In Pictures: Faces, Families and stories from the Motor City

Amid the largest bankruptcy filing ever for an American city, Detroiters carry on, speak up, organize and help one other.

A view of Detroit's downtown district, looking south from Midtown on Woodward Avenue.

Detroit, the automotive capital of the world, once a marvel of industrialization and worker prowess, made history on July 18, 2013 when it became the largest American city in history to file for bankruptcy.

The city’s state-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr said at a press conference when he took the position, that he could turn Detroit’s finances around in 18 months. As Orr attempts to restructure the city’s approximately $18 billion debt, unions and state employees are fighting to hold the city accountable for the pensions and healthcare they’ve earned through decades of service, while big bank lenders and bondholders line up for repayment.

The outcome of federal court battles during bankruptcy proceedings will have a big impact across the country. Rulings will set national precedent for other failing cities nationwide with regard to a broad range of issues including repayment of bondholders and whether public pensions are protected in municipal bankruptcies.

Resisting Bankruptcy and the Emergency Manager

Demonstrators protest at Detroit bankruptcy eligibility trial.

In a sign of solidarity against Detroit’s Emergency Manager and possible bankruptcy for the city, hundreds of supporters from Moratorium Now, Occupy Detroit, Occupy Wall Street, UAW, AFSCME, SEIU, Rosa Parks Institute and the National Action Network, rallied at the federal courthouse downtown, as the first day of Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy eligibility trial got underway on October 23, 2013.

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As the second week of bankruptcy eligibility trial got underway on October 28, 2013, about 100 members of the National Action Network’s Detroit chapter protested in front of the federal courthouse, while Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, depicted as a devil in the group’s protest signs, testified inside.

When the state appointed Kevyn Orr as Detroit’s Emergency Manager, it took all decision-making out of the hands of elected officials including the city council and the mayor. Detroit has the largest population of African Americans per capita in the nation, which now live under a system without elected representation.

Eviction Defense and the Hernandez family

The Hernandez family has lived in their home for more than a decade. In 2012, Ludim was laid off from his job and when he fell behind on their house payments, the mortgage company failed to send correspondence in Spanish as required by law, so unknown to the family, it fell into default. The house was then taken at Sheriff’s auction by Fannie Mae.

As a last resort in order to save their home, the family gave “mortgage consultant” Kenneth Sandoval their life savings of $15,000 to recover the house. Sandoval later ran off with the money, Fannie Mae upped the price to recover the home to $83,000 (more than ten times the market value) and the Hernandez family is now facing eviction.

Hernandez Family eveiction vigil, Detroit, MI.

During a community party held at their house on Halloween night, Ludim (right) and Gabriela (center) Hernandez pose for a photo with their daughters Yelinne (right), Litzy (left) and their neighbors Giselle Barba (far left) and Dayana Barba (front) in the living room of their home on Detroit’s southwest side.

After hearing how Detroit Eviction Defense helped a neighbor save his home, the family got in touch with the group. Working with the State Attorney General’s office they helped track down Sandoval, who is now facing prosecution. Meanwhile, Fannie Mae had already sent an eviction notice to the judge. After learning of this, Eviction Defense volunteers set up a weekday 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. vigil in front of the Hernandez home to ward off eviction. The group is now in its fifth week camping out in front of the home and so far has been able to help keep the family in their home.

According to Steve Babson of Detroit Eviction Defense, they are fighting, along with representatives in the state and federal legislature, to get Fannie Mae to accept a fair market price for the house offered by the non-profit Southwest Housing Solutions, who will then sell it back to the family on land contract.

Hernandez Family eveiction vigil, Detroit, MI.

Giselle Barba holds an umbrella for her sister Dayana Barba while they hand out candy to trick-or-treaters in front of the Hernandez home during a Halloween party put on to celebrate four weeks of eviction defense.

Hernandez Family eveiction vigil, Detroit, MI.

