Monday, July 13, 2015

Detroit Is Not Greece

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipas arriving at his office
Athens, Greece
Christian Hartmann/Reuters
Hello Everyone:

Hot off the presses.  Alright, just posted today by City Lab and immediately downloaded by yours truly, the Greek financial crisis.  If you have been following the news you know that Greece is broke.  Lavish spending and little job creation and infrastructure investment left "the cradle of Western civilization" in need of massive bailout and the Eurozone in peril. Over the weekend, Greece finally agreed to terms with their chief creditor Germany and other Eurozone leaders that would keep the Greeks in the zone, for now.  In his article "What Greece Can Learn From Detroit," Kriston Capps reports, "Part of that agreement involves Greece sequestering $55 billion in  assets (€50 billion) to be sold or privatized for the purpose of repaying its creditors and recapitalizing its banks."

Ermou Street
Athens, Greece

Not everyone is happy with this agreement. Some of the critics are crying the plan is a "...usurpation of Greek sovereignty complete with a hashtag (#ThisisaCoup) and memes featuring quotes falsely attributed to John Adams about slavery and debt."  Make no mistake, the plan is harsh-Wolfgang Münchau, associate editor of the Financial Times call the beginning of the end for the eurozone (, some of the terms are familiar to Detroiters.

In 2013, Kevyn Orr, the bankruptcy lawyer tapped to be Detroit's emergency manager, released plans to consider selling the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the mot significant collections in the United States. The plan would have put major portions of the collection, those owned by Detroit, up for sale or auction to repay the city's debts.  Somehow, blogger has a feeling that Athens will not go for the idea of selling or auctioning off its significant works of art.

The Acropolis
Athens, Greece
Fortunately, the art collection escaped the auction block.  Kriston Capps reports, "In November 2014, a federal approved a 'grand bargain' that resolved Detroit's bankruptcy and saved the city's art collection."  Actually, it was the total value of the collection that prevail over sum of the parts; the museum, private foundations and donors, and the State of Michigan raised more than $800 million to repay the city's outstanding pension debts and keep the collection in the city, for now.  Are there any saviors of Greek treasures out there?

If the specter of sale did not haunt the Detroit Institute of Arts, the city might still wading through bankruptcy proceedings as we speak. Be that as it may, the happy outcome was never a sure thing.  Creditors argued in favor of the sale.  Some even went as far as to say they had buyer ready to pay $2 billion for the collection for the complete city-owned collection, more than than the $800 million estimated netted by the city. The very thought of possibly selling off its treasures has the Greeks up in arms.  Time magazine just posted an article bySimon Shuster, titled "Greece May Have To Sell Islands And Ruins Under Its Bailout Deal" ( that looks at this possibility.  The article quotes Georgios Daremas, strategist and adviser to the Greek Ministry of Labor, It's an affront...It's basically saying sell the memory of your ancestors, sell your history just so we can get something commercial for it...

Scylla and Charybdis
Even if Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipas is able to navigate this agreement past the treacherous waters of Scylla-German Chancellor Angela Merkel-and Charybdis-the PM's party Syriza-one very big question remains, "How will Greece scare up $55 billion?" Quoting the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Capps writes, After six years of recession and counting, Greek liquid assets are scarce; presumably hard assets like beautiful islands and national treasures are off limits...(  Highly unlikely that Detroiters shared this optimistic outlook during bankruptcy proceedings.  After all, the city's most valuable cultural assets were nearly put on the auction black.  It is hard for yours truly to imagine the Acropolis with a "For Sale" sign in front of it.

Ruins in Crete
Obviously, comparing Greece to Detroit is a little like comparing apples to oranges.  Both are financially debilitating situations but, as Mr. Capps explains, "Much of Detroit's debt was forgiven in the end, and, well, Detroit is not a member state of an international currency union."  However, the looming debate in Greece could still echo the one in Detroit on one point: "How can Greece afford afford not to sell off cultural assets when people are suffering?"  True, people cannot pay their utility bills with a priceless Hellenistic era vase.  The memories of ancient treasures being spirited off to museums and private collections still resonate within the Greek collective conscious.  As someone dedicated to cultural heritage preservation, this situation does present a conundrum.  What is more important, hanging on to your artifacts or selling them off to pay off massive debts?

Greek villas on the Island of Santorini
One thing is absolutely certain, the Greeks will not see a German flag flying over the Acropolis or the Greek Islands anytime soon. Regardless, the Greeks do possess hard assets-i.e. priceless antiquities whose value to global history is inestimable-that could be up for consideration.  Kriston Capps speculates, "If this deal is to proceed, Greek and Eurozone leader must guarantee that these assets must be identified and negotiated in advance."  He suggests that they take the form of new bank shares while the country recapitalizes its banks-an option offered by French President François Hollande.  Blogger would also like to suggest that when the Greeks begin to identify and negotiate their cultural assets, they develop a criteria based, perhaps, on UNESCO's criteria for determining contributors to world heritage.  Otherwise, selling off Greek history would be tantamount to #ThisisaCoup.

The Greek financial crisis is developing story and yours truly will continue to follow it, bringing you stories of how it is impacting cities and cultural heritage.

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