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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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