Amidst the furor of the well-known Flint Water Crisis, let us not forget that at the same time there was also a crisis of the water system in Highland Park, another of Michigan's most impoverished urban areas. And since a lot of people tend to draw racial parallels between the root causes of these issues, let's not forget that these "ghetto" cities lost half of their population overnight not because of "failed left wing policy" but because of corporate disinvestment policy. The jobs all left town, so the taxpayers did too; it should be no surprise that the infrastructure crumbled from lack of funding, regardless of the skin color of the remaining taxpayers.
But let us take this look at Highland Park's great abandoned water works as a lesson in what happens when we fail to protect the grand civil engineering legacies that our predecessors wrought for us. You may recognize it as that place with the big watertower near the Davison Expressway that recently had the words "FREE THE WATER" painted on it by some graffiti artists, with a clenched fist next to it (see above). Although the graffiti has now been removed, the message was very clear, in light of current events.
The story of how tiny little Highland Park got its own municipal water system is an interesting one. Discussions of issuing bonds to fund construction of a water works for Highland Park took place as early as April 1903. It was finally put to a vote in January of 1914, in the form of a $450,000 bond issue for the project. The vote was seen as a historic moment for Highland Park, with strong camps on both sides of the issue.
Some vigorously opposed the measure, alleging that Lake St. Clair's water was unfit for use, or that it would be cheaper to stay on the Detroit water system even if they had to pay high rates. Obviously the people of Highland Park voted to approve it, although I don't know by how wide of a margin. Other sources I've read claim that it was Henry Ford who was the driving force behind Highland Park getting an independent water supply after he built his mammoth Model-T Plant
here, which definitely sounds like something he would do.
According to historian Robert Conot, a Detroit water commissioner named John Gillespie helped Ford run the line to Highland Park, and later served as police commissioner of Detroit. Gillespie just so happened to be neighbor to Ernest Liebold, Henry Ford's most trusted secretary, and he lived in John Dodge's former home in Detroit's elite Boston-Edison neighborhood. Gillespie also helped elect the controversial Mayor Bowles in 1929, and had been in charge of outfitting Bowles' home as an elegant gambling casino, according to Conot. When Mayor Bowles was recalled and the stock market crash brought on the Great Depression, Gillespie fell on hard times.
Henry Ford, in the midst of his most paranoid years—who reveled in pitting underling against underling—hired Gillespie on as a spy to report on his #1 righthand man, enforcer (and also spy), Harry Bennett. Ford made a habit of hiring down-on-their-luck men of influence, who would be indebted to him for the favor—and thus loyal. Ford set up secret meetings where Gillespie would report to him on Bennett's doings, but naturally because of Bennett's and Liebold's own spy networks within Ford Motor Co., Gillespie's purpose did not remain secret to the other power heads for long. "Such was the management," Conot wrote, "of one of the world's two leading auto manufacturers in the midst of the nation's greatest economic crisis." John Gillespie probably faded into obscurity after that, but that is apparently how Highland Park inherited its very own independent water system from Henry Ford.
Ironically, the Highland Park Water Works is actually located in Detroit, not Highland Park, but at the time it was built, this area was still considered Hamtramck Township prior to being annexed into Detroit. The Detroit Water & Sewerage Dept. did have some existing service lines in the area when Highland Park was being built up, but not enough to serve a dense community of any size, so the idea was raised for Highland Park to build its own system even though it was unorthodox for a landlocked community. A couple other communities located within the Detroit Water & Sewerage Dept. (DWSD) service area also operate their own independent water systems today, including Wyandotte, Grosse Pointe Farms, and Mt. Clemens—but all of them have waterfront.
The Sanborn maps made of this area in 1915 show the Maxwell Motors and Gray Motors factories nearby as well as the Ford Model-T Plant
. Instead of the giant I-75 corridor, there was the Grand Trunk RR, which intersected the Detroit Terminal RR just a few blocks to the northwest of here. Most of the land parcels around here were subdivided for housing, but few were yet built upon in 1915. The water works director's residence at 3094 Dequindre was built, and only part of the pump building was constructed yet; I imagine several expansions occurred in the 1920s.
