Can this project clean up millions of tons of ocean plastic?

About 9 million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year — enough to fill a football stadium 23 miles high. But a project dubbed the Ocean Cleanup aims to eliminate it with a method that researchers are testing in the North Sea.

This report aired on PBS NewsHour Weekend on August 14, 2016.

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker
Associate Producer: Melanie Saltzman
Camera:  Saskia de Melker and Melanie Saltzman
Editor: Judith Wolff
Correspondent: Saskia de Melker

Native community in Louisiana relocates as land washes away

This report aired on PBS NewsHour Weekend on July 30, 2016.

Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana has lost 98 percent of its land to coastal erosion caused by sinking land and exacerbated by rising seas and increased storm surges. The tribal community that lives there will be the first to receive federal tax dollars to help them relocate in response to climate change.

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker
Associate Producer: Melanie Saltzman
Camera:  Saskia de Melker and Melanie Saltzman
Editor: Steve Thompson
Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan

 

Why thousands of students are seeing Broadway smash ‘Hamilton’

This report aired on PBS NewsHour Weekend on May 8, 2016

This spring, 20,000 public high school students from low-income neighborhoods in New York City will get the opportunity to see “Hamilton,” the Broadway smash hit nominated this week for a record 16 Tony Awards. Students can see the show as part of a new classroom curriculum designed around the show to encourage creativity and foster student interest in history.

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker
Associate Producer: Saskia de Melker
Camera:  Saskia de Melker and Melanie Saltzman
Editor: Judith Wolff
Correspondent: Saskia de Melker

 

Rethinking wages for tipped workers

This report aired on PBS NewsHour Weekend on March 26, 2016.

Due to low federal minimum wages for tipped workers, many grapple with poverty rates. Seven states, however, pay tipped workers full minimum wage before tips. And with minimum-wage hikes looming, some restaurants are pioneering no-tipping policies, eliminating gratuities in favor of higher hourly wages for workers.

Producer: Saskia de Melker
Associate Producer: Melanie Saltzman
Camera:  Saskia de Melker and Melanie Saltzman
Editor: David Kreger
Correspondent: Alison Stewart

The opioid epidemic’s toll on pregnant women and their babies

The risk for overdose from opioid painkillers and heroin among women, including pregnant women, has skyrocketed, which means a growing number of babies are born dependent on opioids. NewsHour Weekend Special correspondent Alison Stewart reports on the challenges for pregnant women struggling with addiction.

This report aired on PBS NewsHour Weekend on January 9, 2016.

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker
Associate Producer: Melanie Saltzman
Camera:  Saskia de Melker and Melanie Saltzman
Editor: Judith Wolff
Correspondent: Alison Stewart

Why is New York City cracking down on Airbnb?

This report aired on PBS NewsHour Weekend on August 1, 2015.

Short-term housing rental industry giant Airbnb now lists more than 1 million rooms available in 192 countries. The platform’s largest market is in New York City, with more than 25,000 listings per night, but it’s also where the debate over how to regulate short-term rentals is the most contentious. In light of a new report by the NY Attorney General that says nearly three-quarters of Airbnb’s listings in the city are technically illegal, the city is cracking down.

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker
Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan
Camera:  Saskia de Melker and Sam Weber
Editor: David Kreger

The case for starting sex ed in kindergarten

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on May 27, 2015.

Spring Fever class discussion
Teacher Janneke van den Heuvel leads her 8-year old students in a group discussion during Spring Fever week in the Netherlands. NewsHour photo by Saskia de Melker

“Who here has been in love?” Anniek Pheifer asks a crowd of Dutch elementary school students.

It’s a Spring morning in Utrecht, and the St. Jan de Doper elementary school gym is decked in heart-shaped balloons and streamers. Pheifer and Pepijn Gunneweg are hosts of a kids television program in the Netherlands, and they’re performing a song about having a crush.

Kids giggle at the question. Hands — little and bigger — shoot up.

Welcome to “Spring Fever” week in primary schools across the Netherlands, the week of focused sex ed classes… for 4-year olds.

Of course, it’s not just for 4-year-olds. Eight-year-olds learn about self-image and gender stereotypes. 11-year-olds discuss sexual orientation and contraceptive options. But in the Netherlands, the approach, known as “comprehensive sex education,” starts as early as age 4….read the full story at PBS NewsHour

 

Exonerated but not free: What do we owe the wrongfully convicted?

