims that the water is safe], because I don’t trust them—and I have more information than most people,” said Ananich. “Science and logic would tell me that it should be OK, but people have lied to me.”

Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich plays with his son Jake, 4, at home in Flint.

For Americans who stopped following the Flint water crisis after its first few gritty chapters, it might come as a surprise how far the city has come: Today, after nearly $400 million in state and federal spending, Flint has secured a clean water source, distributed filters to all residents who want them, and laid modern, safe copper pipes to nearly every home in the city that needed them. Its water is as good as any city’s in Michigan. And to compensate its just under 95,000 people for the damage they’ve suffered—economically, medically and psychologically—the city and state reached a settlement in August that will pay nearly $650 million to Flint residents.

From an outside perspective, it sounds like a happy ending. For people who live in Flint, the story looks very different. After six years of lies, deliberate or not, a revolving door in a disempowered City Hall, and the dysfunction wrought by a high-profile, high-stakes recovery process, they find themselves still unable to trust either their water or the people telling them to drink it.

“The anger, the lack of trust, it’s all justified,” Ananich says.

The breakdown in trust is rooted not only in the water crisis itself, but its domino effect on state and local politics over the following years: a halting pipe-replacement program marked by accusations of graft; a criminal investigation into those responsible for the crisis that mysteriously “rebooted” and dropped charges against state officials; a city government still decimated by post-Great Recession, state-imposed austerity measures; a basic inability to believe what should be neutral facts.

Providing water and appropriating settlement funds are simple compared with the task the city now faces: convincing its residents not only that they have a future, but that they can trust their government to provide for their most basic of needs.

“We just want to live normally, and actually be able to drink the water that comes out of our tap safely, with no concerns,” said Melissa Mays, a vocal Flint water activist. “Like normal people.”

Water activist Melissa Mays.

In the nation outside Flint, with the coronavirus vaccine at hand, the eyes of “normal people” are eagerly turning toward a post-pandemic world. Optimists and institutionalists hope that new leaders in Washington can deliver the return to normalcy they’ve been promised, and maybe rebuild some of that easily burned-off trust.

But there’s another possibility at play, not as laden with excitement or relief: that after a certain point, the destruction of that trust is the story, as much as any material deprivation Flint’s people could have suffered. And with the gravity of that loss comes the possibility that no number of promises kept, and no amount of empirically-provable repair, can bring it back.

In that scenario, Americans might not take the Covid-19 vaccine, failing to trust in its efficacy and that it won’t severely harm them or their children. They might not trust their criminal justice system, with no incentive to respect a system that allows elites to break the law with impunity. They might not trust the results of a presidential election, behaving as if they live in a banana republic and not a robust, if flawed, democracy.

In that scenario, the future of American politics looks a little less like the nation before Covid or before Trump, and a little more like Flint in 2020.

The Flint River.

Even before its pipes started leaching lead, Flint was deeply in trouble, as badly off as any other Rust Belt city—or worse. Since the slow-motion collapse of the American auto manufacturing industry, its population had shrunk by 50 percent from its postwar peak to just under 100,000 residents. Roughly an hour’s drive north of Detroit, freezing in the diminished warmth of that city’s own economic sun, Flint struggled to pay its legacy pension obligations, flirting with bankruptcy as its tallest building was imploded after decades of neglect.

Adding to its economic woes, much like its larger cousin down the road, Flint has a vexed political relationship with the state. The city’s population is 54 percent Black, compared with the state’s overall Black population of 14 percent. And while Flint’s political tug of war with a majority-white state government isn’t unique, that dynamic gave an extra sting to the city’s repeated financial takeovers by state-appointed emergency managers, culminating in the austerity-driven call to switch its water supply to the contaminated Flint River.

There are plenty of ways to tell the story of what went wrong in Flint leading to that moment. If you spend enough time there, you’ll find someone eager to tell each of them—but the most convenient place to start is April 25, 2014. After the city entered a state of financial emergency during the Great Recession, state, city and county officials collectively decided to save money by switching to a new water source. Instead of partnering with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department as they had in the past, they’d utilize a new pipeline being built by the Karegnondi Water Authority to draw less expensive water from Lake Huron. As a temporary fix to start saving money while that pipeline was completed, the city began drawing its water from the Flint River, something it hadn’t done since the 1960s.

