What’s next for Detroit?

Suggestions for Kevyn Orr

Jun 12, 2013 at 12:00 am

BY THE TIME YOU read this, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr was to have appeared at Wayne State University’s law school to hold a public meeting on where things stand.

Everybody already knew the big picture:

The city is drowning in debt and is running out of cash. There is no reason for any sane person to think Detroit can pull out of this mess on its own, or without radical restructuring.

On Friday morning, June 14, Orr is scheduled to meet with a vast group of those to whom the city owes money.

Word is he will offer them a pittance in return for their writing off the debt. If they don’t take it, bankruptcy looms.

None of this is stoppable. Detroit’s vast financial problems are rolling down the cliff at warp speed. The best outcome, everyone knows, is going to be severely painful.

And the big questions we need to ask ourselves are:

What happens next?

And — realistically — what should happen now?

These are, as old Tom Paine said a long time ago, the times that try men’s souls. Years ago, the Green Party in Germany was split between the “fundis” who insisted on remaining ideologically pure to their core principles, and the more pragmatic “realos,” who believed in making alliances with other parties and compromising to accomplish something.

There are, indeed, times when you can’t compromise, but in my view, this isn’t one of them. You may believe Detroit should not have been taken over by the state, at least not yet.

You may resent that the state never provided Detroit with the hundreds of millions of revenue sharing dollars the city was promised. There’s good reason to feel that way, even though that money wouldn’t buy the city more than a few extra months. However, that was then and this is now.

What everybody’s goal should be is this: Save Detroit in a way that doesn’t destroy it; that doesn’t kill the very real comeback bubbling up not only in Midtown, but in the Eastern Market area too.

To leave us with a city that can be rebuilt.

Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is facing many hard decisions. By the way, beating up on and blaming him for what’s happening isn’t fair and won’t help. He is only the surgeon, brought in to try and save a dying patient.

You can protest certain actions of his, and try to get him to do something different. But you better have a backup plan. By the way, demanding that the state or federal governments give Detroit billions of dollars to retire its debt doesn’t count as a backup plan.

My guess is that it will be very hard for the city to avoid bankruptcy. Nor am I even sure that we need to avoid it.

What we do need is the best outcome possible.

So here are some suggestions for Kevyn Orr:

Sell the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. This has been one of Detroit’s untouchable sacred cows for a long time, but though urban agriculture is a good idea, we no longer can afford to feed and board any sacred cows.

Selling it — or working out a long-term lease — would provide some money to the city, and get $6 billion of the $15 or so billion of Detroit’s long-term liabilities off the books.

The deal should make sure that Detroiters would still be provided with clean and fresh water at affordable rates.

Sell Rackham Golf Course in Huntington Woods. The property isn’t in Detroit and only a small minority of residents even use it. Few would notice an ownership change.

Sell Belle Isle to the state. For use, that is, as a state park, accessible to all Detroiters, with, as part of the deal, the stipulation that city residents get to use the park for free.

That would remove any threat that a bankruptcy judge might order Belle Isle sold, and the risk that private developers might buy it and turn it into a gated community.

As for those who cry this would be “selling off one of Detroit’s jewels” — get over it. Nobody can tow it away; the city cannot afford its upkeep, and what really matters is to preserve the city’s island park for the citizens to use and enjoy.  

Fight to restructure pensions and retiree health care, etc., in a way that protects the neediest. Unless I am gravely wrong, what the city is going though means a lot of people who were counting on lifetime pensions and health care are going to lose a good part of what they were promised.

That is terrible and unfair, but may be unavoidable. However, there’s a huge difference between some 88-year-old widow living in a bare-bones apartment trying to survive on her city pension, and a healthy 60-year-old who put in his time with the city and has retired to a ranch house in Livonia.

Restructure things in a way that protects the neediest.

Forget selling off the Detroit Institute of Arts. My suspicion was that the emergency manager has never had any intention of selling the DIA’s collections. That may, however, be up to a federal bankruptcy judge, and his asking for an inventory of the art may be nothing more than due diligence on his part. Trying to sell the art would be manifestly stupid.

Not only would it destroy the museum, and with it, any hope Detroit will be seen as a great city again, it would spark a hopeless tangle of lawsuits. Some of the art was donated under conditions it never be sold. At the end of the day, the city couldn’t possibly reap enough from a sale to compensate for the damages it would cause, let alone get rid of the debt.

The one good thing that came from bringing up the possibility of selling off the art was this: That instantly got everybody’s attention. Suddenly, everyone, city and suburb recognized how deadly serious the city’s crisis was — and is.

There are going to be tough times ahead. What we have to demand is a settlement that will not let anybody literally starve to death, and leave Detroit the ability to start and rebuild again.

Speramus meliora. Resurget cineribus.  If your Latin and history are a trifle rusty, that’s been Detroit’s motto since the place burned down in 1805. What it means is: We hope for better things. It will arise from the ashes. That was true then.

We can, if we wish, make it even truer now.


Freedom Riders:

The Next Generation.


MOST PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, but perhaps the bravest soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement were the 1961 Freedom Riders, a group who rode buses into the Deep South to protest states ignoring U.S. Supreme Court decisions saying segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.

Many were physically attacked; the late Walter Bergman, a law professor at Wayne State, was beaten so savagely he was paralyzed. Next Sunday, a bus full of high school students will leave from Detroit to spend two weeks on the road retracing the Freedom Riders’ route and learning about our history. Among their sponsors and chaperons: 89-year-old Dean Robb, a longtime activist who is bringing six high school kids down from Northern Michigan’s Leelanau County to go.

Those who know him best hope the teenagers can keep Dean out of trouble. The Michigan Coalition on Human Rights is sponsoring the trip; they, and the kids, richly deserve all the support they can get, financial and otherwise.   


Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].