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The Story

By July of 2013, the City of Detroit was flat-broke and in the final throes of a decades-long slide toward insolvency. With more than $18 billion in debt, Detroit filed the largest and most complex municipal bankruptcy in American history. But behind the cold text of its bankruptcy petition were the human costs of Detroit’s crisis. The most basic public safety and sanitation services - when delivered at all - were sporadic and haphazard. The city owed $3.5 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and had promised its retirees lifetime healthcare at a cost of $5.7 billion - for which no funds had been reserved. More than 4 in 10 city dollars were being used to pay retiree costs and debt. That number was projected to grow to nearly 7 in 10 within five years. Detroit’s population had dwindled from nearly 1.9 million in 1950 to 713,000 in 2010. Its once-vibrant neighborhoods were studded with nearly 150,000 abandoned houses and vacant lots, depressing already rock-bottom real estate prices. The city’s financial crisis was a monument to decades of economic despair, further accelerated by industrial disinvestment, rapid suburbanization, racial inequality, service insolvency, municipal corruption, and total neglect. By 2013, the city’s tax base had eroded so substantially that there was simply no room for raising additional revenues through taxation. Borrowing ceased to be an option, as Detroit had reached its statutory debt limitations, while bond ratings plummeted deeply below investment grade.

The crisis put retirees at risk of pension cuts and elimination of health care. And it jeopardized the future of Detroit’s most monetize-able asset - the Detroit Institute of Arts - whose world-renowned art collection included masterpieces by Van Gogh, Bruegel, Rembrandt, Matisse, and Picasso. Facing a potentially ruinous ending, many creditors pressed hard for the liquidation of the museum and its collection.


Gradually, Then Suddenly is the cautionary and inspiring story of how Detroit climbed out of bankruptcy. In this real-life drama, people of all backgrounds and viewpoints found common ground in search of a solution to give Detroit a new lease on life.  Whether the city’s recovery is inclusive across racial and class lines will determine whether the 'Grand Bargain' that enabled the city’s exit from bankruptcy is a sustained success. This story will resonate with audiences across the nation and the world, and especially with those living in states, cities, and communities facing fiscal distress - and in a nation where faith in democratic government and civil discourse is flickering.

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