Riding the Motor City Struggle Bus

From the Archives: Bankruptcy? Don't tell that to the people of Detroit

Detroit, Mich. / AP

BY:

DETROIT — I came to Detroit expecting a wasteland. Instead, I met a bunch of nice people and ate hot dogs.

Detroit declared bankruptcy this month, taking the dubious honor of becoming the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. The city is $18 billion in the hole.

News stories described an empty town, teetering on the edge of anarchy. A place where most of the good things are gone, and what’s left is about to be auctioned off. A place where the last person out won’t have to worry about turning off the lights, because the lights haven't worked in years.

Yet everywhere I went I encountered people with unflappable civic pride, people starting businesses and saying in the face of everything that Detroit was worth saving and will be saved.

"Detroit’s not dead," a heavily tattooed 24-year-old woman told me over beers in a downtown bar. "It’s just riding the struggle bus."

Tuesday

I went out for lunch Tuesday afternoon with a friend in Corktown. One of Detroit’s oldest neighborhoods, Corktown is also one of its recent success stories. The main drag along Michigan Avenue is lined with hip restaurants, bars, and coffee shops painted in bright colors.

The scene would not have looked out of place in Brooklyn. Behind us, though, loomed the abandoned, 18-story-tall hulk of Michigan Central Station. Estimates of the cost to restore the station run as high as $300 million. The Atlantic recently called it "the face of American ruin porn." Whatever floats your boat.

At least the grass around the station was kept in check. That small grace was courtesy of "The Mower Gang," a group of volunteers who cut the grass at abandoned city parks.

Thomas Nardone, 43 and an online sex-toy magnate, started the group three years ago after hearing a report that Detroit was going to close 72 parks. "Closing" in this case meant the city was simply going to let the parks go to seed.

News stories have profiled the Mower Gang as one of several volunteer groups stepping up in the absence of regular city services. But Nardone balked at the notion that his group is a positive example of spontaneous order.

"There's 305 parks in Detroit," Nardone told me in a phone interview. "My group can take care of about 10 parks on rotating basis, and they're still pretty bad. We're nice people trying to do something good in a bad situation. Any idea that we're a replacement for government is absurd."

***

After leaving Corktown, my informal tour guide and I headed toward the Midtown neighborhood and the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).

Midtown is also going through a period of revitalization. However, unlike Corktown, whose revival was spearheaded by small business, Midtown’s development is funded by big-time cash. The most prominent financier is Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and noted fan of Comic Sans. Gilbert has spent more than $1 billion buying up downtown buildings, among other initiatives.

Still, as we drove through Midtown down eight-lane Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s now-iconic abandoned buildings became more common.

"We’ve still got a long way to go," my driver said as we passed the empty, windowless shells of apartment buildings.

One doesn’t have to venture far to get to the Detroit that exists in many people’s minds.

"I could drive over one street and it would be totally different," my driver said. "People wandering around in the middle of the road. I saw a lady once just pull down her pants and poop in the road."

On the way to the DIA, as the locals call it, I remembered that I didn’t have my reporters notebook.

"Oh, well you should check out Shinola," she said.

Shinola opened its retail store in Detroit three weeks ago. The company manufactures high-end bicycles, leather products, watches, and notebooks, all made right in Detroit. It’s the sort of thing Detroit is not supposed to do anymore.

"I don’t pretend Detroit doesn’t have challenges," Heath Carr, the CEO of the venture capital firm behind Shinola, told Forbes. "There’s no hiding that. But there’s such an energy there. It’s wildly contagious."

The Shinola store was bright and minimalist, with exposed air ducts and shiny hardwood floors. A security guard stood by a case of $600 watches. I bought a notebook with an immaculate binding that would put Moleskine to shame.

I’m a whore for quality notebooks.

***

The inscription above the arch leading into the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts reads "Vita Brevis Longa Ars": Life is short, art is long.

Inside the court, a giant mural by Diego Rivera shows men at work in Detroit’s assembly lines—assembling engine blocks and fighter planes, giving Detroit such nicknames as "the Motor City" and "the Arsenal of Democracy."

There is only one major auto factory left in Detroit. But there is a slim possibility that the factory actually could outlive the mural dedicated to it. News reports say the DIA’s art collection may hit the auction block to cover Detroit’s bills.

It is one of the finest art collections in the United States, with an estimated worth of $2 billion. In one small room adjacent to the Rivera Court, visitors take in works by Van Gogh, Degas, Monet, Cézanne, and Rodin.

"I come back here every summer, and one of the things I most look forward to is coming to the DIA," Michigander Lynne Love told me. "It's iconic of Michigan. It's a grand wonder."

