In Flint, Unsafe Streets, Failing Schools

A sign made by 11-year-old Alexis Graham and her mother Jennifer in Flint, Mich. Children have been indirect victims of the state's high unemployment leading to crime and other problems. Alexis says she doesn't feel safe on the streets of her neighborhood at any time of day. CBS

The index of leading indicators is up for the third straight month meaning we could see a recovery later this year. But right now, unemployment nationwide is 9.5 percent.

In Michigan, it's much worse - more than 15 percent. Devastating not just for adults, but their kids, as CBS News national correspondent Jim Axelrod reports.

Flint, Mich. is a tough place for anyone to live these days - but it's the kids on a crime-riddled block of New York Avenue who may just have it the toughest.

"I don't feel safe walking down the street any time of the day," said 11-year-old Alexis Graham. She worries about "people that might try to like pick you up or kidnap you."

Graham doesn't feel safe enough to ride her bike down the street - a lifetime away from when her mother and grandmother were growing up on this block

That's when Flint had 80,000 General Motors jobs. Today it's 7,500. When the jobs left, so did the people, leaving the once-proud neighborhoods to rot.

"You got hoodlums. You got crackheads. You got a little bit of everything," said Jennifer Graham, Alexis' mother.

Alexis helped her mother make signs - like one reading "No Prostitution" - to run the riff raff off the block but the signs alone can't stop the flames that scare her at night when drug gangs set the abandoned homes on fire.

"The brown house down the street was in flames higher than the house next door to us," Alexis said. "Someone torched it."

Genesee County treasurer Dan Kildee has a radical idea to make life better for the children of Flint: bulldozing 6,000 empty homes here and turning those lots into places where they can play.

"You know it's hard but I don't see an alternative," he said. "The people we ought to think about are the folks who live on this street who are really trying."

No matter what's done with the buildings, the future in Flint will be shaped most significantly by what kind of jobs the next generation is qualified for. That raises a bigger challenge: changing the culture. A recent study showed just 27 percent of parents in Michigan thought their kids needed more than a high school education.

"This isn't 1969 anymore," said Michael Flanagan, Michigan's sate superintendent of schools. This isn't when the man landed on the moon and GM ruled and you didn't have to worry about competition."

Flanagan is raising Michigan's educational standards. One of eight states with no graduation requirements five years ago, Michigan is now recognized for having one of the most rigorous set of requirements including algebra II, biology, either chemistry or physics, and foreign language.

"All we had to do before - to graduate from high school - was take a civics course," Flanagan said. "What we were thinking? It was brain dead."

Tyler McDougall, a high school sophomore from Flint, is in the second class of students who'll have to meet the tougher requirements to graduate.

"It's pretty hard," he said of the math requirement.

Tyler is from a fifth generation GM family. He once wanted to be follow in their footsteps, but now he wants to be an ophthalmologist.

"I just didn't want to put my family when I get older through the same things," he said.

In Michigan, the bulldozers are busy, beginning to take down those old, abandoned houses - demolishing bad neighborhoods, and old ways of thinking, to build better futures for their children.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.

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