The scariest thing that Detroiters are facing this morning is not insolvency, debt collectors, or even lame jokes from outsiders, but the uncertainty of what happens to their city next. The city Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing that happened yesterday is unprecedented in size and scope — it lists over 100,000 creditors who are owed something — and no one is entirely sure what it will take to make the city whole again. Even the city's emergency manager, who has drawn up plans to privatize many of the Detroit's essential services and get the financial house in order, can't fully commit to the many options available, not all of them good.
There are even rumors floating around that the city could be forced to sell what might be its most valuable asset — the impressive collection owned by the Detroit Institute of Art. While the entire collection (including the original Howdy Doody puppet) could fetch a couple of billion dollars on the open market, residents would be loathe see their best cultural treasures shipped off to the highest bidder. The state ruled earlier that the city has no right to sell them off, but in a moment of crisis like this, almost anything seems possible.
There's also the blame game happening right now, which is mostly counterproductive. Everyone has their pet theory about why Detroit failed — unions, corruption, pensions, racism, taxes, "white flight," Democrats, lousy transportation, the '67 riots — but the truth that there is no single cause. And there isn't going to be one single solution either.
If someone says “Detroit’s problem is…” & then mention fewer than 7 or 8 factors, they don’t know what they’re talking about— Dana Houle (@DanaHoule) July 19, 2013
So for now, Detroit and the rest of Michigan are left to wonder their future will hold. Some see the bankruptcy as the final death knell of a once great city. Imagining dried up pension funds (the biggest chunk of the debt by far is owed to city retirees); unpaid salaries (the city has promised to pay its bills); and the prospect of answering to the whims of judges and politicians from other towns, must have residents panicked about the city falling even further into a hole. Even Michael Moore, the state's supposed champion of the working class, has surrendered with this stunningly defeatist (and wrong) message.
Detroit (1701-2013). Don't cry for us, America. You're next.— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) July 19, 2013
There are others, however, who see it as the chance to finally halt the city's 30-year slide and start fresh. Plenty of families and companies — including the city's own General Motors — have declared bankruptcy and come out stronger on the other side. Unlike previous attempts to eliminate city debt, the bankruptcy can protect vital services and maybe even stick it to some of the more predatory creditors who have held back citizens in recent years. It's not an ideal situation, but hitting rock bottom might be just what the city needs to get itself right again.
Corey Williams, a native of the city who covers it for the Associated Press, summed up the feelings of a lot of people who still love their town, despite all its problems.
"Detroit is tired and I can't help but think the city is weeping down deep in its tough old bones. I'm crying inside, even while writing the stories and filling pages in Detroit's history. I don't know if wiping away as much as $20 billion in debt through bankruptcy will fix Detroit....
... But at least and at last there is a plan. In Detroit's drawn out, decades of failures there is hope."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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