Black business owners in Mississippi’s capital deplore water woes

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — When John Tierre opened his restaurant in Jackson’s neglected historic Farish Street District, he was drawn to the neighborhood’s past as an economically independent cultural hub for Black Mississippians and the prospect of helping usher in a renewed era of prosperity.

This week he sat on the empty, sun-dappled patio of Johnny T’s Bistro and Blues and mourned all the jobs he’s lost as contaminated water flows through his pipes — as do other users in the majority-Black city of 150,000, if they’re lucky enough to to have any pressure. The revival he and others envisioned seems very doubtful.

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

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

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

Another black businesswoman who has been hit is Bobbie 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 on Wednesday because she needs high water pressure to wash her clients’ hair with chemical conditioners. She also had to buy water to wash her hair to try and fit in whatever dates she could. When customers don’t come, he loses money.

“That’s a big burden,” he said. “I can’t afford it. I can’t stand it at all.”

Jackson can’t afford to fix the water problems. The tax base has eroded in recent decades as the population has declined, the result of a predominantly white flight to the suburbs that began about a decade after public school integration in 1970. Today the city is more than 80 percent black and 25 percent poor.

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

“It’s 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 spaces without abuse,” said Maati Jone Primm, who owns Marshall’s Music and Bookstore by Johnny. T’s. “As a result of that, we have people who have left for the suburbs.”

Primm believes Jackson’s longstanding water woes — which can be traced back to the 1970s when federal spending on utilities peaked, according to a 2018 Congressional Budget Office report — have been exacerbated by the inaction of mostly white Mississippi’s conservative-dominated legislature.

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

Political leaders were not always on the same page. Jackson’s Democratic mayor, Chokwe Adar Lumumba, blamed the water problems on decades of delayed 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 both appeared, but Primm said it’s clear the two are not in concert.

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

Normally, Labor Day weekend is a busy time at Johnny T’s. The college football season brings out dedicated Jackson State fans who watch away games on the bistro’s TVs or gather from the stadium after home games. But this weekend many regulars were busy making bottled water to drink or boiling tap water to cook with.

Even as revenues plummeted, Tierre’s expenses rose. He spends $300 to $500 a day on ice and bottled water, not to mention canned sodas, tonic water and anything else usually served from a soda gun. He brings the staff in a few hours earlier than usual so they can start boiling water to wash the dishes and stack the extra soda cans.

All told, Tierre estimated, he earns more than $3,500 a week. Customers pay the price.

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

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

“Everyone can’t move right now. Not everyone can go to Madison, Flowood, Canton and all these other places,” he said, citing three more affluent suburbs. “If we could, believe me, it would be a dark sight: Houses would be covered 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 corps. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.

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