In the heart of Detroit, a stone’s throw from the river that separates the United States from Canada, a giant fist goes horizontally. Motionless, suspended two meters above the ground, it seems to strike the empty air, in the middle of buildings and traffic.
This hook carved in dark metal is that of Joe Louis, a legendary boxer, “first national black hero”it is said, after defeating a German in 1938, and symbol of the affirmation of African-Americans.
$18 billion in debt
His immortalized veins are those of struggle and life, of combat and envy. They are also those of Detroit, which resists despite adversity. Because Detroit went to the mat. Lying and inert, the former automobile capital was counted to the ground by the referee. Until eighteen…
“Eighteen billion dollars (15.3 billion euros, editor’s note) of debts »announced the governor of Michigan in the summer of 2013, asking for the guardianship of the city.
Abandon hectares to Nature
While Ford and GM, the local auto giants, have regained some color, the well-paying jobs of yesteryear have never returned. Nor are the residents – Detroit has fewer than 700,000, down from 1.5 million in 1970. Tax revenues have plummeted.
The city hall even announced that it was time to downgrade, that living on such an area – occupying almost 360 km2 , Detroit is three times larger than Paris –, with the costs associated with the scattering of citizens, had become a luxury. The time has come to come together on a smaller perimeter, leaving hectares and hectares to nature.
This retreat in the face of vegetation reclaiming its rights was variously appreciated. Some have seen in these wastelands only desolation and death. But others saw it as a project, a future.
“A unique opportunity”
Devin Kuziel, for example. Originally from Detroit, this young woman returned home last fall after studying environmental science in Chicago, with enthusiasm. “It is a unique opportunity that we have”she explains while wielding the trowel in a garden where she seems to be fighting with giant broccoli.
Around her, buildings, busy streets. The triangular space where she works in the cold was occupied until 2010 by a 13-storey building. Abandoned since the end of the 1990s, dilapidated and regularly vandalized, it had become the symbol of decline. At the end of 2009, the municipality, for lack of a buyer, had resolved to raze the building.
Since then, it has become a vegetable garden, an orchard, right in the city center. The owner of a local company financed the creation of this oasis, with the help of a landscape architect, with a charming result: long, sophisticated and elegant tubs, with walls covered with aluminum, to plant all kinds of fruits and vegetables ; chairs to discuss everything and nothing; sculptures, mosaics, children’s drawings…
Returning from Chicago, Devin quickly joined Greening of Detroit, a non-profit association founded in the late 1980s. by replanting trees driven out by industrial development. But with the decline of the great city of Michigan, the project evolved, expanded.
The association, with 25 employees and a battalion of several hundred volunteers, now plays on several fields: it transforms abandoned spaces into green zones, cleans up soils, manages “urban farms”. Like, among others, the small garden of the former Lafayette Building.
“We work with volunteers, who can take home fruits and vegetables, continues Devin, who manages the place. But most of the production is donated to charities. Businesses from the neighborhood also come here with their employees and schools. And we do training to teach residents how to consume in a healthier way. »
Plant trees to re-green
A utopia is gaining momentum. Thanks, too, to Adam Hollier. Former collaborator of Mayor Dave Bing who left office at the end of 2013. He has been the vice-president of Hantz Woodlands for a year. His job ? Plant trees, lots of trees, in Detroit.
“In the fall of 2013, we bought 60 hectares of land from the municipality, which had inherited abandoned or seized properties, or empty plots, explains the young man. And in the spring we planted 15,000 trees, with the help of volunteers, on part of this land, on the edge of the Indian Village. After cleaning them of debris or weeds that had grown over the years. »
Architect houses and ruins
The Indian Village is a very affluent enclave of Detroit. Splendid architect-designed houses, built at the end of the 19the century and at the beginning of the XXe , line up along two streets – Iroquois Street and Seminole Street. In one of them lives John Hantz, a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in finance, the boss of Adam Hollier.
But just a few crossroads from the Village begins a completely different universe. A black neighborhood, where houses that still stand are rare. At the corner of rue Goethe and rue Belvidere, you have to walk a little further each day to knock on your neighbour’s door. If many houses have been razed, there are still ruins. Open doors reveal gutted sofas, collapsed stairs.
John Hantz planted in this neighborhood, six or seven streets from his home, his 15,000 trees on the many empty plots. On several blocks of houses are now lined up very young maples, still very frail oaks, fragile white birches, which will take the time to grow in the coming decades.
The importance of the race question
The initiative of this billionaire has long been controversial. Was it reasonable for the municipality to sell so much land to an individual? What do we know about his longer-term intentions? Isn’t he, above all, an excellent financial deal, even if he paid half a million dollars to the city? And then… and then… John Hantz is white.
“The racial question will always play an important role in the United States, even more here in Detroit, explains Adam, himself a young African-American. A white billionaire buying here is bound to be suspicious to a lot of people…”
Destroy to erase the decline
But things are changing, he says: “People here want us to buy more houses, to destroy them. Look at this crossroads. Only one hut remains, half collapsed. From now on, the inhabitants want that we take care of it, that we demolish it. »
On the ground of the well-aligned young shoots of Hantz Woodlands, the askew house seems indeed even more absurd, like a very ugly wart. “Before, in the neighborhood, people were used to this spectacle, continues Adam. You have to understand that Detroit didn’t fall in a day… It’s a long decline. Some of these buildings were abandoned fifteen years ago…”
About 80,000 abandoned buildings still line the streets of Detroit, beating down the real estate market in their neighborhood. Because everything is always, in the end, a matter of money. Even destroying has a cost: almost 10,000 dollars (8,500 €) per house.
An emergency plan for the city’s finances
the city of Detroit, founded by the Frenchman Antoine de Lamothe-Cadillac at the very beginning of the XVIIIe century, on the shores of the Great Lakes, declared bankruptcy in the summer of 2013, after having accumulated a debt of more than 15 billion euros. After a legal process, an agreement was reached at the end of 2014 to reschedule its debt.
As part of these negotiations, which have made it possible to lighten the slate of nearly 6 billion euros, municipal employees have made significant concessions, in particular with a view to their pensions. Private donations made it possible to preserve the collection of masterpieces of the city museum, the sale of which had been considered.
Nearly 1.5 billion euros was also released to fund priority services, including the police where, since 2001, 2,300 jobs have been cut. In 2013, the city still had the highest homicide rate in the country for cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants: 45 per 100,000 people, or 10 times the national average.