Watch the Democratic presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Flint, Michigan, on CNN Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.

Flint, Michigan CNN  — 

The concrete slab stretches for miles, faded parking lines barely visible under tangled weeds. Officer Wordie Johnson drives his black Chevy Tahoe patrol car slowly along the mangled chain-link fence.

“We used to watch the new cars roll off the line here,” Johnson says. The 22-year veteran of the force grew up in Flint, and can still picture this place in its prime. “You had first, second and third shift of thousands and thousands of people who were working on a daily basis.”

The massive property at the corner of Industrial Avenue and East Stewart Avenue once housed General Motors’ Buick City. The last car, a LeSabre, rolled off the line in 1999. When GM declared bankruptcy, the property was put in the hands of a trust. It would be worth millions – if anyone wanted to buy land in one of the nation’s most troubled cities.

“The city that poisoned its people,” Bryn Mickle, editor of The Flint Journal, wryly quotes Flint’s unofficial new tagline. Good luck trying to attract a major corporation now, he says. “Can you imagine that conversation? ‘Hey, I think we should build a new plant in Flint …’ “

Evidence of the most recent crisis in Flint is easy to spot. Long lines of American-made cars line up at fire stations, where National Guardsmen hand out pallets of bottled water. Signs above water fountains say “please don’t drink,” and restaurants have dropped signs advertising food specials in favor of those touting “Detroit water.”

Flint family uses 151 bottles of water per day

But Flint’s problems started long before Michigan declared a state of emergency.

In 2014, the city’s population was 99,002, nearly half of what it was 50 years ago. More than 41% of Flint’s residents live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census. For three years running, Flint was named the most violent city in the nation, and it has – or had, depending on who you ask – a big arson problem.

The sad part is that by many accounts, Flint was beginning something of a comeback before the water crisis hit. Crime rates were finally dropping. Unemployment rates in 2015 were down, drawing closer to the national average than they had in years. Small businesses were bringing life back to downtown.

“I don’t want in any way to give this impression that Flint was a beautiful mecca that had solved all its problems,” Mickle says. “That’s not the case at all. But I will say there were a lot of bright spots, and there was a real feeling there was a renaissance going on.”

Beginning of the end

Driving a foreign car in “Vehicle City,” as Flint is known, is severely frowned upon. Signs on some buildings prohibit parking non-American cars on the property. They’re serious. GM may have a smaller presence in Flint than it once did, but its 5,600 workers here want to keep their jobs.

In 1908, when General Motors was founded, the population of Flint was 38,000. By 1960 it was 196,000. Houses couldn’t be built fast enough to accommodate newcomers. At its peak, GM employed more than 75,000 people in Flint.

“The city was booming,” remembers Reggie Smith, president of the United Auto Workers Union Local 659.

Flint is the home of the famous 44-day sit-down strike against General Motors, which birthed the UAW in 1937.

Smith – no relation to the late GM CEO Roger Smith, who led the company during its most turbulent period – started working at GM in 1977. He worked 12-hour days, barely having time to cash the checks he was pulling in. It was “good money,” especially for a young, single man.

Then in 1986, GM announced it would be closing 11 of its older plants around the country, including multiple facilities in Flint. By 1992, more than 19,000 people who used to work at auto facilities in Flint were no longer employed by GM. And more layoffs were still to come.

As shocking as they were on a local level, the layoffs in Flint might have gone unnoticed by much of the country had it not been for Michael Moore’s 1989 film “Roger & Me.” The incendiary documentary tugged at heartstrings as it showed residents being evicted, belongings thrown onto lawns, and abandoned house after abandoned house as people left the city for greener, more employment-friendly pastures.

“Roger & Me,” which chronicled Moore’s attempts to meet the GM CEO, faced criticism for misrepresenting the chronological order of several pivotal scenes in the film. But the narrative Moore told of a discarded and disillusioned population would prove difficult for the city to escape. As film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 1990, “Parts of ‘Roger & Me’ are factual. Parts are not. All of the movie is true.”

