The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Detroit Heads to the Pawn Shop

Detroit

Desperation has hit a new low in Detroit.

Last week, Emergency Manager (and bankruptcy lawyer) Kevyn Orr decided to list the holdings of the Detroit Institute of Arts among the city’s assets in preparation for a possible bankruptcy. If the city goes through with it, it could be forced to sell off any of its assets—which now include the museum’s collection.

Museum administrators are outraged, but the choice may be keeping the art or paying for vital public services. According to Orr, the city has “long-term obligations of at least $15 billion, unsustainable cash flow shortages and miserably low credit ratings that make it difficult to borrow.” But as the WSJ reports, the city may not have a choice:

“Kevyn Orr doesn’t want the collection sold,” Mr. Nowling said. “But in bankruptcy, it could be eyed by creditors.” [...]

But legal experts say that in a municipal bankruptcy, it is possible for a city to sell assets, even cultural icons. James Spiotto, a bankruptcy attorney and author on municipal-finance issues based in Chicago, said that “in order to provide essential government services like public safety, roads and education, certain other programs are going to be curtailed or eliminated. So it’s not surprising that the sale of art is on the table.”

The collection, which include treasures by Bruegel, Rodin and van Gogh as well as Diego Rivera’s famous “Detroit Industry” murals, is ostensibly worth billions of dollars, but those measures can’t really capture what such artistic treasures mean to a community.

Unfortunately the city is already struggling to keep the lights on. Local businesses recently had to step in to buy the city police cars and ambulances. Meanwhile, Detroit has closed nearly a quarter of the city’s firehouses, and the department’s equipment is beginning to fall apart. At this point, the city may need the money more than it needs the art.

This is another grim reminder of just how destructive Detroit’s corrupt machine politics have been. At one time, Detroit was the manufacturing capital of America and one of the country’s great cities; today it’s trying to stave off a kind of modern-day bonfire of the vanities.

Every time Detroit seems like it’s about to hit rock bottom, a trap door opens to reveal yet another howling abyss.

[Detroit image courtesy of Shutterstock]

Published on May 31, 2013 8:00 am
  • Pete

    “Desperation has hit a new low in Detroit.”

    Actually desperation has hit a new high in Democratic Party controlled Detroit.

  • NoNewt

    The fall of Rome.

    This sounds like Lenin (he of the “Third Rome”) selling the great artworks of the tsars in the hungry years of the early, war-torn Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. Guess what country now deeply regrets that move? Learn from history, folks.

    Here’s an idea: Rather than keep destroying what makes Detroit nice and worth having on the face of the earth, why not keep that and start attacking the costs that make the city such a disaster, and which will eat up in a matter of months the proceeds from a priceless art collection compiled over generations:
    1) corruption – tens of millions (or more) looted by plain, simple corrupt bureaucrats
    2) bloated contracts paid to unionized workers and politically connected crony companies
    3) welfare
    4) an unskilled, uneducated population. Forty-seven percent (!) – yes, 47% (!!!!) – of Detroit is illiterate (!). Surprise, surprise, this results in a populace not suited for the contemporary economy and incapable of producing much in terms of tax revenues

    Rather than selling the city’s heritage, soul and priceless culture, here’s an idea: Make Detroit a pilot “special immigration zone” for skilled Chinese, Indian and European immigrants.

    Detroit needs, effectively, high-skilled population replacement to offset the huge majority of unskilled, uneducated, illiterate (!!) people in the city. Replace them with high-skilled and highly educated Ukrainians, Chinese, Indians, whoever – people from countries as messed-up as Detroit who would love to be able to make money in the US, and who will work harder and smarter to turn Detroit around than will too many of the people living there today.

    It will serve Detroit – and the US – a lot better than our current immigration policy of “let in any and all Central Americans, no matter how unskilled … and keep everyone else out.” That policy is what leads to the poverty, asphyxiating Blue Model, and blight that we see in Detroit…

    • richard40

      You have definitely identified the right thing to do, but will the corrupt dem detroit machine ever do that, and will the deluded detroit voters who voted for that machine ever learn.

  • theresanursemom

    Sadly, I sincerely doubt that the underclass that dominates what is left of Detroit’s population has even heard of Bruegel, Rodin, or Van Gogh, much less care about their art. If the city owned a collection of Tupac Shakur or Biggie Smalls memorabilia, they might very well be up in arms over it’s sale. The art should be sold to people that understatnd and appreciate it. A hellhole like Detroit owning a billion dollar art collection is about as sensible as giving a homeless schizophrenic person the keys to a new Ferrari.

