JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — When John Tyre launched his restaurant in Jackson’s neglected historic Farish Street district, he was drawn to the neighborhood’s past as an economically independent cultural center for Mississippians, and the prospect of helping usher in an era of renewed prosperity.
This week he sat on the sunny empty courtyard of Johnny T’s Bistro and Blues and lamented all the business he lost to polluted water flowing through his pipes – just like other users in the predominantly black city of 150,000, if they’re lucky. Enough to press at all. The revival envisioned by him and others appears highly questionable.
“The numbers are too low for lunch,” Thierr told The Associated Press. “They are probably moving their business to the suburbs where there are no water problems. “
Heavy rains and flooding in the Pearl River in late August exacerbated problems at one of the two treatment plants in Jackson, bringing pressure down across the city, as residents were already subject to boiling water demand due to the poor quality.
On Saturday, officials said service has been restored to most customers. But the water crisis has added to the financial pressure caused by the persistent labor shortage high rates of inflation. The flow of consumer dollars from Jackson and its crumbling infrastructure to the city’s outskirts is severely affecting black-owned businesses, the owners say.
Another successful black entrepreneur is Bobby Fairley, 59, who has lived in Jackson her whole life and owns Magic Hands Hair Design on the south side of town.
She canceled five Wednesday appointments because she needed high water pressure to rinse her clients’ hair of treated chemicals. She also had to buy water for shampooing to try it out and on whatever dates she could. When customers don’t come, you lose money.
“That’s a big burden,” she said. “I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it at all.”
Jackson can’t afford to fix water problems. The tax base has eroded over the past few decades as the population has declined, the result of mainly whites fleeing to the suburbs beginning about a decade after public schools were incorporated in 1970. Today the city is more than 80% black and 25% poor.
Some say the uncertainty facing black businesses fits the pattern of misfortune caused by natural disasters and political decisions.
Said Matty John Brimm, who owns Marshall’s Music and Bookstore located in the Johnny T. “As a result, we have people who have fled to the suburbs.”
Prem thinks Jackson’s long-term water problems are — some of which date back to the 1970s when federal spending on water utilities peaked, according to the 2018 Congressional Budget Office Report It was made worse by the inaction of the white-dominated, conservative Mississippi legislature.
For decades this has been a more malicious attack than a benign one. “It was purposeful,” Brim said.
Political leaders were not always on the same page. Jackson’s Democratic Mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, blamed the water problems on decades of maintenance delays, while Republican Governor Tate Reeves said they stem from citywide mismanagement.
Last Monday, the governor held a press conference about the crisis, but the mayor was not invited. Another was held later in the week where they both appeared, but Prem said it’s clear the two are not in prom.
“The lack of cooperation speaks to the ongoing punishment that Jackson must bear,” she said.
Under normal circumstances, Labor Day weekend is a tumultuous time for Johnny T. College football season features loyal Jackson State fans watching games on bistro televisions or sitting outside the field 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, Tiers’ expenses increased. He’s been spending $300 to $500 a day on ice and bottled water, not to mention canned soda, tonic water, and everything else usually served from a soda pistol. He’s bringing the staff a few hours earlier than usual so they can get boiling water to wash the dishes and stack extra soda cans.
In total, Thierry estimated that he earns more than $3,500 extra per week. Customers pay the price.
“You have to pass some of that on to the consumer,” Thierre said. “Now your cola is $3, and there’s no refill.”
At a water distribution site in South Jackson this week, local resident Lisa Jones brought out empty paint buckets to fill so her family could take a shower. In a city with dilapidated infrastructure, Jones said she felt trapped.
“Not everyone can move now. Not everyone can go to Madison, Flood, Canton and all these other places,” she said, pointing to three other affluent suburbs. “If we could, believe me, it would be a dark spectacle: houses would be built street by street, and neighborhood by neighborhood.”
Michael Goldberg is a member of the Associated Press/Reporting for America’s Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that puts journalists in local newsrooms to report confidential issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.