By Shea Howell
November 7, 2015
It has been one-year since Detroit exited bankruptcy. The corporate elite are celebrating their success. On November 19 the Michigan Bar Association will gather at the Detroit Institute of Arts to give the 11th Annual Dennis Archer Public Service Award to bankruptcy judges Gerald Rosen and Steven Rhodes. Without a hint of irony or shame, lawyers are invited to stroll through the DIA to enjoy gourmet food and an open bar. They are promised that the money raised by the event will support “justice initiatives” for foster children. Guests are assured they can “get home in time to read our own children a bedtime story.”
Perhaps it will be a bedtime story about how a city celebrating African American political power and ingenuity was stolen by white corporate elites through legal fictions. Probably not. The bedtime story the corporate elite like to tell is that they charged into the city to save it from itself. In the process they saved the art of the DIA, got rid of overblown pensions, jolted people out of a culture of not paying their way, and got rid of crooked politicians.
Both Emergency Manger Kevyn Orr and his follow up Mayor Mike Duggan agree that the bankruptcy is a success. “I think the early indicators exceeded our expectations,” Orr said in an interview last month. Duggan weighted in with the Detroit News saying that there are signs of a substantial recovery. Buses meet schedules, police and ambulance response times are improving, and more than 7,000 homes have been torn down. New housing set for the riverfront and the Red Wings arena district all lead to the Mayor to say, “We’ve got jobs coming back, and we’re feeling good.”
These storytellers acknowledge dark clouds on the horizon. Mostly they don’t think they have done enough to get rid of pensions. In a recent article assessing bankruptcy, the News pinpoints the “balloon pension payment” coming in 2024 as a major problem. For most of Detroit, this bedtime story is pure fiction. It begins with the false claim that there was no alternative for the city but bankruptcy. It is a fiction that evades the real costs of this legalized theft from elders whose pensions were decimated. As was widely reported, but generally ignored by the corporate elite, of the $7 billion eliminated from the debt, “ nearly 80 percent is being taken from retirees.”
Now we have street lights to illuminate the 100,000 people shut off from water, the foreclosures of more than 62,000 homes, and the use of money that was supposed to help people stay in their homes and repair them being used instead to tear them down.
This reality cannot continue to be ignored. Bankruptcy has achieved nothing but the legal framework to strip pensions, hurt unions, and drive out the most vulnerable. It is resulting in a whiter, wealthier city at the expense of the poor and people of color.
Since the very beginning of this story, Detroiters have argued there is a better way. We have argued that it is possible to have fair, just, and shared development. It is no bedtime tale. It is pragmatic policies. We need legislation to collect suburban income tax and to allow rent control. We need our fair share of our revenue sharing. We need community benefits legislation, the elimination of corporate tax breaks, and a moratorium on water shut offs and foreclosures. We need an income based water affordability plan.
Unless we face reality, the stories we tell to our children will be of collective failure to meet the critical challenge of redeveloping a city for all of our people.