Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives at his office in Maximos Mansion in Athens on July 13. Christian Hartmann/Reuters

The arrangement brokered between Eurozone leaders and Greece is severe. It’s a deal that Detroiters will recognize.

Over this past weekend, Greece agreed to demands from Germany and other Eurozone leaders that may keep the country in the eurozone, at least for the time being. 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.

Critics are calling the plan an usurpation of Greek sovereignty, complete with a hashtag (#ThisIsaCoup) and memes featuring quotes falsely attributed to John Adams about slavery and debt. The plan is severe—in the Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau greets it as the beginning of the end for the eurozone—but some of its features are familiar. Detroiters know it well.

Back in 2013, Kevyn Orr, the bankruptcy lawyer appointed as Detroit’s emergency manager, announced plans to assess for sale the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the largest and most significant art collections in the country. The scheme would have seen major parts of the museum’s collection, those that belonged to the City of Detroit, sold or auctioned to repay the city’s debts.

In November 2014, a federal judge approved a “grand bargain” that resolved Detroit’s bankruptcy and saved the city’s art collection. In the end, the value of the collection as a whole prevailed over the sum of its parts; the museum, a number of private foundations and donors, and the state raised more than $800 million to secure the city’s outstanding pension debts and keep the collection in Detroit forever—or until the next time.

Had the threat against the Detroit Institute of Arts never materialized, the city might still be mired in bankruptcy proceedings today. Still, an outcome that preserved the museum collection was never certain. Creditors argued against it. Some of them said that they had found buyers willing to pay $2 billion for all of the art owned by the city, far more than the $800 million estimate procured by the city.

If Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is able to navigate this agreement toward passage between Scylla and Charybdis—German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the one hand and Syriza hardliners on the other—then this is the debate to which Greece can look forward. How will Greece scare up $55 billion?

After six years of recession and counting, Greek liquid assets are scarce; presumably hard assets like beautiful Islands and national treasures are off limits,” notes The Wall Street Journal. Detroiters doubtfully share that sunny assessment. During Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings, its most valuable cultural asset was very nearly put up on the auction block.

For all sorts of reasons, a comparison between Greece and Detroit falls short of useful. Much of Detroit’s debt was forgiven in the end, and, well, Detroit is not a member state of an international currency union. But the coming debate in Greece may nevertheless echo Detroit on the one point: How can Greece afford not to sell off cultural assets when people are suffering?

Greece isn’t going to lose Crete or the Acropolis to Germany. But there are other hard assets—antiquities whose value to Greek cities and world history is limitless—that may come up for discussion. If this deal is to proceed, Greek and Eurozone leaders must guarantee that these assets must be identified and negotiated in advance. They should take the form of new bank shares as the country recapitalizes (the prevailing option mentioned by French President François Hollande). Auctioning off Greek history would be a cultural coup.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Traffic-free Times Square in New York City
    Maps

    Mapping How Cities Are Reclaiming Street Space

    To help get essential workers around, cities are revising traffic patterns, suspending public transit fares, and making more room for bikes and pedestrians.

  2. Maps

    Readers: Share Your Hand-Made Maps of Life Under Quarantine

    As coronavirus transforms our private and public spaces, how would you map what your neighborhood and community look like now?

  3. photo: A lone tourist in Barcelona, one of several global cities that have seen a massive crash in Airbnb bookings.
    Coronavirus

    Can Airbnb Survive Coronavirus?

    The short-term rental market is reeling from the coronavirus-driven tourism collapse. Can the industry’s dominant player stage a comeback after lockdowns lift?

  4. Equity

    We'll Need To Reopen Our Cities. But Not Without Making Changes First.

    We must prepare for a protracted battle with coronavirus. But there are changes we can make now to prepare locked-down cities for what’s next.

  5. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.
    Coronavirus

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.

×