If you walk outside and look at the tops of the bungalows and three flats to see chlorophyll green set against blue skies, all looks right with the city and the world. Chicago is experiencing that too brief season we call spring where for the whole of something like two weeks, it is neither freezing nor sweltering. Cranes are adding a floor a week to a new crop of great towers downtown and the neighborhoods are full of life with people spilling out the doors of restaurants and homes and onto the streets. The abysmal lethargy of winter has ended and another season of fireworks, ice cream, laughter and memory has begun. Yet looks are deceiving and word has come down the city is “junk,” little better than Detroit. If you live here, you know to what I refer….the municipal bond rating handed to the city by Moody’s.
Let me say now no city should be defined by its bond rating, but rather by the joy and wonder its streets can instill in the person. Still it means something that the confidence of investors is shaken and with that the confidence of citizens. In this city and the state at large, we will very soon have to make those difficult choices that will raise taxes and cut services. The vulnerable will suffer, homeowners will guard wealth needed to pay taxes rather than enjoy what the city has to offer, many who can will move and those who remain will see essential services curbed. And this may well be the best case scenario. If the worst happens, we may hear words like default.
Everyone here has an opinion and some of these even involve creative solutions of shared sacrifice and compromise that mature and intelligent people are willing to make, but around here only falls on the deaf ears of a tepid leadership looking to bury its head or for a quick fix which is no fix at all. One of these fixes particularly irks me and I want to offer few thoughts on it here.
Of all the inane proposals coming out of this state and city, by far the silliest is building a casino and not just a casino, but one owned by the city. I don’t know what makes one think a casino can erase the money owed by decades of ignoring paying into pensions, but even if you believe it can, I will say point blank you are wrong for a casino may not even give the city a single penny and it will certainly not give the city and state billions of dollars. What it will give us is increased stress on the police, families avoiding Chicago as a tourist destination, public services concentrated near the casino and taken from the neighborhoods and a shift of individual wealth from restaurants, cafes, museums and clubs.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no moralist on the issue. It is no concern of mine how you fritter your cash, but the economics just aren’t there. Atlantic City has casinos and Portland does not; the last time I checked the Northwest was doing a bit better than Jersey. Besides the affluent and no one under fifty gambles…..think about it, do you still think a casino will make you money?
If all of this was not enough to argue against a casino, then asking the city to own it should raise more than a few eyebrows. I don’t want to own a casino. I didn’t mind owning the streets, but Rich Daley gave those away. I also liked the idea of owning parks, but Rahm obviously thinks these belong to the Obama Foundation and George Lucas. Now in return for the lakefront and the vibrancy of city streets, my fellow citizens and I are to be given cheap buffets and games of chance. In return for money from parking meters and summer concerts, we are given the money of the near indigent meant for school lunches and the money the elderly would have spent on medication. All the things that could be done (right to work zones, modest income tax increases, constitutional amendments, a millionaires tax, the possibility of municipal bankruptcy, reworking amortization) and the best our leaders can come up with is a citizen owned casino…why even bother to vote?
I love my town with its blue collar families, grit, hipsters, and parents parading with strollers. I love its cops and fire fighters. I love its clanking trains, divvy bikes, parks, and lakefront. I love that it is home to financial derivatives and was once called “hog butcher to the world.” I love its streets where restaurants open up to the sidewalks like Paris and where Midwestern sensibilities make it more like a small town than a great city. This is the town where winter lets you know you have to be tough and the warm weather reminds you, life is gentle. This is Chicago….a great city with a great people who deserve more than leaders who hardly fit the moniker of greatness.
We do need answers and we need them fast, but we do not need a casino as a quick fix and we need not be the next Detroit. What we need is to draw upon our people and we need leaders who recognize this. We will not be the first to be called upon to marshal ourselves from the brink of a disaster. New York reached a compromise to avoid insolvency in the seventies and Cleveland clawed its way out of default a decade later. Even Detroit is now looking at investment grade bonds. And we are not beneath a challenge either. We reversed a river and rebuilt after our landscape after it burned to the ground. These things required ingenuity and great leaders who demanded big plans.
As Burnham reminds us we are “to make no little plans.” A casino is a little plan. What we need instead is big plans and all the compromise and sacrifice those bring. Those are the things fitting of a great city.
So forget a casino, it is a little and tepid thing that does not even deserve to be called a plan. Instead listen to those who are mature and love Chicago and know rather than a casino, we need big plans and big dreams….not always easy and not without sacrifice, but plans nonetheless fitting of a great city and a great people.