This report aired on PBS NewsHour Weekend on November 9, 2014.

In the US, state laws governing compensation for wrongfully convicted people vary significantly. While some states offer sizable packages for the exonerated, at least 20 offer nothing. And even for those that do, it may not be enough to make up for the emotional damage on those who’ve been wrongfully convicted.

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker
Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan
Camera:  Saskia de Melker and Sam Weber
Editor: Saskia de Melker and David Kreger

 

Four wrongfully convicted men, four very different outcomes

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on November 9, 2014.

Alan Newton, Jeffrey Deskovic, Drew Whitley, and Johnny Pinchback were all exonerated in the past decade. Credit: NewsHour
Alan Newton, Jeffrey Deskovic, Drew Whitley, and Johnny Pinchback were all exonerated in the past decade. Credit: NewsHour

When a wrongfully convicted person gets released from prison, it is a major news event: Local television crews capture the first moments of freedom and the speeches on the steps of the state capital, audiences empathize as they grapple with gratitude and rage, and the exonerees take their first steps into an uncertain future.

Jeffrey Deskovic, who was in prison for 16 years after being wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of his high school classmate, said it was the most surreal moment of his life: “It felt like a dream,” he said. “When I stepped up to the microphones at the press conference, I asked ‘Is this really happening?’”

But when the limelight fades, the wrongfully convicted face the reality of navigating the world they were yanked from, often with limited financial and social support.

According to the Innocence Project, it takes exonerees three years on average to receive any compensation after their release. More than a quarter get nothing. Among those who are paid, 81 percent get less than $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment.

NewsHour spoke to a number of exonerated men from different states about their experiences reintegrating post-release. All of them, regardless of compensation, say they would pay anything to have the years they lost in prison back…..read more at PBS NewsHour.

Agrarian roots? Think again. Debunking the myth of summer vacation’s origins

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on September 7, 2014.

Children working on a farm near Mt. Vernon, Ky., in 1916. Credit: Library of Congress
Children working on a farm near Mt. Vernon, Ky., in 1916. Credit: Library of Congress

It’s an image that many remember of America’s agrarian past: Kids toiling away on family farms during the long, hot summer break between school years.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the origin of the school calendar is often linked to these images — by policy makers and in the media.

In a story about achievement gaps caused by summer vacation, Time Magazine called the school calendar “a legacy of the farm economy.” In a segment on summer programs for low-income kids, NPR reported that the school year was based on an “agrarian calendar that dates back to farm cycles and harvests.” While advocating that kids spend more time in school, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told The New York Times that the long summer break was “based on the agrarian economy.”

But while there may be a kernel of truth to this theory, it’s mostly wrong.

“What school on the agrarian calendar actually looked like was a short winter term and a short summer term” said Kenneth Gold, a historian at the College of Staten Island. “And if you think about farming needs, that’s actually what makes sense.”

Kids in rural, agricultural areas were most needed in the spring, when most crops had to be planted, and in the fall, when crops were harvested and sold. Historically, many attended school in the summer when there was comparatively less need for them on the farm.

“The whole idea of an agrarian calendar makes it sound like it was an unthinking decision but the current school year was really a conscious creation,” said Gold, who is the author of “School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools.”

Urban schools had a very different school schedule, but also included summer. School was essentially open year round, but was not mandatory, and children came when they could. In 1842, New York City schools were open 248 days a year, dramatically more than the 180 or so that they are open today.

In the days before air conditioning, schools and entire cities could be sweltering places during the hot summer months. Wealthy and eventually middle-class urbanites also usually made plans to flee the city’s heat, making those months the logical time in cities to suspend school.

By the late 19th century, school reformers started pushing for standardization of the school calendar across urban and rural areas. So a compromise was struck that created the modern school calendar.

A long break would give teachers needed time to train and give kids a break. And while summer was the logical time to take off, the cycles of farming had nothing to do with it, Gold said.

And none of the reasons for creating the current school calendar related to student achievement. “The conversations that we’re having today about creating a context for academic achievement just weren’t there.”

But today, researchers are considering that exact question.