    • John E. Drury

      “Bruegel, Rodin, and Van Gogh is the new front line of the Lions, right?”

  • TheCynical1

    They can burn the furniture to keep the house warm — for a while, anyway. Like many others are doing in our society.

  • ChuckFinley

    Good. It would be a shame if those art works were ruined because the city of Detroit could not keep the roof fixed or the fire department paid.

    The art will go to where it can be protected and appreciated while the City of Detroit will get a few more dollars that will enable the corrupt kleptocracy that runs the place to hold onto power a little longer. The population of Detroit will continue voting to keep the kleptocrats in charge.

    Everybody gets what they want.

  • johnnydrama

    another progressive success story. this is what obama and his minions have in store for all of us.

  • catorenasci

    Makes sense to me: if you’re Joe Average Detroiter and the choice is between keeping the Bruegel and the Van Gogh or having cops when someone is breaking in or firemen when the arsonists light up the empty house next door to you, no one is going to say ‘let my daughter be raped or my house burned, but keep the art.’

    It may be the ultimate humiliation for a once great city, but Detroit has done all of this to itself. The voters got what they wanted. A perfect example of H.L. Mencken’s definition of “democracy: the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

    The best thing for Detroit would be to raze it and start over with an entirely new population.

    • iconoclast

      Of course, what will happen is that the art will be sold, money collected and distributed out to the various machine constituencies and the daughter will still be raped on the front lawn.

      • cheeflo

        No doubt. Right now it’s a cesspool with assets. If/when the DIA assets are divested, it will be a cesspool with no assets.

      • iconoclast

        Good point. The huge wealth of Detroit has been dissipated by decades of black machine corruption and greed. No reason for the city to hold onto the trappings of a long gone glory that is unlikely to return in our lifetimes.

    • richard40

      The problem with that is they will sell the art, but still not get the cops. The money will all disappear into the corrupt machine, and the municipal employee union pensions, and then you wont have the cops or the art, just the corruption.

  • iconoclast

    The only surprise is that this didn’t happen sooner. The racial machine of Coleman Young has stripped the city of money, safety, and business. The only thing Detroit is good for any more is remakes of “Escape from New York”.

    • richard40

      NY was headed the same way as detroit, but Mayor Guailani reversed the decline. Of course Mayor Bloomberg is now doing his best to start it again. Although as bad as Bloomberg is, he is still not as bad as Coleman Young.

      • iconoclast

        True. Chicago, Illinois, San Francisco have avoided the toxic combination of machine politics combined with blatant racism.

  • http://twitter.com/MDraxel Montgomery Draxel

    Not shocking when you drive away all the law abiding white taxpayers with a series of race riots.

    This is the end result of delusional democrat cronyism coupled with black victimhood and criminality.

  • ljgude

    I say keep the art and to heck with the fire department…Oh wait!

  • M_Becker

    The problem isn’t “machine politics” it’s a liberal hegemony run for 40 years by an affirmative action crew.

    • cheeflo

      What’s the difference? There isn’t one.

    • richard40

      Anybody notice that you never hear about a conservative repub corrupt big city machine.

      • mbecker908

        Might be because there aren’t any big cities under the control of Republicans.

        I’m a firm believer in the adage that “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Nobody is exempt.

        • richard40

          There have been cases where some big cities had repub mayors though, and vital services like police got better, while corruption decreased, like NYC under Guiliani

  • jvermeer51

    The art collection is valuable to whom? Take a poll on the street and ask residents which they prefer: Bruegel, Rodin or Van Gogh, and you’d get blank looks. I like art but I don’t assume my taste and values are what make society work. Functioning, productive adults are what make a society work.

  • shootist MP

    “but those measures can’t really
    capture what such artistic treasures mean to a community.”

    Really? Is there any indication that the broader Detroit community give one whit about a Van Gogh?

  • jpfenton

    It’s almost as though that crackpot, Ayn Rand, had a point. Can’t be true, though, since everyone I knew in college said that she was some extreme, unhinged, whacko with no connection to reality whatsoever, and that no one would ever take you seriously if you actually believed anything she said.

    • cheeflo

      And all the right-thinking people “outgrew” her when they “grew up.”

