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Flint's image a decade after its water crisis


Ten years ago, the safety of drinking water came to the forefront nationally because of a crisis in Flint, Mich. There were high levels of lead and other contaminants in the city's tap water because of mistakes made when the city changed the source of its drinking water. A decade later, some Flint residents, like 82-year-old Carol Harris, still will not use the tap water.


CAROL HARRIS: I don't drink it. I don't cook with it. I don't trust it. Not at all. No. They say it's OK, but I bet they not drinking it.

CHANG: That, despite years of efforts to repair Flint's water system. And the city also faces a separate challenge - fixing its battered image. Michigan Public's Steve Carmody reports.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It looks like an ordinary day in the USA. But in the city of Flint, Michigan, all is excitement. Even the small fry are buzzing.

STEVE CARMODY, BYLINE: In this promotional film produced by General Motors in the 1950s, Flint appears prosperous, its auto industry robust. But Flint's image as the Vehicle City came tumbling down by the 1980s as GM closed plants and the city's fortunes waned. Flint's image was further tarnished by extensive news coverage of the city's lead-tainted drinking water - video of turbid water pouring from kitchen taps, people waiting in long lines to get bottled water and toddlers crying as nurses prick their fingers to check their blood lead levels.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right, sweetie, little poke.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good job. What a big girl you are today. Yay.

CARMODY: It's been a decade, and tests today show Flint's water is drinkable. But the images of a decade ago are largely what remains in people's minds today.

AMARI STEWARD: Oh, you're from Flint. How's the water, is the very next question that they ask me.

CARMODY: That's Amari Steward. Her job at the local chamber of commerce is to attract conventions and tourists to Flint. She says when making her pitch to potential conventioneers, it's about answering their questions to get them to think beyond the city's reputation as a place where you can't drink the water. Since the water crisis, that's a difficult job, but not an impossible one.


CARMODY: Travis Crossley is limbering up his fingers in his studio before he starts another day as a tattoo artist. Crossley is also busy these days making plans for the Tattoo City Tattoo Convention this summer in Flint. He's expecting 400 tattoo artists and maybe 5,000 attendees. Though he admits there is some reluctance.

TRAVIS CROSSLEY: You know, people think that the water is not drinkable, and that's just simply not the case. I feel like the situation has been fixed and that that one situation shouldn't define this community.

CARMODY: Crossley says to move beyond the water crisis, Flint needs a rebranding. Sheila Rondeau agrees. Rondeau is a marketing strategist with MOGXP, which specializes in corporate image building. Rondeau says in order for a Flint to change its image, there are things the city must do, including finishing the job of replacing lead pipes. Although the city has replaced more than 10,000 pipes, there may still be hundreds that remain in the ground. Rondeau says city leaders also have to change their approach to change Flint's image.

SHEILA RONDEAU: They have been on the defensive so long. At a certain point, they have to go on the offensive.

CARMODY: Rondeau compares the task ahead of Flint to improve its image to the transformation Pittsburgh has undergone from the Pennsylvania city's transition as a late-20th-century symbol of industrial decay to 21st-century high-tech hub. While city leaders pursue the path of changing Flint's image, Flint residents find they're still dealing with their own battered self image.

CHRIS MARTIN: You know what it's like to be embarrassed to say where your church is, to be embarrassed to tell your family that I go to church in Flint? It destroyed a lot of our parishioners' confidence.

CARMODY: That's Bishop Chris Martin. He leads the Cathedral of Faith Church on Flint's north side. Martin says many of those who attend his church are still struggling today with the stress and anxiety from the water crisis and the effect that has had on their faith. Even after the last of the city's lead pipes are replaced, some worry it'll be years before many Flint residents will have some level of closure. For NPR News, I'm Steve Carmody, in Flint, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Radio since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting. During his two and a half decades in broadcasting, Steve has won numerous awards, including accolades from the Associated Press and Radio and Television News Directors Association. Away from the broadcast booth, Steve is an avid reader and movie fanatic. Q&A