Black business owners in Mississippi’s capital city decry water problems

By Michael Goldberg, Associated Press/America Report

JACKSON, MISS. — When John Tier opened his restaurant in Jackson’s neglected historic Farish Street neighborhood, he was drawn to the neighborhood’s past as an economically independent cultural center for black Mississippians and the prospect of helping usher in an era of renewed prosperity.

This week, he sat on the empty, sun-drenched patio of Johnny T’s Bistro and Blues and bemoaned all the business he’s lost because of contaminated water running through his pipes — just like other consumers in the predominantly black city of 150,000. if they were lucky enough to have any pressure. The revival he and others envisioned seems rather dubious.

“The numbers are very low for lunch,” Thier told The Associated Press. “They’re probably moving their business to the outskirts where they don’t have water problems.”

Heavy rains and flooding on the Pearl River in late August exacerbated problems at one of Jackson’s two treatment plants, causing pressure drops across the city, where residents were already under a boil water order due to poor quality.

Officials said Saturday that service has been restored to most customers. But the water crisis has compounded financial strains caused by ongoing labor shortages and high inflation. And the flow of consumer dollars from Jackson and crumbling infrastructure to the city’s outskirts is hitting black-owned businesses the hardest, owners say.

Another black entrepreneur who took a hit is Bobbi Fairley, 59, who has lived in Jackson her entire life and owns Magic Hands Hair Design on the city’s South Side.

She canceled five appointments Wednesday because she needs high water pressure to rinse her clients’ hair of treatment chemicals. She also had to buy water for hair shampoo to try and fit in any appointments as well. When customers don’t come, she loses money.

“It’s a big burden,” she said. “I can’t afford this. I can’t afford it at all.”

Jackson can’t afford to solve his water problems. The tax base has eroded over the past few decades as the population has declined, a result of the largely white flight to the suburbs that began about a decade after public schools were integrated in 1970. Today, the city is more than 80 percent black, and 25 percent from its inhabitants live in poverty.

Some say the uncertainty facing black businesses fits a pattern of adversity stemming from both natural disasters and political decisions.

“This is a punishment for Jackson because he was open to the idea that people should be able to attend public schools and that people should have access to public areas without abuse,” said Maati Joan Prim, who owns Marshall’s Music and Bookstore on the block from Johnny T’s. “As a result, we have people who have fled to the suburbs.”

Primm believes Jackson’s longstanding water problems — which some trace back to the 1970s, when federal water spending peaked, according to a 2018 Congressional Budget Office report — have been exacerbated by inaction by Mississippi’s predominantly white, conservative-dominated legislature.

“For decades it has been a malignant attack, not a benign one. And it was purposeful,” Prim said.

Political leaders were not always on the same page. Jackson’s Democratic mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, blamed the water problems on decades of deferred maintenance, while Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said they stemmed from mismanagement at the city level.

Last Monday, the regional governor gave a press conference about the crisis, and the mayor was not invited. Another was held later in the week where they both appeared, but Prim said it was clear the two were not in concert.

“The lack of cooperation speaks to the continued punishment that Jackson must endure,” she said.

Under normal circumstances, Labor Day weekend is a busy time at Johnny T’s. The college football season brings out devoted Jackson State fans who watch the games as guests on the TVs in the bistro or walk home from the stadium after home games. But this weekend, many regulars were busy stocking up on bottled water for drinking or boiling tap water for cooking.

Even as revenues fell, Thier’s expenses increased. He spends $300 to $500 a day on ice and bottled water, not to mention canned soft drinks, tonic water and everything else normally served from a soda gun. He brings the staff in a few hours earlier than usual so they can start boiling water for washing dishes and arranging the extra cans of soda.

In all, Tierre estimated, he gives away more than $3,500 a week. Customers pay the price.

“You have to pass some of that on to the consumer,” Thier said. “Now your Coke is $3 and no refills.”

At a water distribution site in South Jackson this week, area resident Lisa Jones brought empty paint buckets to fill so her family could shower. In a city with crumbling infrastructure, Jones said he felt trapped.

“Not everyone can move right now. Not everybody can go to Madison, Floodwood, Canton and all these other places,” she said, naming three more affluent suburbs. “If we could, believe me, the sight would be grim: the houses would be boarded up street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood.”

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. America Report is a national nonprofit program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

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