Long summer breaks have been shown to cause children, especially lower-income children, to lose ground academically. It’s a phenomenon known as “summer slide,” where students return to school in the fall having lost a full month of learning, on average.

Researchers have studied enriching summer programs, summer school, and even year-round school to combat this summer learning loss. One school district in West Virginia has had a year-round calendar for more than two decades. Watch the video below to learn more.

New Jersey court strikes down murder conviction based on violent rap lyrics

Updated Story — published on PBS NewsHour on August 4, 2014

The New Jersey State Supreme Court on Monday overturned, by a vote of 6-0, the attempted murder conviction of an aspiring rapper and small-time drug dealer Vonte Skinner, arguing that the extensive reading of Skinner’s violent rap lyrics during his trial unfairly prejudiced the jury.

As the PBS NewsHour reported last month, rap lyrics are increasingly being used by prosecutors nationwide as evidence of motive or intent, or in some cases, treated as confessions to specific crimes. Some legal scholars alarmed by this trend argue that rap lyrics are largely fictional, artistic works, and introducing their sometimes violent and graphic content at trial unfairly taints juries….read more at PBS NewsHour.

Rappers respond: ‘This is how we express ourselves’

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on July 2, 2014.

Rappers Respond

A man shoots his foe in the head over and over again, leaving him to bleed out on the street. The man has no remorse. He even brags about it.

Only this man isn’t real. He’s a character in a rap song written by Vonte Skinner, who was sentenced to 30 years in a New Jersey state penitentiary for the attempted murder of Lamont Peterson.

In Skinner’s case, prosecutors relied on two eyewitnesses who claimed he was the shooter, though their stories had changed several times. They also read 13 pages of violent rap lyrics to the jury, taken straight from Skinner’s own notebooks, to show his violent intentions and aspirations.

Across the country, police and prosecutors are increasingly using a suspect’s own rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases. Law enforcement argues that they help establish motive or intent and in some cases even contain confessions. But critics argue that rap music is just that: music. It’s not a diary.

NewsHour recently reported on this growing trend and the issues of relevance, prejudice and first amendment protections that are being weighed when the criminal justice system probes lyrics.

We wanted to know more about what artists and others in the hip hop industry think about this trend and the various arguments about why it does or does not make good evidence…read more at PBS NewsHour.

Nuns, law enforcement mobilize to prevent sex trafficking around the Super Bowl

This story aired on PBS NewsHour Weekend on February 1, 2014.

As millions of fans debate who will win the game and by how much on Super Bowl Sunday, others, including law enforcement, will be focused on preventing the exploitation and trafficking of young women that they say increases around large sporting events.

Producer: Saskia de Melker
Writer: Saskia de Melker
Camera:  Saskia de Melker, Stephen Fee, Mori Rothman
Editor: David Kreger

HARI SREENIVASAN: All this week there have been more than a few concerns on the minds of the Super Bowl Host Committee, including the selling of counterfeit tickets, and of course worries over what had been bitter cold weather.

BRONCOS FANS: “We’re just here to see the team, hopefully we’ll get up in front and I’m sorry my mouth is just so cold I can’t even talk.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: But in this church in Montclair, New Jersey only nine miles away from where the game will be played tomorrow, Sister Pat Daly has a very different concern about the Super Bowl: protecting young women she believes are being exploited by sex traffickers.

SISTER PAT DALY: People don’t really realize the underside of these celebrations. We see spikes of advertising for sex trafficking and prostitution in and around large sporting events.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  One so-called Super Bowl week special we found online this past week offered customers a chance to ‘get out of the freezing weather and get warm and cozy with me.”

Another from someone calling herself a “new Barbie in town” and calling herself a “NFL Super Bowl Secret” promised “satisfaction is always guaranteed.”

Sister Pat says traffickers take advantage of the increased demand for prostitution by bringing in girls and some boys from across the region.

The effort to control trafficking at Super Bowls is actually nothing new. For the past three years, starting in Dallas in 2011 nuns and other activists have mobilized to raise awareness of sex trafficking around the game, especially of minors.

