So Detroit is now allowed to file for bankruptcy. It's the largest city ever to do so in this country, though certainly not the only one. More so than some of our other insolvent municipalities -- like Vacaville, Calif., or Central Falls, R.I. -- it is also a place on which people have pinned a lot of dreams and nightmares.
It's a low-rent post-apocalyptic agrarian landscape in the making. It's a corpse that doesn’t know it’s dead yet. It's a lot of attractive buildings, some of which are falling down.
I grew up just outside Detroit, with its high-quality pierogi and its endless hours spent in the car, feeling the traffic like a salmon trying to work its way upstream. The landmark that most defined my childhood was the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The school tours I took must have involved the rest of the museum at some point, but all I remember is a jumble of naked ladies, Madonna and Childs, and fruit. The court, lined with frescoes based on Diego Rivera’s tours of the River Rouge Ford Plant, felt familiar to me. My dad, like all the dads I knew, worked in a tool and die shop, and I loved visiting that, too. The machinery really did look that impressive, the people who worked there really did look that tired and grimy, and there really were sparks everywhere, fanning out like cartoon rainbows.
The agricultural scenes on the eastern wall were familiar, too. My grandparents were farmworkers who moved to Detroit during World War II, and the time my grandfather spent on the assembly line was just a means to an end that he never could have reached if he had stayed where he was born. He wanted to own land and grow as many vegetables on it as the earth could stand, because to do so was true wealth, at least according to the culture he was raised in.
Diego Rivera finished the frescoes in 1933 -- the same year that Detroit’s Mayor Frank Murphy, who had set up soup kitchens and potato gardens all over the city for unemployed auto workers, shepherded Chapter 9 through Congress. Chapter 9 is the law that made it possible for a city to file for bankruptcy -- the law Detroit is now invoking.