In Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises (St. Martin’s, Nov.), Kirshner documents the consequences of Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy for its residents.

Why did Detroit’s government decide declaring bankruptcy was the best course of action for the city?

The decision rested solely in the hands of the emergency manager, who was appointed by the state. Without help from the federal or state governments, and partly due to the city’s financial problems, the emergency manager faced limited options to raise revenues as the payments to financial creditors fell due. And Detroit’s bankruptcy coincided with a sudden wave of other municipal bankruptcies in the wake of the financial crisis, that seemed representative of increasingly austere policies toward cities and a growing enthusiasm for bankruptcy as a way to diminish union power and rewrite pension liabilities.

Would you categorize the bankruptcy as a success overall or a failure?

Successful for whom, is the question. In some respects, Detroit’s bankruptcy succeeded and even surpassed expectations. Participants, particularly the bankruptcy judge, acted with sensitivity to local politics, and settlements attracted new money and private investment. Detroit has increasingly become synonymous with grit and cool, which could drive future private investment, tourism, and corporations’ and individuals’ moves into the city. On the other hand, the rising fortunes of greater Downtown have seemed to do little to help the remaining 95% of the city, in which 95% of residents live, and sometimes have even harmed them. The deeper causes of the city’s decline persist, and many fall outside the city’s authority. Bankruptcy couldn’t possibly have corrected them.

Real estate plays a big role in the book. Why?

I didn’t set out to focus on real estate, but it quickly became clear to me that it encapsulated many of Detroit’s challenges. In only a few decades, a city of homeowners has transformed into a majority-renter city. The loss of homes has propagated vacancy and blight that has depressed local property markets and destabilized neighborhoods. The city has had no authority to stop the cycle of abandonment on its own. I started to explore the interplay of these various currents with a small group of Detroit residents I had gotten to know through my research. Their struggles—heroic uphill battles, often just to keep a roof over their families’ heads—make clear that bankruptcy is about human beings, not just numbers.

What message would you like readers to take away from the book?

That we cannot allow the country to fragment into areas of varying opportunity. We cannot continue to withhold resources from desperate people and the desperate places where they live. Equalizing opportunities and narrowing divides should be fundamental to who we are as Americans.

By Lisa Butts |Aug 16, 2019