On that day in April, the plan came to fruition. Mayor Dayne Walling, then a 40-year-old Flint native who had won a Rhodes Scholarship before coming back to serve his hometown, raised a glass of that river’s water, toasted a jolly “Here’s to Flint!,” and downed it in one swig, surrounded by his fellow bureaucrats who dutifully followed suit. Just moments before, captured on video now for eternity, Walling had pushed a button on a panel at the city’s water treatment plant that turned an ominous, glowing red. Though nobody knew it at the time, that red glow signified the end of the clean water that flowed from Detroit, and the beginning of a saga that would change the course of Flint’s history.

Not long after, residents started to complain about strange odors and brackish, brown water coming out of their pipes. In August 2014, the city issued a boil water advisory after fecal bacteria were identified in the water. By the time the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notified Michigan in early 2015 that there were dangerous levels of lead in Flint’s water, its residents had complained for months of mysterious illnesses.

When scientists analyzed that water, they discovered to their horror that the city’s treatment of it was woefully inadequate to reduce its levels of harmful bacteria and acid—and that the latter had begun to corrode Flint’s antiquated pipes from the inside, delivering tiny bits of lead through people’s faucets. For months, it turned out, Flint had had been exposing its residents to that lead at levels that could cause lifelong damage to the health of its children. The levels of bacteria likely caused an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that also followed the switch, killing at least a dozen people.

An abandoned house in Flint.

Although Walling literally pressed the button, the decision to use Flint River water had much deeper roots. After a panel appointed by Michigan’s Republican then-governor, Rick Snyder, declared the city in a state of financial emergency—taking its finances, and therefore most major decisions, out of the hands of City Hall and putting them under the control of a hand-picked emergency manager, Walling and Flint’s other elected officials became effectively ornamental.

The city’s financial emergency was the result of years of mismanagement by former Mayor Don Williamson, a brash, proto-Trumpian businessman who oversaw year after year of multimillion-dollar deficits during the 2000s—a large portion of which were due in part to his fending off various lawsuits from city employees.

Walling was elected in 2009 to succeed Williamson, after the latter resigned rather than face a recall election. The new mayor’s voters viewed him as exactly the kind of good-government technocrat capable of reversing the city’s slide. As well as being a Rhodes Scholar, he was an aide to the former U.S. Representative and titan of Flint-area politics Dale Kildee, and Flint residents viewed him as a welcome technocratic contrast with Williamson’s unique governing style. Urbane where his predecessor was crass, credentialed where Williamson had only a rap sheet, brainy instead of flexing his political brawn, Walling was exactly the kind of homegrown talent a troubled, once-proud city needed.

But his efforts to repair the damage his predecessor wrought weren’t fast enough for the state’s liking. Snyder installed Michael Brown as the first in a line of emergency managers—stingingly, on the same day as Walling’s 2011 reelection.

I met Walling at Café Rhema, a small coffee shop in downtown Flint that seeks to do its part in revitalizing the city by invoking the better days of the Jazz Age. Walling is now a consultant and occasional college adjunct, imparting hard-earned wisdom from his time in office to the would-be technocrats of tomorrow. Since he first took office, there have been no fewer than two subsequent mayors and four emergency managers (one serving two nonconsecutive terms), giving Flint residents a leadership that goes far beyond the “revolving door” to approach a whirlwind.

“I get elected in 2009,” he said. “I get reelected in 2011, and then we get the sequence of [four] emergency managers, who under state law effectively become the mayor and the city council, even though they don’t take that title,” Walling told me. “Then the emergency manager leaves, and I’m back [in charge] at the end of April 2015. I lose reelection [that November,] and Mayor [Karen] Weaver gets sworn in. … It’s been an incredible cast of characters who have been in charge at City Hall.”

Walling attempted a political comeback in 2018, running to represent a Flint-area district in the Michigan House of Representatives, and losing in the Democratic primary to John Cherry III, the son of the state’s former lieutenant governor. When he looks back at his time in office, Walling remembers it the same way that many of his constituents probably do: as a time of being caught flat-footed, without recourse or relief.