SISTER PAT DALY: Anyone who is involved who is 18 years and younger is going to be a victim of human trafficking. Certainly we’re not going after prostitutes – that’s not what we’re about. What we’re trying to do is focus on the people who are really being held captive, who feel trapped.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: The fear and the coercion is really what holds someone back from doing what they want to do.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Danielle Douglas, who was profiled in a recent documentary about sex trafficking called tricked, claims she knows firsthand about the problem.

At the age of seventeen and about to start her freshman year of college in Boston, she says she was befriended by an older man, who, one day without warning, dumped her on the street without any belongings and demanded she prostitute herself. When she didn’t, she says he severely beat her.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: The way that he treated me got progressively worse. He was very violent and he would beat me all the time. He would also verbally abuse me. He kept me on a very shot chain and made sure that I was always right next to him unless I was with a john and that’s part of their manipulation tactics is to keep you very, very close and not let you have any time to yourself. I had food deprivation, sleep deprivation.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  By her account she was held for two years and routinely forced to turn tricks at big sporting events.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: I was forced to go to certain areas when there were large events Celtics playoffs, big games, big concerts, things like that to be in the area of those events where it was known for people to go after those events – bars restaurants, hotels.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: There’s alcohol, there’s usually large groups of male people. It’s a form of entertainment. It’s a way that men feel like when they are not with their other half, their girlfriends or wives and are with their male friends they are looking for something else to go on to after the main event and this is what happens. And people know that. The pimps know that and they will direct the people under their control, men and women, girls or boys to those areas.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And that’s why, with the game fast approaching, sister pat and 400 volunteers who work with her from Connecticut to Philadelphia, have been reaching out to hotels – from small motels to big chains — asking their cooperation in blocking sex trafficking from their lodging. They’re asking hotels to post missing children’s fliers.

MARGOT AND PAT TALKING TO MOTEL MANAGER: We’re going around to all the hotels in the area and we’re asking them to at least keep this in their office so that they can look at images of the girls and then see if they recognize anyone.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  They’re also asking them to post the national hotline in hotel rooms and encouraging them to train staff to recognize the red flags of trafficking.

SISTER PAT DALY: We’re certainly asking people to be watchful of underage children. And then anyone who seems to be coerced. It’s really a sense of so many of the stories we’ve heard from people who are on staff at hotels who have said, ‘yeah we had this gut feeling.’ Well, now we’re trying to train that gut feeling so that the front desk knows what to do or the people in housekeeping – they certainly know what is going on in a hotel room.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Sister Pat’s anti-sex trafficking campaign is actually part of a larger effort. For more than 20 years, she’s been the executive director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment… which works alongside other faith-based institutional investors to promote corporate responsibility.

Their message about sex trafficking seems to be getting through.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association, which represents more than 50,000 hotels, motels, lodges and inns, recently developed a trafficking training program. The Association gave us a statement saying”

“All employees are expected to comply and are encouraged to alert the authorities if there is suspected trafficking in their hotel.”

While some dispute that sex trafficking actually spikes at sporting events like the super bowl, sister pat believes attention surrounding the game presents an opportunity to publicize the wider problem.

And it is enough of a concern that authorities in New York and New Jersey have focused attention on it.

In the days leading up to tomorrow’s game, New York City Police reported a jump in prostitution arrests — some following from fake sex ads posted by police. Authorities also cracked down on a sex ring that they say had been under surveillance for months. Authorities said they “decided to act now in the hopes of disrupting any parties that might have been in the works for the upcoming Super Bowl weekend.

INSPECTOR ANTHONY FAVALE, NYPD: While we will engage in operations that will apprehend persons for prostitution at every twist and turn of that process we going to campaign to see if there is the potential that this person is a victim of trafficking.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The issue of sex trafficking also came up at a recent security briefing for tomorrow’s game.

COL. RICK FUENTES, SUPERINTENDENT NEW JERSEY STATE POLICE: In this area, troopers, local police officers have been trained to recognize this activity. And of course of most importance is whether children are involved in this trafficking which is obviously a very grievous crime. So we are looking to interrupt this activity where and when it occurs and we are also not just looking to just make arrests although of the traffickers themselves but we’re also looking to rescue people who are trapped in this lifestyle.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Danielle believes the efforts of Sister Pat and others are starting to pay off because of heightened awareness among law enforcement officials and business leaders. But she fears the gains could easily be lost.

