By Erick Trickey
Flint’s water crisis has become an alarm bell that’s ringing across the country, especially in the Midwest. Now that the poisoning of a Michigan city has become national news, the press and public are looking for lessons. Anger over Flint, and the sense that what went terribly wrong there must not be repeated, is leading to a new political vigilance.
Just this month, comparisons to Flint have amplified investigations into lead paint in Cleveland homes and lead in Chicago’s water. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, campaigning for president, faced insistent questions about parallels between Flint’s plight and lead-poisoned water in Sebring, Ohio. The Detroit schools’ emergency manager, Darnell Earley, resigned under pressure from two fronts: his role in Flint’s water crisis when he was the city’s emergency manager, and Detroit teachers’ protests of hazardous conditions inside the schools.
Last month, when Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed a state takeover of Chicago’s public schools, Illinois House speaker Mike Madigan rejected the idea by invoking Flint. “That may be the template you may want to use when you evaluate whether it’s a good idea to take over,” said Madigan’s spokesman, Steve Brown. “Look at what happened to the people in Flint and try not to repeat mistakes.”
[blocktext align=”right”]Plenty of lessons are emerging from Flint’s crisis. Together, they could form
a Flint manifesto for the Rust Belt, an agenda to prevent future tragedies in other cities and to work toward resurgence in
Flint and beyond.[/blocktext]It’s good advice anywhere in America, but especially along the Great Lakes. Look at any of Flint’s underlying challenges, and other Rust Belt cities have especially large doses of them: old homes, old pipes, abandonment, segregation, shrinking tax bases, state-imposed austerity, tensions between Republican state governments and Democratic cities.
Plenty of lessons are emerging from Flint’s crisis. Together, they could form a Flint manifesto for the Rust Belt, an agenda to prevent future tragedies in other cities and to work toward resurgence in Flint and beyond.
* Hold governors and mayors personally accountable for clean water and the public’s health. Flint will be Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s defining legacy, the place where his “one tough nerd” promise of technical competence and austerity for troubled governments fell apart and led to the poisoning of thousands. He won’t escape that judgment by blaming the bureaucracy he controls, nor should he.
John Kasich is on notice that he’ll be judged by the same standards. The national press and a few New Hampshire voters have given Ohioans a big assist with that, asking pointed questions about Flint’s water crisis and the lead-tainted water in Sebring, a village of 4,400 people near Youngstown. The specter of Flint looms large in voters’ minds. Audience members at one of Kasich’s New Hampshire town halls asked him if he had apologized for Sebring’s water crisis and if the Ohio EPA had acted fast enough. Kasich’s response, that his EPA director reacted “immediately” after learning of the danger in Sebring, implied he didn’t think an apology was in order. I’m not saying that Kasich is another Snyder; I’m saying the fear of becoming the next Snyder might just make Kasich and other governors vigilant about protecting the environment.
It should also pressure Kasich to do more to prevent a repeat of Toledo’s water crisis of summer 2014, when the city’s water was undrinkable for three days thanks to algae blooms on Lake Erie. Then, Kasich signed a law that restricts the use of fertilizer and manure on farms, which pollute the rivers and streams that feed into Lake Erie. But Kasich won’t ask the federal government to declare western Lake Erie a distressed watershed, which would allow for stricter pollution limits. He says it would hurt Lake Erie’s image – as if Toledo’s water crisis didn’t already. Kasich is also dismissive of a bipartisan proposal to issue $1 billion in bonds for Lake Erie cleanup. No Republican governor likes to regulate business, which is why the public needs to remind Great Lakes governors that they’re accountable for the health of the Great Lakes – and the health of 60 million people.
Likewise, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson is now facing strong public pressure to face up to the city’s chronic lead-poisoning menace from peeling lead paint in old homes. Flint didn’t inspire the new attention. In-depth reports from WCPN and The Plain Dealer did. But now, the comparison to Flint is driving home the urgency. Jackson fired his health director and commissioner in November over the lead issue, but problems with the city’s slow, inadequate lead program date back across Jackson’s 10 years in office. Solving the problem is squarely on him.
