DETROIT — They drove past the decimation of the Brightmoor neighborhood on Detroit's west side and, soon after, through the stately neighborhoods of Sherwood Forest and Palmer Woods.
They saw the devastation of blight on the northeast side and the famed Heidelberg Project art installation that grew out of frustration with urban decline. They viewed Eastern Market, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the construction site of the M-1 Rail streetcar line on Woodward Avenue downtown, a tentative first step toward modern mass transit in a city struggling to provide basic bus service.
Two weeks before a trial to determine the fate of Detroit's sweeping bankruptcy restructuring plan, the group of people on that bus — including the federal judge overseeing the case and representatives of the city's creditors — saw those sites and more as the city conducted a hearing on wheels Friday in a wide-ranging tour of neighborhoods and cultural landmarks that reveal Detroit in all its pain and promise.
The highly scripted tour, accompanied by federal marshals after weeks of secret planning, took about three hours and covered 58 miles. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, Detroit Chief Operating Officer Gary Brown and lawyers for the city and its major creditors — about 15 people in all — rode on a shiny new Detroit Department of Transportation bus that many regular riders would envy.
Rhodes departed the bus before it arrived at a media briefing in Southfield, where participants had boarded and exited the bus. Their only excursions off the bus were at a police precinct on the northeast side and at the DIA, where lawyers said the judge and others visited the famed Rivera Court, the site of Mexican artist Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry murals, as well as a Van Gogh painting and a special photography exhibit that focuses on prominent and everyday Detroiters reflecting the city's evolution.
"It was important in our mind for the judge to get context of the evidence he was going to hear, and by going on the tour and seeing the different sites, we believe it provided the context necessary for us to present our case," said Robert Hertzberg, a lawyer for one of the city's bankruptcy law firms, Pepper Hamilton.
Hertzberg and two other lawyers for the city, Greg Shumaker and Dan Moss of the Jones Day firm, said Rhodes took no notes and did not ask questions on the trip, which they described as following a scripted narrative agreed to in advance by lawyers for the city and creditors.
Shumaker said the tour was "eye-opening," and while he said he would not call it a blight tour, the itinerary went out of the way to show how widespread neighborhood abandonment is in the city.
"You could do this by pictures, but you do not get a sense of the scale of the problem unless you actually go and travel around like we did," Shumaker said after the tour. "It's one thing to look at a house decayed; it's another thing to see entire neighborhoods decimated."
Rhodes agreed to take the tour at the city's request to survey the city ahead of a massive trial starting Aug. 21 that will determine the fate of the bankruptcy restructuring plan.
Attorneys for several creditors objecting to Detroit's bankruptcy were on the bus, including representatives of bond insurers Syncora and Financial Guaranty Insurance Co., which want the city to consider selling DIA artwork to pay off their debts.
Hertzberg said he believed the tour provided the judge the necessary context for why the city must slash more than $7 billion in debt and reinvest $1.4 billion in city services over 10 years.
"It was important in our mind for the judge to have a site visit. It is extremely unusual for a judge to get out in any type of case," he said.