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Ten stories that shaped Michigan in the 2010s

Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

In a few short weeks, the 2010s will be over, and the 2020s will begin. It's the end of a decade (even if some people insist it's not exactly the end of the decade). Life in Michigan on the cusp of 2020 is quite a bit different than it was in 2010. Our newsroom has been reflecting on the stories that most shaped Michigan in the 2010s. Below is our list. What would you add? 

Credit Steve Carmody, Courtesy Andrea Pierce, Mark Brush, Lester Graham

On April 25, 2014, Flint mayor Dayne Walling pushed a small black button and set in motion one of the worst disasters in Michigan history. Facing bankruptcy, and under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, the city had decided to switch its water supply to the Flint River to save money. We all know what happened next. Dangerous levels of lead turned up in the water, poisoning children. An outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease killed at least 12 people. The Flint Water Crisis became a global outrage.

But it was not the only water disaster Michigan faced in the 2010s.   

On July 25, 2010, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy ruptured and spilled a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. In 2012, a geologist working for the state says he felt like he was on “the edge of the abyss” as he first began to understand the scope of PFAS pollution in Michigan. It would take several years for his report to see the light of day. In 2014, Detroit began the “largest residential water shutoff in U.S. history.” As of this summer, thousands of Detroit residents remained without water.

And there was more: DioxanedioxinPCBs, PBBs, mercurycyanocacteria blooms. Increased water withdrawals from the Great Lakes by Nestle. And, of course, the ongoing fight over Line 5, the controversial pipeline that passes through one of the most vulnerable sections of the Great Lakes.

Even the lead problem in drinking water has continued to grow. Since the Flint Water Crisis, more than 20 communities in Michigan have tested for lead in the drinking water at levels above the federal action level.

Credit GM, Steve Carmody, Dustin Dwyer, MIkolay Frolochkin / pixabay

Michigan entered the 2010s struggling through one of the worst economic downturns in its history. In the previous decade, more than half the state’s manufacturing jobs disappeared. By 2009, during the height of the Great Recession, nearly1 in 7 people in Michigan couldn’t find work. Thousands of homeowners went into foreclosure. Neighborhoods emptied out. Between 2004 and 2010, the state lost more than 170,000 residents. There were fears the state would never recover.

No one could have predicted what happened next. Michigan didn’t just recover. It roared.

While the state faced some of the worst effects of the Great Recession, it led the way out of it. Starting with impressive job gains in 2010, the state saw nine straight years of jobs growth, making the 2010s one of the best decades on record for the Michigan economy.

Reporting from Michigan Radio on the economy:


Credit Steve Carmody, Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

Detroit. Flint. Pontiac. Hamtramck. Allen Park. Benton Harbor. Ecorse. Three Oaks. Detroit Public Schools. Muskegon Heights School District. Highland Park Schools. All were under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager at some point in the 2010s.

Michigan had a version of the emergency manager law on the books for decades. But in 2011, state leaders passedPublic Act 4, which expanded the powers of emergency managers, giving them full control over a city or school district’s finances. Voters overturned the law the next year, only to have Lansing leaders reinstate a revised emergency manager law just a month later – and tacked on a provision that made it impossible for voters to overturn the law with another referendum.

Then came the Flint Water Crisis. The city was under the control of an emergency manager when the decision was made to switch Flint’s water supply to save money. Darnell Earley, the emergency manager in charge when the switch took place, faced involuntary manslaughter charges for his role in the crisis (those charges were dropped earlier this year, along with the charges against seven other public officials who played a role in the crisis).

In June of 2018, Highland Park schools were removed from an emergency manager’s oversight. And for the first time in 18 years, no municipality or school district in the state was under an emergency manager.

Credit Jodi Westrick, NPR, Nicole Bolinaux

The reckoning came on January 16, 2018, inside an Ingham County Courtroom. Michigan Radio’s Kate Wells was there, andshe recounts the scene in the award-winning podcast Believed:

A young woman in a black dress, hair twisted back off her face, is the first to approach the podium. She’s only been known as Victim Z-A. Until now. “Please state your name for the record,” Judge Rosemarie Aquilina says. “Kyle Stephens. K-Y-L-E S-T-E-P-H-E-N-S.” Kyle takes a breath.

Stephens was the first of more than 200 women and girls who would give statements in that courtroom for the sentencing of the worst serial pedophile in America’s history. Nassar’s crimes stretched back decades. Using his position as a respected gymnastics coach, he assaulted and molested an estimated 500 girls. But this decade, here in Michigan, Larry Nassar was finally brought to justice.

“I’ve been coming for you a long time,” Kyle Stephens said to Nassar that January day in the courtroom. “Perhaps you’ve figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.”

To hear all eight episodes of Believed, hosted by Kate Wells and Lindsey Smith, go here.

Credit Sarah Cwiek, Kahari King/Unsplash, Lester Graham

July 18, 2013. After years, decades even, of mounting financial troubles, the city of Detroit formally files the paperwork to declare bankruptcy. It's the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The city declares it faces $18 billion in debt. 

City and state leaders argued to bankruptcy judge Stephen Rode that Detroit didn't have the funds to pay off the debt. Creditors would have to accept less than the full amount they were owed. 

But, the city also had significant assets - one of the biggest was the Detroit Institute of Arts. One of the big questions was whether the city would be forced to sell off its impressive and valuable collection piece-by-piece in order to pay creditors. To many, selling the collection was unthinkable. 

Stuck in the middle of all this were the city's former employees, who in retirement were promised a monthly pension. The city faced more than $3 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, and more than $5 billion in retiree health care obligations. 

How would the city save one of the world's great art collections without driving its former employees into deep poverty? 

