Author: Anna Clark
Title: The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy
Publication Info: Metropolitan Books (2018)
I briefly knew Anna Clark when I used to volunteer at the Haley House in Boston and she was a member of the intentional community that lived there. Ever since she moved to Michigan I’ve followed her journalism career from afar. She seems the perfect person to bring together a passion for social justice and the skills of journalism to documenting the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Clark tells the story from the perspective of the local activists who brought the problems with the water to light and the health and science experts who verified that the water was dangerous. So much of the Flint water crisis is rooted in greed and indifference. The decision was made by the city’s emergency manager who was appointed by the governor to “run the city like a business” (a practice carried out in many Michigan cities leading to 53% of Michigan’s African American population living under non-elected local government). The switch from Lake Huron water via Detroit to the backup system of the Flint River was purportedly to save money until a new regional water authority came online, although it is questionable if money was saved at all considering the costs of updating the local treatment plant.
While it’s often reported that the Flint River water is unhealthy, it turns out that water in the river and when it left the treatment plant was in fact clean. But the different chemistry of the river water compared to lake water had a corrosive effect that leeched lead from the city’s ancient pipes and also promoted growth of infectious diseases. The water authority failed to use the proper anti-corrosives to help prevent this from happening. But the real scandal is that when residents complained of discolored and odoriferous water and the bad health effects, especially among children, the city and state officials refused to help and continued to claim there was no ill effects from the water.
In addition to thoroughly documenting the crisis, Clark also provides the historical background that shows why the water crisis inordinately affected Flint’s poorer residents, especially black and brown people. The prosperous Flint of the mid-20th century was heavily segregated, with the effects of redlining and housing segregation still felt today. The movement of prosperous white families and corporations out of Flint was funded by disinvestment in the city itself. And while medical experts have been aware of the poisonous nature of lead for centuries, that did not stop industry from making efforts to use lead – whether it be in gasoline or water pipes – and promote it as safe.
Poison City is a well-written book, and a very important book to read as Flint’s crisis is one that is happening or could happen in various ways in cities across the country. It’s hard not to read this book without feeling rage, yet Clark finds hope in the community activists who fought to bring this issue to international attention, and continue to fight for clean water in Flint.
Recommended books: The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, The new Jim Crow : mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and Foul Ball by Jim Bouton