How to Save a City From Itself

Nearly a decade after France's suburbs burned for weeks, Paris has an ambitious plan to reinvent itself to rescue its crumbling outskirts. Color the banlieues skeptical.

PARIS — It has a reputation as one of Paris's most dangerous suburbs, but the first thing that any visitor to Clichy-sous-Bois notices is the odd calm that pervades the city.

In Paris, almost every street corner is home to a bustling café where locals greet each other over an espresso or glass of wine. In Clichy, as locals call the city for short, the streets are empty. No restaurants, no downtown. Most residents leave town to do even their most basic grocery shopping: The city's only shopping center, in lower Clichy, is run-down, and residents don't feel safe shopping there. The quiet is only broken around 5 p.m., when the city's teenagers get out of school and make their way down the streets, lingering on sidewalks and corners, in part because they have nowhere else to go: The only social space where young people can congregate in Clichy is a McDonald's.

Less than 15 miles northeast of Paris, Clichy-sous-Bois, a city of almost 30,000, is one of the poorest municipalities in the country, and the most prominent symbol of egalitarian France's glaring and ongoing inequality. The world learned of Clichy in 2005, when it was the epicenter of riots that would eventually sweep through banlieues, or poor suburbs, throughout France, in which alienated suburban youths set fire to cars and public buildings for nearly three weeks. Nothing made investors in Paris more squeamish than seeing those suburbs burning, former Clichy mayor and current Senator Claude Dilain told me in a January interview at his offices in central Paris.

Nearly a decade later, France has embarked on an ambitious plan to remake Paris -- and, in the process, solve its suburbs problem. On Jan. 1, 2016, Paris, along with Clichy and more than 120 of its closest suburbs, will be enfolded into the Métropole du Grand Paris, an ambitious but still ill-defined project to create a sort of uber-city -- an overarching metropolitan government for the greater Paris area, encompassing around 7 million inhabitants and over 270 square miles. While each of the current cities will continue to exist as a distinct municipality with its own mayor and will likely retain authority over some local services such as primary education and civic duties like performing marriages, they will be regrouped under the Métropole -- a concept similar to New York City's borough system, but on a much grander scale. "It will be a revolution," said Paris City Councilman and Senator Jean-Pierre Caffet. "It will be an absolutely considerable upheaval."

The Métropole is a sweeping attempt to reinvent the government of one of the world's marquis cities: To govern Paris not as its own town, but as the hub of a coherent region -- one that, if it takes shape according to the vision of its founders, will share a tax base, handle urban planning for the region, and write Métropole-wide policies on everything from housing to economic development. The government would also put equality and fighting poverty at the heart of its mission. It's an idea that some urban planners say could reinvent how the world thinks of its urban centers -- except that no one knows quite what it looks like yet.

The Métropole du Grand Paris has been in the works since 2001, years before the banlieue riots rocked France. It's the culmination of projects begun by then-Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who argued that the lack of cooperation between Paris and its surrounding suburbs -- cities that Paris relied on for housing, industry, workers, airports, and more -- was both outdated and unsustainable. Delanoë began prompting city leaders to come together to discuss areas in which they could cooperate.

Delanoë's slow, steady process abruptly switched gears with the 2007 presidential election of Nicolas Sarkozy, who, only weeks after his election, announced his plans to make a Grand Paris a reality -- then quickly met with resistance from fellow members of the center-right, many of whom were mayors of wealthy suburbs loathe to share a tax base. Sarkozy's transportation and economic development plans for wider Paris continued on, but progress toward a Métropole-style government ground to a halt. The project didn't gain new momentum until 2013, over a year after the election of socialist President François Hollande, when a small group of mainly socialist parliamentarians pushed through a law that made the Métropole a looming reality for 2016. But the law was intentionally vague, in order to build the necessary consensus to get it passed. It didn't specify most details, including crucial questions of how finances will be shared, and how much autonomy individual cities will keep. And it's these details that will determine whether a Grand Paris can empower its struggling suburbs.