The pump house is seen above, while the filtration plant is shown in the next photo.
The construction of the Highland Park Water Works was supervised by Highland Park Engineer Hans Von Schon (who lived nearby at 50 Tuxedo St., and who had also been chief engineer of the famous Sault Hydroelectric Powerplant on the St. Mary's River when it was built in 1896). I had a hunch that the architect of these buildings was Marcus Burrowes, since he also designed several other municipal buildings
for Highland Park around the same time.
Since Highland Park is landlocked, they contracted with Detroit Edison to use a turbine station on Moross in Grosse Pointe Farms, where water would be drawn from Lake St. Clair. It would be pumped to this facility by a pipeline made of no less than three different materials: through Grosse Pointe Farms the pipe would be cast iron, for the next five miles it would be a wooden stave pipe manufactured in Bay City, and for the last three miles it would be reinforced concrete over steel. The Edison turbine plant later became the City of Grosse Pointe Farms water plant in 1931.
The Sanborn maps labeled this plant as having a two million gallon underground reservoir, and a 250,000 gallon watertower in 1915. The underground reservoir as it sits today is more like 140 million gallons, which I read at hpfolks.com
was capable of supplying Highland Park for two weeks without being refilled. The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) actually lists some different information about the plant, namely that it was built in 1921 and had a 48 million gallon concrete storage reservoir. The Highland Park City Engineer at the time was L.C. Whitsit.
Apparently there were a lot of bugs to work out of the system when the water works was christened, causing multiple delays. By June 23, 1915 it was discovered that the automatic feeder in the chloride plant wasn't working, which postponed the plant's startup for a fourth time, this time "indefinitely." The state board of health demanded proof of purity before the water could be used.
Less than a week later, Village President Donald Thomson ceremonially pushed the button to activate the water works, but it was still a while before it was allowed to serve water to residents. It also mentioned the fact that since the Detroit Water & Sewerage Dept. didn't originally supply enough pipe infrastructure to support another city in this vicinity. When the area unexpectedly boomed due to Henry Ford's Model-T Plant
being built, Highland Park got its own water works, which, granted, was minuscule compared to Detroit's mammoth pumping stations.
But this spurred quite a bit of litigation between the two, mostly over whether the city or the village owned the water mains within Highland Park. Although not technically obligated to do so, Highland Park's village council decided to pay Detroit a $707 assessment for constructing a sewer next to this plant in April 1922, according to another article in the Free Press
Fast-forward several decades...Highland Park peaked as one of America's premier places to live, and then slowly fell to become one of America's hardest-hit post industrial wastelands. There were some problems with this plant in December 2012 stemming from deferred maintenance, prompting Highland Park to switch temporarily to the DWSD for its water supply. The "problems" were subsequently found to be "irreparable," and DWSD became Highland Park's permanent water provider.
According to Mayor DeAndre Windom, the water quality from this plant was not in question, but during a maintenance shutdown several key components were found to be in need of replacement, such as the turbidimeters (which measure water cloudiness), and several valves.
The mayor said that the choice to permanently decommission this water works was made to protect residents' health, and as part of the deal in switching to DWSD, residents should not notice any change in water quality..."or in their bills." Ahem
In April 2015, practically on this water plant's 100th birthday, the DWSD sued the City of Highland Park for $20 million in unpaid water bills and other fees owed, which had not been paid on in over a year. According to an article in the Detroit Free Press
, the circuit court judge sided in favor of Detroit and ordered Highland Park to pay. Residents were "outraged" over what they said were "inaccurate bills issued by Highland Park," some totaling $3,000 or more. People also feared the city would put the debt onto the backs of the residents of Highland Park, causing bills to go up even more.
