eyes on the U.S.

America's Third World City: Meet The Pioneers Reinventing Detroit

Downtown Detroit
Downtown Detroit
Arnaud Robert

DETROIT - An old woman stands in front of a one-armed bandit with a half-lit cigarette between her lips. She takes tokens out of a bucket of popcorn and slides them endlessly into the same slot.

You can tell she has been doing this for years. Further in, at the blackjack table, two young men are doubling their bets with playing cards that have brought them no luck so far. They are an hour’s drive from the suburb where they live. Their boss offered them a $2,500 yearly pay hike if they would move to the city, but they did not even consider it. The roads are still good enough for them to spend their evenings in Detroit's casinos.

The gambling sector remains untouched by the recession or by the 20% unemployment rate, and it has not been affected by the 25% decrease in population in the past decade. Every night at the MGM Grand Detroit, the Greektown Casino and the Motorcity Casino, cars from all over the state of Michigan fill up the parking lots. But as soon as you leave behind the excessive light and noise of the casinos, what is striking is the emptiness of this city.

A ghost town

Detroit's wide streets feature thousands of numbers but only a few houses. Most were burned to the ground; you can still see the ashes. Others were torn down by the city council’s demolition teams. Fresh grass is slowly taking over what used to be America's most booming city -- in the 1930s.

Dark figures can be seen wandering around in the cold, pushing carts, the only thing that still belongs to them. Gigantic hospitals are empty, as if patients and staff had been evacuated after a chemical attack.

In 1950, nearly two million people lived in Detroit. Today, its population is only 720,000. After decades of an economic crisis that struck down the automobile industry and after the 1967 race riots, most people have relocated to the suburbs. At the time, the Governor of Michigan was a former car-dealer who had just entered the political sphere. He called in the National Guard when protestors, mostly African-Americans, took to the streets of the city to protest against economic segregation.

The results were dire: 43 people were killed, more than 1,000 injured, 2,500 shops ransacked downtown and hundreds of houses burned to the ground. The Governor of Michigan was George W. Romney, Mitt Romney's father. The city never recovered from those nights of violence. Those who could afford to move away from the threat of riots and the soaring crime rates relocated elsewhere. They left the city to those who had no choice but to stay. In the past few days, in the few remaining bars in town, people have been watching the presidential debates on TV. Everyone waited for either candidate to mention the city of Detroit. Every time Romney did, he was booed. People support Obama around here.

Community rising

What can be done for a city that is so big that it could fit two or three other U.S. metropolises within its limits? "When I moved here 10 years ago, I warned my wife I would start smoking again. Everything was so apocalyptic that I felt the urge to get back to my old habits," says Patrick Crouch. Crouch is part of a fast-growing movement in Detroit: urban farming. He grows spinach, carrots and lettuce on empty lots only a few miles from the General Motors Renaissance Center. He has also started a soup kitchen.

His organization is called Earthworks Urban Farm. "There is no church, no community center and no school in the area any more. People not only need help, they need dignity. Detroit is a test-lab for the future. People have realized that the government is not going to help. So they decided to act. They grow their own vegetables. They are launching their own private initiatives together." These community gardens are sprouting all over town. Civil libertarians from around the country are coming to settle on this land, which is almost worthless. Crouch and the others have just learned that a Whole Foods (a supermarket chain for yuppies) will soon open in the area.

"We won't supply them with our vegetables. People from the neighborhood, who are mostly old people with low incomes, will be forced out of the area. We don't want gentrification in Detroit. We want a city that is open to all kinds of people." Even punks. There is a nice residential neighborhood not far from there. Streets are full of two-story red brick houses. Some of them have bars on the windows. In the basement of a typical middle-class house, there is even a rock venue, the Bear Cave.

For a handful of dollars

Nate, in his late twenties, moved here a few months ago. The house he is living in is up for auction by the city council for $500. Nate is realistic. He knows he will have to spend $10,000 to buy it. "People were forced to abandon their homes because they couldn't pay their mortgages. It spread like a disease, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. There was nothing we could do but to witness this tragedy. But it has also created new opportunities for many people who have launched their own projects and started building a new world. Where else in America can you buy a house for a handful of dollars?" Guitars are screaming. The neighbors do not complain. In Detroit, it is silence that is unbearable, not noise.

Detroit is the perfect place for those who enjoy a DIY lifestyle, who have new ideas but cannot always afford to carry them out. It is a space where nature's victory over concrete has created new opportunities.

Over the past few years, people have started to notice that wild animals, such as raccoons, have come back to the city. Glemi Dean Beasley, a bearded 72-year-old, owns a rifle and two dogs. The former truck driver moved to Detroit from Arkansas in the 1950s. He is now retired and earns a tiny pension that does not allow him to live well. He goes out every night to hunt for raccoons. He makes $12 per animal and sells the meat. With the help of his dogs and a headlamp, he stalks the neighborhood at night, tracking down raccoons in the trees.

Solutions for recovery

Twenty-three-year-old Veronika Scott is a well-educated white woman. She shares Beasley's flair for new opportunities. Homeless women come every day to her huge loft to sew the sleeping-bag coat she designed. She works as a project developer for General Motors and launched the small business on the side. "There are more than 20,000 homeless people on Detroit. It is a paradox when you know that there are 65,000-abandoned houses in the city. My aim with these coats is not to create some kind of homeless uniform. I want the coats to become obsolete once the poorest people of the poor find a home. But as of today, it has proved a good way to get in touch with these people who are on the fringe of society."

A whole range of solutions has been considered for Detroit, including new boundaries for districts based on the city's real population figures. A committee appointed by the city council is due to release a report in a few weeks, with solutions to help the city recover from its current slump. "I don't think that density is Detroit's main issue. We do not necessarily want to get back to the same population we had in the 1950s. Today, there is only one job for four people. Attracting more people would be nonsense. But we need to totally rethink public services," says urban planner and committee member Dan Pitera. Detroit, which nearly went bankrupt again recently, can no longer afford to treat its wastewater. The city discharges a large part of its waste directly into rivers, and is fined heavily by the Federal government for doing so.

"We have been looking at wastewater systems used in third-world countries, as they are cheaper and cover areas smaller than the entire city. Detroit is an environment that inspires the imagination." Detroit, the motherland of American capitalism in the North, now finds its inspiration in the South.

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.

[*Italian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."

🇸🇩💥  IN OTHER NEWS

Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
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