Cruising The Dream Cruise

-5This weekend was the Woodward Dream Cruise in Detroit, when thousands of the cars Detroit has produced over the years cruise up and down Woodward Avenue.  It’s a serious dip into the world of chrome and leather, mag wheels and shiny grilles, candy-colored paint and engines with horsepower to spare.  Russell went, had a great time, and sent along the photo above.

Cars are interesting devices.  At bottom, they’re just a transportation mechanism, but they also can become so much more.  Who doesn’t remember the first car that they truly loved?  Mine was a bright red Mustang Ghia, circa 1974, with a fake pebbled leather top that was bright white, and bucket seats.  I thought I was the King of the Road in that car.

Russell On YouTube

Russell has a short film up on YouTube, Obelisk, that is worth a gander.  It includes some footage from our trip to Paris a few months ago, combined with some footage from Detroit — and being a piece by Russell he gives it his own, unique perspective.

If you’re interested in Russell’s book, Dream Cruise, you can see a picture of it on his new website — including all of the photos of Woodward Avenue that make up the book.

Detroit’s Growth Industry?

After a quick visit to Michigan to see the Cranbrook senior art show and spend a day with Russell, I’ve concluded — based solely on billboards — that Detroit has a new growth industry.  It’s lawsuits.

IMG_2041There are lots of billboards in Detroit, because there are lots of road.  (It is the Motor City, after all.)  And I would guess that about half of the billboards are for lawyers who are ready to help you and fight on your behalf.  There are billboards for the auto accident attorney with a clever if not grammatically correct alphabetized phone number that an accident victim probably would remember even in an immediate, post-accident daze.  There are glamorous billboards for a blonde woman attorney who goes by the initials JK and whose picture is everywhere.  There are billboards for people who need legal representation for sexual harassment, billboards for people who are getting a divorce, and billboards for people who are dealing with the police.

Billboards used to advertise businesses and their products; now they advertise lawyers.  There’s a message in there somewhere.

What Happened To Detroit?

IMG_5145When Kish and I visited Russell in Detroit several months ago, my overwhelming reaction to the terrible conditions that can be found there was: “How the hell did this happen?” Now there is a documentary, called Bankrupt, that apparently will attempt to answer that question. The film will be released this month, and you can view the trailer at the link above.

All documentaries are filmed from a point of view, of course, and it looks like this one will be no different. I’d gladly review explanations of this civic disaster from every point on the political spectrum, however, if they could help us to understand how this happened — and what we can do to prevent it from ever happening again.

Will Detroit Once More Lead The Way?

At one time in American history Detroit was a leader in commerce, capitalism, and civic development.  As the home of the American auto industry, Detroit experienced the boom.  More recently, Detroit has experienced the bust.  Now the question is whether Detroit will become a leader in a different way — by showing how local governments can use the federal bankruptcy laws to try to free themselves from the product of decades of financial mismanagement and shortsightedness.

IMG_5164Yesterday, federal bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes ruled that Detroit’s pension obligations are not immune from scrutiny in a federal bankruptcy proceeding, notwithstanding a Michigan constitutional provision that specifically protects public employee pensions.  In effect, the judge said, contractual obligations that require cities to pay public pensions are like any other contracts and thus may be modified and restructured by a bankruptcy judge after all sides present evidence and argument.  It is the first clear ruling on this issue — one that is of enormous interest to other local and state governments that are dealing with the fiscal consequences of overly generous public employee benefit and pension arrangements that were reached when times were flush but that now threaten to crush the governments’ ability to provide basic services to citizens.

The bankruptcy judge’s ruling will be appealed, and the judge also has promised to be careful and thoughtful before changing any monthly pension payments.  Neither of those circumstances may provide much comfort to former Detroit employees who have retired in reliance on their monthly pension payment from the city and who now must wonder how they personally will be affected.  At the same time, Detroit’s financial challenges are so staggering that city administrators have few options.  The bankruptcy process will work for Detroit only if the city emerges from the bankruptcy with a balanced budget and financial obligations that it can realistically carry given its current, shrunken state — and employee and retiree benefit programs have to be considered as part of that process.

When we visited Detroit earlier this year we stopped to look at a famous downtown statue called the Spirit of Detroit, of a seated man holding the sun in one hand and a family in the other, with a quote from the Bible about liberty behind him.  Viewed in the context of Detroit’s current, crippling financial problems, the figure looks like he is trying to decide which way to turn.  A bankruptcy judge will now help him make that decision.

The Guardian Building

IMG_5151On our visit to downtown Detroit over the weekend, Russell made sure that we stopped by the Guardian Building, which has to be one of the coolest buildings you’d find anywhere.  It is a fantastic palace of a building that combines Incan themes, Art Deco motifs, and the kind of architectural flourishes that you’d expect from a wealthy Bavarian prince.  Walking through the building is a feast for the senses — as I hope the photos in this post demonstrate.

IMG_5154Of course, Detroit being Detroit, reality had to intrude into the dream.  Some time ago, somebody thought it would be wise to connect this fabulous structure to the boring high-rise across the street through what looks like a cheap aluminum tube.  It’s hideous, and it tells you a lot about the kind of judgment Detroiters were using during the city’s long downhill slide.  Fortunately, nobody messed with the lobby area of the building, where these photos were taken.

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Packing A Punch

IMG_5170At the far edge of downtown Detroit, just across the river from Canada, is a monument to heavyweight boxer Joe Louis.  It’s a huge fist and arm, suspended from a pyramid.