The population of Highland Park in 2014 was 10,441 people, most of whom lived below the poverty line and were elderly. Even those who can find work here do not make enough to pay $3,000 water bills, or to relocate to a better area. Even for a middle class family, a water bill that high would simply be absurd.
The DWSD warned that it would discontinue water service to Highland Park on May 1st, which if that had occurred would have literally forced all remaining residents to flee the already crumbling city. Worse yet, leaving the water system dry would cause its components to break down, turning a million-dollar problem into a billion
Another story at fox2detroit.com
said that Highland Park's debt to DWSD was actually more like $30 million, and that the Great Lakes Water Authority said the surrounding suburbs may have to foot the bill, in which case the people of Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne Counties would have to pay an extra 3.2% on their sewer bills. It was still undetermined however whether the City of Highland Park or the State of Michigan was to blame for the outstanding debt.
Highland Park City Council President Rodney Patrick said the root of the issue was complex. "Our population has changed, but DWSD hadn't changed the formula of how they're charging us," he said. Highland Park also had pending lawsuits against MDOT and Wayne County for portions of the $30 million that they may actually be responsible for.
"We don't believe we owe that kind of money," Patrick said. "I understand their frustration, we are just as frustrated. This is something the state did to the City of Highland Park, and we really have no desire to be on the Great Lakes Water Authority system through DWSD, we have our own water system."
Meanwhile the City of Highland Park has been under state-appointed "emergency financial managers" off and on for what seems like decades, whose function is to take over for presumed incompetent local officials, to ostensibly fix the city's finances.
Yet it would seem the "emergency financial managers" were not the miracle cure that they were made out to be, because Highland Park is still destitute even with state oversight, so the governor bears at least some of the responsibility here. But we all know how Darth Snyder rolls when it comes to bearing responsibility—delete emails, evade questions, spout platitudes, and toss patsies under the bus. And let's not forget what role the "emergency financial managers" played in causing the Flint Water Crisis either.
Looking out across a vast field that actually conceals a large underground reservoir:
This more modern building is labelled as the "clarifier plant" on a map of the facility...
...A look inside:
Two giant valve gears protruding in the grassy field once allowed workers to open or close massive water gates in the reservoir below:
There was even a documentary produced back in 2007 regarding the Highland Park water crisis, called The Water Front
. The director said that the movie was designed to "encourage more people to think about where the water we drink comes from, who is in charge of making decisions about this shared resource, and how to ensure everyone has access to water."
With state and federal governments reducing their involvement in aging public utility infrastructure such as city water supply systems, the burden of their operation is falling on cash-strapped local governments who can't afford to run such massive infrastructures on their own in this economy. So these cities look at privatizing their services. And these private utility managers are looking at the equation as an opportunity for profit, and investment—not as a public service.
The reason that things like water supply and schools were enshrined in the public trust in the first place is not because they were supposed to turn a profit, but so that We The People
could have a say in how they are operated, and so we could hold people directly accountable when they f*ck up...it has nothing to do with making money. With private corporations the transparency is not always there, and the prime motive of its directors is the financial bottom line—not what is best for the public. Most (81%) of us have lived on municipal water systems for our whole lives and take clean, affordable water for granted, but under private control, that outcome is not guaranteed.
Liz Miller, the director of The Water Front
, chose Highland Park to tell the story in 2004, since at the time this city was on the verge of choosing whether to turn its water system over to privatized management. At the time, she said that:
...residents were receiving water bills as high as $10,000 and that half of the city had their water shut off. Ironically, unlike any other city or suburb in the Detroit area, Highland Park has its own water intake to the Great Lakes basin, which Ford secured in 1917 to support his auto industry. So here was a city located next to the largest fresh water supply in the world, and residents were cut off.
