Building Hope on Desolation Row

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Richard Baron / Light Motiv

Urban renewal in Hem, France.

A cold, gray winter sky sags low over northern French town of Hem — a little over five miles east of the bustling city of Lille, but on a different socio-economic planet. While Lille's jobless rate of 10% is above the national average of 8.6% (in large part due to its sizeable university population), more than one in four of Hem's nearly 20,000 residents is out of work. Most of those live in the Hauts Champs/Longchamp neighborhood, a cluster of housing projects that crowds more than half of the town's residents into just 10% of its its land. Built in the late 1950s for laborers of the region's then-booming textile and steel mills, Hem's tenements and their residents were left stranded as international competition closed down those industries, killing the town's economic engine . While larger cities like Lille — with better schools and more dynamic economies — have adapted by exploiting high-tech and web-based opportunities, inhabitants of Hauts Champs/Longchamps have watched as unemployment, surging crime and decaying housing and infrastructure has made their outlook as morose and horizonless as the bruise-colored sky.

Yet, today, there is hope under Hem's gray clouds, kindled by goodwill, hard work, and a huge injection of funds aimed at bringing the town, like hundreds of other disenfranchised suburbs that exploded in rioting late in 2005, back to Planet France.

"We have to open this place up, build and renovate housing worthy of that name, and break this segregation under which people who live here can't leave — and those who don't would never consider coming," says Hem's Socialist Mayer Francis Vercamer, once a resident of the Haut Champs slums. To effect that change, Vercamer has launched a $200 million project to revolutionize the area by razing larger, dehumanizing tower blocks and replacing them with hundreds of smaller apartment units and individual homes; refurbishing existing housing with the input and advice of their occupants; and creating commercial hubs in the hope of attracting businesses and new jobs.

But why would any businesses want to set up shop in Hem? First off, it was one of 100 French municipalities accorded a tax-free status under its urban renewal project. It's part of a $45 billion national program to finance the renaissance of France's most blighted suburbs — one to which 380 towns that are home to 2.4 million people have thus far signed up. Those with tax-exempt status like Hem can lure businesses with an array of financial incentives, including state underwriting of most employer-paid social charges on salaries paid to local hires.

Mayor Vercamer also notes that some of the new construction is intended for middle and upper-middle class families being enticed to the area by subsidized rents that current Hauts Champs residents could never afford. By luring employed, productive, and socially-integrated families to the area, Vercamer is betting that businesses hoping to serve their needs will follow, meaning more investment, jobs, and hope.

But engineering that demographic commingling is risky at best. One tract of land reserved for better-off residents recruited from elsewhere sits aside a looming apartment block whose resident unemployment level Vercamer reports as 100%. Nearby, two desperately poor men on a bench nurse cans of beer; in the distance a young man shouts at Vercamer about a municipal job the mayor was to secure for him — "One of the local [drug] dealers, who wouldn't consider the pay cut involved in taking a real job", he confides. Would middle class families come to live here?

"If they don't—if people won't live together anymore—none of this will work," Vercamer says soberly, though clearly convinced re-establishing integration of neighbors of differing classes and colors can work. "All these divisions are artificial. This is just as much France as central Lille is." Some Hem residents, meanwhile, can't imagine anyone hesitating a move to the ‘hood. "I've lived here for 47 years, and I'd never leave," says a wild-haired redhead named Murielle, whose row house is being entirely refurbished. "Especially now that things are looking up."