* Black lives matter. Flint’s water crisis is on the way to becoming one of America’s most infamous environmental disasters – and its worst example of environmental racism.
“If what had been happening in Flint had been happening in Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills,” Hillary Clinton said in Flint this month, “I think we all know that we would’ve had a solution yesterday.” I know Grosse Pointe and metro Detroit better than Clinton, and I say she’s right. If dirty, brown, rash-causing water started coming out of the taps in Grosse Pointe or another affluent, white Detroit suburb, it wouldn’t take 18 months to stop it. It wouldn’t even take eight days.
[blocktext align=”right”]If dirty, brown, rash-causing water started coming out of the taps in Grosse Pointe or another affluent, white Detroit suburb, it wouldn’t take 18 months to stop it.
It wouldn’t even take
eight days.[/blocktext]“There are a lot more Flints out there,” Clinton said in a recent op-ed, in which she staked out an environmental justice platform. Elsewhere on the campaign trail, Bernie Sanders has called on Snyder to resign over the Flint crisis. Marco Rubio has called for “accountability” for a “significant government breakdown,” while Ted Cruz called it an “absolute outrage” and a failure at “every level of government” and implied that Democrats’ longtime control of Flint was part of the problem. (Donald Trump said the water crisis was “a shame” but otherwise declined comment.)
The Rust Belt is far from the only place where poor people of color end up living amid pollution that the well-off would never have to tolerate. But Great Lakes cities lead the nation in racial segregation, and the region has more than its share of polluted industrial sites. Ensuring that race, poverty, and poison don’t go together as they did in Flint is an urgent challenge for the Rust Belt.
* Beware state takeovers. Michigan’s emergency manager law allows the governor to appoint a czar to take near-dictatorial control of cities and school districts with deep budget problems. It just so happens that most of the cities where it’s been used – Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, Highland Park, Benton Harbor – are poor, majority-black cities with long histories of economic abandonment and shrinking tax bases. The tragedy of Flint shows the obvious flaw in draconian, undemocratic takeovers: unelected emergency managers and state bureaucrats aren’t accountable to the people they’re supposed to serve. In Flint, they even dismissed the public’s protests against poisoned water. In March 2015, a year after the city’s water supply was switched to the Flint River, the Flint City Council voted 7-1 to return to the Detroit water system. But the council was powerless to actually make the change. Emergency manager Jerry Ambrose not only rejected the idea, he called the council’s vote “incomprehensible.” So the poisoned water kept flowing for another seven months. Cases of Legionnaires’ disease kept coming too – some of them fatal.
That makes the Illinois legislature’s reluctance to give the governor control of the Chicago Public Schools look like a very wise choice. It also makes Ohio’s more careful approach to cities and school districts in crisis look pretty good. Ohio doesn’t have an emergency manager law. The state’s interventions in the Cleveland schools have kept power local by transferring it to the mayor. And when the state declares a fiscal emergency in a city, its oversight is limited to hearings and stern advice. Even as East Cleveland faces the most serious budget crisis of any Ohio city, its residents still get to make the tough decisions about whether to lay off more police or seek annexation to Cleveland.
Even the state of Ohio’s influence over struggling cities could slide into Flint-like indifference if people aren’t careful. East Cleveland’s state-appointed financial commission is playing an important watchdog role in the city, but people sympathetic to East Cleveland’s plight should watch the watchdog to ensure its advice keeps the welfare of city residents in mind.
* Cities can’t solve all their problems alone. Flint proves that state governments have to offer something beyond forced austerity to their ailing cities. Let’s face it: Cities like Flint, Detroit, and East Cleveland didn’t end up in fiscal emergencies because they were flush with cash but squandered it all. They may have made financial mistakes, but mostly they’re in trouble because white flight, job flight, and now black flight have left them half-abandoned and destitute, with few resources to pull off a turnaround.
