Another Front in the Battle Against Water Privatization: Highland Park, MI

Water privatization battles are popping up all over the U.S., and indeed, the world, but mainstream news coverage rarely captures the anguish and inequity that is being experienced on the ground. Fortunately, readers of OntheCommons.org occasionally send along some excellent dispatches about their water wars (such as Jim Wilfong’s account of the struggles against Nestle in Maine). I am pleased to post an account by Eunice Yu of a battle against water privatization now underway in Highland Park, Michigan, an economically troubled town. Yu writes:

The Water Front, a new documentary about a community’s struggle against water privatization, was recently pre-screened in Highland Park, MI — for the very community that it documents. The film shows citizens struggling with the question of how a valuable and essential public resource should be managed in the midst of an economic crisis that silences claims to human rights.

The filmmaker, Liz Miller, insisted on showing the film for those in Highland Park before others saw the whole version, but you can see the trailer here. Last Friday night, at Highland Park Community High School, more than sixty people cheered and jeered as they saw themselves and the bureaucracy they struggled against. In contrast to Thirst, another recent film about water privatization, The Water Front is more like a dramatic play with a gripping plot. The music (mixed down the street from the high school, a great combo of Detroit electronic and Joe Carter’s blues) provides a moving background as the cast engages in a hometown struggle that can resonate with anyone who uses their tap and takes pride in their home.

During the discussion afterward, locals revealed an immense love for their city, one that has been seen only as a dilapidated and bankrupt mess by outsiders and those in the state capitol. Highland Park is relatively small, only a couple of blocks incorporated in 1918 by Henry Ford for his pioneering Model T plant that has since been surrounded by the sprawling growth of Detroit. At the time, HP was a booming place, with the progressive $5/day wage and many beautiful brick homes. HP’ers on Friday night emphasized how they had a deeply-felt identity as the seat of working-class America whose homes and successes had historic meaning.

Unfortunately, the economic troubles familiar to Detroit since have also affected Highland Park mercilessly. On the verge of bankruptcy in 2001, the governor appointed an emergency financial manager for Highland Park who described herself as basically having the powers of a “dictator.” To pull the city out of debt, she began aggressively collecting water bills from the local residents. Sticker-shock ensued as bills suddenly skyrocketed into the $2000-$4000/year range. When people were unable to pay, their water was shut off. When water was shut off, children were at risk of being taken away by social services. And when residents couldn’t pay their back bills, these were rolled into their property taxes and they were threatened with eviction.

Ford’s other legacy is the enormous water plant built to sustain the long-gone auto industry. From the financial manager’s perspective, the water plant was the most valuable commodity in the city, and she began courting private bottlers. When local citizen groups found out, they were outraged. The Water Front takes you to meet all of these people, and shows an inspiring example of effective and dedicated citizen action that prevented a privatization effort.

But as water becomes scarcer and more expensive globally, managers of poor cities like HP all over will be tempted to sell their most precious commodity even if they are unable to provide water to their own communities. They need viable alternative models and a commons movement that shares their dilemmas so that our beautiful Great Lakes water does not succumb to the Siren’s call of the quick and fickle market.

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