Book Review: Nathan Bomey’s “Detroit Resurrected”

I’ve made it my mission to read all of the Detroit books. I started with Charlie LeDuff’s sensationalist Detroit: An American Autopsy, then moved onto fiction You Don’t Have To Live Like This, then David Maraniss’s Once In A Great City. Most recently it was Nathan Bomey’s Detroit Resurrected: To Bankruptcy and Back, which I just finished. I can’t quite stomach Amy Haimerl’s Detroit Hustle right now, but I do have a copy and will get to it at some point.

Bomey’s book, at 320 pages and replete with live-action, lawyerly, shit-talking dialogue, is a quick, comfortable read. It’s rich and vivid, but not verbose, dense, or packed with a crazy technical analysis. He covers the mechanics of bankruptcy, the basics of Detroit’s municipal finance, and the bankruptcy proceedings themselves, focusing principally on how the powers that be, among them Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, later-Mayor Mike Duggan, and various attorneys and judges, all butted heads to argue their points in figuring out what to do to fix Detroit’s balance sheet.

POWER & DEBT

Much of Bomey’s analysis focuses on the central debate surrounding the proposed liquidation of the Detroit Institute of the Arts to settle debts to creditors and the Grand Bargain, as it was later named, a deal to settle a portion of debts by bringing in foundation capital to shore up numbers on a deep red balance sheet. He also traces the origins, though somewhat inadequately (more on this later), of the power triangle between Kevyn Orr, Rick Snyder, and Mike Duggan.

The Grand Bargain was, without doubt, one of the most interesting political resolutions to the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history– a resolution to certainly one of the most precarious situations in American urban history. Bomey captures a sort of constructivist, human element of the bankruptcy– referring back to said shit-talking lawyers- and how social interactions rather than purely quantified power structures or monetary systems defined “make-or-break” moments in the proceedings. Most major breakthroughs in the proceedings he brings back to pivotal phone calls or moments, usually involving profanity-laden phone calls between six figure salaried executives (as these things usually go). And, well, a lot of things were accomplished, even though some folks lost out.

Former Emergency Manager and Jones Day attorney Kevyn Orr, courtesy of Bridge Magazine.

This ranges from the millionaire Jones Day lawyers to the millionaire Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to the multi-millionaire governor Rick Snyder. Did you notice something about the preceding sentence? Possibly the fact that they’re all millionaires, and this is something that is often missed in the narrative about the bankruptcy.

This is sort of a product of Bomey’s limited depth in tracking of the origins of Detroit’s crisis. In his analysis, this is fairly limited to Kwame’s business dealings and some peripherally connected things involving historical something something. In comparison, Maraniss’s book paints a picture of a city on the edge, but he doesn’t get more than knee-deep into the origins of the urban crisis, as Thomas Sugrue does. LeDuff, problematic but a dedicated Detroiter, is sensationalist but really seems to capture the gritty “ground level” of Detroit that Bomey seems to remark upon in a passing way– the sort of New York attitude of, “Wow, it’s crazy that people actually live like this!”

These issues are less important in figuring out what to do next, but I mention the “millionaire” point because much of Detroit’s new narrative is problematized by the disproportionate control of the city that has been handed over, sold, or transferred in some carte blanche manner, to millionaires and billionaires.

WHEN IN DOUBT, BLAME KWAME (OR COLEMAN)

I’ve noticed that white folk, especially suburbanites who refer to anything within the city limits as “downtown” and only come “downtown” to attend Red Wings games or hang out with Kid Rock or one of Gilitchville’s monumental, taxpayer-funded abominations, usually blame Coleman Young or the riots, one, for the single moment in the downfall of Detroit.

Usually, as the limit of a conversation with one of These People approaches about two minutes, the probability approaches one that they will make some reference to “the blacks.” To those who live here, it’s fairly apparent. Detroit’s legacies of racism are deep and foundational in the city’s problems. Maraniss’s book gets into this– sort of- but Detroit Resurrected leaves it on the sidelines. Kind of like the bazillionaire players in the bankruptcy narratives left it on the sidelines.

At issue in the Kwame era was the city’s attempt to kick the debt-can down the road by raising basically investment capital on public bonds through a couple of maybe-semi-illegal-if-not-totally-shady shell corporations. No one seems to really debate that Kwame was corrupt, never mind that the origins of his era’s problems find their roots many decades prior.

But Bomey isn’t interested in academically problematizing the idea that a municipal entity, which exists by virtue of and for the preservation of human beings in a human community, could be effectively sold off to greedy Wall Street interests. Orr and the Jones Day club certainly weren’t interested in this, either, and, although Orr is often painted by Bomey as an enormously pragmatic, human thinker who was able to accomplish a monumental feat against crazy odds (certainly an arguable point), discussion is almost totally absent about how utterly problematic the Emergency Management system imposed by a white Republican quarter-billionaire governor onto a majority of black Michiganders was. Rick Snyder is painted as a pragmatic, benign technocrat whose affinity for Detroit is at odds with a [racist, but Bomey avoids saying it] red state constituency that, along with the likes of L. Brooks Patterson, kind of hates Detroit.

Beyond Emergency Management, the most interesting thing to me about the bankruptcy is the move in the era of muncipal austerity toward replacing public services and expenditure with private foundation money. I’ve often found it ironic that Kresge is such a huge player in Detroit as K-Mart, the originator of the Kresge fortune, made its money by championing a new era of offshoring (and thereby indirectly contributing to the demise of urban economies in the so-called post-industrial era). Foundations are mandated to spend their money on philanthropic stuff, but so much is obvious– Bomey doesn’t get into this very much except to say that it’s notable. What is interesting to me is the fact that it is being done.

There is debate about the efficacy of private philanthropic expenditure, but one thing that is for sure is that foundations are 1) private, and 2) not mandated to distribute funding evenly across cities. Kresge underwriting Detroit’s QLine streetcar in a city where buses don’t run on time– or at all- was a good example and certainly carried a dubious value proposition.

EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT, THAT UNMENTIONED DISASTER

Bomey’s conclusion, where he actually goes so far as to invoke the “what about the schools,” which, along with “what about the parking,” is totally the “what about her e-mails” of urban revitalization. He does mention that the state’s appointed emergency managers basically made a bad situation worse, but he doesn’t trace that back to Snyder, which I view as pretty problematic. Snyder is a venture capitalist who has done a great job of transferring public resources to private interests in a state that struggles with poverty and unemployment that aren’t really getting better. Emergency Management is a tried-and-true way to strip citizens of democratic process, and the bankruptcy wouldn’t have been possible without it.

Darnell Earley was clearly a disaster in Detroit and in Flint. Kevyn Orr perhaps wasn’t a complete disaster, and the bankruptcy perhaps wasn’t the be-all, end-all of disasters, but the Emergency Management system is definitely a disaster for democracy– and in terms of the precedents it has set with regard to wealth and race disparity in Michigan’s cities.

These problems mitigate the credibility of the total narrative, but they don’t detract from the readability of it, and it isn’t as though Bomey is making grossly inappropriate conclusions or factually untrue statements. Overall, I’d offer three and a half out of five stars or so, but I will say that Detroit Resurrected is great story and totally worth the read.

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