“There’s the Great Recession, then the Tea Party takeover, and then the rewrite of the emergency manager law, where the state now says, ‘We will take over absolutely everything’ … and then I didn’t see the water crisis coming out of out of that,” Walling told me. “That sequence was extraordinarily difficult. … Hopefully, the scope of those challenges will at some point begin to narrow, but I don’t think we’re at that point.”

Dr. Benjamin J. Pauli, assistant professor at Flint’s Kettering University.

Benjamin Pauli, a professor of social sciences at Flint’s Kettering University and author of Flint Fights Back: Environmental Justice and Democracy in the Flint Water Crisis, draws a direct connection between the state takeover and the groundswell of anger and mistrust around the water crisis, describing how even before the water switch Flint’s activist community was “interested in democracy, and it just so happened that water and democracy were starting to come together.”

That intersection resulted in one of the water crisis’ most unique political consequences: Walling’s succession by Karen Weaver, a local booster, business owner and child psychologist, to replace Walling in 2015. In contrast with Walling, whom her campaign painted as an out-of-touch bureaucrat gladly carrying out the state’s bidding, Weaver was sharply attuned to the demands of Flint activists—and, significantly, became the majority-Black city’s first Black mayor in more than a decade, defeating Walling by 10 points in his second reelection bid as the crisis raged.

One of Weaver’s campaign promises was that she would declare a state of emergency in the city, out of a belief that the city needed to fan the media flames more aggressively in order to draw the national attention and resources necessary to remedy the crisis. She did so in December 2015, a month after her election, and President Barack Obama then declared a federal emergency in January 2016, freeing up $5 million in aid.

Despite what some see as the shortcomings of Weaver’s administration, her emergency declaration is viewed as a key moment in transforming a story of local mismanagement into one with nationwide repercussions. In a city with a long legacy of dysfunction, it’s the rare action that can be matched to a clear and obvious positive outcome.

“The emergency declaration we will be forever thankful for,” said Nayyirah Shariff, a longtime activist and the director of the nonprofit Flint Rising. “She had a press conference, it was on the ticker at CNN by 4:00, and she was on ‘Rachel Maddow’ by 9:00. Regardless of how people may feel about her administration, if she had not done that emergency declaration, Flint would not have been international news.”

Weaver was elected as an outsider, someone who would give voice to Flint’s common man and upend the sclerotic status quo through sheer force of personality. But her tenure in office revealed the difficulties faced by all outsiders once they get inside.

“One of the things about Karen is that she’s a regular person, and not a politician, and so there were some issues with that, mostly from some of the people she listened to,” said Mays, the activist. “I can’t say I agree with everything she said and did, but she stood with us, and she pushed for us, and she understood the urgency we felt.”

Activists heralded her election, but during her four years in office, Weaver frequently stumbled. She became mired not only in controversies over the water crisis’ complicated infrastructural fix, but accusations she used her office to reward friends and family and boost her own profile.

A Flint resident stops Mayor Sheldon Neeley for a selfie on March 5, 2020.

Weaver was narrowly defeated in her 2019 reelection bid by Sheldon Neeley, a state representative and former city council member who relentlessly needled the mayor for her mismanagement of the arduous project to replace the city’s lead pipes, calling her a “ceremonial mayor” who basked in the media spotlight.

When I spoke to Mayor Neeley, he acknowledged the difficulties Flint faces—public safety, sanitation and managing the city’s teetering pension system—and that the ability of residents to trust that the government can meet those needs was at an all-time low.

“People just want a government that works,” Neeley said. When I asked him about his evaluation of Weaver, he was guarded in his response, but invoked an oft-repeated campaign slogan—one that’s hints at Flint’s desperate need to believe in something beyond its own ongoing diminishment.

“The majority of voters thought I could deliver better things for them. And for the other half, I will serve them equally; I believe that over the last few months, we’re winning them over,” Neeley said. “We’re a community of victors, not a community of victims.”

In the past 12 years, then, Flint has had four different mayors. It’s also had four state-appointed emergency managers who are fully unaccountable to voters. Its water source was switched from a Detroit-owned plant on Lake Huron to the Flint River, and back again. On a deep level, it’s been drilled into Flint residents’ heads that they can’t trust their local officials to get the job done when it comes to even the most basic necessities, exemplified by the installment of the city’s emergency managers. And then they failed, too.