Miller said she met a group of inspiring women who were addressing the crisis on her first visit. They had fought long ago in the civil rights movement, then became labor organizers during the peak of the auto industry, and finally served as welfare organizers once it had left town. "Today these women declare access to water as the civil rights issue of our times," Miller says. She also met two employees of the Highland Park Water Department, Tom White and Gloria Pogue, "who were working non-stop managing a once glorious water plant."
As its website says, The Water Front
is the story of an American city in crisis, but it's not just about water. "The story touches on the very essence of our democratic system and is an unnerving indication of what is in store for residents around the world facing their own water struggles."
Our entire visit thus far had been punctuated by the ominous sound of trickling water from somewhere down below. I knew that there was a large underground section of this plant, and I assumed it would be mostly flooded, but I decided to check anyway. Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs I flashed my camera to reveal this somewhat disturbing scene...
I assume the green ooze on the floor is most likely some sort of algal thing (or the result of mixing with lubricants) and you can see the source of the leak, which I presume is a tiny relief valve designed to keep the entire pipe from cracking in the event of freezing temperatures. The gauge on the large instrument panel next to it says "Rate of Flow in Millions of Gallons per 24 Hours."
The size of these pipes was absolutely stunning...I mean I always knew that water mains were giant like this, but you never get to see them because they are always buried under the street.
Spreading out into the darkness was a confusing warren of gargantuan pipes, branching and twisting off in every direction.
It was surprisingly clean in this part of the plant however.
Some pipes dead-ended where they went through a wall, I presume to go out into the streets, or to the giant reservoir.
Wow, more pipes...
I instinctively began humming that underground theme music
from the classic Super Mario Bros. video game.
Going down a short set of debris-choked stairs to an even lower level:
A row of small chambers...
The shape of the narrow, arched doorways reminded me vaguely of the WWII bunkers of the Atlantikwall
that I explored several years ago in the Netherlands.
The handwriting on the giant valve in this next photo says "54 TURNS," which I assume is the number of times you would have to spin the wheel to get it open or closed. Sounds like a pretty good workout.
I emerged from the dungeon and decided to explore the maintenance office, now that my tripod-wielding comrades had finally finished photographing the first room.
This room had apparently once been outfitted as a small workshop for the maintenance of every piece of equipment in this water works.
On the workbench were strewn many different types of replacement parts, as well as an old drill press for fabricating odd ones.
Spare parts cabinet:
In the rear was the electrical transformer room...
...It might not be immediately evident, but water plants also take a lot of electricity to run.
Another find was this old log book, although I think you'd have to be awfully bored to sit down and read it...
...I assume from the labels on the cover that "Davison Station" is where we are, "Lake Station" is in Grosse Pointe Farms where the water is pumped from the lake, and there is a booster station located somewhere in between.
And now for a little conspiracy theory. Over a decade ago when Governor Granholm was "blowing us away" and the "War on Terror" was in its infancy I wrote a lengthy rant on the topic of Michigan's precipitous decline that included an offhanded reference to Great Lakes freshwater being the next natural resource that the world's plutocrats covet and nations go to war over, once crude oil runs out.
I candidly suggested that even though Michigan was in the depths of recession and ruin, beneath that shroud of misery the natural beauty of the state's shorelines, vast wildernesses, and classic urban architecture still remained, and that if it wasn't for our economic squalor and the fact that much of it is protected public land (i.e.
, Sleeping Bear Dunes, etc.), it would be among the most coveted places in the world for wealthy people to live. To some extent it always has been, as the existence of private paradises like the Huron Mountain Club show. Yet even non-rich people can currently buy some very attractive property in the state due to our comparatively low real estate values...
Today I look into my crystal ball and I fear that I was more right in my prediction than I realized. I see an ever clearer picture of the future wherein the new coveted natural resource is water, and Michigan is ground-zero for its corporate takeover.
I foresee a gentrified future where all waterfront access is controlled by the rich, sacred public places like the Sleeping Bear Dunes are fenced off and littered with gaudy McMansions like Mar-a-Lago
, and water treatment facilities and dispensaries are heavily fortified compounds protected by military might. Water becomes the new oil. Even Popular Science
and the Free Press
just wrote articles hinting at this kind of a future.
