Step onto downtown Detroit’s tiled sidewalks past the Kern Clock Tower and storefront restaurants and you’ll find Campus Martius. This small park at the center of the greatest comeback story in post-industrial America has become a symbol for life continuing after ruin.
Climb into your car and drive down Woodward Avenue. Hear the bell of the QLine cars and the vibrant nightlife of the restaurants, clubs and concert halls. These are what leaders call signs of economic progress in a major city that the State of Michigan can finally take pride in.
Now take a turn down any of the major bisecting streets. Drive past the Eastern Market or Wayne State University. You won’t have to wait long to see a different Detroit. You’ll know when you’ve found the boarded houses and painted skeletons of abandoned factories. This is the Detroit that was forgotten when news sites like Forbes called it “America’s Comeback City." The other Detroit: one with its own unique problems and its own fleeting solutions.
But as the city’s history of some of the nation's greatest cultural and political revolutions would have predicted, the people of Detroit work like blue-collar factory thoroughbreds on so many more vehicles for change.
Detroit: Another Flint?
Detroit has financial problems. The city can bitterly remember some of the mayoral terms that caused its collapse. Then-Governor Rick Snyder saw these problems and appointed an emergency manager to correct the city's finances.
His all-star for the job was Kevin Orr, a University of Michigan alumnus working at the cutting edge of bankruptcy law. As a former director of the United States Trustees Program, Orr broke ground on entitling the city to bankruptcy.
After Snyder appointed Orr as the city's emergency manager, people in Detroit saw the move for its anti-democratic implications. Power to control the city’s finances fell outside of its own elected officials.
During the bankruptcy, thousands of Detroit homes accrued debt, averaging around $500, to the Detroit Water and Sewage Department. Orr slated this source of debt – something in the ballpark of $6 million – as another part in his efforts to create a balanced budget. His solution?
For anyone more than $150 in debt, Orr tasked the Homrich Corporation with shutting off the debtor’s tap water.
As a result, more than 100,000 homes were at risk of losing access to water. In 2014, the first year of this program, 33,000 homes lost water in a crisis that alarmed even the United Nations.
While Orr's program continued, UN Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque published a statement detailing how the water shutoffs disproportionately affected impoverished Detroiters, a group that was overwhelmingly African-American.
An outrage that persists
Little known to most Americans, the shutoffs still continue to this day. As of early 2018, 17,000 homes were slated for shutoff. Civil engineers and activists have condemned the government's approach because of the effect the practice is having on Detroit’s infrastructure.
The toll on human lives is just as steep, as the shutoffs affect the pressure in water pipes located in neighborhoods with the highest rate of debt to the Detroit Water and Sewage Department. Many of the schools with elevated lead and copper levels are inside these neighborhoods.
As a result, many young people in Detroit have no running water in either their home or their school. During the height of the shutoffs, schools opened gymnasium showers for students to use. Young people would bring their water bottles to fill for the rest of the day. But now the students can’t use even that water.
Shea Howell, a member of Riverwise Magazine’s editorial board, noticed the overlap with Flint’s water crisis.
“One of the things we learned in Flint is that when water doesn’t flow consistently through pipes, what happens is the interior biofilm dies and then there’s no protection between the water and the lead,” Howell said.
“So the schools, some of them shut their water off in the summer [and] experience low pressure because they’re in neighborhoods where there’s been so many shutoffs.”
Working for change
Howell, who works as a professor of communication at Oakland University in nearby Rochester, teaches courses that lend a focus to grassroots initiatives and social inequality. One student of Howell’s said that she was everyone’s favorite radical grandmother.
In the mid-1970s, Detroit shined as a racially progressive promise for radical movements across America. Working with Angela Davis for the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression, Shea moved to the Motor City and made it her own.
“There was this feeling that the city was on the verge of revolution,” Howell said. “And I thought, 'Oh, I want to be a part of that.' I always say, Angela Davis brought me to Detroit and Grace and Jimmy [Boggs] got me to stay.”
But it wasn’t until her work with the group Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management that Howell's focus turned to water as a basic human right.
The group originally worked to reduce Kevin Orr’s budget-balancing overhaul of democratic processes. These efforts shifted into a sort of confederation among activist groups working against the water shutoffs.
Groups such as We The People of Detroit and the People’s Water Board all rallied together against the issues that the water shutoffs brought.
“What people in Detroit have been trying to do is create a way for folks to get water but in an affordable way,” Howell said.
This is the basis for the city's contentious affordability plan, similar to the one enacted in Philadelphia. While leaders acknowledged the root cause of the shutoffs was poverty, garnering the right support for income-based utility rates has been difficult.
Michigan laws prohibit companies charging different utility rates for one consumer group over another. This means that the poorest Detroiters have been paying one-fifth of their total income just to keep their faucets running. The United Nations recommends consumers spend between 2% to 4% of their income toward water.
“That’s why a lot of people in Detroit are choosing water over medicine, water over rent, water over new shoes for their kids,” Howell said. “Because it’s such a huge percentage of people’s income right now.”
Detroit’s long-shed reputation as a criminal city was largely rooted in the intensity of its poverty. But native Detroiters are seeing access to their largest source of tax revenue, the downtown area, dwindling faster and faster, according to Howell.
As Howell sees it, the developments in downtown Detroit have been completely removed from the rest of the city. Due to a law that restricts downtown tax revenue to reimburse the downtown area exclusively, the vast majority of Detroit is being left behind. Not only this, the taxes that are restricted to downtown developments come in the same city where people still cannot access their pensions.
“You have a continual squeeze of these people being pushed out, with no resources to speak of coming in,” Howell said.
For now, groups have placed water-assistance stations around the city. Young men have stood near busy street corners passing out water bottles for people who need them. And some people have taken direct action against the sources of the problem.
Stay tuned for Part II in this series, which will run next week.