“There would not have been a water crisis if we had democracy in the city,” Shariff told me, pointing to how the city abandoned Detroit’s water source only at the behest of its austerity-minded, unelected state officials.

“We didn’t have the chance for residents to weigh in. Once things started to look hinky, local elected officials could have made a different decision.”

If you’re one of those residents, the water crisis isn’t just a story about lead leaching from corroded pipes, or the dizzying, Altmanesque cast of characters promising to fix it. The repair effort itself became an unending nightmare, marked by the orange flags and construction backfill that have endlessly dotted the city’s landscape since 2016, markers of the long, arduous process of replacing corroded lead pipes.

One of the city’s primary goals during its recovery has been very straightforward: Replace all of its lead and galvanized steel pipes with safer, more modern copper lines. But after that, nothing was simple. Like many older cities, Flint had no clear record of which pipes were outdated or dangerous; such information was scrawled on more than 100,000 note cards that languished in a city basement, some more than a century old. The information they provided was, to be generous, incomplete.

To remedy that and determine which homes were most likely to have harmful lead pipes in need of replacement, in 2016 a team of computer scientists at the University of Michigan developed a machine-learning model. Making its predictions based on homes’ ages and additional input from the state about which areas and residents might be at the highest risk, it had a 70 percent success rate, a rare spot of good news in a brutal half-decade.

“They were using this system to go to the homes that were most likely to have lead or galvanized [pipes], and they had a lot of success,” Mays told me. “Then AECOM took over.”

In late 2017, Weaver’s administration gave AECOM, a national infrastructure firm that boasts on its website of being one of Fortune’s “Most Admired Companies,” a $5 million contract meant to speed up the program. Instead, the city’s success rate in finding the pipes in question plummeted from 70 percent to 15—worse than would be expected if homes had been chosen completely at random.

The reason: AECOM had completely abandoned the University of Michigan computer scientists’ system, opening the door for Weaver to direct pipe excavations based on political considerations. Alan Wong, then AECOM’s project manager, told The Atlantic in early 2019 that her administration “did not want to have to explain to a councilperson why there was no work in their district.”

AECOM no longer oversees the program, having been replaced last year by ROWE Engineering, a local firm that conducted the initial phase of pipe replacement. (AECOM defends its work, telling POLITICO in a statement that the company is “very satisfied with the results delivered,” and noting it “exceeded expectations” set by the city’s pipe replacement program.)

Weaver, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story, was roundly criticized in Flint and throughout the state for her handling of the pipe replacement program. She does, however, have an unlikely defender: Dayne Walling, the man she defeated to become mayor.

“In fairness to Mayor Weaver, I do think the citizens of the city deserved to see [pipe excavation] done in different parts of the city,” Walling said. “There could have been a combination of approaches, where the most capacity was focused on the highest-risk areas, and some could have been dedicated to, you know, complaints from someone who the model may not show is in a high-risk place. … I think you can do 75 percent of one and 25 percent of the other, but what actually happened was that it went totally the other way.”

Jim Ananich and his son, Jake.

Jim Ananich, the state senator and Flint politics lifer who has represented the city at the local and state level for 15 years, is equally sympathetic, saying the issues with pipe replacement speak to how the water crisis touches everything from public health to good governance and infrastructure.

“I’m not making excuses for anybody, but when you have a major program that no one’s ever done before, there’s going to be bumps,” Ananich said. “But you fix bumps, right? You don’t just keep them there. There was no question that the program was not the most efficient at times, and I think there were a lot of contractors that had never done this kind of work before. … Lansing [Michigan’s capital city] did this, and it took them 12 years to do it. We were trying to do it in two, and now we’re in our third or fourth year.”

Like nearly everyone I interviewed for this story, Ananich has his own personal story about dissatisfaction with the pipe-replacement program. In his case, tired of waiting for the city, he hired a crew to swap out the pipes on his own dime. But he acknowledges that many others are not as fortunate.

Chandra Walker-Smith is among them. “We had to have our yard torn up, and it took months for them to replace what they damaged, with no commitment to replace any of the landscaping we had there,” Walker-Smith told me. Walker-Smith conducts outreach for the National Resources Defense Council, contacting Flint residents who haven’t yet had their pipes replaced. She said that, in her experience, a majority of the people she encounters cite the high level of disruption to daily life as a major reason why they don’t want their pipes replaced.

