By now, Americans are generally familiar with the long-term disaster in Flint, Michigan, where lead in the drinking water highlights our nation's failing infrastructure and the inadequacies of government's current response to public-health crises. But to see Flint's crisis fully, one must understand what Michigan resident and journalist Anna Clark calls "the American urban tragedy"—the history of segregation that has been built into the architecture of America's cities for centuries. In her new book, The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy, Clark digs deep into our nation's industrial past to tell the story of Flint's water alongside the story of our collective urban tragedy.
From Flint's genesis as a functionally segregated auto manufacturing center, to the "white flight" inspired by desegregation in the 1960s, to the near vacancy of the city after General Motors auto plant closures in the 1990s, Clark details Flint's rise and fall, and how its story is embodied in the lead that turned up in the water in 2014. When Michigan brought in an emergency manager to oversee the disastrous switch from treated water piped in via Lake Huron, to poorly treated water pumped from the notorious Flint River (all through pipes that hadn't been used for decades), corrosive waterborne material came to poison the city's citizens. But it was the poorer communities and communities of color that were disproportionately affected, and it's these same communities where justice has taken the longest to prevail.
Clark's exhaustive reporting covers every angle of the disaster, from Flint's history that laid the bedrock for the crisis, to the headlines that finally broke through thanks to citizen scientists and local reporters who were forced to do the investigative legwork themselves—all amid government cover-ups and doctored testing. Clark spoke with Pacific Standard about the human stories she collected, ongoing flaws in emergency management, and how we must reckon with all this lead in our environment.
What does the public gain by hearing the human element in the stories you present of the everyday citizens of Flint?
I drew from a great deal of interviews, research, and on-the-ground observation. I wanted to find out what I didn't know and to give a fair hearing to different perspectives. Facts, not rhetoric, tell the story. That said, I do have a point of view. I make a case that, if Watts embodied the urban crisis of the 20th century, then Flint embodies that of the 21st.
But I only got to that point after doing a lot of listening, especially to the citizens. It was revelatory. There is wisdom here, and it deserves to be shared. When we talk about cities, we are talking about people. For all the high-pitched coverage of Flint, sometimes the human stories—in all their range and contradictions and depth and beauty—have been lost in the noise. For decades this city has been made invisible and its voices dismissed. Nonetheless, the residents have continually shown up, worked together, shared knowledge, and advocated in every way they could imagine. They weren't victims waiting to be rescued by someone else; they were agents of their own lives. I wanted not just to tell that story, but to show it.
How important has community been to fighting this crisis, and what lessons can we learn from it?
It's so important! "Community" can be a musty, vague word, but when it is enacted, it's powerful and tangible. You see individuals and local organizations helping each other with practical needs, like door-to-door canvassing and bottled water drives. You see people working together to take care of the Flint River, building playgrounds alongside their neighbors, hosting public festivals, and showing up for every council meeting and town hall and planning session. You see residents who have very different lives and personalities finding connection in the midst of a crisis that has been terribly alienating. It is healing.
Flint has a lot to teach the nation about the value of community organizing. No one single person has all the answers, nor should he have all the power. This is why transparency laws, strong independent journalism, clear environmental regulations, robust public institutions, and empowered community engagement are meaningful checks against corruption.
What happened in Flint is a warning for how dangerous it is to choose exclusion over inclusion in our own communities. It's not a coincidence that shrinking cities lost population right after fair housing and school desegregation became law. The pattern replicates itself today with exclusionary zoning, resistance to regional planning and transit, and, as inner-ring suburbs get more diverse, the development of far-off exurbs. This comes at a steep cost to human dignity, as well as to the environment, infrastructure, and other civic systems. We keep trying to run away from it, but the fact is, we're all in this together. It is past time that we start acting like it.
Can you explain Michigan's emergency management laws and how they pertain to Flint?
Under Michigan law, the state can appoint an emergency manager (EM) to a financially distressed city. The person has the full power of the mayor's and city council's offices to enact what they believe needs to be done. They have the power to make or break contracts. While the local leaders can vote the EM out after 18 months, this deadline is routinely sidestepped by having an EM resign, and then appointing a new one, which resets the clock. This is how Flint came to have an EM for three-and-a-half years. It is also typical for EMs to sign an order that makes it impossible for local officials to overturn their policies immediately after state oversight ends. That also happened in Flint.
It's a controversial practice, and nearly all the Michigan communities that have received EMs have a majority African-American population. This brings up concerns about voting rights and how the EM law may violate the equal protection clause of the constitution.
Supporters of the law argue that these cities are in an emergency and that it is important for an outside official, unconstrained by local politics, to make the difficult decisions to help the city stay afloat. But as we saw in Flint, there is little accountability for EMs when things go wrong.
Poor neighborhoods are disproportionately affected when infrastructure fails, yet almost all Americans have lead in their service lines. How easy is it for affluent neighborhoods to think they aren't affected?