    • richard40

      Obama is a living embodyment of the kind of government that Ayn Rand wrote about in Atlass shrugged, and is producing the same results, stagnation, decay, corruption, and gov initiated intimidation and violence.

  • Classic Liberal

    “At this point, the city may need the money more than it needs the art.”

    May?

    I wonder, what is the number of Detroit residents who visited the museum last year?

    • cheeflo

      The DIA is managed by an organization that does care about the collection. Unfortunately, the collection and the building are owned by a city that doesn’t.

    • BozoerRebbe

      They don’t break things down based on residency, but since state voters approved regional funding for the DIA last year with legislation that made general admission free (special shows still have a charge), museum attendance is way up. That’s according to a DIA staffer that I spoke to yesterday.

  • http://www.facebook.com/knebergall Kent Nebergall

    In the 80′s, there was a commercial parody in the movie, “Amazon Women on the Moon” for the federal government going bankrupt and selling the contents of the Smithsonian. The tagline at the end is “Every Van Gogh… Must go!”
    In Reagan’s America, that was shock comedy.
    In Detroit today, it’s reality.

  • http://thevailspot.blogspot.com/ Rich Vail

    Having lived in the metro-Detriot area, and seen just how corrupt the City is…I don’t feel sorry for them one bit. That city lived on the beneficense of the future for 70 years. Now the bill is due…sell everything.

  • Diggsc

    Welcome to Obamaland.

  • iconoclast

    I wonder what the next decade will bring to Detroit. Will it become a permanent welfare recipient for city funds run by a revolving door of bureaucrats appointed by the governor of Michigan? Will businesses continue to shun the city until the population is effectively replaced? Will the city-wide slum that is Detroit become a breeding ground for domestic terrorism?

    Is there any precedence for such a devolution? Besides Somalia, that is?

  • pashley

    Sell it. Art works and buildings and monuments are simply the bling-bling to politicians ego’s. The political class didn’t earn it, they didn’t support the tax base to pay for it, and now they can’t keep it.

    Detroit’s role to the nation now is to serve as the biggest, of what will be many, examples of legacy piranaha single-party “government”. If it doesn’t hurt Detroiters, it won’t count.

    This is the welfare state in action. What would be simpler, and more community-saving, than limit the proportion of people on federal assistance, by zip code?

  • dhowell969

    Can anyone tell me when the last time was that Detroit had a city council and mayor that were not totally dominated by Democrats? So-called “progressive” Democrats?
    I’m 60 years old and have been politically aware since about 1978. Detroit and Chicago have been two of the nastiest examples of criminal city government in the world during that entire 35 year period.
    Association may not equal causation, but liberal Democrats leave a wasteland wherever they are allowed to dominate.

  • LouAnnWatson

    the beginning of the fall of the new Roman Empire while Obama takes violin lessons

    • terrence

      or golf lessons…

    • richard40

      Obama know only one thing, how to assembly a campaign team that can win elections. In every other way he is a disaster.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ali-Babba/670457795 Ali Babba

    Ha ha. Burn Detroit burn!!!!

  • Scottsdale_Al

    The Liberal Locusts – They came, they pillaged and they left.
    Once a great American city now sits in blight and crime.
    Why is Detroit never featured in the “Pure Michigan” TV commercials..

    • richard40

      Ironically MI now has a repub governor and legislature, and the state as a whole is starting to improve. But Detroit is still lockstep dem, and still hopeless.

  • A Smith

    Detroit is what happens when Democrats get everything they want.

    • Banned_by_KBTX

      Actually, North Korea is what happens when Democrats get everything they want – a genocidal slave state run by an insane leader who thinks he is a god. With Detroit you can at least flee for your life. In North Korea, no chance of that.

      • richard40

        The flee for your life line is a good point, and a good reason to devolve powers from the fed gov to the states. If a state or municipal gov screws up you can move, but where do we move if the fed gov starts becomming like detroit, as it is under obama.

  • Just_Ken

    The average detroiter wouldn’t know a Bruegel from a bagel. go ahead and sell it. fine art is a luxury they can’t afford any longer.

  • richard40

    Detroit tell us what we would get for the whole country if Obama/Reid have their way.

  • Mysticbeetle

    No news here. It’s just a bunch of used pictures by Old Dead White Men. No loss to the City and the City will gain all those “benjamins”, another Old Dead White Man.