The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, US $30.00, Pp 304, July 2018, ISBN 978-1250125149
In April 2014, people in Flint, Michigan, realized that the water coming out of their faucets had been poisoned with lead and other toxins. It smelled foul. They had realized that it smelled foul earlier but they did not know what was wrong with the water. They didn’t know that the state government had switched the city’s water supply to a source that corroded the old lead pipes which should have been replaced with new ones long ago. When the residents complained about the poisoned water, the authorities refused to pay attention to them. Flint is a poor community populated with the poor and African American residents. It took the next eighteen months for the Flint residents and activists from outside to make the state admit that the water was really poisonous with lead. At least twelve people had died of poisonous water by that time and an unknown number of children suffered irreparable harm to their bodies. This was not the end but the beginning of a long struggle for accountability of the state and an end to this man-made disaster.
In The Poisoned City, Anna Clark tells the story of Flint’s poisoned water and the struggle to force the state government to accept the truth. She says that the real tragedy is that 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. Once among America’s finest communities, they have been hollowed out by generations of public policy that incentivized suburban living. The subsidized freeways, shopping malls, and segregated real estate all contributed to an outmigration of mostly middle- and upper-class people — white folks first, and then, more recently, African Americans and other communities of color. The cities they left are pressured to cut spending at all costs while at the same time maintaining the services and infrastructure designed for a much larger population. It is impossible. There isn’t enough money to fix a broken window at city hall, and there certainly isn’t enough to upgrade the aging lead-laced water infrastructure.
Anna Clark argues that the Flint water crisis illustrates how the challenges in America’s shrinking cities are not a crisis of local leadership alone but a crisis of systems. Even well-meaning paternalism cannot transcend the political, economic, and social obstacles that relegate places such as Flint to the bottom. The chronic underfunding of American cities imperils the health of citizens. It also stunts their ability to become a full participation in a democratic society, and it shatters their trust in the public realm. Communities that are poor and communities of color – and especially those that are both – are hurt worst of all. Anna Clark argues that “Flint” represents the systemic inequality and disenfranchisement in America. Flint reveals a new type of danger to civic life in America — environmental injustice and urban disinvestment.
While there is moral cowardice in the story of Flint, there is also heroism. Anna Clark says that it’s found most especially in the lionhearted residents who chose, again and again, to act rather than be acted upon. They turned themselves into top-notch community organizers and citizen scientists, and they built relationships with a diverse ensemble of professionals — including journalists, engineers, scientists, doctors, and environmentalists. Anna Clark argues that we are at another crossroads between how things were once done and how we can choose to do them in the future. In a way, public drinking water systems are the perfect embodiment of the ideal that we might reach toward. The sprawling pipelines articulate the shape of a community. House by the house, they are a tangible affirmation that each person belongs. They tie the city together, and often the metropolitan region as well. If only some have good, clean water and others do not, the system breaks down.
The Poisoned City is an exceptional work of investigative journalism that shows how municipal systems in poor American towns and cities are failing. In this first authentic account of the water crisis in Flint, Anna Clark shows that it is the lack of democratic decision-making that caused it. This chilling account of how municipal system works in poorer American communities is an indictment of governance in America. The Poisoned City also gives a ray of hope as it describes the heroic struggle of activists who defeated the corrupt municipal system after a long fight and without wavering all those years. It is a must-read for every American who cares for their country.