About the Grand Bargain

In 2013 Detroit was bankrupt. Everyone knew that. Crippled by the loss of the automotive industry, massive city debts, and looming retirement pensions that needed to be paid, the state of the city’s financial future was looking bleak. After filing a chapter 9 bankruptcy claim for $18-$20 billion, the city was getting desperate. That was when the conversations about allocation and sale of the city’s assets came in. The largest and most prominent of these, in fact, is the (at the time) city-owned Detroit Institute of Art. The Detroit Institute of art was an internationally recognized museum that housed beautiful, old, rare, and valuable works of art. That being said, it was still city assets. Therefore, the museum and all its art were placed on the table of bankruptcy negotiations. 

The looming threat that the Detroit Institute of Art and its treasured pieces might be auctioned off at the bottom of the barrel prices in a ditch attempt to help the city’s debt was a terrifying to many people. The local community in Detroit and especially those involved in the arts were horrified at the possibility of such a substantial loss. This threat spurred what is now considered possibly one of the most significant philanthropic efforts to get a historic city out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States. 

The Grand bargain ended up being multiple public, nonprofit, and private organizations and corporations creating a joint philanthropic foundation that protected the cultural heritage of the DIA and alleviated the city’s pension liability. By coming together, they were able to minimize the impact across multiple city sectors. A whopping $816 million was contributed to a massive joint foundation called Foundation for Detroit’s Future. The Ford Foundation was one of the largest contributors to this fund at $125 million. 

With this new plan and Grand Bargain in place, the city retirees voted to approve pension cuts. At the same time, the DIA was separated from the city and became an independent institution, safe from the city’s bankruptcy claims. The DIA is now owned by a charitable trust, and its valuable art pieces are no longer city assets.

In an interview with Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation for PBS, the interviewer asked him, “Why the DIA? Why not sell some of the art instead of this massive effort to keep it all?” Walker’s response was, “Well, every great American city has a great cultural institution, and the DIA is one of America’s greatest treasures. It’s unthinkable to imagine a future for Detroit without the DIA”. 

So, the Detroit Institute of Art was protected. But that’s not all. With the approval of the Grand Bargain after many difficult and strenuous negotiations, Judge Steven Rhodes approved the agreement. Alongside this, he approved the plan to invest $1 billion into neglected public services and drop the city’s $7 billion in debt. This move brought the city of Detroit out of the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in history. 

The Grand Bargain & Pingree’s Past

For the family in Pingree’s Past, this Grand Bargain wasn’t so grand. With the Grand Bargain came negotiations and ultimately pension cuts. While Detroiters were able to vote on the decision, the ultimate decision to cut pensions hurt many of the hardworking people in the city who lost out on them. In the play, Lee, a former Detroit Public School superintendent, is one of those people who lost his pension. This ultimately leads to financial difficulties for the family throughout the course of the play and the eventual loss of their family home due to adverse possession.  

Despite being a good decision for the struggling city at large, the Grand Bargain had many adverse effects on its citizens, especially its retirees. Though long-term it was a decision that saved the city financially, the impact it had on its residential neighborhoods cannot be overlooked. The family struggles with reconciling the gentrification happening to the city as more and more people from the suburbs begin to move into the cheap housing markets caused by local Detroiters losing pensions and moving out of their neighborhoods they can no longer afford. Some people, including the character Kent, are itching to move back into and repossess old family homes that were given up. The issues of financial struggles of Lee’s family, Natasha’s opinions on how she wants to live, and the ethics of moving back into neighborhoods and cities that you have no ties to and perhaps do not already support are all issues that arise in the complex and multifaceted narrative of Pingree’s Past

The virtual production of Pingree’s Past premieres on May 8 at 7 p.m. Tickets can be found here:

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