DANIELLE DOUGLAS: The moment we decide to stop causing awareness the pimps will most likely go right back to taking the people under their control back to the event.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  A thought echoed by Sister Pat, who is already looking ahead to next year’s game

SISTER PAT: We’re looking at a time today where human beings are treated like commodities so we’re going to continue to be working together long after the Super Bowl moves on to Arizona.

Researchers measure increasing sexualization of images in magazines

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on December 21, 2013.

In a 2011 photo spread for French Vogue, models stretched and slinked on an array of exotic animal furs. Their bodies were covered in jewels. Their faces were flush with rouge. They stared seductively into the camera. Nothing about these scenes would be out of the ordinary in the haute fashion magazine, except that in this case, the models were as young as 10 years old.

The controversial spread caused a flood of criticism from media watchers and feminist bloggers alike — especially here in the U.S.A. But in a culture where sexuality is more accepted, had the French finally gone too far?

In response to the Vogue controversy, the French Senate opened an investigation into whether there was a problem with hypersexualzation affecting French children and if so what to do about it.

And here in the United States a growing body of research has also taken a more critical look at the sexualization of our society.

Social psychologist Sarah Murnen has studied the hypersexualization of women in media for more than 25 years. The research that she and her colleagues at Kenyon College conducted over the last several years found a steep increase in the pervasiveness of images in magazines that show young women in highly sexual ways. The American Psychological Association defines hypersexualization as “occurring when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior to the exclusion of other characteristics.”

“We’ve seen three trends associated with these images,” said Sarah Murnen, “It’s now common to see more parts of the body exposed. There is more emphasis on the size of women’s breasts. And easy access to all these images has made it all more acceptable to us.”

In Murnen and her team’s recent analysis of Seventeen magazine’s advertisements and articles, they found that the average number of sexualizing characteristics almost tripled over three decades. In particular, depictions of low-cut tops and tight fitting clothing increased.

In a 2008 study of 1,988 advertisements from 50 well known American magazines, researchers from Wesleyan University found that half of them show women as sex objects. A woman was considered a sex object depending on her posture, facial expression, make-up, activity, camera angle and amount of skin shown.

In images where women were shown in victimized roles, the study found that most of the time they were also portrayed as sex objects. The authors noted that such images may function to normalize violence against women.

Sociologists at the University of Buffalo reviewed more than 1,000 Rolling Stone cover images published over four decades. They found that sexualized representations of both men and women have become more common over time. In the 1960’s 11 percent of men and 44 percent of women on the covers were sexualized while in the 2000’s, 17 percent of men and 83 percent of women were sexualized. However, they concluded that women were much more likely to be “hypersexualized” — showing a combination of multiple sexualized attributes.

“It’s the intensity and extent of being sexualized — not just one or two elements, but much more — that we are seeing increase in the portrayals of women.” said Erin Hatton, coauthor of the study.

Researchers from these studies used their own coding systems to rate the images for sexualizing traits. Those traits vary from study to study but include: body parts shown, body pose, facial expression, activity, camera angle and clothing. Some studies, like the analysis of Rolling Stone covers, assigned a sliding scale of points for each coded trait in order to get a more accurate rating of images. For example, exposure of body parts is usually coded high for sexualization, but does not always register. In the absence of other traits, a woman wearing a bathing suit might not be coded as a sex object while a fully clothed woman in a suggestive pose could be considered a sex object.

To get an idea of how the coding systems work, we decided to put it to the test. While reporting our story in France on the subject of hypersexualization, we picked up a selection of women’s fashion magazines that were on display at an everyday newsstand. From those magazines, we picked out a sampling of representative images of women in photo spreads and advertisements.





We asked experts Sarah Murnen and Erin Hatton to analyze these images using their research methods. Hatton clarifies that her coding system isn’t perfect and was intended for images in American social context.

“Sexuality is very much a social construction and, thus, a product of a particular socio-cultural environment,” said Hatton. “What we deem to be appropriate to “wear on the street” is likely not the same in other countries, including those in which women are expected to be fully covered and those in which women are not.”

We also want to hear what you think about these images, and the trends towards hypersexualization? What are your thoughts on the increasing sexualization of people depicted in popular culture? Let us know in the comments.

