Renaming the Willis Tower and John Hancock buildings

Chicagoans may have to soon adjust to two new names for skyline fixtures:

Sneed hears the Willis Tower, the crown jewel of skyscrapers, is currently the subject of negotiation for naming rights.

Meanwhile, Sneed is told a name change at the John Hancock Center may be imminent…

“Selling naming rights for buildings not occupied by the company that’s named is a new phenomenon and it’s something our ordinances don’t really address,” said Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who has ordered a study by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks Department to determine whether the building qualifies for landmarking status — which restricts building modifications to respect historical integrity.

Even if the names officially change, it will take a significant amount of time for the everyday use of the new titles to change. The buildings are privately owned and yet they have clearly been symbols of Chicago for decades. That the naming rights could change every few years – dependent on the global real estate market – is an odd phenomenon for structures that serve as public markers.

In the long run, perhaps this is why we need non-company names for buildings. Think the Empire State Building or the Gherkin. Firms can move in and out and the name and symbol stays the same. I’m not sure what the Chicago buildings would be named in such a scheme. The Sears/Willis/?? Tower could be the “Stack of Rectangles Tower” and the Hancock could be the “X Support Building.”

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Describing Detroit at its peak

In discussing Detroit’s decline, it is good to be reminded of the city’s peak:

As Maraniss’s book opens, Detroit appears to be a city on the verge of unimagined greatness. President John F. Kennedy campaigns in the Motor City in October 1962 in support of the off-year elections. Democrat Jerry Cavanaugh is mayor of the city, then the fifth largest in the country with a population of nearly 1.7 million. Cavanaugh is the mayoral version of JFK, a relatively young man with a big Catholic family, liberal, civil rights minded. George Romney is elected governor, a Republican who also champions civil rights. Vice President Lyndon Johnson visits the city in early 1963 in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Motown, now well established, is conquering the Billboard charts. Mary Wells’ “My Guy” dislodges the Beatles from the number one spot in March of 1964. Following the best sales year in its history, Ford introduces the Mustang in the spring of ’64. The United Automobile Workers, under the leadership of Walter Reuther, has won an unprecedented standard of living for its members, setting the bar for workers across the country and building the foundation for the Affluent Society. Martin Luther King delivers the first version of his “I Have a Dream” speech to a Detroit crowd of 100,000 two months before the March on Washington in August 1963. The city nearly wins the bid for the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Of course, this is what helps make the Detroit case so interesting: the city was so large, so influential, so promising, and then the bottom dropped out over the next fifty years. Humans often make the mistake of romanticizing some sort of golden age where problems were few and life was good, but in this case there really does seem to have been a better era.

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Can sociology classes keep up with the latest happenings in society?

A recent analysis of the top assigned sociology texts in the Open Syllabus Project has a number of interesting findings including a large number of texts from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s:

Sociology is a dynamic discipline, so the inclusion of many texts published in the past 30 years is not surprising. Nor is the continued importance of the foundational sociology texts published between 1850 and 1950. But perhaps we can see another kind of generational dynamic at work here. Most of the OSP collection comes from courses taught between 2006 and 2014. Perhaps the emphasis on works published from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s reflects a process of canonization that takes roughly 10 or 15 years, as faculty in their 40s become senior faculty in their 50s or 60s, balanced by the need to assign material that is still feels relevant to the analysis of contemporary problems, which may have a roughly similar temporal horizon. Again, the OSP offers only some data points, at present, toward an understanding of contemporary sociological knowledge. But they are suggestive ones and worth further exploration as the data set matures.

This argument makes sense: sociology faculty will tend to assign texts they are familiar with and that is likely material they know from graduate school as well work that informs their own.

But, it does raise some interesting larger questions:

  1. Certainly, it takes some time to put together good research that involves theory, data collection and analysis, and thinking about the implications. Yet, this lag in texts and current events means that individual faculty have to find ways to bridge the gap. I’m not sure the answer is to significantly speed up the publication process with journal articles and books – as it can often take years – as this limits the times needed to develop good analysis. It does suggest that other outlets – like blogs or op-eds or more popular books – might offer a solution and this may mean such work should count for something in the discipline.
  2. How much does the knowledge of faculty “freeze” in what they learned in their training or from their early career? I remember hearing that sociologists may know the most when they were doing their comprehensive exams. How well can people keep up with all the literature that arises, particularly if they have heavy teaching loads?
  3. This suggests that a lot of sociological classwork involves historical analysis as the texts used as typically from enough years ago that students don’t know all of the details of the context. How good are sociologists at doing historical analysis with undergraduates?
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“Forty Percent of the Buildings in Manhattan Could Not Be Built Today”

