It's a morning in early August when Detroiters awaken to find a piece of Hong Kong rising in their midst. Beneath the shuttered skyscrapers of Grand Circus Park, the multi-story setpiece for Michael Bay's Transformers 4 buzzes with work crews painting balustrades and roofing life-sized tong lau. It has been little more than a week since Detroit became the largest city in the United States to declare bankruptcy.
Under the People Mover, a monorail loop newly outfitted with sleek Chinese-language Red Bull ads, a group of professionals commute to work as if nothing were amiss. They take sips from covered cups of coffee and frown at the news on their smartphones, look towards the river and shake their heads at the distant rainclouds. To them, it's just another morning, off to the law office or accounting firm or the mortgage superbank. They aren’t incurious. It’s just that this isn’t the first time the Motor City has played host to China as a cinematic fabulation, though it may be the first time the spectacle reaches audiences. Several years ago, the much-anticipated sequel to the Cold War era B-movie Red Dawn was shot here, with contemporary China taking the place of the Soviet Union (the enemy was ultimately re-branded as North Korea for release). Red Dawn 2 filmmakers even managed to leave fake Chinese propaganda posters tacked up in a city devastated by outsourcing to cheap East Asian labor. The irony is palpable.
Big productions like Bay's Transformers bring cash to Detroit, fill hotel rooms, and employ contractors like the crews assembling the ersatz Hong Kong in Grand Circus Park. It's strange to think that Hollywood talent unions such as SAG-AFTRA seem to wield more power these days than the public employees in the city that for decades has been a synecdoche for the American labor movement.
Supported by a generous tax incentive, the movie business in the state had grown close to $300 million in only a few years. While the industry virtually collapsed when Governor Rick Snyder announced that the incentive would be capped in 2011, films like Sam Raimi's Oz and Ryan Gosling's To Catch a Monster have revived hopes in a comeback. Aaron Foley, a popular local blogger for Jalopnik, is excited about the Transformers construction. "If anything, it signaled that the city is still on the same upward (but slow) trajectory as it always has been," he notes, admiring Bay's newly topped pagodas. "And just because the municipal arm of the city is bankrupt doesn't mean there aren't things to offer here."
Not half a mile from Detroit’s newly sprouted Hong Kong, protestors have already started gathering. Many are public employees or pensioners holding anti-bankruptcy signs in front of the building where the city's state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr is supposed to be shedding more than $18 billion in public debt, most of which lies in obligations to retirees. The controversial move is questionably legal under the Michigan state constitution, and now faces a litany of challenges in federal court.
Down on Griswold Street, a German film crew shoots documentary B-roll against some of the most famous Art Deco architecture in the world. The security escort is an off-duty uniformed Detroit police officer who makes more hourly working film security than she does responding to domestic-violence complaints for the city. “Maybe we needed to do something,” she says, referring to bankruptcy. “But I don't know. I got a family to take care of. Kid in school. They just made a 10 percent pay cut for police and firefighters across the board. Guys in the union say it stinks, that we're gonna fight it. But I don't know. I guess we'll see.” Slashing public-safety budgets seems like a questionable move in a city notorious for delays in police response. Detroit was recently targeted by a lawsuit for taking over 90 minutes to respond to a homicide 911 call.
It's worth noting that the week after Detroit declared bankruptcy, the U.S. city with the highest per capita debt (which happens to be Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) announced a fiscal plan that avoids bankruptcy. The same month as Detroit's Chapter 9 filing, state officials rubber stamped plans to go ahead with a brand new $450 million stadium for the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, 60 percent of which will be paid for with Detroit public funds. How broke was Detroit to begin with, exactly? Using a combination of unemployment, household debt, and credit scores, Detroit doesn't even make the top ten brokest cities, according to AP/Daily Beast (it's #18), although certainly the largest and most visible. Of those top ten, a whopping zero have declared bankruptcy.
With giddy fanfare, Michael Bay detonates his Hong Kong as he and his crew move onto shooting locations in Chicago, and downtown Detroit returns to the messy business of "renewal". It's important to note that such terms as "urban renewal" have a tortured history, connoting racist property dispossession and the wholesale destruction of black communities during the '40s and '50s in order to make way for large infrastructure projects. Like a hockey stadium, paid for with Detroit's public funds. Or a multi-million dollar interstate highway expansion, paid for with Detroit's public funds. Sadly, there's nothing new about Detroit city taxes being used to pay for infrastructures whose main beneficiaries are white suburbanites. That these costs are prioritized above basic emergency services such as fire and police, above the public school system and above the fixed income of retirees has some Detroiters shaking their heads.
So, what has changed in Detroit since the Chapter 9 was filed? What bankruptcy really means is that the accountability structure governing use of public funds has shifted from local government to state-appointed managers and bankruptcy courts. Though Detroit and its democratically-elected representatives in city council now wield a credit rating that Moody's charitably described as "radioactive", Detroit's neighborhood development agencies, with guaranteed access to huge reserves of property-tax liquidity, are still rated as "investment-grade.” The true function of Detroit bankruptcy appears to be a cynical end-run around Mayor Bing's office and Detroit City Council's stewardship of public funds and priorities for the budget going forward.
Detroit has certainly turned a corner and everywhere signs of rebuilding and public arts flourish on walls and newly occupied buildings. Leaving Downtown, one passes the busy hum of new construction, people renovating storefronts and warehouses to open restaurants, galleries and studios. There's a lot of good things happening, and bankruptcy certainly hasn't put much of a damper on Detroit's creative energy. Take a look at these 56 community arts projects newly funded by the Knight Foundation's $2.1 million investment if you aren't convinced, including the new Cinetopia Film Festival, an 11-day, multi-venue extravaganza complementing Detroit's ascendancy as a filmmaking destination. But there's no reason to credit Chapter 9 with Detroit's resurgence. That State officials call bankruptcy "a new beginning" is just another move in a larger game of money and power. For those who have demonstrated blithe indifference to Detroit's most vulnerable populations, a hostile takeover of public pensions is just another day at work.