The story of how Clichy-sous-Bois became one of the worst-off areas in the Paris region helps explain why many here believe the Métropole can help: by ensuring that urban planning takes place with the needs of the whole region in mind. Clichy was originally intended as a middle-class city: In the 1950s and 1960s, developers put up high-rise buildings originally meant for workers in and around the Charles de Gaulle Airport, then under construction. But the promised highway that was intended to link the suburb to the airport, where the jobs were, was never built. Without the promised highway, Clichy was isolated, cut off from the economic motors of the Paris region. Brand-new apartments never sold; they were then rented at low prices, often to immigrants. Better-off apartment owners fled, reselling their units to slumlords, who allowed the apartment buildings to slide into disrepair.

Today, Clichy is a destination for the most vulnerable members of French society, often newly arrived immigrants. Though the French government has since made major investments in the city, including a €580 million urban renovation project that improved living conditions for many residents, serious problems remain. Lack of public transportation is endemic: No trains stop there, and it takes about an hour and a half to reach Paris by a combination of bus, commuter rail, and metro. Residents who manage to get a job soon leave for places with a better commute, and are replaced by poorer ones. Today, 76 percent of residents under 18 have at least one parent who was born in another country -- the highest percentage of any city in mainland France. The average income, €15,314, is half that of the region, and the 22.3 percent unemployment rate more than double the rate for the region.

Few Parisian suburbs are as isolated as Clichy. But most still suffer from a lack of adequate public transportation, and across the region, the rapid growth and construction of the suburbs after World War II resulted in hastily built housing projects that have fallen into disrepair, and neighborhoods that lack crucial elements of city life such as easily accessible stores, cafés, and playgrounds.

The goal of the plan isn't only to help places like Clichy: Its architects hope it will reinvigorate the City of Lights by simplifying Paris's notoriously byzantine bureaucracy, and make it a more attractive place to do business. But the plan is also the first of its kind designed explicitly to combat concentrations of poverty within, and inequality between, neighborhoods. "The reinvention of Paris is also the renegotiation of a model of society," one where the traditionally marginalized banlieues have a voice in the future of the region, said Frédéric Gilli, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and the author of a recent book about the Métropole. At stake, he says, is whether a world-class city can become egalitarian by design.

When Clichy and other banlieues become part of the Métropole du Grand Paris, they'll become eligible for funding financed by the tax dollars of wealthy municipalities such as Paris or Neuilly-sur-Seine -- though what they will be able to spend it on is not yet clear. A central housing authority will require even the wealthiest cities within the Métropole to provide public housing, which could help redistribute poverty -- currently concentrated in the northeast -- throughout greater Paris. The Métropole will also be in charge of urban planning, hopefully avoiding infrastructure bungles of the sort that isolated Clichy in the 1960s. And beginning in 2023, Clichy should also have a new train station as part of the Grand Paris Express metro system, planning for which began under Sarkozy, which will improve access to jobs.

Beyond the tangible benefits of a train station and tax dollars, urban planners are hoping a government for Grand Paris will foster a common identity -- one that creates a sense of belonging. "Residents of Clichy-sous-Bois don't feel like they belong if they go to Paris," Mehdi Bigaderne, a member of ACELEFEU (a play on the words assez le feu, or "enough fire"), a community group founded in Clichy during the 2005 riots that advocates on behalf of underserved neighborhoods, told me recently. For future generations, he said, he hoped "there will just be one big Paris."

But back in Clichy, for most residents the Métropole project remains a "total abstraction," as one resident told me. Most don't understand what it is, or how it will affect their lives; for those with everyday struggles, a train station in 2023 and a new financial redistribution system in 2016 are not solutions. Most don't trust the French government. "There have been so many promises here that residents are starting to distrust," said Bigaderne of ACELEFEU.

And even as the details are still being hammered out, the Métropole project is facing larger political hurdles that threaten to scale back its ambitions. In March, municipal elections in the cities around Paris that would make up the Métropole swept in a wave of new conservative mayors, of the sort who once blocked the project when it was being pursued by Sarkozy. Officials from wealthy areas of greater Paris are pushing hard for the government to revise the law to allow cities to retain their fiscal autonomy; meanwhile, even those on the left who championed the idea have begun to consider scaling it back, unwilling to see a powerful institution fall into the right's hands.