Manhattan’s zoning code is complicated and there are a number of buildings – many built prior to 1930 – that would not meet current standards:

New York City’s zoning code turns 100 this year. That may not sound like cause for celebration — except maybe for land-use lawyers and Robert Moses aficionados. Yet for almost every New Yorker, the zoning code plays an outsize role in daily life, shaping virtually every inch of the city…

New York’s zoning code was the first in the country, meant to promote a healthier city, which was then filling with filthy tenements and office towers. Since it was approved in 1916, the ever-evolving, byzantine code has changed many times to suit the needs of a swollen metropolis. Just in March, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio won approval for a vast citywide plan that would encourage sleeker, more affordable developments…

Mr. Smith and Mr. Trivedi evaluated public records on more than 43,000 buildings and discovered that about 17,000 of them, or 40 percent, do not conform to at least one part of the current zoning code. The reasons are varied. Some of the buildings have too much residential area, too much commercial space, too many dwelling units or too few parking spaces; some are simply too tall. These are buildings that could not be built today…

Nearly three-quarters of the existing square footage in Manhattan was built between the 1900s and 1930s, according to an analysis done by KPF, an architecture firm based in New York. In a way, the zoning code helps to preserve such architectural diversity. The laws have gotten more restrictive over time, giving an edge to properties built in earlier eras.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. I particularly like the two examples of buildings cited in the story where it is clearly shown what would have to change should the buildings be subject to current standards.
  2. It is not entirely clear but it looks like this article credits zoning for protecting a lot of these older buildings. If you wanted to purchase an older building, tear it down, and build a new one, the new structure would not be quite the same. This means that zoning acts as a kind of historic preservation. Of course, we could ask how many older buildings are too many?
  3. There are calls to overhaul the zoning code to make it simpler. One of the problems is that different areas of Manhattan want different standards. Even though New York City the global city, many of the building decisions are local and residents want some control. Think of Jane Jacobs’ efforts to save Greenwich Village and certain structures during the 1960s. A more vanilla zoning code would make things simpler but could hinder local character.
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Chicago’s loss of nearly 3,000 residents in 2015 is an estimate

Chicago media were all over the story this week that Chicago was the only major American city to lose residents in 2015. The Chicago Tribune summed it up this way:

This city has distinguished itself as the only one among the nation’s 20 largest to actually lose population in the 12-month stretch that ended June 30.

Almost 3,000 fewer people live here compared with a year earlier, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, while there’s been a decline of more than 6,000 residents across the larger metropolitan area.

Chicago’s decline is a mere 0.1 percent, which is practically flat. But cities are like corporations in that even slow growth wins more investor confidence than no growth, and losses are no good at all.

The last paragraph cited above is a good one; 3,000 people either way is not very many and this is all about perceptions.

But, there is a larger issue at stake. These population figures are estimates. Estimates. They are not exact. In other words, the Census Bureau doesn’t measure every person moving in or leaving for good. They do the best the can with the data they have to work with.

For example, on May 19 the Census released the list of the fastest growing cities in America. Here is what they say about the population figures:

To produce population estimates for cities and towns, the Census Bureau first generates county population estimates using a component of population change method, which updates the latest census population using data on births, deaths, and domestic and international migration. This yields a county-level total of the population living in households. Next, updated housing unit estimates and rates of overall occupancy are used to distribute county household population into geographic areas within the county. Then, estimates of the population living in group quarters, such as college dormitories and prisons, are added to create estimates of the total resident population.

If you want to read the methodology behind producing the 2015 city population figures, read the two page document here.

So why doesn’t the Census and the media report the margin of error? What exactly is the margin of error? For a city of Chicago’s size – just over 2.7 million – couldn’t a loss of 3,000 residents actually be a small gain in population or a loss double the size? New York’s gain of 55,000 people in 2015 seems pretty sure to be positive regardless of the margin of error. But, small declines – as published here in USA Today – seem a bit misleading:

I know the media and others want hard numbers to work with but it should be made clear that these are the best estimates we can come up with and they may not be exact. I trust the Census Bureau is doing all it can to make such projections – but they are not perfect.

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The biggest urban problem is that all the major American cities are run by Democrats?

American cities face a host of problems but one common claim from conservatives is that the biggest issue is that all of them are run by Democrats:

The rapid growth of urban areas, increased population density, and a massive influx of immigrants—accompanying the explosion of manufacturing and commerce during the Gilded Age—hastened the rise of municipal political machines (such as Tammany Hall in New York City), official corruption, labor unrest, and the demographic diversity that continues to this day. Even though Americans’ standard of living generally improved during industrialization (people moved to the cities for a reason), the Progressive movement was in significant part a response to America’s nascent urban problems.

