An abandoned house in Detroit

Book review by Dr M. Emanuele

The title of this book about the city of Detroit – Broke – has two connotations. Either not working, or not having any money/assets.

Detroit is not unique in that other cities have been forced into bankruptcy. It is significant, however, because it is the largest city to suffer that fate. This book explores the massive ramifications to a small number of people author Jodie Adams Kirshner has selected, people she followed through their difficult lives from 2013 to 2018.

How did Detroit end up broke? One of the defining underlying problems was the fact it spent more money than it brought in, for years on end. Together with the over-reach in spending was a declining city population, which generated less and less money as time went on (from a high of 1.85 million people in 1950, it is now 677,000). The mismanagement of the city’s finances cannot scarcely be understated, but by ignoring it the city and its people were led into a quagmire.

Numerous books have listed the litany of statistics and legalities of its financial downfall in 2013. But few, if any other than this book, focus on the impact it had on specific lives of Detroiters. Kirshner takes an unblinkered look at the turmoil in the lives of a few Detroiters, up close and personal.

Each was affected in different ways, but a few systemic failures can be identified as having the greatest impact. The downward spiral was exacerbated by the downfall of the education system (70 percent city schools were closed when the population dropped), lack of work, reduction in bus service for people to reach work (some had to take 2 or 3 buses to get to a job), and reduced policing.

When one looked for work in the 1950s, Detroit offered everything other school districts did not. As for housing, it went from the highest number of privately owned homes to a city of renters. Today its demographic is 80% African American, with 40% of the total population below the poverty level. Even more frightening, half the children have either a parent of caregiver who is incarcerated.

Even with all this, Kirshner shows us Detroiters have a resilience and are ready to take on anybody. They will certainly need it now that the auto industry has closed entirely, for an unknown length of time, due to the coronavirus.

While the book is insightful and introspective, it has many flaws. It is the only book I have seen that does not identify who wrote the Foreword. Sure, his name is there (Michael Eric Dyson), but who is he? His name does not even appear in the author’s list of people she thanked! An internet search reveals he is a Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. Kirshner is a research professor at New York University, and teaches bankruptcy law at Columbia Law School.

In light of her academic credentials, the prose is full of platitudes one might expect from an essay in a grade school civics course: “ A majority of Americans live in cities. Cities provide the economic engine of America and area depository of its culture. The country cannot prosper if its cities are decaying.” I would mark this with a D in grade 5.

Considering this book is all about ‘putting a face’ on the misery of Detroit, why does it have no illustrations? If the author and the publisher wanted readers to engage with the real-life stories presented here, they missed a major opportunity by not including any photos of the people interviewed.

Ultimately one must ask what the value of individual case studies is. Many American cities are in dire straights, and while not all have declared bankruptcy, one could easily find a dozen people anywhere with stories of hardship that are just as compelling as those given here.

Sadly, I think this book (published in 2019) is particularly ill-timed. Kirshner wrote it to chronicle the effects of the financial crisis, which hit nationwide in 2008 and snowballed in the case of Detroit with its 2013 bankruptcy. Now in 2020 we are facing a financial downturn that may eclipse the one of just a dozen years ago. How the people of Detroit handle the next decade may be even more compelling than how they dealt with the one just ended.

I will close with the unvarnished reflections of a person who has lived in the Detroit area for many decades. In response to this book review she wrote me the following:

“It started with mayor Coleman Young, who raped the city of treasures for himself, then good ole Kwame Kilpatrick (mayor from 2002-2008): we know where he ended up (federal prison). The city is on a long journey back to where it should be, but it’s going to take time. The outskirts of Detroit are slums and until the abandoned homes are bulldozed along with the residents, it is going to continue to be a sh-t show.”

Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises is $28.99 from St. Martin’s Press

Photo by Dr M. Emanuele: An abandoned house on the far western edge of Detroit, Rouge Park (Franklin subdivision). It was built in 1951 and boarded up in 2013.

An abandoned house in Detroit