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On this block, worries run deeper than Flint's tainted water

FLINT, Mich. — One resident of Zimmerman Street has trouble sleeping from the gunfire that crackles through the air at night. A married couple down the block has heard squatters camped out in an abandoned house next door. A grandfather across the street cannot find steady work in the city, getting by with odd jobs that pay less than $9 an hour.

If anxieties over the water in Flint have eased, they have been replaced with different ones.

On this block of crumbling bungalows on Flint's west side, residents said that life in Flint is as precarious as ever. Many are still distrustful of their tap water, though it now comes from Lake Huron, not the notoriously polluted Flint River. The government has just promised to replace lead pipes in houses throughout the city, another step to help people in Flint out of the 3-year-old water crisis.

But there has been no relief from some of their most entrenched though less-publicized problems. And many of those have grown worse because of the tainted water that poisoned residents and further eroded their city's reputation and property values.

Look down the block and you see what we're dealing with, said Loyd Thomas, 70, a veteran of General Motors, standing on the front porch of his white bungalow.

The house next door has burned down, like so many others in Flint. Often the fires are set by arsonists, bent on vandalism or insurance fraud, who are never caught. He points to the sloping surface of Zimmerman Street, a block pockmarked by craters and deep ruts that never seem to be fully fixed.

"They say things here are going to get better, that we're going to have a recovery," Thomas said. "I just keep waiting on it."

• • •

Steven Diehl sits on his front step, his eyes trained on two of his children as they play, climbing a tree near the curb. On a warm April evening, Zimmerman Street is humming with life.

It is Monday night, so Diehl, 29, allows them outside. On weekends, he is more cautious, rarely leaving the house in the evenings.

His main worry about Flint these days is gun violence. Just the other night, he heard gunfire that sounded dangerously close. The next day, around 8 a.m., he was awakened by shots on the corner, apparently people firing their guns into the air. Last year, there were 45 homicides in the city.

"People with the littlest problems shoot at each other instead of talking it out," he said. "Everybody just wants to be bigger than the next man. That's how people think out here."

• • •

Anthony Johnson tends to some meaty ribs on the grill in his front yard across the street, a cloud of smoke billowing around him. His grandchildren scamper around the yard.

Johnson had started the day like so many others: coffee, breakfast and a scan through Craigslist ads for work. Sometimes he finds restaurant jobs, roofing work, doing odd jobs for homeowners. They are almost always temporary gigs, and usually they are outside Flint, which has lost thousands of jobs in recent years. This day, he comes up empty.

Some weeks are better than others — he usually finds work four days a week. "I've got to keep myself busy," said Johnson, 40. "There are so many problems in this city, I can't even count them. But jobs are No. 1. Without a job, you can't support your family."

Most of the work he finds pays minimum wage, which in January was increased to $8.90 from $8.50 in Michigan. But it's not enough. Johnson has had run-ins with the law, including a destruction of property conviction, though he doesn't believe his record has impeded his job search. Through a cousin, he says, he just got a lead on a full-time factory job. He's waiting to hear whether he will get an interview.

He is also contemplating a move next month to North Carolina, where he says the work is steadier and more plentiful. Sometimes he wonders if he's giving up on the city where he was born and raised.

"I feel like Flint is falling," Johnson said. "It just keeps on falling. I don't think it's going to get better."

• • •

Todd Davis and Tamatha Watson have lived in their two-story home on Zimmerman Street for more than a decade. They used to have a next-door neighbor, Dorothy Overman, who planted a community garden across the street and daffodils, ivy and tulips in her yard. But Overman moved away and now that house stands empty and hollowed out, like several others on the block.

Blight is pervasive in Flint. City officials estimated in 2015 that nearly 20,000 properties were in need of "blight elimination," including vacant lots and crumbling buildings. On many blocks, there are more decaying, abandoned houses than inhabited ones.

On Zimmerman Street, people like Watson, 47, feel that their sense of security has been abandoned with the houses. They worry that even more buildings will empty out. At night, they say they can hear people going inside the vacants, rustling around, stripping metals away, looking for valuables. Sometimes squatters use their phones as flashlights, casting an eerie glow visible to the neighbors.

In March, Watson's Chihuahua-dachshund mix, Mr. Boo Diddle, suddenly began barking in the direction of the house next door, which was once Overman's. Watson peered out the window and saw a man in a blue shirt breaking the front door down. He left with the stove, brazenly rolling it away on a dolly. The haul left track marks in snow on the unshoveled sidewalk.

Watson said she called 911, but that the police never came. A spokeswoman for Karen Weaver, the mayor of Flint, did not respond to an inquiry about the call. "The police don't do anything," she said. "They literally could have followed the tracks and figured out where he was."

• • •

Derek Sywyk and Kathryn Dunman used to like living on Zimmerman Street. They are within walking distance of a flower shop, a neighborhood tavern, a Mexican restaurant. They know their neighbors, like Watson and Davis, and exchange waves with neighbors they don't know as well. But they are stuck.

"I would like to leave, but I don't have the finances for that," said Dunman, who owns the house and shares it with Sywyk, her boyfriend. Their living room is painted a cheerful yellow; the tables and walls are covered with Easter decorations, painted ceramic eggs and plush bunnies.

Decades ago, houses on Zimmerman Street were worth much more. Sywyk's grandparents bought the house next door for $65,000, he guesses in the 1980s; now it's worth a small fraction of that price.

Think of Overman's house, across the street, Sywyk and Dunman said. She had lived there for more than 30 years and raised her children there. Four years ago, she was fed up with Flint's problems and moved to a neighboring town. Overman says her house sold for only $5,000.

Sywyk, who does volunteer work for the state Health Department, dreams of escaping. "It's just so tiresome," he said. "Sometimes I just want to give up."

If he moved up north, he said, he'd finally get away from Flint's problems.

On this block, worries run deeper than Flint's tainted water 04/28/17 [Last modified: Friday, April 28, 2017 2:32pm]
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