‘Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology’ shares what it’s actually like to live in Flint
“Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology” cover art. Photo courtesy of Scott Atkinson.
Julie is the weekend editor for TheWeek.com and a freelance journalist based in New York. She’s written for publications including BuzzFeed, Vox, Mental Floss, Paste, the Tampa Bay Times and PolitiFact. Follow her @jmkliegman.
The residents of Flint, Michigan, are used to feeling forgotten. High rates of poverty and crime didn’t garner much attention. Then the water crisis broke in late 2015, and national media outlets took up shop in their cafés, reporting on the lead poisoning in children and the government actions that caused it.
“We literally had to get to a point where you couldn’t drink the water here for anyone to give a damn,” said Scott Atkinson, a freelance reporter who covers Flint and lives in Grand Blanc, a nearby suburb.
Even before the water crisis blew up, Atkinson, 33, wanted people to have a broader understanding of what Flint was all about. In the summer of 2015, he pitched an anthology of essays about the city to the publishing arm of Belt Magazine, which promotes storytelling about the Rust Belt. Titled “Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology,” the book is set for release June 15.
The book, one of a series Belt is running on different cities, will feature between 20 and 25 essays from a diverse group of Flint writers describing different aspects of what life in the city is like. Atkinson solicited stories that deal with a wider range of Flint qualities, both good and bad.
“Flint is wonderful and horrible. It is both of those things at the same time, and it is a lot of things in between as well,” Atkinson said. “This is a city with a deep history and a rich culture with many, many stories that are worth paying attention to and worth reading about and it’s far more than the cliches and the punchlines it’s become known for.”
Jan Worth-Nelson, a writer and retired teacher, never thought she’d end up spending much of her adulthood in Flint when she moved there in 1981. Though Worth-Nelson is quick to point out the city’s flaws, it’s also important to her to highlight its often overlooked beauty.
“The outsider’s perception of Flint is that it’s an armpit,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Why would anybody live there?'”
She submitted an essay to the anthology that chronicles the ups and downs of her life — career triumphs, new relationships and miscarriages among them — using details about the architecture and locations of the homes she’s lived in as a lens.
But she doesn’t mention the water crisis. In fact, almost none of the essays do. Much like the auto industry leaving Flint, the water supply is a big part of everyday life in the city, but it isn’t everything.
Eric Woodyard, a sports reporter for The Flint Journal and self-described lifelong Flintstone, put it in perspective.
“Nobody’s sitting around depressed about the water or something like that,” he said. “We’re trying to find a way around it instead of complaining about it.”
Woodyard’s essay for the anthology speaks to his experience having feet in two very different Flints — the corporate sphere and the inner city where he grew up. He remembers his friend, Deonta Blackmon, who was fatally shot outside a Flint nightclub.
In spite of the tension he faces between different pockets of Flint, Woodyard is fiercely loyal to Flint and hell bent on inspiring success stories through his Flint Made Me movement. As a multimedia project and social media movement, Flint Made Me encourages Flint residents to dream big and share their stories of greatness.
“There’s a lot of young people that are really pushing to be great here,” he said. Woodyard frequently covers 21-year-old boxer Claressa Shields, who is soon to be a two-time Olympian.
The devotion Woodyard and others have to an imperfect city is at the heart of the book and the inspiration for its title.
“This is a place where if you’re going to be happy, you have to be happy anyway. Happy in spite of it all,” Atkinson said. “It sounds cliche, it sounds sort of romantic, but it’s also absolutely true.”