Ludim Hernandez jokes around with a neighbor as he comes to trick-or-treat at the home.

Hernandez Family eveiction vigil, Detroit, MI.

Ludim and Gabriela Hernandez stand on their porch in front of the Detroit Evection Defense vigil schedule. With an organized and dedicated group of volunteers, the group has managed to hold off the eviction of the Hernandez family for more than four weeks.

The People’s Potluck

The People’s Potluck is a monthly meeting of progressive groups and individuals throughout the Detroit Metro area who gather together to discuss current events, the state of the city, political and environmental issues. Held each month at the Central United Methodist Church, attendees bring a dish to pass, share a meal and enjoy lively discussion.

10th Monthly People's Potluck

Occupy Detroit member and leader of the Detroit Light Brigade, “Byrd” grabs a bite to eat during the People’s Potluck held at Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit on October 24, 2013.

These meetings are sponsored by a range of groups in the city including: Occupy Detroit, Critical Moment, Moratorium Now, Detroit Social Justice Ministry (Central United Methodist Church), Detroit Food Not Bombs, The People’s Tribune, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Hush House, The Wobbly Kitchen, The Green Party of Michigan, Detroit Light Brigade, League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA), The Raging Grannies, Detroit Coalition Against Tar Sands (D-CATS), South Eastern Chapter of the Zeitgeist Movement, Phoenix Cafe, Institute for the Study of the Science of Society (ISSS), This Hood of Ours, Rally! Comrades and The People’s Radical Discussion Group.

10th Monthly People's Potluck

The People’s Tribune, one of the sponsors of the Potluck, is a monthly independent newspaper which has been covering movements and social issues for 40 years and is based in Chicago. Each month, stories from across America are featured in the PT, with a strong emphasis on reports from the Detroit and Chicago areas. Their website explains the paper as, “a tribune of those struggling to create such a new economic system. It is a vehicle to bring the movement together, to create a vision of a better world and a strategy to achieve it.”

10th Monthly People's Potluck

Demeeko Williams, Detroit resident and member of Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM) talks during a discussion about past actions and future plans his group has to counter the takeover of the city by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

10th Monthly People's Potluck

Rakiba Brown, Detroit resident and member of Occupy Detroit gives labor activist and Detroit resident General Baker a hug before the discussion “What to do if you are approached by the FBI” gets underway at the Potluck. Baker, a longtime activist and revolutionary, was at the meeting to share his past experiences about being under surveillance by the FBI during the civil rights era and what present-day activists need to be prepared for.

Protesting the possible sell-off of DIA art collection to pay city’s debt.

As part of the city’s asset audit, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr hired Christie’s auction house in August 2013, at a reported fee to the taxpayer of $200,000 to asses the collection in preparation for a possible sell-off.

Protest against possible sell-off of art at the Detroit Institute of Arts to pay ciy's debts.

In a recent Detroit News editorial published on September 29, columnist Nolan Finly informed Metro Detroiters, “Face it, DIA artwork will be ‘monetized’” and that his sources who are “at the top” of the decision-making in the bankruptcy process tell him, “…without question, that at least part of the collection will have to be — their word — ‘monetized’ before the bankruptcy is resolved.”

Protest against possible sell-off of art at the Detroit Institute of Arts to pay ciy's debts.

Jarod Bardon, Troy resident joins the protest outside the Detroit Institute of Arts where more than 200 people rallied against the possible sell-off of the museum’s collection to help settle the city’s debt during bankruptcy proceedings.

Record bail-outs for banks and auto makers, little help for some small businesses

Paul “PJ” Ryder, has been providing drinks, live music, and an easy-going, friendly place to hang out at his PJ’s Lager House in the Corktown district since 2006. With a passion for music, PJ originally opened the place as a live music bar but when Michigan’s smoking ban came into effect, he knew he would have to offer more, so he put in a kitchen to offer food.

