"This is the story of how the City of Flint was poisoned by its own water. It was not because of a natural disaster, or simple negligence, or even because some corner-cutting company was blinded by profit. Instead, a disastrous choice to break a crucial environmental law, followed by eighteen months of delay and cover-up by the city, state, and federal governments, put a staggering number of citizens in peril.

"Their drinking water, it turned out, was full of lead and other toxins. No amount of lead exposure is safe. There is no known cure for lead poisoning. The threat invaded the most intimate spaces of people’s lives: their bodies, their homes, their meals, the baths they gave their children, the formula they fed their babies. Yet it will be years before we can fully assess the effect of lead exposure on a whole generation of children. We must wait for them to grow up and see. . . .

"Fifty years ago, civil unrest tore through American cities — Flint included — and revealed how inequality was built into their very foundations. It cued a national reflection from which the Kerner Report emerged, a six-volume investigation into the riots of the 1960s by a bipartisan presidential commission. With passion, the Kerner Report urged the country to recommit to its cities, and to rebuild them as places of opportunity. 'These programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance,' the authoring commission wrote, 'but they neither probe deeper nor demand more than the problems which called them forth. There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the Nation’s conscience.' Avoiding the issue, it warned, was itself a choice. And it was one that would send cities on downward spiral.

"That’s exactly what happened. After decades of negligence by both public and private actors, the well-being of residents in twenty-first-century Flint sat atop a teetering tower of debt, dysfunctional urban policy, disappearing investment, disintegrating infrastructure, and a compromised democratic process. It didn’t take much to tip the city into catastrophe.

"Flint was not alone. Thousands of communities across the country are in a similarly precarious situation. From Akron to Albany, South Bend to St. Louis, Baltimore to Buffalo, Flint is just one of a large class of shrinking cities.