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Plague Profiteering and Water Privatization


If you know me (hi, all five of you), you know I’m obsessed with how water became privatized in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. How did the source of life–abundant, common, spirit-matter—get transformed into a source of private profit? How did something people across cultures agreed was a common good turn into something that could be bought and sold as a commodity?

Today’s slice of the story comes from Gotham, a doorstop history of early New York by Edwin Burroughs ad Mike Wallace. It involves the plague, a 1798 outbreak of yellow fever in New York City that killed approximately 5% of the population and which caused the city’s wealthy residents to flee the city while the plague did its terrible work.

The yellow fever’s mass deaths galvanized public and political will to clean up a classically oozy eighteenth century North Atlantic city with garbage in the streets, open sewers, and overflowing cesspools. As a result, almost all of the city’s fresh water supplies were polluted.

In response, New York’s Common Council drafted a bill for the creation of municipal waterworks to supply the city with fresh water. The bill was explicit: this was to be a not-for-profit project.

It’s at this point that the popular will for an ambitious water-infrastructure project was subverted by the profit motive of New York’s political and capitalist elite. Several leading figures, including Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, argued against a non-profit water supply. Instead, they advocated the formation of a private company that would supply the city water and that would be empowered to use surplus capital for “monied transactions or operations.”

Burr’s ultimate goal was to use the water company to form a bank. And this is what happened. Burr and company found investors, formed the Manhattan Company, formed a bank, and quickly used the leverage of its backers to force the city of New York to becomes its customer. This would become Chase Manhattan Bank (that Chase Manhattan, as in JP Morgan Chase Manhattan Bank).

While the bank thrived, the Manhattan Company’s system of water supply was disastrous. Against engineers’ recommendations, the company used hollow pine logs to pipe water. These would quickly rot. Instead of steam engines, they used a horse-drawn pump. Instead of a reservoir of a million gallons the city estimated it needed, the company’s reservoir was 132,600 gallons. After two years, the project had managed to lay only six miles of pipe and supply only four hundred homes. These were decisions that quite nakedly favored shareholder profits over public health.

The city wouldn’t have a decent water supply for four decades. Over this time water-borne cholera outbreaks would kill thousands of New Yorkers. The privatization of the water project, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton contributed to the deaths of thousands of New Yorkers.

There’s another cruel inversion here: water is one of the most fundamental common resources. The Manhattan Company turned the public provision of water into what would become a huge cog in global banking, part of the engine of private accumulation and capitalization. What was to become a local public good, became instead, the seed of international capitalist finance.

In the nineteenth century, the Manhattan Company would invest heavily in the slave economy – cotton, sugar, and the triangle trade. This investment in slavery is also a story about water and who owns it. New York banks extended credit to southerners who wanted to establish or expand plantations. This credit was crucial in driving the further, violent dispossession of indigenous people from their lands and waters. This dispossession was the first step of moving many of these waters from use based systems of property to private ownership, the transformation of places defined by indigenous peoples’ and political structures’ overlapping use rights to violently homogenized commodity landscapes (not without resistance or exception (see JT Roane’s work, for instance)). I need to know more about this in the American context. Research for another day.

Anyway, mind the gap between popular will for change and elite translation of that will into policies and institutions that serve their own ends.






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shut it down / lv letter

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Just Buffalo made live a recording of my poem “The Wound,” read in front of Rust Belt Books. Flatsitter recorded it on a day the wind was blowing hard across Lake Erie (and edited the video). Buffalo’s Noah Falck had much to do with making this series (Lit City Voices) happen. It’s a sort of poetic geography of Buffalo, perhaps a counter map to the ones defined by consumptive tourism, that has more to do w/where ppl spend their lives and breath and the places their minds revolve around. The full roster is in the promo video. Poems by Kristianne Meal (that howl!) and Brandon Williams are already up. I believe in a poetics w/one foot in the municipal; this poetics is acutely aware of geography as it is, as its been made, the more just geographies and organizations and use of spaces that have been fought for and won and lost. I’m also interested in the places on these maps that are silent, left blank and how space might be made for them to speak.

When titling this poem, I was recalling the Octavio Paz poem “Dawn.” Which is one I carried w/me for a number of years in my twenties. It references, obliquely, an event a number of ppl I know took part in, singing over Buffalo’s arch-reactionary Carl Paladino, who had captured a school board seat and was pushing forward self-serving, community-harming privatization measures. This was part of a larger effort to shut down BPS board meetings until Paladino was removed. It worked. This poem is really meant to be a bridge between other poems charting, through this poet’s keyhole, on-the-ground organizing and activism in Buffalo between 2016-2018. A lot of ppl were working damn hard to draw the links between Buffalo’s corrupt, patronage driven ruling class (Democrats and Republican alike) and the people and (white-supremacist, settler, necro-capitalist, etc) policies of the Trump administration. I mostly think of these poems as for performance only, particularly for performance in Buffalo. Here, I thought, it might work if it’s a recording in Buffalo. City Hall is lodged in my ear in the still above.


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What are our options? // casa del popolo // house of the people // campaign infrastructure into shelter

Parable/Casa Del Popolo: in the early 1900s socialism was slowly gaining traction in Italy. In 1914 the people in Abbadia di Montepulciano elected its first socialist municipal councilor. Elites reacted against this minor socialist inroad. One form of this was their refusal to rent spaces to socialist organizations.

Socialists could win a little election but could not legitimately hold space.

Their response? We can’t know all of it. Probably a lot of flaming the local elite-friendly press. Probably a lot of pointing at elite hypocrisy in pre-twitter bars and cafes. But also this:

They decided to build their own space. They collected money, they bought materials. On Sundays and after work volunteers raised timber and laid brick. They did not wait to vote themselves into more and higher offices of the state. In 1917, they completed their house of the people. It included a library, a consumer cooperative, meeting rooms for youth and women’s groups. In the words of Margaret Kohn, “The house of the people was a site of recreation, socialization, and the realization of an alternative moral universe” (96). It was a place for the left to know and hold itself, a ground to hold and defend. 

It was the opposite of the plague house, a house on lockdown, the long wail typed into the ether. Other houses of the people included restaurants, adult education programs, theatres, bars, newspapers, spaces for affiliated cultural organizations, headquarters for producer cooperatives, bakeries of cheap bread. They sometimes made things free, served “communist soup.” They didn’t only train people, they made jobs. 

There’s a real danger that the energy and resources of electoral assemblages will disappear. Many people are asking what’s next. One way is to concretize the advances of a leftist, more just politics into a physical infrastructure for interlinked horizontal organizations, where people don’t have to wait for the realization of their values through the electoral process. What if we make spaces where we can live them–and which make life possible in the face of a death-driven state?


This is drawing from Kohn’s work on houses of the people Radical Space.