Film Review: The Water Front

April 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

The second, I think, in an occasional series of watery movie reviews from your friendly neighborhood Creek Freak.

Tonight, I attended a screening of a 2007 documentary called The Water Front directed by Liz Miller. The event was hosted by the organization Food and Water Watch which works on quite a few very important water supply issues – including opposing bottled water, desalination, and privatization.

The film is a documentary about the city of Highland Park, Michigan (surrounded by Detroit, and not to be confused with its Los Angeles namesake.)  Highland Park is an aging, predominantly African-American rust-belt city.  When the Chrysler plant there closed, the city went into a deep recession.  The population of the city drops, the housing stock decays, and the city coffers crash so badly that the city goes into receivership.  Highly-paid outsider consultant city managers try to balance budgets by raising water rates, and attempting to sell the municipal water utility to private investors.  The film focuses on the tireless grassroots efforts of groups that organize against the privatization grab, and for the rights of Highland Park citizens.  The heroes are the truth-talking, hard-working African-American women elders, who steward their community.

I recommend this movie.  It’s a good story, told well.  The filmakers are careful not to demonize the consultants too much; they come off as human beings (albeit more well-off than other folks in the film) that are trying to do the best they can in a very difficult situation .  The activists are great, though.  They organize door to door, help people decipher (and fight) their water bills (for amounts like $5000+ yikes!), rally and turn out residents to attend council meetings.

The privatization story is a scary one.  Communities in crisis look to make a short-term financial gain by selling off valuable assets and capacity… but in the long run end up with fewer resources, higher bills, and a lack of accountability. 

The rust-belt situation is pretty foreign for me living in Los Angeles.  According to Wikipedia, the population of Highland Park has dropped from more than 50,000 to less than 15,000 (a decline of more than 70%).  The film shows block after block of decaying, completely abandoned homes.  Lots of vacant areas.  Los Angeles does suffer from poverty and racism, but there’s much less in the way of vacant or abandoned land here.  When I see these lands I think about possibilities for community gardens/farms, parks, stream daylighting, and rainwater harvesting.  The abandoned homes makes me think it would be ripe for a Community Land Trust to purchase run-down housing stock and fix it up as permanent affordable housing.  All these ideas and projects are a bit presumptuous of me – I don’t know the land/communities/situations there, and all these projects I have in mind would take some serious funding… and may not address the most pressing issues.  For all I know they could already be happening there, too.

My heart goes out to the people of Highland Park.  It’s good that they’re organized and fighting for their rights, but the solutions for water and for quality of life don’t appear to be easy.

If you get a chance, see The Water Front.  If it’s not screening near you, you might want to purchase a copy at the filmmaker’s website.


Highland Park Residents Protesting - Still from the Film The Water Front


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