It’s a wonderful sculpture, with the fist and the outstretched arm conveying an awesome sense of power.  Curiously, the Detroit city fathers have placed it on a traffic island in the middle of an intersection, where it’s not easy to get to and see up close.  I took a close look, anyway.

What’s the point of having a cool bit of sculpture in your downtown area if you put it in an inaccessible location?  Detroit should move “The Fist” to a better place, where everyone can enjoy it.

How The Hell Did This Happen?

IMG_5131Today we took a drive down Woodward Avenue, from Russell’s place in Pontiac all the way down to downtown Detroit.  It is a breath-taking trip that takes you deep into the dark and disturbing heart of urban decay.

Woodward is an eight-lane boulevard that rolls through tony suburbs like Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham.  At one point the road crosses over a highway and enters Detroit proper, and the landscape changes.

IMG_5177Countless structures along this major road are graffiti-covered, burnt-out, gutted, weed-grown, collapsing.  It is riveting and immensely powerful and jaw-dropping, all at the same time.  You can’t help but reflect on the loss of wealth and the loss of hope that accompanied this slow-moving, terrible disaster.

As the miles rolled by and the sad vistas passed, I had one simple thought:  “How the hell did this happen?”  Was it the hubris of the domestic auto industry?  Was it political corruption and incompetent local government?  Was it poorly conceived “urban renewal” projects that took money away from places where it could have made a difference?  Or was it just titanic economic forces that decreed that once-mighty and wealthy Detroit was due for a fall?

I’ll post more pictures about our journey down Woodward Avenue this afternoon and tonight.  But still I wonder:  “How the hell did this happen?”

Testosterone Time

On Sunday, as Russell and I watched the Browns first soar then sickeningly crash and burn, I was reminded again of how many men can be, well, assholes.

Detroit is only a few hours away from Cleveland, and there were a lot of Detroit fans at the game.  Many of them came by bus, decked out in their jerseys and headpieces and other Lions finery.  In the municipal lot, where the buses park, there was some good-natured ribbing between the fans, and Browns and Detroit supporters posed for friendly pictures.

IMG_5088But then, a few beers later, the game started, and for some fans the good-natured veneer boiled away.  Some Detroit fans were seated in the row behind us, and the men among them started to get into it with the Browns fans below.  When the Lions grabbed an early lead, the Detroit fans started taunting about the game and the Indians, then when Cleveland grabbed the lead Browns fans responded with insults and celebratory dances calculated to provoke — which they did.  By the time more beers had gone down and the game started to go south for the Browns in the second half, one-finger salutes were exchanged, fists were shaken, and the escalating situation seemed one swing away from a melee.

I looked at the men involved.  Each of them was with his wife, and the women were cringing with embarrassment at their middle-aged husbands acting like stupid adolescents.  No doubt they also worried that they might be trapped in a brawl and then have to worry about their spouse being arrested or injured.  I felt sorry for the women — and also felt sorry for the rest of us who had to witness the absurd, testosterone-laden tableau.  Fortunately for everyone in the vicinity, the situation was defused when the principal Browns fans involved meekly stumbled down the stadium stairs after a bonehead play by Brandon Weeden put the game out of reach.

I was glad no fighting occurred, but I found myself wondering:  do those guys, Lions and Browns fans alike, have any perception of how imbecilic they look?  When they wake up the next morning with a hangover, do they burn with shame at their behavior and apologize to their long-suffering wives?  Or is self-awareness and contrition simply inconsistent with acting like a complete jerk?

The Detroit Dilemma

Detroit is a mess — financially, socially, and otherwise.  It has filed for bankruptcy in what is the biggest municipal bankruptcy in history.

Detroit owes billions of dollars.  Its listing of creditors in its bankruptcy case is more 3,500 pages long.  Among other debts, it has huge, unfunded pension obligations to active and retired public workers.  In its bankruptcy Detroit will attempt to obtain significant cuts in those obligations.  Today, in an effort to forestall such cuts, Detroit’s two public employee pension funds are expected to file objections to the bankruptcy, arguing that the bankruptcy proceedings and the attempts to cut pension obligations violate the Michigan Constitution.  The city’s condition is so dire that it has hired Christie’s, the auction house, to value the city-owned items in the Detroit Institute of Art and advise the city on how it could “realize value” from those items.

Much of the focus has been on how Detroit got to its current state.  There is value in that process, because understanding the bad decisions and mismanagement — as well as the failure to recognize the impact of broad economic trends such as the departure of manufacturing jobs — may help other cities to avoid Detroit’s fate.  But it is equally important to think carefully about what happens now, and how America should handle the Detroits of the future.

At present, there doesn’t seem to be any appetite in Congress or in the Obama Administration for using federal money to bail out Detroit.  That’s a relief.  The prevailing view about Detroit may mean that we have moved beyond the notion of bailing out mismanaged entities, be they private or public.  (Speaking of prevailing views, advocates of governmental thrift will grind their teeth when they read the article linked in this paragraph, in which a spokesman for Detroit laments the city’s prior failure to take advantage of federal funds, which he describes as “free money.”  It wasn’t “free” to taxpayers, but local and state governments have long looked at the federal government as an endless source of money.)

It’s important that we set the right precedent with Detroit — because there will be other municipal bankruptcies, and with the massive unfunded public pension and health care obligations in states like California and Illinois, there could well be state bankruptcies, too.  I think the President and Congress are right to resist calls to bail out Detroit, and should similarly resist the the temptation to assume the obligations of badly managed states.  In the meantime, we can hope that the failure to bail out Detroit will cause mayors and governors of other troubled governmental bodies to get serious about getting their fiscal houses in order.