Still, at a time when cities are becoming increasingly important arenas for the fight against rising inequality -- New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, ran on an inequality-focused platform, while Seattle recently raised its minimum wage -- some have begun holding up the Métropole as a potential model for how other cities can address inequality. Representatives from Bogotá, Milan, and Moscow came to observe an early consultation session for the project, said Pierre Mansat, the Paris mayor's deputy in charge of the Métropole du Grand Paris, and while the model might not be directly transferable, the ideals are universal, he said.

But for those in Clichy, that their future city may one day be a model for others remains small consolation while the city lacks a train and a downtown. And 2016 feels -- in many ways -- still very far away.

"We've gotten so used to waiting, to being patient," said Bigaderne. "There you go; we're going to wait."

Photo by ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images


How Not to End a Plague

From thuggish quarantines to botched burials, is the Liberian government’s handling of the Ebola crisis making it worse?

MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberia's first experiment with urban quarantining amid the Ebola epidemic began last week in West Point, one of the poorest, most densely populated, and ethnically diverse communities in Monrovia, the country's capital. On the morning on Wednesday, Aug. 20, West Pointers woke up to find that they were cordoned off from the rest of the city by a makeshift barricade made of wooden tables and concertina wire and manned by armed police officers and soldiers. They panicked -- they had no idea how they would tend to their business, when they would eat, or how they and their families would receive medical treatment. No one informed them of what was to follow. When the town commissioner, the presidentially appointed official in charge of West Point, Miatta Flowers, attempted to escape with her family from the quarantine zone, outraged residents of the ramshackle seaside slum rioted, clashing with the police and army troops who had been dispatched to ring them in. Their commissioner seemed to be abandoning them, making a getaway while leaving them trapped.

From the outset, the quarantine project was destined to fail. The sheer size and population of West Point, which sits on a peninsula next to Monrovia's mainland, were stumbling blocks. The outcast township -- made up of ex-combatants from Liberia's brutal civil war that ended in 2003, marginalized youth, and migrants from Guinea and Sierra Leone -- is one of Liberia's most complicated communities. Consent for a quarantine was neither won nor sought from residents, including community leaders; health organizations working to help the government fight Ebola did not endorse it either. Making matters worse, many people who live in West Point do not understand how Ebola is transmitted and distrust the government, which has become synonymous with deception and corruption for many Liberians.

There was, in short, a glaring lack of knowledge and communication surrounding the quarantine -- as there has been throughout the crisis of health and governance that is the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Already, more than 570 people in the country have died of the virus; nearly 1,000 have been infected. The number of cases is only expected to rise.


The idea of quarantining communities had been in the works for weeks. On July 30, the president's office issued a press release about quarantining, in which the Liberian government specified several areas that would be cordoned off, among them communities in Lofa County, Upper Caldwell, and Tubmanburg city, all poor parts of the country. But a second version of the release that was sent out several hours after the first one backtracked, claiming that "several communities are being considered to be quarantined" and "when these measures are instituted, only health care workers will be permitted to move in and out of those areas. Food and other medical support will be provided to those communities and affected individuals." (Italics are the author's.)

Rumors swirled for weeks about which communities would be targeted, and the government consistently failed to explain how it would decide which communities and how quarantines would actually operate. This lack of clarity fomented fear in Monrovia. Ultimately, the government's decision to quarantine West Point, according to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was in response to an attack on a holding center for suspected Ebola patients that served patients from West Point and neighboring towns; both people and the mattresses on which they had slept -- which authorities worried might be carrying the virus -- were released into the community.

When security forces were deployed to evacuate Flowers from West Point, some residents hurled rocks, and others unsuccessfully attempted to escape. Three male youths were wounded when security forces opened fire, and community members say others were injured. Images of 15-year-old Shakie Kamara, one of the three, whose right shin was split open to show blood, muscle, and bone, flooded through the media. Shakie bled to death later that night in a hospital where he was reportedly left untreated. The military initially denied that he was shot, but the chief medical officer at Redemption Hospital, where Shakie was taken, said bullets were involved -- and they were in the two other youths as well.

