by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
Highland Park, Michigan would seem an unlikely candidate for water access problems – the city is located on the Great Lakes, the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world. The Great Lakes are so vast that when standing on their shores you cannot see the other side. With freshwater so ubiquitous, why did Highland Park’s mostly low-income and elderly residents have to fight to keep the water flowing from their taps? The new 53-minute documentary film, The Water Front, skillfully documents Highland Park’s long and heated fight over water access and cost.
When director Liz Miller begins filming her documentary, Highland Park is on the verge of bankruptcy with a population of 16,000. The local government can’t maintain the city’s infrastructure and the tax base has declined to the point where levying enough money to continue city services seems impossible. The governor appoints Emergency Financial Manager Ramona Pearson Henderson to fix the city’s financial woes. With her team of well-compensated consultants, Henderson proceeds to cut city services, including closing libraries and laying off all but the most essential city employees.
Yet Highland Park is still broke. Henderson then decides to capitalize on the city’s one asset: the water treatment plant. Built in 1917 by the Ford Motor Company, the water plant provides clean water to the city’s residents at affordable rates. But the city needs money, and fast. So water rates are increased and expensive penalties are affixed to delinquent bills. The absurdity of fixing a rundown city by bankrupting its already downtrodden residents and jeopardizing access to an essential resource is prevalent throughout the film.
Residents begin receiving bills of up to $10,000 – an unexpected financial burden for anyone, but an impossible situation for people living on fixed incomes. If residents wouldn’t or couldn’t pay their water bills, water was shut off, and homes were even foreclosed as overdue bills were attached to property taxes. Caught in the middle is water department technician Tom White who – when he isn’t playing an active volunteer role in the community during his non-working hours – is responsible for reading meters, shutting off water, and dealing with disgruntled customers.Residents don’t take the increased water rates lying down. The water fight becomes an ethical issue that questions a citizen’s right, at what cost, to a necessary resource; you can’t live without water. A group of grassroots activists begins protesting, lobbying, and speaking out during city council meetings. The Water Front closely follows longtime Highland Park local and feisty advocate Vallory Johnson as she fights to stop the city from increasing rates and privatizing the water treatment plant. Along with the Chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Maureen Taylor, and civil rights activist Marian Kramer, Johnson forms Highland Park Human Rights Coalition, eventually running Henderson and her team out of town.
Miller was able to gain incredible access to everyone involved in Highland Park’s epic water fight while letting the story unfold without prejudice. Her direction is not unbalanced, but it’s clear her sympathy lies with the underdogs – especially during interviews with insolvent and angry locals who are living with no water. She captures the callous financial team discussing how they are going to force desperate residents to pay their water bills, while taking home six-figure salaries. It doesn’t help that the team of consultants are paid over a million dollars during their four years on the job, which seems particularly exorbitant considering Highland Park was bankrupt when they arrived and they only furthered the city’s problems by driving residents out.
Highland Park’s water issues may seem like an isolated situation in an unknown city. But water is, unfortunately, changing from a basic human right to a highly prized and profitable commodity. As evidenced by the misguided decisions documented in the film, communities cannot always rely on their governments to maintain the local infrastructure. The power of citizens to contribute real solutions and transform their cities cannot be overemphasized.
The Water Front is an incredibly inspiring look at the universality of grassroots activism started by individuals who take matters into their own hands to effect real change. And that’s something that flows abundantly even during the direst of droughts.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.