Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A conversation with the writer Anna Clark about the water crisis and the importance of letting citizens tell their own stories.
As the journalist Anna Clark starts work on her forthcoming book about the Flint water crisis, she’s leaving herself room to follow new leads. She hopes a book-length project will cement the urgency of the story about how corrosive water pulled lead from pipes and poisoned residents, but she hasn’t finished hammering out the thesis that will comprise the book’s spine. “Ideas are still being shaped,” she says. By listening as locals guide conversation, she adds, themes will continue to crystallize.
Clark lived in Detroit until relocating to Ann Arbor this fall for a yearlong stint as a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where she’ll work on the book and sharpen her knowledge of environmental law. From Detroit, Clark—who recently inked a deal with Metropolitan Books—tracked the story of Flint. Her writing about water debacles has appeared in The New York Times, ELLE, Next City, and the Columbia Journalism Review, among other outlets.
Underpinning this reporting is a remarkable candor and a deep-seated humanism: a recognition that this contaminated water sloshed into the sinks and tubs of people with complicated, messy, three-dimensional lives. CityLab spoke with her about jumping into a book about this public health crisis and bureaucratic maelstrom—the effects of which continue to reverberate in Flint and beyond.
Your book is going to try to account for some of the bigger-picture factors, like government disinvestment, that allowed these conditions to happen in Flint. How do you weave together some of that top-level analysis with portraits of residents’ daily experience?
I’m trying to figure that out right now. It’s absolutely intertwined; not doing that would be an injustice. I think there are a few different levels of political dysfunction that set the groundwork for a crisis like this. As important as the exposition is—detailing how, and why, and who—the consequences of it are evident in real peoples’ lives. This is why it matters.
Part of what I think has been so discomfiting about the Flint crisis is that it’s threatened our sense of what the common good is. What is the purpose of a city at all? Why do we have a public sector? What are the limits of running these places like a business? What the Flint crisis has shown is how far we can chip away at that undergirding philosophy of the common good before it starts to cause mortal harm to people.
The purpose of a city is that there are ways to meet common needs by seeing ourselves as a group. Theoretically, we all give a little through our taxes, and we get back water, and schools, and roads. That’s the basic idea. And I think there’s been a lot of experimentation around changing other ways of doing things: public/private partnerships, philanthropy-based social services. Not just in Flint, not just in Michigan, but the Flint crisis paints that story more plainly than most.
You lived in Detroit for nine years*, during which you reported a lot on the Flint crisis happening a few miles north. I grew up in a suburb just north of Detroit. When I was there this summer to report a series, I realized that I needed to be especially cautious not to assume that I had a working understanding of what might be going on just there because I had lived near the fringe of it. For you, what are some of the benefits and challenges of reporting on a place that you’re so close to?
I lived in and reported in Detroit since 2007, and those have been fascinating years to be in Detroit and be writing about Detroit. It’s put me a little further along in the story, [and] helped me start at a different place in terms of questions I was asking. For example, emergency management: I get it. I understand how that works, I’ve thought a lot about it, really wrestled with it. The idea of large-scale vacancy, the idea of shrinking cities, the kind of tensions that come up with long-time vacant properties or demolitions [or] people who have reason to fear that they’re being paved over … being pushed out for the sake of a future group of people. Those kind of conversations I’ve thought about. Some of this background definitely has helped me navigate the complications of this story.
And some of the misreporting when the crisis came out: I’ve seen Flint described as a suburb of Detroit, which I think is a stretch, or described as a mini-Detroit, which also I think is not true—it’s a different place, it’s a different city, it has a different kind of history. There are obviously commonalities, but there’s so much that’s unique about it.
It’s a smaller city, even at its very peak. It’s always been a mid-size city. That changes the dynamic of everything. The human scale of the city is different. The role of the river in the city is very different than the role of the Detroit River. It has its own story.