"I grew up along Lake Huron, so I look up there at the mural and see the sand and fish and the bountiful harvest, and I see the great people from the state such as Thomas Alva Edison and Ford," she said.

I wasn’t the only journalist covering the DIA. A two-man Al Jazeera film crew was there as well.

"What do you think about all this?" one of the reporters asked me.

"Oh, I’m a reporter, too," I said. Usually journalists disengage when I say this. It’s like flashing your wedding ring at a singles bar.

"Yes, but how do you feel, as an American?" he pressed.

The word he was fishing for, I think, was "sad" or "ashamed." But I wouldn't give him the satisfaction.

The DIA’s public affairs woman was in the room as well, shepherding the film crew and a couple of Norwegian reporters.

She told me she was fielding media requests from China, Japan, and Russia. Foreign publications seem to have a perverse interest in Detroit’s sufferings.

No one really expects the city to sell off its art. The Michigan attorney general said the DIA’s art is part of a "public trust," not an asset that could be sold. The DIA, obviously, agrees with that position.

"We remain committed to our position that the Detroit Institute of Arts and the City of Detroit hold the DIA’s collection in trust for the public and we stand by our charge to preserve and protect the cultural heritage of all Michigan residents," it said in a statement.

Selling off the DIA’s treasures would outrage many in Michigan outside of Detroit city limits. Outlying Macomb and Oakland counties, as well as Detroit’s Wayne County, voted last year to approve new millage rates in their tax code, equal to about $12 per household per year, to contribute to the DIA.

***

When the economy tanked in 2008, journalists pointed to Detroit as an example of American decline.

"Those who have visited both Detroit and Hiroshima will have trouble guessing which country won that war," wrote conservative columnist and Detroit native Michael Barone.

"Detroit makes for a vivid tableau of urban decline: revived prairie, burnt-out homes, and empty high rises," VICE’s Daniel Denvir managed to write with a straight face. "Detroit, more than a mere metaphor, is a striking and large-scale instance of something that has become pervasively wrong in America."

"Detroit (1701-2013)," tweeted Michael Moore. "Don't cry for us, America. You're next."

Even that whacky Taiwanese computer-animation show got in on the act.

Detroit articles have become a genre unto themselves. First, there is the obligatory picture of vacant houses (e.g., here, here, and here). Then there is the listing of municipal woes—number of vacant buildings, lack of working streetlights, long emergency response times.

The people of Detroit are sick of reading about themselves.

"Please don’t write misery porn about us," a Michigan friend begged when I told her I was going to Detroit.

Wednesday

On Wednesday morning, inside the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, a federal bankruptcy judge decided whether to allow lawsuits during the bankruptcy process against the city, its emergency manager Kevyn Orr, and Gov. Rick Snyder.

The legal fees alone are expected to reach $100 million. Orr has already kicked $1.4 million to his former law firm for six weeks of work.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes ruled his court has "exclusive jurisdiction" over lawsuits against Detroit while the city is in Chapter 9 bankruptcy. He did not rule on the merits of the suits— specifically, whether or not the city could reduce its pension liability.

The ruling will keep the legal challenges against Detroit from spiraling. Critics said it undercut Michigan’s right to interpret its own laws.

"The city of Detroit, Mr. Orr's lawyers, argued there is only one court that is competent to decide whether the Michigan state constitution has been violated, and that's, not surprisingly, not the Michigan courts but federal courts," a lawyer for the aggrieved public sector unions told reporters outside the courtroom. "This raises serious issues about federalism and the right of citizens to litigate issues about the state constitution in state courts."

Outside the court, groups of firefighters and other public workers in red shirts demonstrated against cutting the city’s pensions.

Sean Spadden, 46, is a Detroit firefighter for Ladder 20, Squad 2. He’s been in the department for 13 years and drives a ladder truck.

The Detroit Fire Department is notoriously underfunded. Crews run into burning buildings wearing old suits and defective equipment.

The water pump on Spadden’s truck is broken so the crew has to wait for another engine to arrive to actually put out a fire.

"It’s messed up," Spadden said. "Most of the rigs we have shouldn’t be out in the field."

"What are y’all waiting for?" he said people ask when Spadden’s truck rolls up to the scene of a fire. "Y’all gonna put water on this or just watch it burn?"

The city will have to pay $3.5 billion to its pension funds and $5.7 billion toward retiree health care over the next 30 years to meet projected costs.

"I don’t know, man," Spadden said when asked what the city is supposed to do about its fiscal woes. "But those pensions are what we work toward."

There are around 21,000 retired city employees and their widows in Detroit. Most get around $1,600 per month from the city.

The average age of Detroit firefighters, one told me, is now 42.

"I joined the department when I was 23," he said. "Now it’s a bunch of old dudes humpin’ around."

