In the midst of terrible headlines—wildfires in Turkey, Greece, Siberia and California (not to mention a devastating report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), Taliban successes in Afghanistan, sexual impropriety in New York leading to Governor Cuomo’s resignation, the ravaging Covid-19 Delta variant, and the increasingly desperate struggle to ensure voting rights—I saw a headline that looked like it might just hold a shred of good news:
‘Hallelujah Moment’: How This City Overcame Its Lead Crisis.
Lead pipes had tainted Newark’s drinking water. Now it is close to replacing nearly all those lines.
Really? Newark? Newark had some good news to share? I lived in New Jersey (and suburban Philadelphia) in the late sixties and early seventies. In the wake of decades of corrupt and incompetent local government along with a devastating response to civil unrest, Newark was plagued with negative headlines tinged with racist tropes that led the public to wonder if any good could ever come out of Newark.
A generation later, Cory Booker was elected Mayor, went on to become a US Senator and ran for President in 2020. The city’s image underwent a radical change for the better (for transparency’s sake, Booker was honored by Intersections International, where I served as Founding Director, at its first biennial awards banquet in 2010). Still—for the general (white?) population, positive reports out of Newark were an irregular occurrence at best. So, this headline, buried in the onslaught of negative news from other parts of the world, was particularly striking and potentially uplifting.
Kevin Armstrong, writing in the New York Times, elaborated: “Two years after Newark became the scene of one of the worst environmental disasters to strike an American city in decades, nearly all its 23,000 lead service lines, which had tainted the drinking water, have been replaced with copper pipes. By contrast, Flint, Mich., which was also engulfed by a lead contamination crisis, has replaced roughly 10,000 lead service lines in five years.”
Lead in the water is toxic, especially for children, leaving them with potentially permanent brain damage. Despite the danger to the health of Newark’s children, Newark’s current mayor, Ras Baraka initially played down the severity of the issue, at one point posting comments on the city’s website calling statements about Newark’s water quality, “absolutely and outrageously false.” The mayor ultimately changed his mind and in a recent statement, proclaimed proudly, “We are now viewed as a model city for lead abatement.’’
Though the process included multiple fits and starts, including an often-tepid response by politicians, there is little down-side to the fact that a municipal government was able to wade through political protocols, red tape and public hesitancy to get the job done. The fact that Newark is a predominantly Black city with a predominantly Black administration is even more heartening as we concurrently consider antidotes to ongoing displays of racism.
And, in a week when the US Senate passed a one trillion dollar infrastructure bill, it is inspiring to see one local community actually implement an infrastructure project that benefits the health of all its residents. This is far more than just a shred of good news.