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September 17, 2018

Anna Clark's Playlist for Her Book "The Poisoned City"

The Poisoned City

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:

"An exceptional work of journalism. Clark delivers a thorough account of a still-evolving public health crisis, one with an unmistakable racial subtext.... Her book is a deeply reported account of catastrophic mismanagement. But it’s also a celebration of civic engagement, a tribute to those who are fighting back against governmental malpractice."

In her own words, here is Anna Clark's Book Notes music playlist for her book The Poisoned City:

A funny thing happened while I was working on my book, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy. While visiting my hometown, a little place on the Lake Michigan shore, I was telling my Grandma Rose about how the writing was going (hard, hard, constant, joyful, hard). She casually mentioned that she’d been born in Flint. What? How had I not known? The very city I’d been consumed by for the past few years! Not only that, she was born in January 1937 to a General Motors worker—who was right then in the midst of the historic 44-day sit-down strike. In Flint, the birthplace of GM, workers occupied three plants and brought one of most powerful companies on earth to a standstill. They wanted safer working conditions, better wages, and the right to collectively bargain. Their victory is what gave power to the nascent United Auto Workers and transformed the next century; it also set the stage for community organizing in Flint that we have seen ever since, including through the water crisis. My great-grandfather was one of the sit-down strikers, playing cards, snoozing on car seats, and burning burlap to stay warm when the heat was shut off in an attempt to freeze them out. But right in the middle of the strike, he got special permission to sneak out of the factory to be with his wife, as his third child, Rose, was born.

I love this story. It makes me feel connected to Flint. The city’s rich history, and the passion people feel for it, bewitches me. Flint isn’t only the subject of my book, or a way of understanding broader national issues, like environmental justice, democracy, and urbanism. It really has a place in my heart. It has been my honor to chronicle its story.

Cue the mixtape.

Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, This Land is Your Land

This soulful rendition of the folk hymn celebrates the common good. It’s an ideal that I come back to again and again in The Poisoned City. What are cities even for, anyway? The whole premise is that we are each stronger and healthier when we share our space, our resources, our work, and our spirit, one with another.

I wanted my book to not only tell the story of a manmade water disaster, playing out amidst one of the greatest sources of freshwater on the face of the earth, but also to investigate how a city becomes vulnerable in the first place. Infrastructure makes our history of structural inequality painfully literal: some have access to safe drinking water and some do not.

We made ourselves precarious by building our cities on a compromised ideal, opting for “separate but equal” rather than “this land was made for you and me.” It is a self-perpetuating cycle. “Lead is one toxic legacy in America’s cities,” I write. “Another is segregation, secession, redlining and rebranding: This is the art and craft of exclusion. We built it into the bones of our cities as surely as we laid lead pipes. The cure is inclusion.”

The good news is that we can make better choices. We can! Sharon Jones knew this. So have the rest who have sung of country’s great possibilities.

As I was walking, now, they tried to stop me
They put up a sign that said, oh, it said: Private Property
Well, on the back side, you know it said nothing
So, it must be that side was made for you and me

Bill Evans Trio, Come Rain or Come Shine

Okay, this is a personal one. There is nobody I listened to more than Bill Evans while writing this book. And only writing this book. That’s why, song after song, album after album (but Portrait in Jazz especially, which opens with this track), his piano playing worked like hypnosis, cuing me to type out sentences even when I was exhausted. It brought brightness to the hours where I really had to push myself. Even when I felt restless and isolated—so many days of just me, my notes, and my computer screen!—it gave me a sense of friendship. ‘Ah, yes, Bill Evans: here we are again together. Let’s get back at it.’
I miss it already.

DeeDee Bridgwater, Sweet Rain

The great jazz singer DeeDee Bridgewater was made in Flint; she was raised here and got her start by performing in local clubs. I’ve got a soft spot for her 1977 album, Just Family, from which this R&B-tinged song comes. I love the breadth and sunniness in her voice. So often, the stories about Flint turns it into a chronicle of hardship, a litany of loss, and while those are real, true, and urgent stories, let’s not lose sight of the beauty that this city brings into the world. There are reasons people love this place, after all.

Tunde Olaniran, Vulnerable

Tunde Olaniran is one of the most visionary artists in today’s Flint. He takes risks, he’s curious, he’s a natural performer, and he is a champion of his own city. In this song, Olaniran celebrates vulnerability as a gift: it is an opportunity for self-love. I believe it. And I think it applies not just to us as individuals, but also us as communities.

Grand Funk Railroad, I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home)

Indulge me, all right? This is of course the signature song from the popular rock band from Flint that filled arenas in the seventies. It took its name from the local Grand Trunk Western Railroad, which cut across the region. A lengthy narrative piece, the song comes complete with orchestral accompaniment and seascape sound effects, evoking the story of a looming mutiny on a ship, which was, naturally, a thinly veiled metaphor for the Vietnam War. Corny? Yes. Who cares. A lot of people like it. And the long plaintive refrain that closes the song—I am getting closer to my home—reminds me of how the band’s home city has a fair claim on giving birth to the American middle class, but also is a place where people have long been battling for the moral and civic right to live well and safely in the neighborhoods they choose.

Barney Kessel, On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever

Another one on regular rotation while writing The Poisoned City. It’s just so good! Whenever I again hear it, I will be transported to those days at the desk—I’m thinking of the good ones now, where morning light is beaming through my window, a mug of hot coffee is at my side, and I feel the rhythm of the words as if it were the pulse of my own body. The click of the keys might even keep apace with Kessel’s guitar. So many connections and discoveries came through the act of writing; there was no other way but through the craft. This is the joy of creating!

Sweet Honey in the Rock, Wade in the Water

A song of water, of children, and of healing. A splendor of multi-voiced harmony. A spiritual with deep roots for generations of freedom seekers. This is a song for Flint.

Anna Clark and The Poisoned City links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Christian Science Monitor review
Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
USA Today review

Deadline Detroit interview with the author
Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for A Detroit Anthology
VICE interview with the author
WDET interview with the author
WMUK interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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