Detroit’s Venal Art Sale No Fix for Urban Nightmare

The idea of auctioning the crown-jewel holdings of the Detroit Institute of Arts looks like a quick fix for a bankrupt city.

The debate goes like this: Sell the art, worth billions, to vaporize the city’s obligations to struggling pensioners.

Christie’s International Plc has been hired by Detroit to appraise the art collection while leaving the art in the City’s ownership, the auction house said in an e-mailed release. The City must know the current value of all its assets, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr said.

Whether or not the art is sold -- Orr says there is no such plan -- the collection is only the most prominent candidate in what may become an asset-stripping orgy.

Detroit has endured decades of decline, disinvestment and depopulation. While Michigan Governor Rick Snyder claims not to be pursuing a bailout, any such thing would Band-Aid the city’s chronic problems. Debt would be reduced by permitting mostly outsiders to abscond with anything of value the city owns.

When companies go bankrupt, the medicine can be harsh for staff members and the local tax base, yet the effects are temporary. A bankrupt city can’t fire citizens who pay taxes but already receive worse than subsistence services like one-hour police response times.

Large cities don’t disappear or die, they just waste into chronic basket cases, like Camden, New Jersey; Gary, Indiana; and East St. Louis, Illinois.

Basket Case

Detroit just happens to be the biggest basket case.

The critics who are scathing about the city’s mismanagement, its supposedly greedy unions, and its citizens’ alleged “victimology” ignore the fact those who will pay the highest price -- the city’s 700,000 citizens -- have the fewest resources to deal with a mess that’s brewed for years.

What would it take to put Detroit on a sustainable footing? That’s the question that’s got to drive decisions, and it is appalling that it does not. Too few of the people and institutions that have been diligently assembling a future for Detroit on the ground have been heard from.

There’s a revival plan for Detroit. Local corporations have committed resources to turn it around.

The architecture school at the University of Detroit Mercy has undertaken projects such as a graffiti art playground and a proposal for a mobile black history museum through its Detroit Collaborative Design Center.

Juicy Targets

Major philanthropies have been deeply involved, like the local Kresge Foundation. The foundation has long supported arts organizations as a tool for community revitalization -- not because they offer juicy targets for asset strippers.

Much of the revival of American cities started out with just the kind of committed young people -- artists, designers, historic preservationists, restaurateurs -- that have created the new vitality you can see in Detroit. (In such a process, cultural institutions like the Detroit Institute of Arts act as magnets.)

Detroit, like all older cities, suffers from America’s urban “age penalty.”

Few renters living in poverty get public subsidy, while top earners in new-home developments get substantial portions of their mortgage interest and property taxes covered by the Federal government. Congress lushly subsidizes highways while Detroit bus riders suffer reduced service and higher fares.

Stagnation Struggle

Except for urban and suburban wealth belts, mature communities struggle to stave off stagnation and decline. Rote real-estate finance cannot recognize the unique conditions and opportunities of aging places, so invigorating deals are a hard-fought rarity rather than standard practice.

That’s why the forces that emptied Detroit of businesses and people decades ago are gaining speed in 1950s suburbs everywhere. The suburban cities that starred in the massive migration from industrial cities -- such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Phoenix -- all now possess large tracts of poverty.

America has not focused on urban renewal since the 1970s. Cities that clambered back from the brink did it because they were valued by citizens, retained some wealth, and had a diverse economic base. (The latter, Detroit didn’t -- and still doesn’t -- have.)

Once disinvestment starts in an American city, it’s pretty hard to stop. When businesses leave because somewhere else is newer and accessible by a shiny new freeway, you lose the talent and investment that keeps cities healthy. You lose good leaders and have to settle for hacks. Of course Detroit is badly governed, as many other poor communities are. Who would want such a thankless job?

Struggling Cities

These are the reasons Detroit’s got plenty of company in its struggle.

America continues to hubristically believe it can rebuild nations like Afghanistan, when it won’t lift a finger to see what can be done with older cities that have long languished.

The primary counterbalance to the forces of disinvestment has been the historic-preservation movement, which has drawn millions of people and catalyzed the investment of billions of dollars in cities.

The Federal government assists with a tiny tax-credit program that has probably gotten the biggest bang for the buck of any Federal effort.

Restoring handsome old homes is hardly enough to revive an urban economy, though. Chicago has gentrified dozens of square miles left for dead yet still has huge swaths of emptied-out blocks colonized by heavily armed gangs.

So responding to the Detroit debacle by regarding art assets as monetizable for the purpose of paying off creditors is not only wrong, it is strikingly venal and cruel. Detroit’s assets need to be understood in terms of what they can do to revive the city, not on what cash they will produce at auction.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jorg von Uthmann on Paris culture, Martin Gayford on European art and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.