For more on the research behind sexualized images in American media, read the full study “Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualization of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone.”

Also of interest:

Low-Cut Shirts and High Heeled Shoes: Increased Sexualization Across Time in Magazine Depictions of Girls

Women as Sex Objects and Victims in Print Advertisements

Facing Bankruptcy Unknowns, Detroiters Take Revitalization Into Their Own Hands

This report aired on PBS NewsHour on August 9, 2013.

A lack of basic social services and abandoned blocks are just a few of the side effects Detroit citizens face due to their city’s financial woes. But in some neighborhoods, Motor City residents are taking revitalization efforts into their own hands. Hari Sreenivasan reports on the resilience of the people who call Detroit home.

Producer: Saskia de Melker
Writer: Saskia de Melker
Camera:  Saskia de Melker and Sam Weber
Editor: Judith Wolff
Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, from Detroit, the largest U.S. city ever to file for bankruptcy, a look at what life is like for citizens of a city that for decades has been withering around them and some recent efforts to reverse the decline.

Hari Sreenivasan reports.

RICK PIORNACK: This is…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Wow, this is bad. So all these yards are like this?

RICK PIORNACK: All these yards, we have probably four vacant homes all in this condition.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This is your neighborhood.

RICK PIORNACK: This is my neighborhood.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What happened to Rick Piornack’s neighborhood is just the most visual reminder of what’s happened to Detroit. But for Piornack, it’s one that hits close to home.

Compared to what it was like when you were a kid, this has got to be pretty sad to see.

RICK PIORNACK: Very sad, very sad.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Piornack spent more than 30 years fighting fires across this city. Now retired and on a fixed income, he and his wife, Brenda, are staying put in the home they have lived in for more than four decades despite the eroding houses around them.

RICK PIORNACK: This is our little bit of heaven.

WOMAN: Yes. We sit here and watch the sun go down.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Piornack is feeling Detroit’s financial woes in other ways, too. He’s just one of nearly 30,000 current and retired city workers who expect to see cuts to their pensions and health care benefits as the city tries to dig itself out of financial ruin. Detroit can’t pay its bills, and is looking to cut an estimated $18 billion of debt, according to city officials.

RICK PIORNACK: I feel very let down. My father was a police officer in the city. I have been a fireman in the city. My son is a fireman in the city. I feel like I have really been let down.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Just weeks ago, Detroit became the largest municipality ever to file for bankruptcy. There are many unknowns as the city attempts a restructuring plan.

Stephen Henderson, editorial editor at the Detroit Free Press, grew up here and is intimately aware of the city’s fighting spirit, but says bankruptcy may be the city’s toughest challenge yet.

STEPHEN HENDERSON, Detroit Free Press: There’s not much difference between most places in Detroit and post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s not as shocking because it happened over a long period of time, but it’s just as devastating.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Detroit’s decline from an industrial powerhouse into a financial ruin has been slow and long. At its height in the 1950s, Detroit boasted more than 300,000 manufacturing jobs. Now that number is less than 30,000.

That 90 percent decrease has left huge holes, like the ones in Piornack’s neighborhood, all across the city. There are at least 60,000 parcels of vacant land. Blighted houses are a frequent reminder of just how deep Detroit’s problems are. The city’s population peaked at 1.8 million, but now is down to about 700,000. That means a much smaller tax base for a city that is trying to provide all the same services.

Forty percent of the city’s streetlights don’t work for lack of repair crews. The average response time for the Detroit Police Department to a 911 call is 58 minutes. And buses are constantly late if they come at all, making it hard for residents like Ivory Drake to make it to work and keep his job.

IVORY DRAKE: It used to be I could get on the bus and be anywhere, and be — have to sit and wait an hour before I could start work. But now, if you don’t get out early enough, or two hours before you have to be to work, you’re late.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The city has promised that reinvestment in these key services will be the silver lining of the bankruptcy. The city’s recently appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, says they hope to reinvest $1.25 billion in service upgrades and infrastructure.

Here’s Orr in a conversation with NewsHour’s Ray Suarez in July.

KEVYN ORR, Detroit Emergency Financial Manager: What Detroiters should expect is that services are going to get better. We’re already focusing on lighting, blight, police services, health, safety and welfare concerns.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Detroiters like Kim and Ivory Drake are still skeptical about whether the bankruptcy process means the city can improve their East Detroit neighborhood.

