The Rust Belt: Once Mighty Cities in Decline

A man searching for scrap metal. Flint, Genesee County, Mich. Population is 102,434 and 41.5% live below the poverty level. Image by Matt Black. United States, 2015.

Gondola cars carry gravel on a freight train near Duluth, St. Louis County, Minn. Population is 86,265 and 22.1% live below the poverty level. Image by Matt Black. United States, 2015.

Shuttered train terminal in Buffalo, Erie County, N.Y. Population is 261,310 and 30.7% live below the poverty level. Image by Matt Black. United States, 2015.

FLINT, Michigan — Every summer a fresh crop of working girls make their way to Fenton Road, a black eye of a commercial strip that runs through the heart of this city’s residential south side. Some are locals born and bred. Others come from nearby towns or from across the state. Any number are addicted to drugs or hard living, bruised by life in a patchwork of post-industrial cities whose golden days are but a memory, if not a myth.

“They only ever last a summer or two,” said a grizzled man in his mid-40s, squatting beneath the awning of a storefront on Fenton Road. “They come here to get money and end up with their throats slit in the park.”

A couple of the man’s buddies joined him in escaping the afternoon heat, nodding in unison as the neighborhood came alive with folks chatting on sidewalks, kids riding bicycles, and drug addicts and early-shift sex workers streaming together in a tangle of humanity.

Like many others here, Andrea Sarazine, known as “Brandy” in the streets, has found few ways to support herself and her habit beyond the often dangerous dance done in the shadows of Fenton Road.

“No job’s going to hire me,” she said, gulping from a plastic cup of Mountain Dew the size of her head. “We’re a bunch of drug addicts. You can get drugs on every corner but can’t find help to get off ‘em. Can’t find a real job but you can find work out here.”

Sarazine sat down on the steps next to the squatter and his friends as a slice of sunshine cut through the shade from the store’s awning, revealing a youthful, albeit muted beauty hidden beneath the years of addiction. Her blue eyes and baby face (and the Hello Kitty tattoo on her forearm) belie struggle far beyond her years.

By the time the 22-year-old hit Fenton Road this summer, she’d spent nearly a third of her life addicted to heroin, a curse she says was handed down by a boy she once loved. Her addiction has all but destroyed her relationship with her family. She can’t find or keep a job. And the emotional and psychological weight of addiction, poverty and regret has pushed her further onto the margins.

“I won’t be in Flint for long,” she said wistfully. “If you want to do anything with life you have to leave.”

For the last few decades folks have been doing just that, fleeing Flint in droves.

To read the rest of the story and view the full multimedia presentation following Pulitzer Center grantee Matt Black through the American northeast, visit MSNBC.