Going for 'Broke'


Author signs book about Detroit bankruptcy on December 5

by Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

When Jodie Adams Kirshner was writing her book about the Detroit bankruptcy, she was nervous about having no ties to the Motor City.

“I felt very conscious about not living in Detroit. I was upfront about that a lot, maybe to a ridiculous extent,” said Kirshner, a Boston native who lives in New York City. “It’s a big complicated topic. I kept thinking: How do you write about the entire city in a fair and objective way?”

However, not being from Detroit did provide her with some freedom.

“I hope coming in with an outsider’s eye gave me some freedom from the politics surrounding conversations about Detroit,” said Kirshner, author of Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises (St. Martin’s Press $28.99).

Kirshner is a bankruptcy law professor at New York University. She is an alumna of Harvard University, where she earned her undergraduate degree in environmental science and public policy. She is a two-alumna of Columba University, where she earned her juris doctor in law and her graduate degree in journalism. Additionally, she’s completed coursework at Oxford University, the London Business School, and the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

She will be signing Broke on Thursday, Dec. 5, at the Spencer M. Partrich Auditorium at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. Pages Bookshop in Detroit and the Detroit Equity Action Lab are hosting this talk, which will be moderated by Stephen Henderson, the host of WDET’s Detroit Today. The event is free and open to the public.

Thus far, Broke has been well received by Kirkus Reviews and The New York Times Book Review.

“I never would’ve guessed to have had such a great interest in bankruptcy law,” said Kirshner. “It really captured my interest because of its struggle for outcomes that are fair. Bankruptcy is a situation where there is scarcity and not enough assets to go around. Something has gone wrong. The law’s trying to create a structure on how you deal with that and how to create rules that, for example, differentiate between different types of creditors and what they likely knew that they were getting into. Bankruptcy is also the corollary of debt in our society – to have access to that, how much it costs – because debt in reasonable amounts is how you have growth, but in excessive amounts can cause much bigger problems, even crises,” explained Kirshner.

On July 18, 2013, the City of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, thereby becoming the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy protection. Then-Gov. Rick Snyder named Kevyn Orr, an alumnus of the University of Michigan Law School, as the emergency manager. On November 7, 2014, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes approved Orr’s plan for Detroit. On December 10, 2014, Snyder announced that Detroit had emerged from bankruptcy and had accepted Orr’s resignation as emergency manager. Afterward, Snyder returned control of Detroit to its elected city government officials.

“I’m a big believer in the process that this was a new use of bankruptcy, the idea of applying a bankruptcy process to a city with very generalized distress,” said Kirshner. “I read with interest newspaper articles with dramatic headlines – ‘Looming Fiscal Crisis’ – and also conversations policy leaders and academics were having that really seemed to be embracing bankruptcy as a cure-all. It was distressing to me that in many of those conversations, there was really no mention at all of the people living in Detroit who’d be impacted by it. I started spending more and more time in Detroit and talking to more and more people, deciding it was very urgent to write a book exploring the human cost of bankruptcy.”  

Which is exactly what Kirshner does in Broke. She follows seven Detroiters – Robin, Charles, Reggie, Cindy, Joe, Lola, and Miles – as they navigate life during and after the bankruptcy. In the case of Reggie, he loses his savings trying to make a habitable home for his family. With Cindy, she fights drug addiction, prostitution, and dumping on her block. Lola commutes two hours a day to her suburban job. And Miles, is unable to work or drive, making it difficult to get by legally.

“Miles offers a metaphor for Detroit and the difficulty of escaping the past and gaining a fresh start through bankruptcy,” said Kirshner.

Bankruptcy, and the austerity it represents, has become a common “solution” for struggling American resources, according to Kirshner. Yet post-bankruptcy, the lives of these seven hasn’t really improved. Their stories change people’s understanding about why cities fail or thrive, forcing people to confront the human cost of national urban policies.

“I’d say nothing’s changed too dramatically for anyone,” said Kirshner. “It’s really status quo.”

According to Kirshner, she met these seven when she was in Detroit researching this book. They were willing to talk to her over an extended period of time.

“I started out exploring real estate, which was central to what I was talking about,” she said. “It seemed clear early on in conversations that real estate would encapsulate a lot of problems of the bankruptcy in Detroit and a lot of challenges the city was up against in the wake of this bankruptcy and, of course, the enormous impact of supreme lending in Detroit, followed by bulk purchases of foreclosed property that were in a limbo state.”

Kirshner continued: “And then to have been buying property from the tax foreclosure option... I began doing some door-to-door canvassing with the United Housing Coalition and met Reggie that way. I’d sit in on some of their counseling sessions and met Lola that way. I eventually met Charles because he was a potential plaintiff in the ACLU of Michigan’s litigation around the tax foreclosure crisis.”

That was also how she met Cindy, who was involved in Neighbors Building Brightmoor, engaged in neighborhoods organizing around the issue of tax foreclosure.

“I met Joe through the Bagley community and he’d done some key work for Robin. Once I had met them all, they were enthusiastic, more and less, about talking to me about bankruptcy. I began to talk with them about other crucial issues in terms of getting a solid footing for the city – job training, education, the location of jobs, transportation, crime,” said Kirshner. “It seems to me that the
federal government is still spending a lot of money on urban issues across the country but not in a way that’s necessarily towards revitalization in the way it could be.”

Kirshner wants to be clear that she is not against bankruptcy.  “It’s not a bad thing to write down debt; that means there’s less money that has to go to servicing that debt and more money that can go to paying for other, more useful things,” she explained. “I don’t think we should confuse bankruptcy as a sole solution. It’s perhaps a tool that can balance the budget. What it can’t do is reverse employment loss, population loss, property loss, revenue loss; it can’t bring back lost state and federal support over the years. It leaves in place all of the structure that led to these problems to begin with.”

She continued: “I think one of the points of the book was to show the seven individual people and what (bankruptcy) couldn’t do in their lives... I don’t think it’s a good idea to put a city through bankruptcy and then think you can wipe your hands of the rest and say you’re finished. That’s not what it’s for.”

Kirshner looks forward to returning to Detroit to promote her book. She hopes the visit will bring a cross-section of people from all over Detroit who will let her know what they agreed and disagreed with about Broke, sparking a conversation. For her, the best part about writing Broke was meeting the seven people she interviewed.

“Combating individual poverty is extremely important; it’s harder and longer than any easy urban fix but ultimately much more significant,” she said. “To see the humanity of people in a
variety of circumstances with a variety of backgrounds... they show you why the health of a city matters and who it’s for.”


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