This is a real tension. On one hand, lead was de rigueur for about a century, and its toxic legacy lives just as large in wealthy communities with great public services. One of the most serious lead-in-water crises in history was in Washington, D.C., where some of the most powerful people in the world live! Infrastructure maintenance is often deferred, to a dangerous degree, all over the country. In the wake of Flint, I've noticed some public leaders speaking to their concerned residents in a way that implies that their water is different, and better, and that a crisis like Flint's could only happen to those people. They are wrong.
But there is a pattern of poorer communities and communities of color being more at risk. I only wish it didn't take something as dramatic as a citywide water poisoning for us to feel uncomfortable about that. In the most manifestly concrete terms, infrastructure shows the lie of systemic inequality and exclusionary policies. It's a lesson we've had to learn again and again. Whether we're talking about water lines, roads, bike lanes, streetlights, or bridges, piecemeal approaches just don't work. These are systems. They literally function best when they are comprehensive, and include all of us.
Segregation built into our American cities was a catalyst for much of this catastrophe, and you say that "the cure is inclusion." How can we make our cities more inclusive?
We need to be just as intentional and proactive about integration as the architects of segregation as we are about separating people. We must build integration into our real estate policies, laws, and local ordinances. Let's look at the impact of exclusionary zoning—bans on multi-family housing, Section 8 housing, and developments where poorer families and people of color disproportionately live. Let's make a profound commitment to affordable housing—integrated with market-rate housing, not set off by itself—and measures to make communities more dense and transit-friendly. George Romney, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, experimented with withholding funds from communities that practiced exclusionary zoning. It spurred a backlash, and the Nixon administration made him cut it. But what if we looked at that template and, with greater commitment to inclusion, brought it back into play?
We can also create policies, practices, and public spaces that are welcoming to immigrants, people of different religious faiths, and people with disabilities. And I think we should be looking at our personal behaviors, especially white people and people of means, given the history. Are our choices creating a climate of exclusion, by, for example, calling the cops on people who don't look like us when they are going about their daily life? Or are we reaching out, making an effort, listening, and being intentional about cultivating diverse spaces?
I grew up in a house with lead paint and pipes. Do you think lead poisoning could be responsible for some of this country's health problems?
We have so much lead saturating our built environment. Paint, pipes, plumbing fixtures, and our soil too; the lead from leaded gasoline spread throughout the environment as fumes for decades, and it didn't just disappear when the fuel was taken off the market. When we are exposed to lead, it gets in our blood and is absorbed into our bones and tissues. There it remains. It would be foolish to assume that we have been immune to consequences of lead.
How do we reckon with the lead that is already in our environment?
One way to start would be a comprehensive, thoughtfully executed, long-term plan to remove lead service lines from America's drinking water infrastructure. Communities like Madison, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan, offer templates for how to do this. But we need a bigger, nationwide vision. It's complex and would require a great deal of money, but, honestly, few things are more important than delivering safe drinking water. Without it, we die. It's not a partisan thing. This should be a plan that all of us can get behind.
We should also banish the use of lead in plumbing fixtures and expand our lead-in-water testing to include schools and childcare centers. And we should fix the Environmental Protection Agency's Lead and Copper Rule so that it closes the testing loopholes and sets a tougher minimum standard.
Programs to remediate lead in housing and the natural world should be better funded and staffed. Service line replacement could be planned alongside other needed infrastructure improvements, like roads and sidewalks. Public education is also important, so that people can make good choices, like planting gardens in raised beds and covering bare soil with woodchips. And we need better rules for advertising, as "lead-free" products don't necessarily have zero lead in them.
What is the current state of Flint's water and accountability for the crisis?
A number of lawsuits have been filed, including one that alleges that inmates in the Genesee County jail in Flint were denied access to safe water. Some of the big cases have reached settlements, including one that obliges the state to replace all the corroded lead and galvanized steel pipes in Flint. There have also been some commitments to serve the long-term recovery needs of Flint's children. A criminal and civil investigation was led by a special prosecutor in the attorney general's office, and 15 people were indicted.
Flint signed a long-term contract with Detroit's water system, rather than continuing with the switch that it had begun. Happily, Detroit's water is treated with corrosion control, and quality is improving, especially with the pipe replacement. However, given that the pipe overhaul can shake up the ground enough to cause water problems, and given that lead isn't the only concern the community has about its water—bacteria being another—many people still only drink bottled or filtered water.
You say, "When it comes to pipes, any slight change in water chemistry can pose a devastating threat." With climate change and destructive rollbacks at the EPA, do you see water crises becoming a major problem in cities?
As the poet W.H. Auden wrote, thousands have lived without love, but not one without water. There's no way to avoid it: Unsustainable practices will catch up with us. I live here in the Great Lakes State, surrounded by nearly all the fresh water in North America. In this place of abundance, our example reveals how decidedly man-made so many of our water disasters are. We might learn something from generations past and use our powers for good. In an era of mass epidemics, our ancestors created seemingly miraculous systems for delivering and treating drinking water. And in a time of astonishing pollution, more recent generations fought for transformative clean water, clean air, and hazardous waste protocols. If we are going to have influence on our water, let it be for good.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length.