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The kitchen came with a $30,000 price tag which he financed with credit cards – some at 29% interest. Three years later he is still trying to pay that off. With another $24,000 in sales and other back taxes he owes, he applied with Bank of America (BoA) to get a small business loan for $50,000 – $60,000 to consolidate the debt and keep things going. Although sales at the Lager House topped $480,000 last year, after paying its staff, food and liquor costs and other expenses, PJ only walked away with around $1,000. But the bank said he wasn’t making enough profit and refused the loan.

Speaking about the responsibility of banks to local businesses in the city, PJ takes aim at BoA, “I think that in general, banks seem to be less responsive to the neighborhood. And I think Bank of America, who has branches all over this city, and picked up a lot of the banks as they were having problems; they are by far the worst small business lender in the state. They are huge in the city and they could be more responsive to it.”

He adds, “I just find it frustrating that all my money goes to my bank every week and all my credit cards go to my bank every week. And at the same time they [tell me], ‘lot’s of luck buddy’.”

PJs Lager House, Detroit, MI.

The revitalization of Detroit has seen many new ‘hipster’ joints popping up around the city, several of them just down the street from the Lager House. Established businesses like PJ’s who have been an anchor in city through the roughest times; the collapse of the auto industry, the bail-out and the Great Recession, are finding it hard to get funding to stay in business, while new trendy places starting from scratch seem to be thriving.

“Most of those eateries are less than two years old and Slows Bar BQ is anchoring all of them,” PJ says, referring to the renowned bar-b-q restaurant which opened in 2005 and spurred renewed interest in the Corktown district, just a couple of blocks up the street.

“But we get lost sometimes in the shuffle and people forget, you know, well, let’s go to the new hip place and the Lager House will be doing fine on its own.” His place, “started before the hipsters jumped in,” as he put it and now, although these new ventures seem to be doing great business, PJ wonders how long they will last.

After the loan refusal from BoA, PJ is now in the process of applying for a loan with Huntington Bank, a small business lender in the neighborhood. Talking over his blackened catfish po’ boy at the bar he quips, “People say well, you gonna sell the place? I said well, if someone walked in and offered me a million bucks, I would probably give some serious consideration. But no one is gonna do that.”

Sunday in Cass Park with friends and the Forgotten Worker

Since 2011, rain or shine, winter or summer, Jim Rehberg and a cast of volunteers from across Metro Detroit have been providing a hot meal and clothing for those in need the second and fourth Sunday of each month. ‘Sunday in Cass Park with Friends and the Forgotten Worker’ also gives others the opportunity to help fellow Detroiters.

Sunday in Cass Park with friends and the forgotten worker.

More than 100 people line up for food and clothing in Detroit’s Cass Park for ‘Sunday in Cass Park with Friends and the Forgotten Worker’ on October 27, 2013.

Sunday in Cass Park with friends and the forgotten worker.

People get a hot meal as volunteers fill their carryout food trays with grilled cheese sandwiches, baked beans, macaroni and cheese and meatballs.

Sunday in Cass Park with friends and the forgotten worker.
Jim Rehberg (left) talks with ‘Wolverine’ a regular at the gathering in the park on Sundays.

Rehberg, 65 and native Detroiter, has worked as reactor operator at a chemical factory in the city for the past 38 years. He believes in walking the walk for his fellow workers and sources, prepares and pays for most of the food at the events, with additional meals and clothing brought in from other volunteers and organizations. Speaking about his mission to provide a framework for people in need and people who want to help to come together in the park he says, “I enjoy that more than anything.”

Sunday in Cass Park with friends and the forgotten worker.

“Jim has this amazing ability to bring people together,” says Anna Marie Riesterer, of Chesterfield, who has been bringing her baked goods out to the park for the past year. “It’s the right thing to do,” she adds. “It’s like we are all one community.”

This story was originally photographed and written for Mint Press News and published on November 22, 2013