Andrew R. Highsmith on the crisis in Flint

February 10, 2016
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Below follows an excerpt from “Flint’s toxic water crisis was 50 years in the making,” Andrew R. Highsmith’s op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, which builds on the scholarship of his book Demolition Means ProgressFlint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American MetropolisRead his piece in full here.

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As with so many environmental disasters, this one was preventable. Evidence suggests that the simple failure to use proper anti-corrosive agents led to the leaching of lead into the city’s water. It has also become apparent that the slow responses of local, state and federal officials to this crisis — as well as their penchant for obfuscation — prolonged the lead exposure.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Flint’s predicament is simply the result of government mismanagement. It’s also the product of a variety of larger structural problems that are much more difficult to untangle and remedy.

Over the past three-quarters of a century, waves of deindustrialization, disinvestment and depopulation eviscerated Flint’s tax base, making it all but impossible to improve — or even maintain — the city’s crumbling infrastructure. Flint — which once claimed 200,000 residents — now contains fewer than 100,000, nearly half impoverished, more than half African American. The economic prospects of locals are grim. After decades of plant closures and layoffs, GM’s workforce in the area, which once surpassed 80,000, is less than 10,000. The hemorrhaging of jobs has produced unemployment rates that routinely reach into the double digits. . . .

If there was ever a canary in Flint’s coal mine, it may have been Ailene Butler. When she stepped forward in 1966, she crystallized the tight connections between environmental inequality and social injustice. To be sure, much has changed since Butler sounded the alarm half a century ago. Whereas in the 1960s it was the encroachment of industrial plants upon black neighborhoods that fueled local resentment, Flint’s current water crisis stems in many ways from the absence of those plants — and the jobs, taxes, services and infrastructure they supported. Still, looking ahead at Flint’s uncertain future, Butler’s message seems more relevant than ever.

To read more about Demolition Means Progress, click here.

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