Will Chicago Be the Next Detroit?

Last April, Rachel Shteir, a Chicago journalist and DePaul University professor writing in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, penned an essay hinting that the Windy City was on the road to Detroit. With $34 billion in debt, the nation’s second-highest murder rate, the second-highest combined sales tax, as well as the ninth-highest metro foreclosure rate in the country, Shteir wrote that “as the catastrophes pile up” Chicago could be the next major city driven into bankruptcy by poor leadership.

Reaction to Shteir’s essay was swift and biting.

Chicago Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel — who never lets a crisis go to waste — rejected Shteir’s Detroit comparison, arguing that, unlike the Motor City, which was fatally dependent on the auto industry, Chicago has a more diverse economy.

Moody’s Investment Services disagrees with Mayor Emanuel.

Last week, Moody’s whacked Chicago with a triple credit downgrade, fearing the city’s growing and unsustainable spending and debt obligations could harm the city’s financial outlook.

All told, according to a blistering Chicago Tribuneeditorial titled “Chicago is on the Road to Detroit,” the newspaper wrote: “Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s government owes $13.9 billion in general obligations bond debt, plus $19.5 billion in unfunded pension obligations. Add in Chicago Public Schools and City Hall’s other ‘sister agencies’ and you’re talking billions more in debts that Chicago taxpayers owe.”

Shteir says a “dysfunctional system is threatening the city’s well-being.” She claims that “The real culprits include  Chicago’s anemic economy, the crippling legacy of machine politics, the uncompromising unions and the handful of dynasties running the city.”

Shteir and other critics say Chicago is on a slow slide toward a municipal bankruptcy, much like Detroit’s recent bankruptcy, which to date is the largest of its kind.

“Chicago is not Detroit, not yet,” writes Shteir. “But the city is trapped by its location, its past, and what philosophers would have called its facticity — its limitations, given the circumstances. Boosterism has been perfected here because reality is too painful to look at. Poor Chicago, indeed.”

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