ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Three years ago today, Flint, Mich., switched its source of drinking water to the Flint River. Then that water flowing through faucets in homes and schools became contaminated with lead and other toxins. Flint residents have been fighting. And as Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports, many now see signs of hope for a better future.
TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: There is good food and good Michigan-brewed beer on tap at the Soggy Bottom Bar in downtown Flint.
KEN LAATZ: Business here is thriving.
SAMILTON: That's General Manager Ken Laatz.
LAATZ: Almost every night, we have some cool things that go on. Like, we have a jazz night that's really popular. Trivia night's always popular.
SAMILTON: It's a sign of downtown Flint's new gloss. Philanthropists with ties to the city are fixing up the Capitol Theatre that's right next to the renovated century-old Dryden Building. There are coffee houses and restaurants along Saginaw Street where 10 years ago there were almost none. But Laatz still gets the same response to anything cool happening in Flint from out of towners, and it drives him nuts.
LAATZ: And it's always the first comment, or the first thing is always, don't drink the water.
SAMILTON: Har, har (ph). Yeah, it gets old fast. If you live in Flint, you're well aware of its problems. Most predated the water crisis. The catastrophe of losing tens of thousands of well-paying GM jobs led to high unemployment and higher crime rates. Then there are low-performing schools and miles and miles of blighted neighborhoods. But Ken Laatz says improving downtown is a beginning.
LAATZ: Flint has this way of making people fall in love with it.
SAMILTON: And people who love Flint are determined to make it a better place to live. One building block for that is the new Cummings Early Childhood Education Center.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Come on. We're going to the gym.
SAMILTON: For the next three years, special funding provides free tuition for kids up to age 5 who lived in Flint during the water crisis. Bob Barnett heads the School of Education at the University of Michigan, Flint, and says you can't fix Flint without helping families.
BOB BARNETT: We want to lift these kids out of poverty. And in order to do that, we have to lift the whole families up. So we have this adult education program where the parents are on site here getting their GED and high school diploma while their kids are getting high-quality early childhood care.
SAMILTON: The university will stay involved with these kids once they enroll in the public district. That's the bright spot in education. Then there's Flint's notorious high crime rate. Flint's police chief, Timothy Johnson, has ordered a new emphasis on traffic stops. Those stops can lead to finding unregistered guns in the car.
CHIEF TIMOTHY JOHNSON: And believe it or not, when you take those weapons out of those cars, you're stopping homicides from happening that might have occurred that night.
SAMILTON: Johnson says efforts to improve trust between citizens and police are also helping.
JOHNSON: They know who's breaking into so-and-so's house. They know who committed that murder. Somebody was there. Somebody saw it. And without those special tips, we would never be able to solve these crimes.
SAMILTON: Even with the problems, plenty of people live here not because they have to but because they want to. That's the case for Amy Strange, her husband and her three kids. She says the development downtown shows that Flint has a vision for its future. Even so, her faith in Flint was shaken by the bad decisions made and the subterfuge that led to the water crisis.
AMY STRANGE: We started second-guessing who we could trust.
SAMILTON: And it's likely going to take some time to earn that trust back, but she's staying here.
STRANGE: You know, as a cliche, from the ashes, we can build something brand new. And we really, truly believe Flint will be a beautiful place one day.
SAMILTON: Check back in another few years, she says. She and many others think there will be even more positive changes in Flint as it works hard to transform itself against some very steep odds. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.
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