The One Man Greening of Detroit: An Interview with Kevin Hill
Known locally as an avid walker, Kevin Hill, city government worker and native Detroiter, has for nearly 30 years undertaken a one-man greening of Detroit. Planting trees in abandon lots and forgotten neighborhoods to beautify the rusted and charred landscape that has characterized the Motor City over the last several decades, Mr. Hill is the quintessential city worker.
The busy bees that make the City organ thrive, city workers, are often the first to be offered up in budget cuts. True as ever in Detroit, where employees have in the past month seen additional cuts to salary, freeze to pensions, and increased healthcare costs. Despite this, they work tirelessly to recuperate an ailing City and in their spare time are the activists, volunteers, and civic leaders that are fighting the avalanche-like decline of the place they call home.
Q. How long have you worked for the City of Detroit?
A. I have been with the City for 18 years. I am a second generation city worker. My father was a city worker and retired from Department of Transportation after 30 years. He worked hard for the City as an employee and in the community. I got my civic pride from my father. Even after he retired, he volunteered for the School Board, Block Club, and several other local organizations. I also gained my love of the environment and trees from my father.
Q. As a native Detroiter, how have the changes in the City affected you?
A. The City has changed a lot. I am 49 years old and I have been here all my life. We have lost so much. In the late 60s-70s, the City was more vibrant. Neighborhoods were much more intact than they are now. There were more businesses that fueled the tax base, more homeowners, more industry, and more services. Since then, things have gone down. We have lost the middle class, both black and white, over the last forty years, which has hemorrhaged our tax base.
It hurts to see the constant decline. It can get depressing at times. But we have to keep on fighting. Don’t give up, because there is always hope to help the quality of life in the City. We just have to roll up our sleeves and continue to work to improve the City.
Q. Why did you decide to start planting trees?
A. I remember when my parents first bought the house on the West side. I was three, almost four years old at the time. As a kid, I would look down the street and see the canopy of trees. In late summer of ‘69 they started building freeways. They tore down lots of homes near our house and uprooted trees to make way for the freeway.
When I got a little older, my parents took a trip to Holland, Michigan, which has a Tulip Festival every May. They brought back a little two-foot Colorado Spruce and planted it in the back yard. The tree is still there to this day – 39 years later.
The City of my youth was greener and leafier; it was known as the Paris of the Midwest and as I got older it became less so. The City could no longer afford to take care of trees and many of them were destroyed or died of Dutch Elm disease or parasites. Recently, I read that Detroit lost half a million trees from 1950-1980.
By the early ‘80s, most of the trees were gone in the neighborhood where I grew-up. The canopy that I remember from when I was young was gone. The City never replaced those trees. It looked barren. I was talking to my dad about it and we planted a flowering crab apple in my parents’ front yard. So that’s how my dad and I started planting trees on our street.
The first one that I did on my own was in 1994 in the East Village. Since ‘94 I have been planting trees across the City. Subconsciously, I think I am trying to cultivate that leafy image of Detroit from my early childhood. It’s my one man effort to bring back the picture of Detroit in my mind, to look down and see that green canopy. Some of the trees I have planted have been destroyed, but it’s just like the City, you just keep at it and plant another one.
Q. How do you identify where you want to plant the trees?
A. I look for vacant lots or empty boulevards. I usually look for spots while I am driving along. On a few occasions, my neighbors have asked me to plant trees and I am happy to do so.
Q. What impact do you think it has on the City?
A. There is a strong correlation between the way a person feels about the environment and the way they feel about themselves and their fellow human beings. It’s especially true in this City, where you see illegal dumping and vandalism of vacant homes; it’s epidemic in Detroit. It rapidly deteriorates the quality of life. Improving the environment helps to improve the psyche and retain the value of life and property in this City.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and should not be attributed to the staff, officers, or trustees of The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Dekonti Mends-Cole is a Strong Cities, Strong Communities Fellow in Detroit, MI.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.