Flint, Michigan: the story of a modern American city

Photographer Zackary Canepari arrived in Flint in 2012, before a scandal about tainted water brought the city to international attention. For six years he has documented a place of struggle, and strength


Flint is a city long infamous for poverty, crime, and more recently the water crisis that has plagued people here for four years. It seems everyone in America knows what to expect when they hear the name Flint: economic, political and social dysfunction. Flint is a place of struggle, but thats not all it is.

For the last six years Ive been working in Michigan on the Flint is a Place project. Its an immersive dive into a city that is more layered and nuanced than commonly portrayed, telling the story of a community living on the fringes. After 40 years of economic struggle, Flint is a place where the abnormal has become normal.

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In the 1980s, Flint had the highest median income for under-35s in America. Today it has one of the lowest. The city has consistently been on the FBIs top 10 most violent list and has the highest ratio of abandoned homes in the country. Over four decades it went from living the American dream to an American nightmare.

The water crisis continues, and Flint just shut one of its last remaining high schools. Things have not got better, but there are still people fighting for change.

The faces of Flint


As the water crisis was unfolding, these police cadets were being trained to deal with civil unrest at the Mott Police Academy. The Flint Police Department is barely holding it together. A decade of budget cuts has decreased their number from nearly 300 to fewer than 100 officers as crime continued to increase in a city of 100,000. Its the lowest ratio of officer to citizen of any comparable city in America.

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The officers are disgruntled. They feel overwhelmed and under-appreciated. The veterans, many of whom are from Flint, have endured numerous pay cuts and layoffs and have watched their city decay. The younger officers, who havent been around long enough to feel loyalty to the city, are leaving to join other departments that pay better and include a real pension.


Officer Bridgette Balasko was eating breakfast and watching the post-presidential election coverage before heading to work in 2016. I didnt know who I wanted to vote for. I didnt want to vote, she told me. I didnt want to vote for either candidate because I thought they were both terrible.


These people were handcuffed after police raided a house of drug users. The raid was performed by the crime area target team (Catt), a zero-tolerance unit created to focus on drugs and guns in Flint. The raid didnt yield much a handful of drug users but not much product. This particular house has been raided multiple times by the police, but theyre unable to evict the owners.


  • Hazel Eiber gets a bath from her grandmother Sabrina, using bottled water

In 2014, the city started drawing its drinking water supply from the Flint river, without using lead corrosion controls. Despite public outcry, city officials insisted the water was safe to drink. It wasnt, and a public health crisis ensued. By 2015, the water crisis became national news.

One-year-old Hazel Eilber was being given a bath by her grandmother, Sabrina. She would only bathe Hazel in bottled water because she feared that even touching the tap water could make her sick. Sabrina has since moved out of Flint, vowing never to return.


On election day in 2016, friends and family came to pay respects to Montel Kenyatta Wright, 46, who had been killed in a drug deal two weeks earlier. Wright was one of three homicides in Flint that weekend.


  • Kamya, Mhyangel and Jaziah at Bluebell Beach in the north-east corner of the city

During the summer, Bluebell Beach is full of families and people having barbecues, but it is also well known for fights and violence. Over the last few years the parks department has made it more family-friendly by increasing security and police patrols, extending the play area and installing a big fountain for kids to play in. The crime and related problems have decreased, and there are now more families around.


Locals participate in an environmental rally and sermon at the First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church with Flint mayor Karen Weaver, Russell Simmons (co-founder of hip hop music label Def Jam) and a number of national pastors. Simmons is one of a number of high-profile celebrities who have visited Flint since the water crisis became national news.


This was the last football game played at Northwestern High School before the school merged its athletics programme with Southwestern, the only other high school in Flint. Both schools have had an ongoing problem with low enrolment numbers and poor facilities. The schools hope that joining forces will help to tackle the issue.


  • Students from Northwestern High School



These graduating seniors are affected by generational poverty and a lack of resources. The city has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. The students from Northwestern are proud and strong, but they undeniably also have the odds stacked against them.


Id been working with the police department for months and scenes like this were fairly typical. The Catt squad was investigating a call about drugs being sold on this block. In this case, they didnt find anything and the guys were let go.

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