By Jan Worth-Nelson
Scene One: I’m sitting under a yellow umbrella with Andrew Highsmith and my husband Ted in a sunny plaza at a California university. The yellow makes our faces look like we’ve smeared ourselves with dandelions. It’s a chilly but sunny 63.
Highsmith has just gone back for seconds on his drink. “This diet black cherry soda is unbelievably good,” he says. I’m finishing my avocado and quinoa salad and Ted is leaning back after a BLT made with artisanal wheat bread. Yeah, I know: It’s Southern California.
Highsmith looks more relaxed than when I met him in Flint in October, when he gave three public talks based on his essential 2015 book Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan and the Fate of the American Metropolis. Today he’s in his Steve Earle concert teeshirt and has scooted over from his UC – Irvine office for lunch.
We’re having a good day: a nice marine layer this morning, almost no traffic on the capricious 405 or the bustling 110. But there’s an undercurrent and a subtext.
We almost whisper it: it’s guilt.
We were there to talk about Flint, of course. Even 2,400 miles away, whenever I get together with other people from Flint, it’s all we talk about.
Highsmith’s book has sold out and gone into a second printing: unheard of for what began as a Ph.D. dissertation. No one is more astonished than he.
But there’s a tinge of discomfort for him in the way the Flint crisis has benefitted his book’s fortune and his professional cachet.
“I always understood that if crises were going to happen in Flint, the stage was set for them,” he says, asserting in his book and in numerous interviews this year that Flint’s woes are the result not just of the immediate water debacle but of decades of infrastructure neglect and policy and leadership failures.
“But the whole chain of misfires that led to this, who could have expected all that? And the timing of it so soon after the book came out is just remarkable.”
Just beginning a new job as assistant professor, Highsmith at first resisted interviews, trying to put his faculty roles first. But university officials, barraged with requests for Highsmith’s expertise, finally told him, “You really have to do this.”
So he has been busy, fielding many requests, he says, and he is glad to do it.
He wishes it was a story he didn’t have to tell. When I describe how some parents in Flint these days are bathing their children in bottled water, he shakes his head sadly.
“I just can’t imagine what they’re going through,” he says. “It must be so grueling.”
Highsmith wrote his book over a period of years, beginning with three years living in Mott Park in the early 2000’s – a project which grew from his dissertation for a UM doctorate.
He remembers the moment the idea for the project emerged. He was sitting on his porch on Paducah Street in Mott Park, a house he and his wife bought when she was doing a medical residency in Michigan. They had just uncovered the home’s original deed, which prohibited its transfer to anyone but Caucasians.
The discovery set him off on a journey chronicling among other troublesome elements the city’s long history of real estate and institutional discrimination.
After they moved out to be closer to her job, the house was broken into and the pipes stripped. Highsmith says they eventually sold it for “what you’d pay for a car these days.”
“Oh my god, that’s awful,” I say, watching the glossy, robust students amble by.
Scene Two: I’m sitting in a booth at Spaghettini, a fancy restaurant just off Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. I’m sipping my second gin gimlet – my favorite cocktail — but I had to borrow money from Ted for the second one: $13 a pop.
We’re at a fundraiser for Flint put on by L.A. publicist Howard Bragman and other Flint expatriates, and it’s a wonderful afternoon. Bragman and his crew flew in Koegel’s hotdogs, Angelo’s coney sauce and Vernor’s ginger ale. DeeDee Bridgewater is talking about the Flint River and singing Miles Davis blues as the afternoon light dims to dark.
Gordie Young, author of the 2013 classic Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, is sitting next to me in the booth. He’s holding court – a stream of fans are asking him to sign their books, and everybody wants to talk about Flint.
“I’m not from Flint but my wife is,” one man says, “and we keep asking ourselves, how could this happen?”
In a pause between fans, Gordie leans over and says, “I have mixed feelings about all this.” I know what he means. What’s happened in Flint has given him and his book an unexpected boost. Like Highsmith, he has been doing many interviews, and in Gordie’s case, as a journalist, he has penned several op-ed and analysis articles.
But he understands that in and around all the stories, people are suffering. He’s a good Catholic kid, a Powers High graduate. “It feels uncomfortable for me to benefit from what’s happening,” he says.
On stage, DeeDee Bridgewater remembers being told you if you caught a fish from the Flint River you had to throw it back. When she heard Flint was getting its drinking water from the river, she was shocked. “That has to be one of the most criminal acts that I know,” she says. [A full description of the fundraiser is available at eastvillagemagazine.org]
And there’s that slight unease. Ted and I say goodbye to Gordie and drive in the sparkling LA dark back down the 405, under huge jets gliding too close overhead toward LAX. We watch a full moon come up and we listen to old Nilsson-Schmilsson and Talking Heads and Joan Baez and try to feel okay.
Scene Three: I am sitting crosslegged in my favorite upright chair, avidly scanning Facebook. It’s what I do every day. I think I have a problem – don’t know if it’s a Flint addiction or a Facebook addiction – or both.
Because what I usually do is read about Flint. Flint, Flint, Flint. How did this city burrow itself so intractably into my brain? I can look to my left and see the whole LA harbor – its lumbering container ships, gleaming white cruise ships, the lit-up parallel cranes and the “blue bra” of the Vincent Thomas Bridge – but all I think about is Flint.
On post after post, my Flint neighbors anguish about lead testing and compare prices for lead filtration systems. They repeatedly note acts of kindness – how somebody snowplowed their driveway, how they enjoyed a snow day with their kids.
They are fulminating now about a proposed pot dispensary in the old Family Video on Court, and I read with relish the give and take – some horrified, some angry, some telling stories about grandmothers and brothers helped by medical pot. They are teaching each other.
On another site, everybody’s talking about the so-called water “credit”: this week the State sent out a text message – from an website cloyingly labeled “helpforflint.com” –announcing the 65 percent refund about to kick in. Even the way it went out ticks people off. Half of my neighbors got it, half didn’t, and nobody knows or trusts the State’s methods.
“Why is it only 65 percent?” one neighbor posts. “It should be 100 percent, because we couldn’t drink ANY of it!” He is readily joined by “likes,” including my own. Many comments follow, most people excoriating the State and over and over, sharing their disgust, weariness and suspicion.
My neighbors are both opinionated and considerate. I love their passion and I love them. And apparently I love my city. One night, when I see artist and water activist Desiree Duell dancing with Stevie Wonder at Whiting Auditorium on a Facebook share, my heart bursts a little bit – that’s it! A moment of happy Flint.
But waiting for the take-out chicken Ted and I ordered for supper tonight, in the privilege of my life as the lights come up on this LA hillside, the twinge returns: there’s a long hard road ahead, and I should be in Flint.
I apologize for being somewhere else. If it is possible to be innocent and guilty at the same time, that’s me.
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson will be back in Flint full time next month. She can be reached at email@example.com.