Six Things About Detroit That Are Worse Than The Idea of Selling Its Artwork

August 09, 2013, 12:04 AM by  Bill McGraw

Six Things About Detroit That Are Worse Than The Idea Of Selling Its Artwork:


1) Waiting for EMS as a loved one dies of a heart attack on the living room floor.

2) Living in a well-tended house on a block surrounded by urban meadows and dumped tires.

3) Dying when a roof collapses on you while you are fighting a fire, and because your emergency alert is broken, your fellow fire fighters can’t find you.

 4) Crying over your dead 12-year-old after she is hit by a car on Schaefer Road when the street lights are out.

 5)  Losing your pension.

 6) Losing part of your pension.

An Explanation:       

The deaths of the firefighter and 12-year-old actually happened. Waiting forever for EMS and living in isolated houses are so common in Detroit that they pass for normal.

As for the pensions, they are not gone, yet. But there is a good chance workers could forfeit at least a portion of their retirement income as part of Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

Losing the pensions would be a shameful violation of the contract between the city and its workers, especially those who risked their lives on the job every day of their careers, but few people outside of the pensioners seem upset about the possibility. By contrast, the idea that Detroit might have to sell some of the contents of the Detroit Institute of Arts has stirred up lots of anxiety and outrage among many metro Detroiters, especially after Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr announced last week he has hired Christie’s auction house to appraise the art.

The DIA is a magnificent establishment filled with the greatest achievements of humankind over the past few thousand years. It's open to all, rich and poor, and the millage passed last summer is a fine example of regional cooperation. The museum’s psychic value to metro residents has only grown as the city’s fortunes have declined.

Losing any work of art would be heartbreaking. But there’s a lot about the reality of day-to-day life in Detroit that is heartbreaking. The poverty, dysfunction and hopelessness in many neighborhoods are heartbreaking. The thought that Detroit’s retired employees might lose a sizeable chunk of their modest pensions should break your heart, too.

Like all aspects of Detroit’s journey into Chapter 9, the question of what should happen to the DIA is full of nuances. There is no precise formula that says the sale of art equals full pensions for retirees or a clean bill of health for the city.

But what if Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr devises a plan for creditors that would erase Detroit’s debt, give the city a new lease on life and makes pensioners whole -- yet his proposal includes the sale of some of the artwork, along with other city assets?

Would it be worth the loss of selective parts of the DIA collection if a sale would put Detroit on the road to becoming a normal American city in which police come when you call, the street lights work and pensioners receive their promised checks?

The debate about city-owned art raises questions about civic values and what kind of city Detroit should be. Why have so many people rallied to support the art and not the people threatened with a devastating loss to their livelihoods?

That disparity reflects the tone-deafness among many people that accompanied Detroit’s long slide into fiscal anarchy. For years, the increasingly beleaguered and shrinking city struggled for survival, surrounded by a generally prosperous and growing region that purred with self-satisfaction and mostly ignored Detroit’s plight. In some quarters, people even attacked the city and its residents for being so needy.

The outpouring of support for the DIA reinforces the idea -- shared by a good number of metro residents -- that Detroit is some amusement park whose treasures are there to be used for people’s pleasure with little regard for the city’s residents and their concerns.

The art institute was born in the Roaring Twenties, when the ascendant auto industry created so much wealth that Detroiters built thousands of beautiful churches, homes and commercial structures, such as the Fisher Building, Guardian Building and Fox Theatre.

The city had so much money in the '20s that it also bought the old art museum from a private group, built the DIA and purchased a number of global masterpieces out of its general fund. But amid the booming prosperity, Detroit also had pockets of poverty, anguish and injustice, of which the case of Ossian Sweet is only the best known.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a Detroit minister who became a famous theologian, looked around during that decade and noted the great imbalance between haves and have-nots.

“Thousands in this town are really living in torment while the rest of us eat, drink and make merry,” Niebuhr said. “What a civilization!” 

With much of the city sliding into chaos and pensions at risk for 20,000 retirees, it’s easy to imagine what Niebuhr might say if he were living in Detroit today. How, even at a theoretical level, can we elevate inanimate things -- no matter how transcendent they are in their beauty and history -- over the needs of human beings?

What a region!

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