Enter the "grand bargain." Through months of intense negotiation, private philanthropists met with city and state leaders to create a pot of money worth more than $800 million to keep the DIA's collection intact and give retirees a deal they could live with. 

By the end of 2015, less than 16 months after filing for bankruptcy, Detroit emerged, having shed $7 billion of its debt. The reorganization through bankruptcy paved the way for Detroit's growth in the years since, but it hasn't come without a cost. 

As Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek has reported, Detroit's retirees did not escape unscathed. Many lost thousands of dollars in expected pension payments, and faced an uncertain future. As one retireetold Cwiek: "It's a lot harder than it used to be." 

Credit Family of Aiyana Jones, Lucy Perkins, Bryce Huffman

Before Michael Brown, before Eric Garner and Freddie Gray and Philando Castile and Sandra Bland, there was little Aiyana. 

Aiyana Stanley-Jones was just seven years old when she was shot and killed by a Detroit police officer during a raid on the city’s east side in 2010.

The officer said his weapon accidentally went off while Jones slept on the couch. Two separate trials ended with juries hung on the question of whether the officer should be found guilty of manslaughter. This year, the city paid $8.25 million to settle a lawsuit with Jones’ family.

Nationwide in the 2010s, thousands of people took to the streets to protest police shootings and police bias. 

In Michigan, policing became a top issue at city council meetings for many communities. This was especially true in Grand Rapids, where several instances were caught on film of police pointing their weapons at unarmed black and Hispanic children. The police department changed its policies, put officers through bias training and held a series of meetings to build trust with community members. But Michigan Radio’s Bryce Huffman found many of the city’s black residents still don’t trust police. And an analysis of traffic stop data by Kaye LaFond showed there was no clear evidence of progress in eliminating racial disparities in traffic stops in the city.

This year, the city of Grand Rapids hired a new police chief. Eric Payne is the city's first black chief. 

"There will be changes to the Grand Rapids police department," Payne said on the day his appointment was announced.

Credit Katie Raymond, Rick Pluta, Gov. Rick Snyder livestream

At the start of 2012, there were stirrings among Republicans in Lansing to push forward on making Michigan a right-to-work state. Right to work laws allow employees to opt-out of paying union dues in unionized workplaces. In January, Governor Rick Snyder said the issue was "very divisive" and said it wouldn't be on his agenda. By December, he'd signed Right to Work into law. 

Snyder was right. Right to Work was one of the most divisive legislative changes in Michigan in the 2010s. As lawmakers debated inside the capitol, protestors organized outside. Arguments boiled over. Right to Work supporters accused pro-union demonstrators of attacking them and destroying property on the grounds of the capitol. 

At the start of the decade, few would have predicted that Michigan - one of the most historically pro-union states in the nation - would become a Right to Work state. But it happened. And yet, despite the heated rhetoric around the issue, when Michigan Radio revisited it two years later, two economists told Statesidenot much has changed in Michigan because of the law.  

Credit Kaye LaFond, Dustin Dwyer, Sarah Cwiek

In April of 2013, a deluge hit West Michigan and caused record flooding along Michigan's longest river. More than a thousand people were displaced. At one downtown Grand Rapids business, employees looked out the office window and watched a fish casually swim by

Spring flooding in Michigan is nothing new, but the floods the state faced in the 2010s were next-level. 

In 2014, metro Detroit faced a "floodpocalypse," as many of the city's most important roadways turned into rivers. In 2018, 5.55 inches of rain fell out of the sky in Houghton in just six hours. Kaye LaFond reported it was a rain event expect to occur only one every 1,000 years. And in 2019, persistent wet weather has caused most of the state's rivers to flow atabove-average volumes. Water levels along the Great Lakes have reached record levels, and communities are asking for disaster declarations to deal with erosion. 

This is not random bad luck. This is the effect of climate change. 

"The warmer the atmosphere is, the more moisture it can hold," meteorologist Keith White told LaFond in 2018. 

The release of all that moisture is expected to continue impacting Michigan communities in the decade to come. For more climate change reporting, check out The Environment Report.

Credit Bryce Huffman / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

It's been a little more than a year since Michigan voters said yes to legalizing marijuana for recreational use. That first year, the state's marijuana law was kind of a trip. You could posess pot legally, but you couldn't buy it. 

Finally, just this month, the state's first retail shop for marijuana opened in Ann Arbor. More shops will open in other communities in the coming year. But not every community said yes to pot shops. Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody reported about 80% of Michigan communities decided not to allow retail marijuana shops. 

But that doesn't make the change any less significant in the communities that will have marijuana shops. They're expecting a booming business. As one of the state's first retail shops opened in Ann Arbor this month,the owner told Michigan Radio's Bryce Huffman: "I could talk all day about the historical significance, but I mean, just look outside. There's a line of people going all the way around the corner." 

Credit Katie Raymond, Jake Neher, Cheyna Roth

On November 7, 2016, the final day of a long and grueling presidential campaign, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump made stops in West Michigan. It was a signal of how crucial the state had become for both campaigns. In the past several election cycles, Michigan had not exactly been competitive for presidential candidates. It was a blue state. Even Mitt Romney, a Republican who was born in Michigan, and whose dad was a popular governor of the state, couldn't turn Michigan red in 2012. 

Donald J. Trump changed that. Trump won Michigan by the slightest of margins - less than 11,000 votes. But that was good enough to take all of the state's 16 electoral votes. Trump could have lost Michigan and still won the presidency. But the win signaled that the Great Lakes state is officially in play. 

Now, with another presidential year coming, Michigan is expected to once again play a pivotal role. The Trump campaign certainly seems to think so anyway. When Vice President Mike Pence visited Holland earlier this month, Bryce Huffman reported: "Pence promised that both he and the President will visit Michigan multiple times next year." 

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Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.