 ***

Inside Rodin, a European-themed bar just north of the DIA, a boisterous crowd raised their glasses to Detroit. Wednesday was the city’s 312th birthday; French explorer Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac founded it in 1701. Cadillac was later removed from duty and charged with extortion and abuse of power, starting a tradition in Detroit local government that continues to this day.

Works from local artists hang on the walls, for sale with 100 percent going to the artists. A TV above the bar played a Jean-Luc Godard film.

Young entrepreneurs and local boosters filled the room. I struck up a conversation with one of them, Jeanette Pierce, 32.

Pierce’s elevator pitch on why you should live in Detroit: "Because it’s big enough to matter in the world, but small enough where you can matter in it."

"Seven years ago there wasn’t a welcome center," she continued. "You couldn’t get a map of the city."

So Pierce started a nonprofit, now called D:hive, to give tours and information about the city. Today D:hive offers everything from history tours to information on job opportunities and housing.

"In a lot of places, people just complain," Pierce told me. "In Detroit, we do something about it."

Pierce delivered a who’s-who around the room. The DJ, Andy Linn, owned two local businesses in Midtown with his brother and sister. They also wrote an "Insider’s Guide to Detroit."

Amy Elliott Bragg, who wrote The Hidden History of Detroit, gave a toast.

A woman who was instrumental in passing the new taxes for the DIA was by the bar.

So was the owner of Rodin, Torya Blanchard, a gregarious woman with coke bottle glasses.

"The bar scene in Detroit is basically split between hipster bars and black bars, and she’s got a foot in both," another partygoer said of Blanchard. "She knows everyone in Detroit worth knowing."

I met the author of the blog Le Fab Detroit, a young woman who returned to town after working in Qatar and South Korea. She said she felt a "mystical pull" to Detroit.

"I just want to take whatever I have inside of me and use it to make the city a better place," she told me.

Detroit’s flag hung on the wall. Party goers had their picture taken in front of it, holding signs that said "I love Detroit."

Part of the flag shows the great Detroit fire of 1805, when the entire town was razed. The motto reads: "Speramus Meliora. Resurget Cineribus." We hope for better things. It will rise from the ashes.

***

I ended the night at a dive bar on an unlit street next to a cluster of derelict apartment towers. I knew it was my kind of bar when I walked in and saw people openly flouting the city’s smoking ban.

I won’t name the bar, because No Snitching.

The bartender shrugged when I asked about the smoking ban. He knew three of the four health inspectors in the city. They had bigger problems.

"Plus, a judge or a couple D.A.’s come in here sometimes to light up big cigars," he said.

The dive’s patrons sneered at the optimism of the birthday party. They liked the city when people moved there because it was empty and weird, not because it was "up and coming."

Detroit’s "renaissance" has been foretold by the perpetual optimists for decades now, they said. In the 80s, it was the People Mover, a light-rail project that would connect downtown to the suburbs. The finished People Mover is a one-way monorail that runs in a 3-mile loop around downtown.

I was reminded of something similar Thomas Nardone, the leader of the Mower Gang, told me. Lots of young people move back to Detroit, but who wants to raise a family here?

But even if the optimists are wrong about the bright future of Detroit, one feels like the traditionalists are fighting a losing battle.

The state of Michigan just announced a $450 million bond project to build a new hockey arena for Detroit Red Wings, along with an additional $200 million to develop the surrounding area.

The bar sits in the middle of the proposed redevelopment zone.

As far as pressing priorities for Michigan and its beleaguered Detroit go, a taxpayer-backed hockey stadium doesn’t seem like it should be at the top of the list. But that’s Detroit for you.

Thursday

People filled the Campus Martius Park for lunch hour, waiting in line at barbecue and hot dog lunch shacks. A rock combo played blues and oldies covers for the crowd. Above everything stood the headquarters for Dan Gilbert’s Quicken, relocated downtown in 2010.

The park is at the center of Detroit. The major roads converge here. 8 Mile Road takes its name from its distance to this location.

The crowd was white and black, young and old, hipsters and professionals in suits, bros wearing University of Michigan gear.

And there in a coffee shop, at the table next to me, a group of four men were meeting to discuss funding for a new business venture.

CJ Ciaramella   Email CJ | Full Bio | RSS
CJ Ciaramella is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. Prior to joining the Beacon, he was a reporter for the Daily Caller. He was also a Collegiate Network year-long fellow at the San Diego Union-Tribune and has written articles for the Weekly Standard and Oregon Quarterly. Ciaramella attended the University of Oregon, where he edited the award-winning student magazine, the Oregon Commentator. He lives in Washington, D.C. His Twitter handle is @cjciaramella. His email address is ciaramella@freebeacon.com.

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