Like an accident in slow motion, Anna Clark, a Detroit-based journalist followed the crisis of toxic drinking water in Flint, Michigan.
“I had my head in it for years and it’s still there, I talk about it and I can’t get my head about how it happened,” says Clark, who has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post and Politico.
This obsession with the government’s failure to provide clean water in a once thriving manufacturing city whose population of about 99,000 is largely African American compelled Clark, who was a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya and edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, compelled her to research and write The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy (Metropolitan Books 2018; $30) which was an Amazon Best Book of 2018 . But she didn’t do so as a faraway observer. Clark, who graduated from the University of Michigan’s Residential College with highest honors, double majoring in History of Art and Creative Writing & Literature, and minoring in Crime and Justice and received an MFA from Warren Wilson College, has always been a doer.
For almost two years, citizens of Flint complained about the water, showing up at meetings with jars of the putrid looking liquid that came out of the faucets and talked about how people were getting ill from drinking it. The GM plant in Flint actually changed their water system because the city water was corroding the auto parts they manufactured.
“It wasn’t good enough for the machines, but it was good enough for the people?” Clark asks rhetorically. “I wanted to really dig deep. I loved the research and the long conversations with a lot of people. I traveled to Flint a lot, to attend events, meet people and just hang out. I audited classes at the University of Michigan on metropolitan structures, legal issues and water rights. There was so much information to connect. I really couldn’t stop until my publisher said I had to turn in my manuscript.”
Clark says most of the credit for the crisis being covered by major media sources is due to the city’s residents.
“They would go to Lansing to meet with legislators and attend meetings, the mapped where the symptoms were occurring,” she says, noting their work propelled the story to a national level which is when the state finally started took action. “I really think many people in positions of power didn’t think the people in the city mattered very much. The clear message is we don’t actually care to do anything sizable about it.”
But what happened in Flint could happen anywhere. Clark also sees this as an urgent public health care issue and one that is even more important as the national conversation is about dismantling safety regulations.
“Even people in less disadvantaged cities have lead in their popes,” she says. “At the base level of what a city should do for its citizens, I think safe drinking water is pretty basic.”
What: Anna Clark discusses The Poisoned City and then will be joined in conversation with Rick Perlstein, the author of several books. A Q&A will follow the discussion.
When: Thursday, January 24 at 6 pm
Where: The Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL
FYI: 773-752-4381; 57th.semcoop.com