‘Broke’ Chronicles a City Out of Cash and Awash in Desperation

An abandoned home on Detroit’s east side, 2017.
An abandoned home on Detroit’s east side, 2017.Credit…Erin Kirkland for The New York Times

By Anna Clark

  • Nov. 19, 2019, 5:00 a.m. ET

Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises 
By Jodie Adams Kirshner

Detroit does not have the luxury of solving one problem at a time. It has been scarcely five years since the city emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Yet the truest tale of what happened to the city — a majestic metropolis where good union wages and affordable single-family homes once lured people from around the world — begins decades ago.

Disinvestment, suburban sprawl, systemic racism: It has been nothing less than a bloodletting. Detroit is one of many shrinking American cities that have lost half or more of their peak population. To provide services across the same geography with diminishing tax revenue, leaders have turned to debt, austerity, bankruptcy and even, in Michigan’s case, suspended local democracy.

If this sounds overwhelming, it should. In “Broke,” Jodie Adams Kirshner gives sustained attention to the way ordinary people in Detroit are making do. She follows seven of them — some lifelong residents, some more recent arrivals — as they seek opportunities for themselves and their families.

Jodie Adams Kirshner understands that bankruptcy is a tool, not a solution.
Jodie Adams Kirshner understands that bankruptcy is a tool, not a solution.Credit…Nora Canfield

Kirshner, a research professor at New York University, has taught bankruptcy law, and one wishes for more of the cleareyed analysis that appears in her prologue and epilogue. There she argues that it is a mistake to view cities in isolation, as she suggests Michigan’s government did, rather than reckon with state and federal policies that undermine them.

[Read an excerpt from “Broke.” ]

“Bankruptcy offers a legal process for restructuring debt,” Kirshner writes. “It does not address the deeply rooted problems that reduce municipal revenues.” Leaders tout Detroit’s post-bankruptcy comeback, pointing to improved commercial investment and public services. But in “Broke,” Kirshner shows the vast intersecting challenges yet to be faced.

She positions herself not as an expert, but as a witness, closely following the day-to-day lives of Miles, Charles, Robin, Reggie, Cindy, Joe and Lola, as they struggle, mostly, with property: where to live, how to pay for it, and what it takes to make their neighborhoods comfortable and safe.

“I had not set out to focus on real estate,” Kirshner writes, “but it quickly became clear to me that real estate encapsulated many of the causes of Detroit’s bankruptcy and the challenges the city has confronted in bankruptcy’s wake.” A city of homeowners has become a city of renters, vulnerable to faraway speculators who buy properties in bulk. Today, as “Broke” illustrates, despite the abundance of houses, it is absurdly difficult for people who want to live in Detroit to do so, thanks to stunted lending, predatory schemes and tax foreclosure.

Many residents devise ingenious solutions to the distorted real-estate market. Joe imagines vacant lots as pocket parks where children can play. Reggie puts tremendous effort into rebuilding a house stripped of pipes into a family home, and then, after being cheated out of it, he does it all over again in another stripped house. In Cindy’s Brightmoor neighborhood, the community transforms vacancy into flourishing urban farms. Squatters are tactically deployed to protect empty houses.


But despite their persistence, Kirshner demonstrates, there is simply no way that these spirited citizens can do it alone. Nor can their local government. The causes of such profound disinvestment go beyond Detroit’s borders and so must its solutions.

“Broke” pairs well with “Detroit Resurrected: To Bankruptcy and Back” (2016), by Nathan Bomey, which explores the high-stakes drama that emerges when you put a city in bankruptcy court, while Kirshner centers on the lived experience of residents caught in the power struggle. One tells the story from the top down; the other from the ground up. Both are essential.

“Broke” also nods to recent changes in Detroit’s central neighborhoods, where businesses have reinvested, especially companies owned by Dan Gilbert, the billionaire co-founder of Quicken Loans. (Downtown’s unofficial nickname: “Gilbertville.”) Streets are more walkable. Gorgeous 1920s-era skyscrapers have been brought back to life. But there is an unsettling disconnect with the rest of the city. Miles, an African-American construction worker, is desperate to get a job, perhaps on one of Gilbert’s downtown developments. So, Kirshner reports, he “spent his morning networking by handing out business cards at his local laundromat.” But, she adds, with quiet devastation, “neither Dan Gilbert nor his deputies did their laundry there.”

Kirshner understands better than most how bankruptcy is a tool, one she argues public officials should not mistake for a solution. Where bankruptcy has been most useful, as in Boise County, Idaho, in 2011, for example, it has addressed “one-time debt imbalances, not the broader-scale decline that cities like Detroit have suffered.”

In showcasing people who are persistent, clever, flawed, loving, struggling and full of contradictions, “Broke” affirms why it’s worth solving the hardest problems in our most challenging cities in the first place.

Anna Clark is the author of “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy.”

Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises
By Jodie Adams Kirshner 
342 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $28.99.