Black business owners in Mississippi’s capital speak out against water issues

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — When John Tierre launched his restaurant in Jackson’s abandoned historic Farish Street neighborhood, he was drawn to the neighborhood’s past as an economically independent cultural hub for black Mississippians and the prospect of to help usher in an era of renewed prosperity.

This week he sat on the empty, sunny terrace of Johnny T’s Bistro and Blues and lamented all the business he lost as contaminated water leaked through his pipes – just like other users of the majority black city of 150,000 people, if they were lucky enough to have any pressure – and the revival he and others envisioned is highly doubtful.

“The numbers are very low for lunch,” Tierre told The Associated Press. “They probably take their stuff to the outskirts where they don’t have water issues.”

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

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

Another black entrepreneur who has taken a hit is Bobbie Fairley, 59, who has lived in Jackson all her life and owns Magic Hands Hair Design in the south end of the city.

She canceled five appointments on Wednesday because she needs high water pressure to rinse her clients’ hair of treatment chemicals. She also had to buy water to wash her hair to try and fit in with every possible date. When customers don’t come in, 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 fix his water problems. The tax base has eroded in recent decades as the population has shrunk, the result of the flight of mostly whites to the suburbs that began about a decade after the integration of public schools in 1970. Today, the city is over 80% black and 25% poor.

Some say the uncertainty facing black businesses is part of a pattern of adversity resulting from both natural disasters and political decisions.

“It’s a punishment for Jackson because he was open to the idea that people should be able to attend public schools and people should have access to public spaces without abuse,” said Maati Jone Primm, owner of Marshall’s. Music and Bookstore next to Johnny. T. “Because of this, we have people who fled to the suburbs.”

Primm thinks Jackson’s longstanding water issues — some of which date back to the 1970s, when federal spending on water utilities peaked, according to a 2018 Congressional Budget Office report — have been compounded by the inaction of the predominantly white, conservative-dominated Mississippi Legislature.

“For decades, this was a malignant attack, not a benign one. And it helped,” Primm said.

Political leaders have not always been 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 stem from city-level mismanagement.

Last Monday, the governor held a press conference on the crisis, and the mayor was not invited. Another took place later in the week where they both appeared, but Primm said it’s clear the two aren’t together.

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

Under normal circumstances, Labor Day weekend is a busy time at Johnny T’s. The college football season attracts devoted Jackson State fans who watch away games on the bistro’s flat-screen TVs or leave 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 though revenues have fallen, land expenses have increased. He spent $300-500 a day on ice and bottled water, not to mention canned pop, tonic water, and whatever else would typically be served from a soda gun. He brings the staff in a few hours earlier than usual so they can get a head start on the boiling water to wash the dishes and stack the extra soda cans.

In total, Tierre estimated, he shells out more than an additional $3,500 a week. Customers pay the price.

“You have to pass some of it on to the consumer,” Tierre said. “Now your Coke is $3, and there are no more refills.”

At a water distribution site in south Jackson this week, local resident Lisa Jones brought empty paint buckets to fill for her family to bathe in. In a city with crumbling infrastructure, Jones said she felt trapped.

“Not everyone can move right now. Not everyone can go to Madison, Flowood, Canton and all those other places,” she said, citing three other affluent suburbs. “If we could, believe me, it would be a grim sight: houses would be boarded up street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood.”

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