09 July 2013

Originally Appeared in The New York Times

DETROIT — A question unimaginable in most major American cities is utterly commonplace in this one: If you suddenly found yourself gravely ill, injured or even shot, would you call 911?

 Many people here say the answer is no. Some laugh at the odds of an ambulance appearing promptly, if ever. In Detroit, people map out alternative plans instead, enlisting a relative or a friend.

As officials negotiate urgently with creditors and unions in a last-ditch effort to spare Detroit from plunging into the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history, residents say the city has worse problems than its estimated $18 billion debt.

“The city is past being a city now; it’s gone,” said Kendrick Benguche, whose family lives on a block with a single streetlight, just down from a vacant firehouse that sits beside a burned-out home. The Detroit police’s average response time to calls for the highest-priority crimes this year was 58 minutes, officials now overseeing the city say. The department’s recent rate of solving cases was 8.7 percent, far lower, the officials acknowledge, than clearance rates in cities like Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and St. Louis.

“I guess I’ll be glad if someone else takes over and other people run this thing,” Mr. Benguche said. “The way I look at it, the city is already bankrupt.”

Kevyn D. Orr, the state-appointed emergency financial manager for Detroit, has said that the chances of filing for bankruptcy, a possibility that could be decided as early as this month, stand at 50-50. On Wednesday, Mr. Orr is expected to lead 40 representatives of Detroit’s creditors on a bus tour of the city and its blight to let the bleak images of empty lots and shuttered firehouses make the argument that creditors should accept pennies on the dollars owed.

The prospect of a bankruptcy filing — a move that is extremely rare for cities and one that has never happened to an American city as populous as Detroit, with about 700,000 people — worries some residents. They say they fear that bankruptcy would add more stigma to a city that has contracted alarmingly in the decades since it was the nation’s fourth largest, starting in the 1920s, and that it might worsen already bare-bones services.

The notion that assets like Coleman A. Young International Airport, Belle Isle Park and the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts might be sold — either in a formal bankruptcy proceeding or in a huge city reorganization outside of the court system — has fueled outrage.

“Bankruptcy scares me,” said LaTanya Boyce, a nurse practitioner. She urges her patients to treat health concerns before they become acute because, she said, “if they find themselves calling 911, it’s probably too late.”

But as with many here who have wrestled with the practical realities of living in this city, Ms. Boyce said she would not mind if some entity other than the city took over the management of Belle Isle, a park whose plan was conceived in the early 1880s by Frederick Law Olmsted. Ms. Boyce goes to the park for exercise, wearing a fanny pack that at times contains a gun — “Do you see any city police here?” — and bemoaning several locked restrooms that have portable toilets planted in front of them.

“I would love to see it leased to the state,” she said of the park. “They’d take better care.”

Recent developments among Detroit’s elected leaders have only added to the sense that significant changes in the city are perhaps even preferable. Two of the nine City Council members have resigned. (One said he was leaving to work for the emergency manager’s office.) Then, Charles Pugh, the Council president, had his salary stopped and power stripped by Mr. Orr after the councilman abruptly stopped showing up for meetings and disappeared from public view.

“Where Is Charles Pugh?” a headline at the top of the front page of The Detroit Free Press asked.
“For a lot of people, I think city government has become a nonentity here,” said Kurt Metzger, the director of Data Driven Detroit, which tracks demographic, economic and housing trends in the region. “People almost feel like the city goes on in spite of city government — that city government in this case certainly doesn’t define the city — and that affects how they’re feeling about what comes next.”

Recently, Mr. Orr indicated that Detroit was getting out of the business of electricity distribution. An independent authority is already planning to take control of the city’s streetlights, 40 percent of which, Mr. Orr’s office said, were not working in recent months. Similar handoffs are being weighed for the water and sewer services, and possibly more.

While many who have been through municipal bankruptcies say such moves often mean more budget cuts to city services, Mr. Orr has called for spending about $1.25 billion over the next 10 years on improving city infrastructure and services, including the police. Last week, James Craig, Mr. Orr’s choice for police chief, arrived to face a city that had seen five chiefs in as many years and had the highest rate of violent crime in 2012 of any city with more than 200,000 residents, according to a report by Mr. Orr.

“Whatever the solution is — a negotiated plan or a bankruptcy proceeding — the end result is going to be better services,” Bill Nowling, Mr. Orr’s spokesman, said. “This is all about getting Detroit strong, viable and solvent.”

Frank Ponder, 45, who works at a hospital here, said major changes in the city, even bankruptcy, now seem all but certain. “Everybody had all these ideas about saving Detroit, and nobody’s ideas actually worked,” he said. “At a certain point, you have to stop fooling yourself.”

The East Side house in which Mr. Ponder lives, once owned by his grandmother, is the only one on his block that appears to be occupied. He has been saving money for years in hopes of moving this fall to a suburb, Warren — and he expects to just walk away.

“What can you do?” he said. “Sell it? On that block?”

While corporations announced this year that they would donate money to the city in part to lease new emergency vehicles, there have been times in 2013, the authorities acknowledge, when only 10 to 14 of Detroit’s 36 ambulances have actually been in service. Some of the city’s emergency medical service vehicles have as many as 300,000 miles on them, so they tend to break down.

All this helps explain why Mr. Ponder said he, as so many here, would try to get himself to a hospital before seeking help from Detroit.

“If you have a heart attack, you’re dead,” he said. “There is no such thing around here as ‘in case of emergency.’ ”      

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