The military took Shakie's body away, according to one report. He was buried on Monday without an autopsy. The minister of defense, Brownie Samukai, has backpedaled on his claim that Shakie's injury was caused by barbed wire and has admitted that lethal force was used. "The Armed Forces of Liberia have not been issued any orders to shoot to kill anybody out there at this point in time," he said in an interview with FrontPageAfrica, published Tuesday, adding that a government board of inquiry had been set up.

According to a statement to the press by Karin Landgren, the head of the United Nations' operations in Liberia, Johnson Sirleaf has said that "under no circumstances will lethal force be used again." Johnson Sirleaf herself also insisted in an interview with Katie Couric that there was no "anarchy" in West Point, and she chastised the international media for "spreading false rumors." The situation was "calm," she said. But when she walked through West Point on Monday to meet Shakie's mourning family and other West Pointers who complained about the conditions of the quarantine, she did so with a bulked-up security detail wearing helmets and sunglasses; some of them were armed with AK-47s. "Open the gates!" one sweaty young man in a red football shirt yelled.

To be sure, tensions in West Point had calmed some since the angry outbursts at the beginning of the quarantine -- but the reprieve will almost surely be short-lived. The reckless and fatal use of force riled the beleaguered community, already distrustful of the government, and the Liberian Ministry of Health has struggled to provide food, water, and medical treatment to roughly 80,000 residents under quarantine. When food rations were handed out by government workers on Aug. 21, community members stood pressed together, sweating on one another while police in padding and armor held the line, striking unruly members of the crowd with canes. Health workers dipped the fingers of community members in blue ink before handing them food -- a contradiction to the government's message that citizens should stop shaking hands and touching other people to avoid contracting Ebola. With the residents of West Point under such duress and confusion, it is easy to imagine violence reigniting once more.

The West Point quarantine has shone a spotlight not only on the government's miscalculations in a specific instance, but also on its failure to communicate with and win the cooperation of its citizens throughout the Ebola crisis. Indeed, the government's unilateral actions and lack of foresight have mostly created fear and suspicion, precipitating other dangerous incidents.

The holding center that was attacked in West Point, for instance, was set up unannounced by the Ministry of Health. Not long into its existence, a mob, many members of which were suspicious of the outsiders working there and some of whose members were convinced that Ebola is a government ploy, ransacked the facility. They set 17 suspected patients free and hauled -- in addition to mattresses -- clothes, cups, and medical items out into the community.

These manifestations of fear are not helped by Liberia's struggling health care-system: Some of the patients at the holding center came there because other facilities were overcrowded. Most hospitals are now closed or woefully understaffed, meaning that even people who go to them seeking treatment are not likely to receive it. Often, medical workers lack sufficient equipment and medications with which to assist people. Many workers, too, have already been struck down by the virus.

In another example of poor planning and outreach, in early August the government dumped the bodies of 37 suspected Ebola patients in a community called Johnsonville, a rural locale just outside Monrovia. As with the holding center and the quarantine, residents were not consulted on the action. Some rough-cut graves jutted out from the soil, while some body bags were left floating in swampy water. A sad display of wooden placards, with the names and ages of the dead written in thick black marker, was placed a few meters away.

Johnsonville residents, many of whom do not understand how Ebola works but feared that their water supplies could be contaminated by burials, became aggressive. They threw rocks at a large excavator used to dig graves and demanded that the bodies be removed. The military was deployed to control the situation.


Médecins Sans Frontières has described the outbreak in Monrovia as "catastrophic," and the World Health Organization has predicted that the epidemic could last another six to nine months. The death toll continues to rise, and the virus has spread to new counties. A comprehensive and coordinated plan has yet to be developed. But the incidents in West Point, Johnsonville, and elsewhere underscore the government's greatest failure: communication. Unless it can secure the consent, trust, and cooperation of its people, it will not win the battle against Ebola

In what would turn out to be the final hours of the failed holding center in West Point, before the mob attacked, Daniel Dahn, a tall man with deep bags under his eyes, sat inside a dark room in the building with his four young daughters. The family had voluntarily gone to the center after Dahn's wife had died.

"We are frightened," he said, his face illuminated by a small flashlight. Like so many Liberians, he did not know what to do -- and the government has yet to provide meaningful, even lifesaving guidance that might help.

John Moore/Getty Images