The decision, confirmed by officials after it trickled out in late afternoon news reports, also amounts to the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in American history in terms of debt.
“This is a difficult step, but the only viable option to address a problem that has been six decades in the making,” said Gov. Rick Snyder, who authorized the move after a recommendation from the emergency financial manager he had appointed to resolve Detroit’s dire financial situation.
Not everyone agrees how much Detroit owes, but Kevyn D. Orr, the emergency manager, has said the debt is likely to be $18 billion and perhaps as much as $20 billion.
For Detroit, the filing came as a painful reminder of a city’s rise and fall.
“It’s sad, but you could see the writing on the wall,” said Terence Tyson, a city worker who learned of the bankruptcy as he left his job at Detroit’s municipal building on Thursday evening. Like many there, he seemed to react with muted resignation and uncertainty about what lies ahead, but not surprise. “This has been coming for ages.”
Detroit expanded at a stunning rate in the first half of the 20th century with the arrival of the automobile industry, and then shrank away in recent decades at a similarly remarkable pace. A city of 1.8 million in 1950, it is now home to 700,000 people, as well as to tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, vacant lots and unlit streets.
From here, there is no road map for Detroit’s recovery, not least of all because municipal bankruptcies are rare. State officials said ordinary city business would carry on as before, even as city leaders take their case to a judge, first to prove that the city is so financially troubled as to be eligible for bankruptcy, and later to argue that Detroit’s creditors and representatives of city workers and municipal retirees ought to settle for less than they once expected.
Some bankruptcy experts and city leaders bemoaned the likely fallout from the filing, including the stigma. They anticipate further benefit cuts for city workers and retirees, more reductions in services for residents, and a detrimental effect on borrowing.
“For a struggling family I can see bankruptcy, but for a big city like this, can it really work?” said Diane Robinson, an office assistant who has worked for the city for 20 years. “What will happen to city retirees on fixed incomes?”
But others, including some Detroit business leaders who have seen a rise in private investment downtown despite the city’s larger struggles, said bankruptcy seemed the only choice left — and one that might finally lead to a desperately needed overhaul of city services and to a plan to pay off some reduced version of the overwhelming debts. In short, a new start.
“The worst thing we can do is ignore a problem,” said Sandy K. Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber. “We’re finally executing a fix.”
The decision to go to court signaled a breakdown after weeks of tense negotiations, in which Mr. Orr had been trying to persuade creditors to accept pennies on the dollar and unions to accept cuts in benefits.
All along, the state’s involvement — including Mr. Snyder’s decision to send in an emergency manager — has carried racial implications, setting off a wave of concerns for some in Detroit that the mostly white Republican-led state government was trying to seize control of Detroit, a Democratic city where more than 80 percent of residents are black.
The nature of Detroit’s situation ensures that it will be watched intensely by the municipal bond market, by public sector unions, and by leaders of other financially challenged cities around the country. Just over 60 cities, towns, villages and counties have filed under Chapter 9, the court proceeding used by municipalities, since the mid-1950s.
Leaders in Washington and in Lansing, the state capital, issued statements of concern late Thursday. A White House spokeswoman said President Obama and his senior team were closely monitoring the situation.