Bankrupt Detroit highlights urban America’s problems

“Following Thursday’s announcement that the city had declared bankruptcy, reports are confirming that Detroit may suddenly descend into a horrifying, depopulated hellscape, one with numerous dilapidated buildings, rampant urban decay, a failing education system, near-constant drug-related homicides, and a downtown area that looks virtually abandoned.”

That is an excerpt from satirical newspaper The Onion, doing what they do best: making funny commentary about a dire situation. The joke here, of course, is that the possibilities they suggest – the “mass exodus of unemployed residents,” the “vacant warehouses that look like they’ve been attacked” – are, in actuality, part of a harsh reality that Detroit has long been facing.

Yet the decades-long decline seems pale in comparison to the events that have occurred most recently: the naming of Detroit as the “Most Dangerous City in America”by Forbes for four years in a row, the forced removal of the elected mayorfor a state appointed “emergency manager” and the announcement July 18 that Detroit will declare bankruptcy, the  largest city in America to ever do so.

While filing for bankruptcy will allow the city of Detroit to write off part of its approximately $20 billion in debt obligation, this happens at the cost of being able to repay its many debtors and pension holders, which will have the twofold effect of hampering the city’s economic ability to take loans and harm the livelihood of countless former public workers of the city – who will no longer receive the retirement funds originally promised to them.

“Especially for people like firemen or police, people with jobs that are physically demanding, it is disheartening to see that they may not have subsidized pensions,” Kelly Tzoumis, DePaul public policy professor, said.

The decision has, unsurprisingly, led to a world of controversy, and some are even challenging the bankruptcy decision based on the premise that it breaks some of Detroit’s constitutional duties.

Yet Detroit’s recent failures only go to highlight part of a larger problem: that of the decline of urban America and the growth of America’s “throwaway cities.”

“The decline of Detroit is a multivariable event: the inadequacy of urban renewal, the death of the car industry, the problems of the nationwide economy and so on,” Tzoumis said. “Of course, the loss of jobs leads to exodus, increased crime rates, lower property values and other problems.”

As people leave cities, they leave behind a core of unused, “throwaway” facilities, abandoned buildings and dilapidated infrastructure. In few places is this abandonment more prevalent than in Detroit; numerous photographic essayshave been commissioned that narrate the decline of Detroit.

More concerning is the abandonment of the people that remain behind in these throwaway cities. Many of these people lack the means to support themselves due to the loss of industrial jobs, oftentimes to places abroad.

“Especially in the Great Lakes Region, we were a major supplier of manufacturing,” Tzoumis said. “Service industries, so far, have not been enough to replace lost manufacturing, so governments need to be very innovative in getting new jobs.”

While we may seem far removed from the world of dilapidation that exists in Detroit, it would be na’ÛÎÀve for us to think that we are insulated from the same risks. Chicago and Illinois have had their own share of budget problems, and some have called attention to fears that the state of Illinois could itself run dry in the future.

“(Mayor Rahm) Emmanuel is doing what he can – cutting costs, consolidating the Chicago Development Fund (CDF), cutting expenses,” Tzoumis said. “It’s easy to say you want to raise revenues – the most recent job report was positive, and there is a housing recovery – but it’s not happening fast enough, and Illinois needs to change how they act.”

What can cities do to prevent this decline? There are few singular solutions, but one concept that comes up is the element of cooperation.

“Competing is not how future cities can survive,” Tzoumis said. “Competition over the business of big corporations is a big thing – cities compete to lure these jobs and don’t focus on creating, which is harmful for the country as a whole. Cities are going to have to start cooperating – over transportation, over resources – and they need to act with the larger regions.”

Ultimately, as residents of a city, we need to remain sensitive and aware to the problems of other cities and of urban America as a whole. While we may seem sheltered at some points, we can never assume that our safe haven of Chicago can never undergo problems of its own.

We can only play our part and hope that Chicago will never follow the plight of Detroit and become America’s next penniless “throwaway city.”