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From Water Cutoffs To An Art Scare, Detroit Has A Tumultuous Year


This week marks a new start of sorts for Detroit. The city's just emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. This has been a tumultuous year that drew attention to the city's decades of decay and its remarkable journey through bankruptcy court. Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET reports.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Detroit began 2014 with weeks of 30-below zero wind chills and a pair of hometown ice dancers en route to becoming Olympic champions - Meryl Davis and Charlie White.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Appreciate the best in the sport at the moment.


KLINEFELTER: But the city was soon filled not with cheers for Olympians but by residents' protest.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What do we want?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And when do we want it?


KLINEFELTER: The bankrupt city was finally going after residents who had not paid their water bills. The resulting tens of thousands of water shut-offs drew criticism stretching from the United Nations, which called it a human rights violation, to city bus stops, where Detroiters like Nita O'Neal vowed to fight back.

NITA O'NEAL: People are going to turn that water back on. Somebody has a water key - trust me. Trust and believe somebody has a water key. You give them $5 you going to get your water back on. And it is what it is. People have to have shelter, food and water.

KLINEFELTER: Even Detroit officials like water department deputy director Darryl Latimer grappled with the question of whether water is a right or a privilege.

DARRYL LATIMER: I think water is a right. However, if all of our customers took that stand - that it’s a human right and we’re not going to pay - then no one would have water.

KLINEFELTER: The city eventually turned over the water department to a long-discussed regional authority - just one of the many changes occurring as Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr worked hard to shed a whopping $7 billion in debt. Years of mismanagement and dwindling tax revenue had left the city with tens of thousands of blighted abandoned buildings, high unemployment and crime rates and cash-strapped police and fire departments struggling to respond to calls in a timely manner. Orr said that had to change.

KEVYN ORR: Does anybody think it’s OK to have 40-year-old trees growing through the roofs of dilapidated houses? Does anybody think our children should walk through the streets - dark - home from school at night in October? Does anybody think that they should call the police and not be able to come on time because they’re already out on calls? No. We’re trying very hard to be fair.

KLINEFELTER: Creditors complained that Orr and the bankruptcy judge were being too fair to city workers and retirees, most of whom only had four-and-half percent cut from their monthly pension payments. Cushioned by donations from the state and private foundations, the Detroit Institute of Arts valuable collection remained intact. But retirees like Belinda Meyers-Florence also accused Orr of not being fair.

BELINDA MEYERS-FLORENCE: I’ve already lost my healthcare. You’re also going to hit my pension. You're also trying to recoup money that I saved, that the city had nothing to do with except invest for me. You want money back that you never gave me. It’s crazy.

KLINEFELTER: Experts marveled that Kevyn Orr was able to repeatedly flip creditors from opposing the bankruptcy to becoming partners in the city’s development. Even as Orr was cleaning up old debt, Detroit was attracting new investors. Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert bought-up more than 60 downtown buildings, hoping that Detroit could once again become a business and tourist destination.

DAN GILBERT: As hard as that is to sort of suspend democracy for a short period of time, if you will, my view is let’s get it over with. Let’s get it done. Let’s stop talking about it. Go through the pain and then move forward. And I think it’ll fade into the background.

KLINEFELTER: When Orr resigned as emergency manager last week, he gave newly re-empowered Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan a city in much better shape, but still one on the economic edge.

ORR: We've got to rebuild a water system and a bus system and a computer system and a financial system. It's all going to be a challenge.

KLINEFELTER: It is, as one court-appointed mediator quoted Winston Churchill, the end of the beginning. Yet for many here, it is also cause for hope that for the first time in decades Detroit has a real chance of reversing its sad decline. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quinn Klinefelter
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