There’s a moral case to make that state governments ought to use their greater resources to help cities, and that taxpayers who’ve left cities for suburbs ought to reach back to help solve city problems. There’s also a practical case to make: suburbs will suffer in the long run if their city and its reputation decline. Unfortunately for Rust Belt cities, the Great Lakes states have gone in the opposite direction. Republican governors such as Snyder and Kasich responded to the Great Recession by slashing revenue-sharing with local governments and telling them to tighten their budgets. Republican legislators are loath to give cities anything they see as a handout or bailout. More than ever, Rust Belt cities are on their own. That’s why Clevelanders are now debating whether to raise the city income tax.
Those budget debates will probably drive the next governor’s races in the Great Lakes states, just as they drove the last ones. Should Democrats take over state governments – which would require winning elections in outer-ring suburbs, not just cities and the inner-ring – cities will probably get more state funding. But Rust Belt cities shouldn’t put all their eggs in the Democrats’ basket. They need ideas that can still work if Republican control of their state capitols continues.
Advocates for cities have to seek common ground with Republicans on creative new ideas, as Clevelanders did on the city’s 2012 school reforms. They’ve also got to think beyond government and look to nonprofit and business groups to help fund new ways forward. During Detroit’s bankruptcy, deep-pocketed foundations and business leaders intervened to forge the “grand bargain” that staved off rapacious creditors, prevented a partial liquidation of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection, and limited the cuts to former city workers’ pensions. That kind of strong, dedicated intervention could also drive real change in other Rust Belt cities.
* Share more ideas, not just warnings. Some of Flint’s lessons are about how to avoid the next Flint, a regional version of the medical adage, “First, do no harm.” But avoiding a future crisis also means strengthening our cities’ resiliency. In the long struggle to turn around Rust Belt cities, we need an intense exchange of ideas about what works.
As a journalist who grew up near Detroit and wrote about Cleveland for 15 years, I can easily imagine elected officials, urban activists, journalists, philanthropists, and nonprofit leaders from Detroit and Cleveland having wide-ranging, fruitful conversations. They could compare successes in housing rehab, lead abatement programs, making downtown into a neighborhood, urban gardens and farms, transit-oriented development and bike paths, why some community development corporations succeed while others fail, and countless other ideas.
[blocktext align=”right”]In the long struggle to turn around Rust Belt cities, we need an intense exchange of ideas about what works.[/blocktext]What I’m suggesting might sound like a giant conference or a sister-cities program, and maybe that’s fine. Detroit and Cleveland are practically sister cities without the title. Same with Flint and Youngstown, Highland Park and East Cleveland – and that’s just comparing cities in two states. But the exchanges could take a lot of forms. As a journalist, I’m thinking of the reporting angles. Some journalists – John Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press and reporters in public-radio collaboratives come to mind – look to other Great Lakes cities for ideas to introduce at home. And of course, a common conversation across the Rust Belt is the guiding idea behind this magazine.
Flint could benefit from that conversation – but I’m not just saying we should send ideas to Flint once we’re done sending bottled water. It goes both ways. In fact, Ohio can thank Flint for one of its best urban innovations of the last several years. The Genessee County Land Bank, with its broad powers to control, hold, demolish, and sell abandoned homes, became the model for the Cuyahoga Land Bank in Cleveland. In turn, the Cuyahoga Land Bank has inspired more powerful land banks across Ohio. Meanwhile, under Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit’s land bank is pursuing its own innovations, such as selling foreclosed houses to tenants and even to squatters.
Across the Rust Belt, the great civic hope is for revival. It’s reflected in Detroit’s centuries-old motto: “We hope for better things – it shall arise from the ashes.” It’s reflected in Cleveland’s self-image as a comeback city, and in Flint, where the residents are trying to figure out how to survive their city’s darkest hour. But all those cities confront chronic, near-intractable problems. How much stronger and more resilient could they become if they all shared each others’ successes?
Erick Trickey, who grew up in metro Detroit, is a Boston-based writer, and a former writer and editor at Cleveland Magazine. You can find him online at ericktrickey.com and on Twitter at @ericktrickey.
Other Belt pieces by Erick Trickey can be found here.