About 20% of the world's freshwater flows through Detroit, one of the poorest cities in the free world. We just leased Belle Isle to the State of Michigan as part of Detroit's "way out" of so-called bankruptcy, which just so happened to be governed by Rick Snyder at the time, who just so happens to be in bed with Nestle, the world's largest water bottler, who draw groundwater from Michigan at environmentally abusive rates to bottle and sell back to us for more than the tapwater we pay taxes for.
And what fee did they have to pay to our state for the privilege of tapping unlimited Michigan groundwater, which in nature belongs to everyone? A few hundred dollars...and of course a few million in campaign contributions to Darth Snyder. But oh—"water is not a human right," according to Nestle's CEO... Riiiiight
I wonder how long until Nestle eventually gets their way and that crazy "corporate tax haven / Libertarian utopia" idea for Belle Isle
that somebody proposed during the "bankruptcy" actually comes to fruition? Remember that Wall Street Journal
story? Well here's a nice headline from the future: "Nestle Opens Massive New Bottling Plant on Belle Isle, Renames it Nestle Isle."
Former ghetto prairies of Detroit will be wiped clean, repopulated with McMansions and gigantic luxury condo towers full of Nestle execs and bourgeois worker bees (and ex-Brooklyn trustafarians still humping the Detroit grit image), all kept safe by the omnipresent eye of Dan Gilbert's surveillance cameras and private security militias. I wonder if Canada realizes that they are about to be drawn into a Middle-East-style oil war over Great Lakes water against a U.S. coalition 30 years from now? I'll say it again—once the fossil fuel runs out, freshwater will be the new coveted mineral that the world jihads over.
Back to the phrase "WATER IS A HUMAN RIGHT" for a moment. When I first heard it used during the Detroit water shutoff protests and the dawn of the Flint catastrophe, I tripped over the wording of the statement, because I disagreed with the concept that any physical resource—even if essential to survival—could be *guaranteed* to anyone.
I disagreed with the wording (not the intent), because in the end water will not find its own way into your belly—it takes some kind of personal effort to acquire the things that one needs for one's survival, such as the knowledge of how to find water sources and how to make it drinkable—or in modern times to pay one's water bill so that the municipal treatment plant can operate.
Of course the real matter is that our politicians have for so long concerned themselves with serving the interests of corporations and not of people
, our public infrastructure and governmental systems have suffered and failed, resulting in the total collapse of cities like Highland Park, Flint, and Detroit. Not to mention rural America.
Whether Democrat or Republican, our politicians caused these cities to fail when they stopped listening to the needs of the people, and thereby they have denied us due services—such as clean water—that we pay our taxes for. In that sense, water may not be a human right *per se
*, but directly or indirectly denying people *access
* to water is most definitely a human rights violation, or at very least a dereliction of a public servant's duty.
, "Water is Life."
For further reading on the City of Highland Park, check out these other posts:
Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 10, Sheet 96 (1915)
McGraw Waterworks Directory
(1915), McGraw Publishing Co., p. 253
"Water System to be Finished Soon, Engineer Asserts," Detroit Free Press
, June 18, 1914, p. 9
"Highland Park Bonding Bills," Detroit Free Press
, April 22, 1903, p. 11
"Highland Park to Vote Saturday on Water Proposition," Detroit Free Press
, January 24, 1914, p. 14
"Highland Park Water Plant Again Delayed," Detroit Free Press
, June 23, 1915, p. 15
"Highland Park Opens Its New Water Works," Detroit Free Press
, June 29, 1915, p. 8
Detroit Free Press
, April 11, 1922, p. 11
"Highland Park to Use Detroit Water System," Detroit Free Press
, December 4, 2012, p. A6
, by Robert Conot, p. 275
The Lower Peninsula of Michigan Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites
, HAER, p. 107-108