“That was the beginning of the downslide in Flint,” Smith says.

The superlatives no city wants

Tromeshia Horton's sister, Shameka Johnson, was shot dead in front of Johnson's house in Flint in 2012, when her girls, Brayla, left, and Kayla, were infants.

Tromeshia Horton still lives in the house where she saw her 18-year-old sister, Shameka Johnson, killed on January 22, 2012. Johnson was shot three times in the street in front of the home on Flint’s north side. Horton held her sister’s bleeding face as the life left her eyes. According to reports from The Flint Journal at the time, it was the second homicide on that street – and the fourth in the city – in less than a week.

“The young generation is picking up guns because they think that’s the way to solve problems,” Horton says. “People don’t fight with their hands anymore.”

Horton doesn’t let her girls, J’Meshia, 9, and twins Kayla and Bralya, 4, play outside. She tries to avoid going to the store without the girls’ father. The younger ones don’t go to day care; Horton drops them off with her grandmother, Gloria Horton, on her way to work. Gloria Horton raised Tromeshia after she was placed in foster care at age 14.

If GM’s struggles put Flint on the nation’s radar, the city’s crime rate has kept it there. In 2010, Flint topped the FBI’s list of the most violent cities in America; it had the most violent crimes per capita among cities with more than 100,000 residents. The FBI cautions against ranking cities because of reporting variances, but whatever way you shook the numbers, life in Flint was dangerous.

Flint topped the FBI list again in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, when it dropped to No. 2, the headline read: “Flint no longer most violent city in America.”

When Wordie Johnson was a patrol officer on the night shift in the early 1990s, it wasn’t unusual for him to go from one violent crime to another: from a stabbing to a stabbing, a stabbing to a shooting, a domestic violence call back to another shooting. “All night long,” he says. Not much has changed in two decades.

He says many of the parks around town have been closed.

“If you have a place people gather, you’re going to have a place with problems,” Johnson says. “And that’s sad. It shouldn’t be like that.”

The cause of Flint’s high crime rate isn’t a secret. If asked, many residents will tell you high unemployment rates mean lots of downtime and people in need of money.

Driving through the neighborhood where he grew up, Johnson points out houses he used to visit when his friends lived there. Now they house only memories. At 7.5%, Flint has the highest housing vacancy rate in the country: five times higher than the national average, according to a report from RealtyTrac.

Officer Wordie Johnson has been with the Flint Police Department for 22 years.

“If someone moves out today, you’ll have someone inside tonight stripping the siding, stealing the pipes, taking the bathtub,” Johnson says. Thieves sell whatever they find as scrap metal.

Within weeks – if not days – many of those abandoned houses will be burned down. Officials blame most of the fires on vandalism; vacant houses are magnets for arson. A few years ago, Gloria Horton moved out of her house and around the corner. The next day, Tromeshia Horton says, her grandmother’s old house burned to the ground. She lost some shoes, a coat, and a pair of jeans that she was planning to retrieve.

Add “arson capital” to Flint’s list of past monikers. Johnson says at one point “the fire department couldn’t keep up” and eventually just started letting houses burn rather than risk firefighters’ lives.

In 2013, the city was awarded a grant to demolish thousands of abandoned properties, police Capt. Leigh Golden says, which has helped. In 2015, arson cases were down over 40%. Crime was also down.

But – and there always seems to be a “but” with Flint – Johnson doesn’t have much hope for his city. Maybe it’s because of what he’s seen day in and day out as a patrol officer. Maybe it’s because he’s lived here all his life, and can still remember Flint as a thriving blue-collar town.

“Good people live here – people, myself included, who love it,” he says. “But we know this city will never be the way it was.”

Drinking to a better future

Entrepreneurs of Flint
Another side of Flint
02:23 - Source: CNN

Flint is hardly the first city to be abandoned by big industry. Detroit, Pittsburgh, Gary, Indiana – just to name a few in the Midwest – have all suffered the same fate. Some, like Pittsburgh, have bounced back. Others, like Detroit, are still trying.

