August 8, 2014 at 11:23 pm

Rhodes, bankruptcy lawyers take in thrills, chills on Detroit bus tour

Detroit bankruptcy bus tour
Detroit bankruptcy bus tour: City lawyers describe the places they took Judge Rhodes on a tour of the city.

Detroit — U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes on Friday toured one of Detroit’s most notorious neighborhoods, admired a van Gogh painting, examined the start of a streetcar project and drove past charred and blighted buildings during an unprecedented bus tour of the bankrupt city.

The tour was designed to show the parts of Detroit that could benefit from the city’s debt-cutting plan, which would invest $1.4 billion in fighting blight and improving public safety. The 58-mile tour also spotlighted the roots of rebirth, including the future home of a streetcar line, passed through stable neighborhoods and included a stop at a cultural gem central to the bankruptcy case: the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The tour, which lasted more than three hours, was controversial and considered dangerous by some creditors due to Detroit’s reputation for crime and violence.

Yet the tour on a newer hybrid city bus ended without incident around 2 p.m. — after the U.S. Marshals Service provided security.

“It was an eye-opener,” said Greg Shumaker, an attorney with Detroit’s bankruptcy firm Jones Day. “You do not get a sense of the scale of the problems unless you travel like we did and see entire neighborhoods decimated.”

The tour came less than two weeks before an Aug. 21 trial that will determine the feasibility of Detroit’s debt-cutting plan. A video of the tour — captured by a camera mounted to the front of the bus — is expected to be shown during the trial.

Rhodes, who lives in Ann Arbor, ordered the tour despite protests from bond insurers fighting Detroit’s plan to shed $7 billion in debt and favor retirees over certain financial creditors.

Holdout creditors — Assured Guaranty Municipal Corp., Berkshire Hathaway Assurance Corp. and Financial Guaranty Insurance Corp. — asked Rhodes to scuttle the tour, arguing it was risky, irrelevant and unprecedented in bankruptcy court.

Yet the sole interaction between bus passengers and Detroiters happened when residents of Brightmoor,a northwest neighborhood sometimes dubbed “Blightmoor,” tried to flag down the bus.

Detroit bankruptcy lawyer Robert Hertzberg, asked afterward if he felt endangered during the tour, said: “Absolutely not.”

The tour was shrouded in secrecy. Rhodes allowed the media to meet the bus in Southfield and question participants on the condition that reporters not reveal details beforehand.

Heidelberg Project creator Tyree Guyton was working outside Friday when the judge and his entourage rolled down Heidelberg Street.

He knew the bus was off route, but he’s accustomed to seeing buses — and tourists — in the neighborhood/art installation that’s become a destination for tourists from around the world.

“They should have stopped the bus,” said Guyton, whose art has been destroyed by fire over the last 16 months. “In order to understand the city, you have to know it from the inside out. You have to talk to people. You have to realize we are all in this, whether you’re rich or poor, black people, white people, whatever.”

Others on Heidelberg Street welcomed the tour, including Tajauana Bell, 39, who didn’t see the bus drive through. “Isn’t that something?” she said. “It shows the judge how a real neighborhood with real people live through all kinds of times and adapt.”

In the Brightmoor neighborhood, Alvin Taylor, 63, a bass player and music producer who has lived in the neighborhood for four years, said he believes the tour was important to let residents know they are not forgotten.

“You can say a lot of things, but unless you see the people and interact with the people, most of them won’t believe you,” Taylor said. “Detroit’s on its way coming back. We need personal communication.”

Dan Moss, a Jones Day lawyer who rode the bus Friday, said he’s seen blight in Cincinnati, where he grew up, and in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, where he works, but he’d never seen anything like Detroit.

“The scale of it here is completely different,” he said.

Rhodes left the bus before it parked in Southfield to meet the media. Rhodes took the tour at the prompting of the city’s legal team to get an up-close look at the city’s conditions, which could be mitigated if the judge approves a plan to restructure $18 billion in debt. The judge asked no questions during the tour.

Officials from Oakland County, Syncora Guarantee Inc., Financial Guaranty Insurance Corp., Assured Guarantee and former Detroit Councilman Gary Brown, the city’s chief operating officer, took the tour with the judge, along with lawyers for the city.

“I don’t think anyone could take this tour and not think ‘oh my gosh, I didn’t realize how bad (Detroit) was,’ ” Shumaker said.

The tour stopped at the DIA so passengers could visit Rivera Court and see artist Diego Rivera’s priceless murals paying tribute to Detroit’s place in history.

The artwork and the DIA would be shielded from creditors if Rhodes approves Detroit’s debt-cutting plan. Bond insurer Synora and others have pushed for an art sale so creditors, including pensioners, would receive more money in the bankruptcy.

“It wasn’t just a blight tour,” Hertzberg said.

Other stops included Eastern Market, several police precincts and the Sherwood Forest neighborhood, among others.

The site visit was a rare chance for a judge and parties to leave the courtroom and get a feel for a bankrupt city.

“It is extremely unusual to visit a site,” Hertzberg said. “In my 35 years (practicing law) I’ve never seen it.”

And he has never seen certain parts of Detroit that could benefit from improved services envisioned in Detroit’s debt-cutting plan, he said.

We walked away shaking our heads,” Shumaker said. “It had a huge impact on me.”
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Staff Writer Tony Briscoe contributed.

Alvin Taylor said, a resident of Brightmoor, which was part of the tour, said residents need to know they aren't forgotten. / Todd McInturf / The Detroit News
Greg Shumaker, left, Robert Hertzberg and Dan Moss speak after the bus ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Charles Flores, 40, stands with his daughter, Teaisha Davis, 8, both of ... (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
Map of the Detroit bankruptcy creditor's bus tour route. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)