Who is entitled to power and water in America?

Closed borders could shut another generation out from access to utilities.

A water spigot in focus against a blurred background.
Image source: Luis Tosta

When his wife became pregnant, John Doe — a name used to protect his anonymity — decided it was time to leave the trailer park that he shared with others who, like him, had immigrated from Mexico and were now living in the small town of LaGrange, Georgia. The family needed more space, and his wife had to have reliable water and electricity for her dialysis. But Doe soon found out that his citizenship status — he was undocumented — disqualified him from applying for public utilities from the town.

When Anton Flores-Maisonet found out about this, he decided to step in and open utility accounts on the family’s behalf. Flores-Maisonet is the director of Casa Alterna, a hospitality house in LaGrange for immigrants and others seeking asylum in the community. From his perspective, the practice of withholding municipal water and power represents a tool of oppression echoing back to the Jim Crow era.

“Utilities have been a form of social control” in this town, Flores-Maisonet said in an interview with Scalawag magazine. “We know that this community codified discrimination and segregation. It just smacks of an old structure that just won’t die.”

In LaGrange and across the United States, the absence of water and power in a community has been the direct result of government policies aimed at shutting people out of town, state and country. It’s a problem familiar to any neighborhood shaped by exclusion and displacement, anyone for whom marginalization took place in the law and on the land.

Today, the street on which Flores-Maisonet runs Casa Alterna is home to families from Mexico and Guatemala, but when his neighbor Mattie Francis was growing up, it was a neighborhood of black residents who, like the immigrants living there now, worked as domestic laborers for the white households nearby. Known then as Goose Holler, the area was one of the few places where African Americans were allowed to take up residence.

According to Francis, water and electricity flowed to all of the white families surrounding Goose Holler, but the block itself went without utilities entirely. “It was rough living,” she recalled.

Just a few minutes’ walk to the west is Redline Alley, another black neighborhood dating back to the same time in history. “I sometimes wonder if I’m the only person in town who knows the significance of that term,” remarked Flores-Maisonet. “One of the few remaining neighborhoods of the Jim Crow era in our town is named after a discriminatory housing and banking term.”

Redlining was one of many state-sponsored practices that left black communities across the country without running water or electricity — just like Goose Holler. The term describes a process by which federal housing programs discouraged home loan assistance for property in black or mixed-race areas, starving them of investment and making it difficult for people to ever leave the neighborhoods to which they had been relegated by racial zoning and other explicit policies of segregation. These practices deepened the spatial isolation of black residents, creating the conditions that allowed municipalities to exclude them from services wholesale. As long as black and white families lived in racially integrated communities, local officials couldn’t feasibly divert water or power lines from black homes without also denying service to white homes. But the more that black households were pushed to “the other side of the tracks,” the easier it was to leave them out from infrastructure built on the white parts of town.

The struggle for public utilities was even more pronounced for communities that were fenced out of city bounds entirely. Among the one million African Americans who left the post-Civil War South only to find similar — or worse — segregation in the North and West, many had no choice but to settle outside of a town’s official limits. They moved into unincorporated territories along the municipal fringe, on hillsides and hollows abandoned by local governments to private developers who made them available to anyone “with a few dollars for a down payment.” Situated near the center of town, Goose Holler was able to get water from LaGrange by the 1960s, but out in the hinterlands, people went much longer without basic funding and infrastructure. The city bounds didn’t reach them and neither did the power or water.

Whenever he heard the patter of rain, Jerry Kennedy still fought the urge to go outside and collect the droplets. It’d been almost five years since water came to his home on Coal Run Road, a mostly black neighborhood located just outside the official limits of Zanesville, Ohio.

The city finally extended water to Coal Run after residents filed a racial discrimination lawsuit in 2004. If you asked county lawyer Mark Landes, however, Zanesville had no obligation to serve unincorporated areas like Coal Run. “There is a reason it’s called city water,” he argued. “It is water that is supplied to people who live within the city.”

But racial exclusion is central to why black neighborhoods across the country grew up outside of city limits — and stayed there. After segregation pushed communities like Coal Run to the fringe, governments like Zanesville spent decades refusing to consolidate them into towns and cities proper. Through a practice called “selective annexation,” municipalities regularly excluded low-income, minority neighborhoods when drawing out their city bounds. Sometimes, the justification was practical: these areas were often poor and underdeveloped, and extending public services to them would be costly. Other times, it was directly rooted in prejudice. Annexing a black neighborhood, some elected officials feared, would dilute the strength of white voters.

Whatever the reason, the results were the same. Fifty years after the height of racial segregation in America, Coal Run still stood five miles beyond the official limits of the city, past the hilltop where white families sprinkled their lawns and down towards the hollow where black residents drank the snow from their yards when their cisterns ran dry — they always ran dry. As one resident put it, “The water stopped where the black folks started.”

Historic Goose Holler is no longer on the map today, but Anton Flores-Maisonet and the students in Casa Alterna’s Freedom School program have worked hard to keep its history alive. Throughout the summer, the children of immigrants in LaGrange continued to learn and tell about the place where black families lived before they were pushed out two generations ago, and where, prior to that, the Woodland and Creek nations stood until the Indian Removal Act of 1829.

Yet, as the students recalled the exclusion that shaped their community’s past, many were experiencing it themselves. Casa Alterna offers sanctuary to many who have recently been released from immigration detention centers, and almost all the children in its after-school program have remarked on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials — “the bad men,” as some called them — in their neighborhood.

The total costs of modern immigration enforcement, however, are not likely to end here. Over the past decade, ICE has been quietly driving its deportation efforts not just with physical presence but also with increasingly invasive pools of data — including hundreds of millions of customer records from gas, electricity, water, and other utility companies nationwide. Even if all “no papers, no service” policies like the one in LaGrange were to be overturned, the fear of deportation could still be enough to deter families from signing up for utilities. If this happens, we could see it all over again: another generation without power and water in America.

Nina Wang is a Policy Associate with the Center. You can follow her on Twitter.

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