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On the water front: The struggle for water in Michigan’s Black cities

Highland Park residents in scene from “The Water Front” COURTESY IMAGE

Highland Park residents in scene from “The Water Front” COURTESY IMAGE

Part 1 of 3

By Curt Guyette
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Editor’s note: This three-part series on water struggles in Michigan’s Black cities will cover the cities of Highland Park, Flint and Pontiac.

A city caught in the throes of a financial crisis and under the control of a state-appointed manager seeks to privatize its water department in a desperate attempt to balance its budget and remain solvent. Residents — many of whom are African American living in poverty — face mounting hardships as their water is being shut off when payments are delinquent.

“Yeah, I know all about what’s happening in Detroit,” you might be thinking.

But what’s described above, although it certainly applies to Detroit in 2014, is also a summary of what was occurring in the city of Highland Park a little more than a decade ago.

That struggle was chronicled in the award-winning 2010 documentary “The Water Front” by Canadian filmmaker Liz Miller.

Curtis Smith, who lives in the Detroit area, served as the film’s associate producer. A former urban planner who previously worked at a local nonprofit that provides housing assistance to the homeless, he currently works at a locally-owned herbal tea company.

But he’s also been keeping an eye on what’s happening in Detroit, and has been seeing many similarities between what’s now going on in the Motor City and the events from the early 2000s that were so compellingly chronicled in “The Water Front.”

“Highland Park was like the canary in the coal mine,” says Smith.

With a population that once topped 50,000, the enclave that’s completely surrounded by Detroit now has fewer than 10,500 residents. More than 93 percent of the people living there are African American, and 46 percent live in poverty.

Given that amount of population loss and the level of poverty, it is no surprise that Highland Park has been in financial distress for a long time now. In 2001, then Gov. John Engler appointed Ramona Henderson Pearson to be the city’s emergency financial manager.

This is how filmmaker Miller, on a website promoting the documentary, described the situation then:

“Highland Park, Mich., the birthplace of mass production, is a post-industrial city on the verge of financial collapse. The state of Michigan has appointed an emergency financial manager to fix the crisis.

“The manager sees the water plant, which Ford built in 1917 to support his auto industry, as key to economic recovery. (Pearson) has raised water rates and has implemented severe measures to collect on bills. As a result, Highland Park residents have received water bills as high as $10,000, they have had their water turned off, their homes foreclosed, and are struggling to keep water, a basic human right, from becoming privatized.”

Highland Park resident in scene from “The Water Front” COURTESY IMAGE

Highland Park resident in scene from “The Water Front” COURTESY IMAGE

As Smith points out, one key difference between then and now is the law governing state-appointed managers. Under the previous law, PA 72, these appointees had a limited scope of authority. So, when Highland Park residents turned out en masse to protest sale of the city’s water department, the mayor and City Council nixed the deal.

In 2005, Pearson was removed by then Gov. Jennifer Granholm and replaced by Art Blackwell. That didn’t turn out well, either. Blackwell was eventually charged with embezzling $264,000. After pleading guilty to a lesser charge he was sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay restitution.

In 2009, when the term of Blackwell’s replacement, Robert Mason, expired, then state Treasurer Robert J. Kleine said, “This has been a long and sometimes difficult process for the residents of Highland Park. Despite the ups and downs, Highland Park residents should be pleased that their elected representatives are committed to working together to ensure a return to self-governance in the not-too-distant future.”

In 2012, the city, unable to pay for upkeep, closed its water treatment plant and began receiving water and sewage treatment services from the city of Detroit. In 2013, Detroit sued Highland Park, claiming it was owed nearly $18 million for those services.

In April, Gov. Rick Snyder issued a letter declaring Highland Park was again in a financial emergency, meaning it was subject to the state’s new emergency manager law, PA 436. Bankruptcy is now a possibility.

For Maureen Taylor, who as chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization was active in the fight over water in Highland Park a decade ago, this history shows the ineffectiveness of an approach that seeks to balance a city’s books while failing to address underlying problems of poverty and urban abandonment.

“This isn’t working,” she says.

Meanwhile, a haunting question posed in “The Water Front” remains unanswered:

“What if you lived by the largest body of fresh water in the world, but could no longer afford to use it?”

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. His work, which focuses on Michigan’s emergency management law and open government, is funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation. You can find more of his reporting at aclumich.org/democracywatch. Contact him at 313.578.6834 or cguyette@aclumich.org.

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