I definitely wanted to approach this by being very much a listener first, spending as much time as I can in the city, meeting as many people as I can. A lot of people were quick, especially right now, [to ask]: “What’s your angle? What’s your approach? What’s the thesis?” I was uncomfortable with that because I had some ideas, but I was not locked in to anything. I wanted to hear what people had to say and pay attention to what was happening in person before I hardened onto any particular thesis. If I had done otherwise, for one thing, it would be less interesting for me as a writer, to pick a conclusion and pick a bunch of information that fits that conclusion and call it a day. But it would also be unfair to the community to come in and see everything through the lens of my own personal experiences, write it all up, and then leave. It feels like a violence. If I am going to approach this project with any honesty and integrity, it needs to be from the beginning and all the way through, based on listening, paying attention, and learning—giving people space to tell their own stories.
You’ve mentioned that you plan to donate a portion of profits you make from this book to people living in Flint. To what extent do you view this reporting process as a kind of social justice campaign?
Oh, I like that! That promise came from this awareness, having been in Detroit—speaking as a citizen, and not as a writer—when the automakers were asking for bailouts, when there was bankruptcy, when there was emergency management, and there was a lot of international media coming to the city. Some of it was very good. But a lot of it was exploitative, and it felt like outsiders coming to your city, personally profiting off your tragedy in one way or another, and then leaving. I don’t want to be that person.
From the start, I wanted to be transparent sharing any personal gain I’m going to get out of this in terms of finances or resources. I’m still thinking about how that can work logistically. Out of conflict of interest, I’m going to wait until after the book is published before I say, “Here’s who I’m going to donate to.” I don’t want to complicate that. But I will follow up. If I’m asking for transparency from others, I think I need to be transparent myself. I also want to make sure that I offer back. Folks have been giving me a lot of time and trust, and I value that. I want to have a concrete way that I’m continuing a relationship with Flint even beyond the reporting of the book.
The other thing is that I like Flint! I want to see Flint thrive. I enjoy the company of folks there and enjoy a lot of the things that are happening there, and I want to be able to support that and see those things continue on.
I haven’t articulated [social justice] as a concrete purpose of the book, but I think if this book could have any sort of role in amplifying the amount of truth, transparency, human-centered reform and transformation, I’d be thrilled. I hope this is a book that doesn’t just chronicle what’s happened to date—though given how complicated and thorny and patchy the story is, I think that has some worth. I hope it plays a forward-looking role in the city and with communities around the country that have had similar plights: chronic disinvestment, shrinking cities, drinking water quality, and aging pipe infrastructure. [Those cities] might have an opportunity to rethink the worth of investing in the public sector and in their own communities.
You’ve chronicled how Lansing successfully replaced its lead pipes. Do you envision this book being a kind of manual or cautionary tale for other cities, to help avoid some of the problems that unfurled in Flint?
My intention is for it to reach a broad audience. Not necessarily specialists, not necessarily urbanists or public figures or authorities. This is something we all have a stake in. Even folks who live thousands of miles away in a city that looks very different than Flint, because Flint is a canary-in-a-coal-mine story for all of us.
Here’s something I’m going to get into a lot in the book. About 50 years ago, the Kerner Report came out. Lyndon’s presidential commission was tasked with investigating why all of these cities in the 1960s were exploding. What was happening to them? What was wrong with them? It came out in March 1968, and its most famous words were the lines about heading towards two Americas—“one black and one white, separate and unequal.” It’s interesting to look back at that document as a really comprehensive description of the 20th-century urban crisis and reflect on how much is unchanged 50 years on. Very little of the reforms they suggested have taken off.
But it’s also uniquely new. Flint really encapsulates the 21st-century urban crisis. Why do we have so many cities all over the country that are so chronically deprived? Despite various economic development schemes or political development schemes, emergency management or no, good intentions, bad intentions, philanthropy—despite all of these variables, it’s almost impossible, when a city gets below a certain point of stability, to flip it. Why is that? It’s not just Flint and Detroit. This is Newark, Cleveland; this is cities all over the country. I hope this is a book that can really reflect on what our urban policy is.
There’s a lot of excitement about the urban core, walkability—it’s very trendy now. But it’s still really shaky, you know? A lot of what we’re seeing doesn’t meet the level of this systematic reform that’s inclusive, equitable, and sustainable for the long-term.
*CORRECTION: This post originally stated that Clark lived in Detroit for five years.