Still, the city’s work has continued apace. Its most recent official update, from early October, shows that lead and galvanized steel pipes have been replaced in 9,769 homes. Fewer than 500 remain to be inspected. But even with that project finally reaching its completion after years of strife, and EPA administrators saying Flint’s water is “better than it’s ever been,” most of the Flint residents I interviewed said they’re still wary of what comes out of their tap.

“I don’t have detected lead anymore, and I still don’t trust it,” Ananich told me. “I’ll drink out of the tap on occasion, or make the coffee with it, but my son doesn’t.”

Chandra Walker-Smith canvasses Flint’s neighborhoods in search of residents whose home water systems are in need of testing for lead.

Given the pain and distrust that followed the water crisis, and the potential health effects that still lurk in its aftermath, it’s understandable that Flint is desperate to hold someone accountable—perhaps to hold a lot of people accountable.

From 2016 to 2019, this looked like a real possibility. Republican Former Attorney General Bill Schuette appointed special prosecutor Todd Flood to head a broad, aggressive criminal investigation into the water crisis. Flood charged more than a dozen officials, including charging both the head of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services and its chief medical executive with felonies. But now Flint finds this form of resolution, too, possibly slipping out of reach.

In June 2019, around 100 Flint residents crowded into the city’s UAW Local 659 meeting hall for an update on the investigation from the new investigators appointed by recently elected Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel. In a shocking development that made national headlines, those prosecutors had recently dropped all pending charges in the investigation, something the Kettering professor Pauli said hit the city “like a punch to the gut.” The people of Flint were upset. And after hearing the investigators’ explanation, they were still upset.

The new investigators accused Flood of failing to adequately examine all the evidence available to him, saying that even his various felony charges may have been too lenient given the scope of the potential malfeasance. Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud, one of the lead prosecutors appointed by Nessel, warned that those who made plea deals based on those charges would “walk away from this with nothing [on their record]” and promised a more robust investigation that would result in a higher level of accountability.

Perhaps she did intend to push harder, but Flint felt angry and betrayed. The new prosecutors said the town hall would offer more concrete answers after their vague initial statement that promised a “full and complete investigation” moving forward. Instead, they ended up spending most of the evening hearing from anguished Flint residents skeptical they would see further convictions or accountability at all. (I covered this meeting in my former role as a reporter for the Michigan Advance.)

By then, more than five years had passed since the switch flipped that began the crisis. Angry resident after angry resident stepped up to the podium to question the investigators about grievances new and old, physical and psychic. As the evening wore on, Flint resident Elizabeth Taylor needled them for their perceived eagerness to draw the proceedings to a close: “How can we trust you when you look at the clock and say you want to leave? You ended [the investigation]. We didn’t. We’re not finished with you all.”

Many of the residents who lined up to speak did so through tears. Some, as the clock ran out on the evening, didn’t even get that opportunity. And a year and a half later, no new charges have been filed. On April 25 of this year, the six-year anniversary of Walling’s fateful photo op, the statute of limitations for misdemeanors and felony misconduct charges in Michigan expired.

The development drew little attention outside the state’s borders, but the sense of abandonment and betrayal that followed it goes far beyond the grassroots.

“I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that all of those 15 people [charged in Flood’s investigation] are going to get charged again,” Pauli said. “Maybe they’ll end up with one charge surviving, and they’ll at least make a show of trying to hold a few people accountable with that charge, but … the gap between that as an outcome and what residents were hoping for and expecting is huge.”

“There’s nothing. There’s no information coming out, none,” Mays said. “Instead of actually going after the people who poisoned us, they’re just going after Todd Flood. All that was coming out [of] the attorney general’s office [last summer] was bashing Todd Flood. Like, what the hell are you doing? He didn’t poison us. At that town hall, what people walked away feeling is that the attorney general now feels like Todd Flood poisoned us all.”

Nessel’s communications director declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing investigation.

This year, Ananich, the state senator, sponsored a bill that would have extended the statute of limitations, but it lost momentum just as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. In April, he told Flint’s local East Village Magazine that he was “certain there were other crimes,” and that “there were plenty of opportunities for misconduct after April 25.”

The people of Flint remain, understandably, skeptical.

