By Constantina Theodorou, published in the periodical edition “Architektones” of the Greek union of architects, issue 8, December 2013
A picture of the near future seems to come from the towns of the American heartland, Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc. Having faced a huge disaster, with their population decreased by half and with miles of empty properties in the hands of banks, corporations or municipalities, they currently go on a spectacular flourishing of cooperative projects, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing and participatory planning, actually under the auspices of the same municipalities or companies. It seems paradoxical, almost suspicious, in the country upholder of the free market economy, to emerge so original neighbourhood movements, however, like all facts demonstrate, there is no other alternative.
The procedure followed on the way to disaster looks quite familiar. In a difficult circumstance, after the exit of major automakers, which removed half of the population and left unemployed the other half, the respective municipalities not only didn’t they help with the situation, but imposed even heavier taxation on house property. This, combined with red loans, which largely had a racial determination, led to defaulted debts and charges, and from there on to foreclosures, desolation and destruction .
Banks have a huge share of responsibility for the decimation of cities since they proceeded to confiscations, expelling the residents, without being able to bring in new ones or develop in other ways the seized property, either by overlooking to acquire the property officially in order to avoid taxation , – which means that without entitlement the property could not be sold – either by acquiring them officially, but failing to pay taxes and dues. The result was that those properties arrived in auctions with a heavy historic.
So, as the buildings become hostages of the banks, which do not care about them , and the municipalities cannot also look after them, the trading gets difficult or remains stagnant , the population continues to decline and the municipality lacks valuable dues . Basic municipal services – transportation , cleaning , lighting , policing – in entire regions are abolished , entire neighbourhoods are conceded to the homeless and Detroit is portrayed as a crime spot . The only solution for municipalities is the concentration towards the centre and shrinking through extensive demolitions , which however cost much . For individuals, the fires and arsons, which spread beyond control, is the only effective way to get rid of property taxes .
In this nightmarish scenery, even up to two months ago when there was the official announcement of the bankruptcy of Detroit, for some it seemed as the ideal field for speculation, for huge investments and massive gentrification- homes for sale starting from $ 1, whole neighbourhoods vacant, a true bargain.
However, the devastation and degradation have advanced to such a degree that there is no prospect for investors and those who bought in bulk properties, added another sore in the city, unable to evaluate, use and look after them. The $ 1 houses remain unsold for over a year – and the truth is that many of them are ruins, or matted with mortgages –. They are of no interest to investors, but not even to those seeking just a basic lodging, as no one can find job there .
And while the grandiose business projects collapse, collectivity, small-scale projects and alternative initiatives flourish. People of all the creative fields, artists and film makers gather to Detroit, as a new promised land – the land of freedom, where they are free, without any bureaucratic restrictions to create their own world. Anyone can enter and use the abandoned buildings, to acquire a cheap house, to open an outdoor café, to make interventions in the city, without getting permission from nowhere, as the competent municipal services have collapsed and the relevant planning controls is nonexistent. On the borders of legality many new experiments bloom. Collectives occupy or buy houses together, they collectively manage the rest of remaining empty houses in the neighbourhood, they make vegetable gardens and small farms, sell their products on the road and use crowdsourcing to meet their needs in urban equipment, given the inability of municipalities to finance any intervention.
Although out of any system, these efforts often find as supporters the municipalities. In Philadelphia, the municipality allows residents to occupy their empty bordering plot, while it also provides cheap urban fields for as much as $ 500. In Baltimore all the vacant land is included in a special program, through which it is granted back to the citizens to create community gardens. One could say that urban gardens, and urban farming are like placebos, diverting the debate from the real burning issue of homelessness. But Detroit went one step further, in 2012, when it chose 2000 properties and gave the opportunity to the squatters, many of whom were the former owners, to acquire them for $ 500, with only one commitment, to be consistent in municipal tax for 2 years. There also a lot of integration programs sponsored by charity foundations and companies, which provide the numerous homeless in the city the possibility to acquire a free house, with some proofs of economic faith of course. The benefits of this housing allowance are many. The municipality collects more municipal taxes, the devastation of the neighbourhoods is avoided as well as the disrepair of the buildings, and those who donate the houses are tax exempted and avoid the costly solution of demolition .
It is not therefore a kind of charity. The huge mass of desolated properties cannot be activated in any other way, with any “big investment plan”. Whoever attempts it fails. People are the unique and irreplaceable capital of the cities. In all these cases of the American cities there is plenty of land, and lot of property investors lurking for the big deal, but there are no people. Municipalities and companies are desperately calling back everyone who drove out. It looks like a redistribution of power. The houses are deserted to be repopulated with new terms or to be demolished, new comers are more active and participative in the city , e.g : in the design of a park, but perhaps with fewer resources and capabilities , the houses that they owned before are now reimbursed to them as charity. In a tragic irony and reversal of history, foreclosure methods remind expropriation of houses in Soviet Russia, where after a redistribution, everyone, and no matter what they possessed before, they were entitled to get back the very 15sqm .
Back in America… the American dream never dies, nor it shrinks, as the residents of the affected cities say. But the era of big investments, easy speculation and extreme individualism is past.