Progressivism is a legacy that endures, as we know, and for good or ill, urbanization has profoundly affected the American experience. Members of ethnic minorities disproportionately reside in U.S. cities, and their local governments are disproportionately (in fact more or less exclusively) in the hands of the Democratic Party. Cities expend substantial taxpayer resources to try to address poverty, crime, air pollution, congestion, substandard housing, homelessness, and the education of non-English speaking students, all of which are not as prevalent in suburban and rural areas.

Cities tend to have large numbers of unionized public employees, high (and rising) taxes and debt (including unfunded pension liabilities), and intrusive regulations. For a variety of reasons, urban residents favor liberal policies—and elect liberals to office—to a greater degree than suburban and rural voters. Some major American cities, such as Detroit, have become dysfunctional fiefdoms, forced into bankruptcy…

Cities present different challenges than they did a century ago, but the current problems are no less dire. Costly and ineffective public education systems, massively under-funded public employee pension plans, law-enforcement failures, high taxes, and uncontrolled spending imperil the security and solvency of America’s cities. Unless these problems are promptly addressed by responsible state reforms, more urban residents will face the tragic plight of Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, and San Bernardino.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. It would be interesting to see a recent example where more conservative policies helped a large city. Perhaps it is simply hard to find a case from today with most big cities having Democrat mayors. Is the historical record kinder? I recently read about “Big Bill” Thompson who was the last Republican mayor of Chicago, leaving office in 1931. He had all sorts of problems and Wikipedia sums up: “He ranks among the most unethical mayors in American history.” Maybe we could look to Rudy Giuliani in New York City who is often credited for helping reduce crime in the city (due to applying broken windows theory) and for strong leadership after the September 11th attacks. But, some of his legacy has been questioned as crime rates dropped in numerous other major cities and such policies may have come at a cost. All together, it is easy for one party to blame the other but why not have a discussion of exactly how Republicans have actually helped cities in recent years?
  2. Cities are complex places which is why they started drawing so much attention from social scientists and others in the 1800s. Having a change in political party of leadership won’t automatically solve issues: how do we tackle neighborhoods that have now been poor for several generations? How about income inequality? Development and economic opportunities throughout big cities and not just in wealthy areas? The presence and activity of gangs? Providing affordable housing? Avoiding police brutality? Maintaining and upgrading critical infrastructure? Again, it is easy to blame one party but these are not easy issues to address – there is a level of complexity that would prove difficult for a mayor of any party.
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Quick Review: Evicted

I recently read Matthew Desmond’s much discussed work Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Here are my thoughts on the ethnographic work.

  1. The book is certainly readable as he tells the stories of a number of tenants and landlords in the Milwaukee area. The plight of the tenants is striking and the landlords are also an interesting group (particularly Sherrena who wanted to tell her story). Of course, such readability may not impress some sociologists who prefer more scientific prose (and who complain about the work of Venkatesh or Goffman) but this should reach a broader public. The narratives have some summary data and causal explanations sprinkled in but the emphasis is on the stories.
  2. One of the more impressive features of this work is the quantitative data that it also draws on. This information is buried in the footnotes but Desmond also developed several quantitative datasets that helped (1) suggest his stories are not unusual and (2) provide the broader patterns for an issue that is not studied much in sociology.
  3. The biggest takeaway for me: the number of evictions that take place on a regular basis.
  4. The subject area – evictions – certainly needs more attention. I’ve read my share of work on affordable housing in the last decade but rarely did I see this issue mentioned. As Desmond notes, big cities have a sizable population of people who consistently have to move around due to evictions. Even if there were more housing units – and big cities are often tens of thousands of units short of affordable units – evictions make it difficult to establish roots and settle kids into schools. The final chapter – where Desmond discusses the broader issue and possible solutions – leads off nicely with this idea of a good physical home as the centerpiece of a thriving society.
  5. That said, how common is this issue in suburban areas? As poverty moves to the suburbs as do increasing numbers of minorities, I would expect that evictions are not limited just to larger cities.
  6. One area that gets less attention in this ethnography that may also prove worthwhile to explore further is the legal apparatus. Desmond follows one of the eviction squads and provides some insights into the court process but it would be interesting to hear more from judges (who from the book seem to work against the tenants – though they may just be following the law) as well as local officials (how do public officials respond to these situations).
  7. A second area is thinking about the intersections of race and class. Desmond hints at the influence of race: comparing the experiences of blacks on the North Side of Milwaukee versus whites on the South Side, comments from black and white tenants about the possibilities for living in the other’s neighborhoods, briefly discussing the race of landlords. However, there is a lot more here to unpack, especially given Desmond’s other work on race. Take the two main landlords in the book: one is white, the other black. The first has a more stand-offish approach (working through intermediaries) while the second is more directly involved with tenants. Both are in it for the money and seem to be doing well. How much does their race matter?