The problem with Flint is it has been forgotten more often than not. In between headlines of poisoned water and bankruptcy, crime waves and unemployment rates, Flint and its residents sit and wait. People rarely visit Flint. It doesn’t have a big foodie scene or major sports franchise – unless you count the Firebirds, Flint’s new Ontario Hockey League team.

As Moore said in his documentary, “Some people just don’t like to celebrate human tragedy while on vacation.”

So what prevents a city like Flint from becoming a ghost town? What saves it from being demolished home by home and left to turn into farmland?

Many are betting on Flint becoming a full-fledged college town. Cities usually dread hosting college parties and losing downtown parking spots to commuter students, but Flint is welcoming several regional universities with open arms.

The University of Michigan-Flint has a big economic impact in Flint, Chancellor Susan Borrego says. The university brings students and professionals to the area. Those people support downtown businesses. The university recently built a new residence hall and a new academic space; it even reopened a community ice rink.

Borrego was raised in Detroit. She moved to Flint from California 18 months ago for this job. She says rebuilding Flint is important – and not just for the people of Flint. As the United States has moved out of the industrial period, she says, communities need to figure out how to adapt.

“Whatever the next iteration of Flint will be,” she says, “it speaks to other opportunities for cities like Flint around the country.”

Young entrepreneurs are also enthusiastic about Flint’s potential. Wes Stoody and Cole Sanseverino moved their eyewear business, Article One, from Chicago to Flint – Stoody’s hometown – two years ago. It’s cheaper to live in Flint and do business here, Stoody says, and the pair aren’t big fans “of leaving a city to die.”

Jason Caya and several of his colleagues started Tenacity Brewing, the city’s only craft brewery, in February 2015. Despite high levels of lead, the brewers still take their water directly from the city of Flint; Caya says they’ve always used water softeners and a carbon filtration system to make sure their beer is safe. Caya is also director of the Flint Area Reinvestment Office. He’s a dreamer who uses phrases like “Flint-centric approach,” and his optimism for the city’s future is obvious.

“We’re settling into our own as a post-GM city,” Caya says.

A city in ‘dire distress’

Two words pop up often in conversations about Flint: revitalize and resilience. To do the first, residents will need the second.

Ollie Sutton is flying the American flag outside her home in Flint with the Union down, as a sign of "dire distress," she says.

“We’ve always been people who worked hard,” says 66-year-old Air Force veteran Ollie Sutton. “We’re diehards. We go through one crisis to another crisis.”

Sutton is flying an American flag upside down in her front yard. She says few people have noticed. A reporter at The Flint Journal did. A fellow veteran was ready to raise a fuss, but when he heard Sutton’s explanation he just nodded his head and left.

Sutton has lived in Flint nearly her whole life. She says she means no disrespect to her commander in chief, President Barack Obama; she’s just following the National Flag Code, which notes the stars and stripes “should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”

There are too many reasons why Flint is in dire distress, Sutton says. She drives her 10-year-old grandson JayShawn to a public charter school in Grand Blanc every day because too many local schools have closed, and the ones that are left are overcrowded. She worries about the water crisis, and the effect the lead will have on JayShawn’s health. She worries about the price of her property, which she bought in 2006 for $65,000.

“Does anyone want to buy it now? No! Are you crazy?” she laughs incredulously.

And she worries about crime. Sutton’s son Jason was shot and killed outside a strip club in August 2015. She doesn’t like to talk about the details; police say his death is “being looked at as a possible justified homicide.” According to a police summary of the incident, the shooter told police he saw Jason pull out a handgun on a crowd of people before he pulled his own weapon and fired.

To Sutton, her son’s death illustrates Flint’s biggest problem: It’s a poverty-ridden city with few opportunities for the next generation.

Sutton’s sister has moved to Texas. Her brother moved to Tennessee. Everyone in her extended family, really, has left Flint. But Sutton isn’t going anywhere. She’s staying until Flint’s problems – and her flag – are righted.

Complete coverage on the Flint water crisis