Watch the Democratic presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Flint, Michigan, on CNN Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.

Flint, Michigan CNN  — 

The concrete slab stretches for miles, faded parking lines barely visible under tangled weeds. Officer Wordie Johnson drives his black Chevy Tahoe patrol car slowly along the mangled chain-link fence.

“We used to watch the new cars roll off the line here,” Johnson says. The 22-year veteran of the force grew up in Flint, and can still picture this place in its prime. “You had first, second and third shift of thousands and thousands of people who were working on a daily basis.”

The massive property at the corner of Industrial Avenue and East Stewart Avenue once housed General Motors’ Buick City. The last car, a LeSabre, rolled off the line in 1999. When GM declared bankruptcy, the property was put in the hands of a trust. It would be worth millions – if anyone wanted to buy land in one of the nation’s most troubled cities.

“The city that poisoned its people,” Bryn Mickle, editor of The Flint Journal, wryly quotes Flint’s unofficial new tagline. Good luck trying to attract a major corporation now, he says. “Can you imagine that conversation? ‘Hey, I think we should build a new plant in Flint …’ “

Evidence of the most recent crisis in Flint is easy to spot. Long lines of American-made cars line up at fire stations, where National Guardsmen hand out pallets of bottled water. Signs above water fountains say “please don’t drink,” and restaurants have dropped signs advertising food specials in favor of those touting “Detroit water.”

Flint family uses 151 bottles of water per day

But Flint’s problems started long before Michigan declared a state of emergency.

In 2014, the city’s population was 99,002, nearly half of what it was 50 years ago. More than 41% of Flint’s residents live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census. For three years running, Flint was named the most violent city in the nation, and it has – or had, depending on who you ask – a big arson problem.

The sad part is that by many accounts, Flint was beginning something of a comeback before the water crisis hit. Crime rates were finally dropping. Unemployment rates in 2015 were down, drawing closer to the national average than they had in years. Small businesses were bringing life back to downtown.

“I don’t want in any way to give this impression that Flint was a beautiful mecca that had solved all its problems,” Mickle says. “That’s not the case at all. But I will say there were a lot of bright spots, and there was a real feeling there was a renaissance going on.”

Beginning of the end

Driving a foreign car in “Vehicle City,” as Flint is known, is severely frowned upon. Signs on some buildings prohibit parking non-American cars on the property. They’re serious. GM may have a smaller presence in Flint than it once did, but its 5,600 workers here want to keep their jobs.

In 1908, when General Motors was founded, the population of Flint was 38,000. By 1960 it was 196,000. Houses couldn’t be built fast enough to accommodate newcomers. At its peak, GM employed more than 75,000 people in Flint.

“The city was booming,” remembers Reggie Smith, president of the United Auto Workers Union Local 659.

Flint is the home of the famous 44-day sit-down strike against General Motors, which birthed the UAW in 1937.

Smith – no relation to the late GM CEO Roger Smith, who led the company during its most turbulent period – started working at GM in 1977. He worked 12-hour days, barely having time to cash the checks he was pulling in. It was “good money,” especially for a young, single man.

Then in 1986, GM announced it would be closing 11 of its older plants around the country, including multiple facilities in Flint. By 1992, more than 19,000 people who used to work at auto facilities in Flint were no longer employed by GM. And more layoffs were still to come.

As shocking as they were on a local level, the layoffs in Flint might have gone unnoticed by much of the country had it not been for Michael Moore’s 1989 film “Roger & Me.” The incendiary documentary tugged at heartstrings as it showed residents being evicted, belongings thrown onto lawns, and abandoned house after abandoned house as people left the city for greener, more employment-friendly pastures.

“Roger & Me,” which chronicled Moore’s attempts to meet the GM CEO, faced criticism for misrepresenting the chronological order of several pivotal scenes in the film. But the narrative Moore told of a discarded and disillusioned population would prove difficult for the city to escape. As film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 1990, “Parts of ‘Roger & Me’ are factual. Parts are not. All of the movie is true.”

“That was the beginning of the downslide in Flint,” Smith says.

The superlatives no city wants

Tromeshia Horton's sister, Shameka Johnson, was shot dead in front of Johnson's house in Flint in 2012, when her girls, Brayla, left, and Kayla, were infants.

Tromeshia Horton still lives in the house where she saw her 18-year-old sister, Shameka Johnson, killed on January 22, 2012. Johnson was shot three times in the street in front of the home on Flint’s north side. Horton held her sister’s bleeding face as the life left her eyes. According to reports from The Flint Journal at the time, it was the second homicide on that street – and the fourth in the city – in less than a week.

“The young generation is picking up guns because they think that’s the way to solve problems,” Horton says. “People don’t fight with their hands anymore.”

Horton doesn’t let her girls, J’Meshia, 9, and twins Kayla and Bralya, 4, play outside. She tries to avoid going to the store without the girls’ father. The younger ones don’t go to day care; Horton drops them off with her grandmother, Gloria Horton, on her way to work. Gloria Horton raised Tromeshia after she was placed in foster care at age 14.

If GM’s struggles put Flint on the nation’s radar, the city’s crime rate has kept it there. In 2010, Flint topped the FBI’s list of the most violent cities in America; it had the most violent crimes per capita among cities with more than 100,000 residents. The FBI cautions against ranking cities because of reporting variances, but whatever way you shook the numbers, life in Flint was dangerous.

Flint topped the FBI list again in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, when it dropped to No. 2, the headline read: “Flint no longer most violent city in America.”

When Wordie Johnson was a patrol officer on the night shift in the early 1990s, it wasn’t unusual for him to go from one violent crime to another: from a stabbing to a stabbing, a stabbing to a shooting, a domestic violence call back to another shooting. “All night long,” he says. Not much has changed in two decades.