KIM DRAKE: I bet if you come back…

IVORY DRAKE: Next year.

KIM DRAKE: … next year…

IVORY DRAKE: My lights will still be out.

KIM DRAKE: It will probably still be looking the same. You will probably still have them houses over there that’s vacant, the one right next to me, the one right down the corner. It’s not going to help at all.

STEPHEN HENDERSON: I think the legitimate cynicism people have is that bankruptcy will just be about making a bare-bones, bare minimum city financially solvent, with spartan services, and not that many people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Some communities are beyond waiting for the city to turn things around. They have taken matters into their own hands.

Every day, residents in this northwest corner of Detroit are rolling up their sleeves and using whatever tools they can get their hands on, even pickup trucks, to tear down vacant houses. They’re transforming urban wastelands into gardens and boarded-up storefronts into murals. We dropped by a busy meeting in the community of Brightmoor, where residents like Jody Scarlett discuss neighborhood needs and then delegate the resources necessary to tackle them.

JODY SCARLETT: If you ask the city for something, it’s just bureaucracy, just wait — it’s like a hurry up and wait and wait and wait, and nothing ever gets done. The community group helps us to get things done that the city just doesn’t provide.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Community action has been fueled by private and nonprofit investment. Just weeks ago, these 14 blocks in Brightmoor were full of 84 tons of debris, overgrown weeds, and rotting trash. Now the land has been cleared. It’s a $500,000 privately funded project that local nonprofits hope to see replicated around the city.

Terrance Gore lives in this cluster of blocks. Gore started out just picking up trash. Now he works full-time driving a tractor to combat the blight that surrounds him in Brightmoor. He used to call the neighborhood the Moor, because he could not see anything bright about it.

TERRANCE GORE: You’re talking about just every day smell — it stinks from the trash people dump. And now just to wake up, you can smell fresh air. You can look, and it’s like, it’s — I’m amazed. It’s a good feeling. It’s like I can’t really explain how that feels every day just to wake up to a cleaner neighborhood.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He is hopeful that the bankruptcy is a chance to reset the deck for the whole city and that it will only bolster his neighborhood’s efforts.

TERRANCE GORE: I’m just seeing this as just a start. If we can get this done while going through bankruptcy, what can we get done when we’re financially stable? A whole lot more than this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It won’t be easy; 40 percent of Brightmoor’s families live below the poverty line, and in a single decade the neighborhood’s population dropped by 35 percent. Even those who are working to better this community are cautiously optimistic.

JODY SCARLETT: I’m hopeful that it will get better, but at times, I just want to just get out. At times, I just want to leave my house behind and go.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Reviving neighborhoods is critical, but so are jobs. And that’s where new industries closer to the city center might make a difference. Many are high-tech startups, but Shinola is bringing manufacturing back to the Motor City. It’s making craft bicycles, watches, and fine leather goods.

Business has taken off. And in terms of the city’s bankruptcy filing, CEO Steve Bock says the company knew what it was getting into.

STEVE BOCK, Shinola: We knew that when we came to Detroit several years ago that there were financial challenges, that there were challenges in the city. Had we made a decision today after the bankruptcy had been declared, we would have made exactly the same decision.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Shinola assembly line leader Willie Holley has even more ambitions for the future.

So what’s your best-case scenario two years from now, five years from now? What do you see happening?

WILLIE HOLLEY, Shinola: I see us expanding, especially, like, on our other wing, trying to make leather goods and journals and things of that nature, and just having like a huge work force, sort of, that can compete even with the big three. So, I mean, I want — it would be nice if Shinola was in lights next to GM near the Renaissance building or something like that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right now, that seems like a far-off dream. But other investments and young people coming to the city may make that dream possible.

STEPHEN HENDERSON: I think, in general, Detroiters are so used to bad news, and they are so used to things not really breaking our way, and they’re used to getting up the next morning and going, well, I can’t stop. I have got to keep going. I have got to keep — keep trying.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That resilience might turn out to be the city’s greatest asset that not even a bankruptcy can liquidate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, will other cities follow in Detroit’s footsteps? You can take a second look at our health of cities conversation. That’s on our home page.