“It’s hard to maintain people’s trust in institutions when you don’t see justice being done with your own eyes,” Pauli said. “I shudder to think what’s going to happen if these cases just evaporate into thin air, because it’s going to be yet another trauma inflicted upon the community, whether people intend it that way or not.”

“For me, you can’t have trust without truth-telling,” Shariff said. “Or at least admitting you’ve done something wrong. Gov. Snyder has never come here to say he’s sorry. So what’s the trust level?”

Crews work to replace a water main along Flint’s Dupont St. on March 5.

Flint is now shifting its focus toward rebuilding and accountability, but our understanding of what happened there evolves every day, raising new and troubling questions about whether good government is feasible at all in America’s hardest-struggling cities. Those questions touch on not only the crisis’ far-reaching medical consequences but its roots in a decades-long divestment of power from the people the crisis hurt the most, as well as the extent to which government might endanger lives to evade blame or embarrassment for such a scandal.

As the Trump administration’s nonresponse to Covid-19 allows the disease to tear unabated through America’s most vulnerable populations, with unknown long-term health effects and serious questions on the horizon about equity in vaccine distribution, this might sound a little bit familiar. And if you listen to those have seen it all before, all too recently, in Flint, there’s little reason to expect a new era of good feelings on the horizon.

Dr. Laura Sullivan, a Kettering scientist who has advised the city on water issues, described to me how the city’s aging and inadequate infrastructure led to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that accompanied the water crisis. She believes the state vastly underplayed, and therefore worsened, that outbreak at the time.

“There were all kinds of efforts at the government level to quiet, and to disregard, and to discourage the idea that there were issues regarding bacteria [during the water crisis],” Sullivan said. “The state is well prepared to argue out any legal liability from lead poisoning, but you can’t really argue out the bacteria if you can show that the bacteria is there because of the water switch, and there are researchers now who have shown that.”

The fact that some residents still say they experience mysterious water issues doesn’t inspire their confidence, either. “We still don’t consume it,” said Walker-Smith, whose tap water has tested negative for lead. “They tell us that the water’s OK now, but I have excessive itching on my back right now. There’s been hair loss; I could go on and on about the things I’ve heard.”

But even amid all the pessimism, there’s an important distinction to be made between a city’s government and its people. Former Mayor Walling described to me the improbable hope and dedication he’s seen in the community across his decade-plus working and campaigning in Flint politics.

“There are some people who say, you know, ‘I’m looking for a ticket out of here.’ But there’s a much larger percentage of people who love this place,” Walling said. “There’s this deep attachment to the community, bordering on desperation. And it’s a positive kind of desperation, in that it’s a desperate desire for something better.”

Whatever that “something better” is, it may explain why, despite her complaints, Walker-Smith hasn’t left Flint, and doesn’t plan to.

“People think we’re just poor and have no means to leave. Some of us just don’t want to leave. Both sides of my family are here. I own my home; it’s paid for; I don’t have a mortgage. I don’t want to leave my home,” she said. “You just have to adjust.”

For the time being, it’s unclear what that adjustment may look like or exactly how it will arrive. Despite a parade of presidential contenders through the city in 2019 and 2020, eager to prove their bona fides on environmental and racial justice, Flint residents are skeptical that their salvation will come through the ballot box.

Flint’s Capitol Theatre.

“People are weary,” Pauli said. “They wanted all of this to be fixed a long time ago, and they still don’t trust the institutions that are supposed to be protecting them, and they have some pretty good reasons for not doing so.”

Flint has fought tooth and nail to reach something that even vaguely resembles normalcy. Its water quality has undeniably recovered, and despite concerns about equity, the new developments that dot the city’s downtown are striking when compared with its trajectory just half a decade ago. Its people clearly take pride in the renovated Capitol Theatre, the bustling farmer’s market and the Ferris Wheel, a gleaming, conspicuously modern startup incubator on the main drag of Saginaw Street. But that pride is matched—doubled, really—by a hard-bitten awareness that with the end of a crisis comes a new batch of problems, with less obvious solutions.

Those in Flint who choose to stick around and help find those solutions now face an improbable-seeming question, after nearly seven full years of crisis. It’s a question that Americans throughout the country may find themselves asking when the dust settles from the chaos of 2020: Where, even, to begin?

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested that former Rep. Dale Kildee had passed away. It has been corrected.



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