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Detroit’s bankruptcy settlement is far from the end of the story

Sep 16, 2014

Many years ago, I met Thomas Friedman, the distinguished New York Times journalist who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of the Middle East by the time he was 35.

When I told him that I regarded his reporting as indispensable, he told me something I’ll never forget. He said “don’t read my stories every day.”  That startled me, and I asked what he meant.

He went on: “Daily journalists covering a beat have to produce a story just about every day.” That’s partly because everybody doesn’t always read everything. But if you look closely, you’ll see that much of the time, much of the daily stories are repetitious.

Friedman said that if you read them all, there’d be a tendency to think more was happening then really was. I have since realized that this is equally true of many other stories. Things sometimes take time, not only for us to sort out, but to sort themselves out.

That’s certainly true of the Detroit bankruptcy, which, like the trial itself, is painfully grinding to a conclusion. There is the still possibility of a dramatic surprise or things falling apart.

There wouldn't be any affluent suburbs without Detroit. They and, we, are all in this together.

But we can now glimpse pretty well what a settlement will look like, especially since the bankruptcy’s biggest opponent, Syncora, reached a deal with the city last week. It now seems more than likely that this will put irresistible pressure on the last major creditors to reach settlements, too. Otherwise, chances are that Steven Rhodes, the U.S. bankruptcy judge, will force a settlement through a marvelously inelegant term known as a cramdown.

Eventually, perhaps within weeks, this could all be settled. Detroit will emerge shorn of most of its crippling debt, plus a few of its too-meager assets. The Detroit Institute of Arts will be intact, and insulated from any further threat from the city’s problems.

By then, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s time will be up, and Mayor Mike Duggan and the city council evidently will be more or less fully in charge, though there will be a state-appointed financial oversight board. But the real question is, then what?

Detroit is pinning its immediate future on investing heavily in city services, in having the money to beef up police and fire protection, to accelerate the process of tearing down blight.

The theory is that the better the city functions, the more likely it is to attract new investment and residents and revenue. Which would be wonderful … except that even the biggest optimists concede that this could all easily be torpedoed by a recession, further cuts in aid from Lansing or some other economic emergency.

What everybody is ignoring is this. Detroit is a metropolitan area, not merely the mostly, old, poor and crumbling factories and abandoned warehouses and stricken neighborhoods.

There wouldn’t be any affluent suburbs without Detroit. They and, we, are all in this together. What many people know, but few want to admit openly, is that you cannot “fix” Detroit without metropolitan solutions, revenue and service sharing and some form of shared government.

Otherwise we are just putting makeup on a cancer patient and sending her home from the hospital -- knowing, but not admitting, that before long, she’ll be back.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.