The Water’s Not Fine: A Conversation with Anna Clark

Anna Clark takes her time. In her new book The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, Clark offers readers the long view of the Flint water crisis.

Often the proverbial “canary in the coalmine” when it comes to economic and urban trends, Flint, Michigan has been both an unsung pioneer of the continued expansion of American civil rights—in 1968, Flint was the first city in the nation to support fair housing by popular vote—and a crucible for environmental racism wrought by the structures of 20th-century capitalism. Clark examines the story as a Michigander, a journalist, and a historian who does not see a closeup of a single event. Instead, she exposes the heart of the story that should call us to action: Flint’s water was not poisoned by accident.

Just like America as a whole, Flint has often squeaked by (that fair housing legislation was passed by just thirty votes) and forced its citizens to turn activists in order save themselves and their children from the very structures created to “protect” them. As the nearly 100,000 residents of Flint fight to recover a place that matters, Clark’s book asks us to consider whether we will heed the call to environmental justice as a national value or whether we will continue to rely on systems that have failed us in the past.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jen Plants: As I was thinking about your book, The Poisoned City, I was curious about this: as a writer, how do you respond to a crisis? It’s something I think about in my work all the time. I make theater and write for performance; what can I do with that in the middle of a crisis? And you really are talking about life and death situations. So, I wonder if you would talk about that and the genesis of the book project.

Anna Clark: I’m a journalist and theoretically, for journalists, crises are what we’re here for: to help make sense of it, to show up for it, to chronicle it, both for present times and for history. . . . This is such a complex story. There are so many intersecting issues. I liked the idea of having more depth, more space to tell that story, a fuller story about what had happened in Flint that did not begin with the actual literal switch of the water but instead went back decades to question what made the city so vulnerable, so precarious in the first place. What are the policy decisions we make that build up or diminish our cities? Why do we have these impoverished, majority people of color cities all over the country that, in many ways, are in constant states of emergency, but we only feel uncomfortable about it when something as dramatic as a city-wide poisoning happens? Having the opportunity to write a book about Flint was something I was really grateful for because I felt like there was a lot to share and a lot for me to learn.

A group of people in the background work together to shovel dirt and put together a playground structure.

Flint is a vibrant community with thriving arts, social, and activist groups. Leaving, for many, is not an option or desirable. In this photo the community works together built a new playground at Berston Field House. Photo courtesy of Anna Clark, September 16, 2016.

JP: What really resonated for me in your book was how taking the time in a long-form way to put the “water crisis”—that sometimes is seen as this isolated thing, an anomaly that happened—in a larger context of both the history of the specific place but also in American history: thinking about restrictive housing covenants and redlining, how suburbs developed, how the EPA came about, and what those roles meant and don’t mean. That was incredibly powerful to me because it didn’t happen by accident in Flint.

AC: I definitely knew I wanted to put what happened in a historic context. It’s true, exactly as you said, there’s a lot of intentional decisions that led us to the point that this happened, and I think we need to understand that so things like this don’t happen again. I think a lot of people around the country who saw this and were horrified by what happened in Flint might have felt a sort of false comfort in thinking “oh that’s just what would happen in a city like Flint.” And in some ways there’s some truth to that. There are some uncommon factors in Flint. There are reasons this city is maybe more disinvested than many other cities. But a lot of what we’re talking about here is something we all have a stake—the loopholes in how we test our drinking water for example; the lead infrastructure that is all over our country. The fact is that there is no safe level of lead, none, absolutely none. But the way that we evaluate it doesn’t reflect that.

The fact is that there is no safe level of lead, none, absolutely none.

There’s the history of segregation in and around Flint, which also is true in and around the country—it sets people up to fail. It has created a legacy of infrastructure inequality that we are paying for literally with our health, our bodies, our lives. And if we’re not OK with that, we need to take proactive steps to change it. If there are things that are happening that are wrong but not illegal, maybe we need new laws. If we’re not OK with drinking water out of lead infrastructure, then maybe we need to be creating imaginative, well-funded ways to get rid of that lead infrastructure. I would be very sorry if people thought of it as an isolated case.

A woman with short brown hair, wearing a green dress stands in front of a lawn.

Anna Clark, journalist and author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy. Photo by Marissa Gawel.

JP: What your book really talks about is the impact on individual people and the ways that these environmental policies or loopholes or environmental decisions being in made in offices have impacts that are real in real bodies in real lives.

AC: And it stays with them. That’s something that’s so horrifying about the particular legacy of lead is how it stays. When you ingest lead, it’s in your blood and then its absorbed into your bones and soft tissues. And it accumulates; so, small consistent exposure builds up and there’s no known way to get rid of it, really. And any amount of lead is toxic, and it shows up differently in different people. Some people are more affected than others. We don’t really know what the impact on all these kids is going to be. . . . It stays.

Featured image: The Flint water tower looms large as a symbol for the ongoing effects of the water crisis. Photo by George Thomas, June 25, 2016.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in Elle Magazine, the New York TimesPolitico, the Columbia Journalism ReviewNext City, and other publications. She has been a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya, and a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Jen Plants is a Faculty Associate in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches playwriting, performance studies, critical race theory, dramaturgy, and documentary theatre-making. Her recent projects include the adaptation and direction of the 1940s Russian play for children, The Dragon by Evgenii Shvarts (UW-Madison), and direction of the world premiere opera The Queen of the Night (Fresco Opera Theatre). Jen is currently at work on a performance project about the history of Flint. Contact.