An enjoyable read and a work I could imagine using with undergraduates who often have little to no experience with housing issues. I look forward to looking at Desmond’s journal articles that also build on this ethnographic and quantitative data.

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When your friends laugh at your new McMansion

A Reddit thread starts with the experience of a user who bought a new home for his family:

Hi! Long time lurker.

My wife and I are buying our first home for our small but growing family. We are moving to Laredo, Texas so our price range gets us quite a house.

we found one we really liked, and decided to put an offer on it. We think it’s beautiful, although I will admit a bit ostentatious.

I showed a friend, and they laughed and called it a “McMansion” and I googled what that meant and have to say I’m a bit embarrassed and find it kind of insulting.

I previously lived in SF, where I paid the same price for a 700sq ft studio, so I am struggling to see what was so much better about that, and my friend still lives in a studio there.

I guess my point is: are large newer homes all considered “McMansions?” Should I care what others think of it? I’m just concerned as perhaps this is just a bad investment as well.

Example: http://imgur.com/a/0zDiF

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The difference between the San Francisco and Laredo, Texas housing markets are substantial. What is common in one – and at what price point – is unlikely to match the other.
  2. The Internet is probably not going to provide much positive validation for buying such a home. Most comment boards I have seen regarding McMansions have ridiculed them, usually picking on their architecture as well as the type of people who buy them. There are a few defenders of McMansions in this thread. But, they are hard to find overall on the Internet.
  3. The pictures of the home provided through the link would probably put this into the McMansion category for many people. It appears to be a large house, the front facade is out of whack in terms of proportions, and the features are meant to impress (front columns, big entryway, shiny surfaces).
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Black homeowners not seeing the same rebound in home values

As if residential segregation and disparities in homeownership (and wealth) weren’t enough, black homeowners haven’t benefited as much from the housing recovery:

The communities in South DeKalb are almost entirely African American, and they reflect a housing disparity that emerges across the Atlanta metropolitan area and the nation. According to a new Washington Post analysis, the higher a Zip code’s share of black residents in the Atlanta region, the worse its housing values have fared over the past turbulent housing cycle.

Nationwide, home values in predominantly African American neighborhoods have been the least likely to recover, according to the analysis of home data from Black Knight Financial Services. Across the 300 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, homes in 4 out of 10 Zip codes where blacks are the largest population group are worth less than they were in 2004. That’s twice the rate for mostly white Zip codes across the country. Across metropolitan Atlanta, nearly 9 in 10 largely black Zip codes still have home values below that point 12 years ago.

And in South DeKalb, the collapse has been even worse. In some Zip codes, home values are still 25 percent below what they were then. Families here, who’ve lost their wealth and had their life plans scrambled, see neighborhoods in the very same county — mostly white neighborhoods — thriving…

These disparities, though, are not simply about income, about higher poverty levels among blacks, or lower-quality homes where they live, according to economists who have studied the region. The disparities exist in places, like neighborhoods in South DeKalb County, where black families make six-figure incomes.

Race strikes again in America. While the issues may not be the same as past actions such as official redlining or blockbusting or restrictive covenants, even in wealthier communities – ones like these that tend to look like the white suburban dream of a big house in a nice community – race continues to affect home and property.

This also reminds me of the book Crisis Cities which I had my urban sociology class read for the first time this past sentence. The one sentence summary: government and private sector actions after major urban crises like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina tend to privilege the already wealthy and do little to help the poorer residents of major cities. Similarly, poorer and minority residents were hurt disproportionately by the economic crisis (through means like subprime loans – another quote from the article: “Nationwide, black families earning around $230,000 a year, according to research by sociologist Jacob Fa­ber, were more likely at the height of the bubble in 2006 to be given a subprime loan than white families making about $32,000”) and then don’t share as much in the recovery. We need urban and housing policies that at least help everyone, if not provide more for those who need more help.

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Infrastructure Week in Illinois intended to sell needed repairs and funds

This week is one intended to help promote needed funding for infrastructure in Illinois:

With a new Illinois capital program delayed as the state goes 11 months without a budget, transit leaders have been sounding the alarm in both Washington, D.C., and Springfield about the dangers of waiting too long to invest in infrastructure. Business, labor and transit leaders will ramp up discussion nationwide Monday for the start of the thrillingly named Infrastructure Week.

It’s a tough sell — roads, buses and trains seem to work just fine until they don’t, and politicians don’t like to raise gas taxes or other user fees. Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Leanne Redden admits that funding for bridges, signals and tunnels is not a sexy topic, but it’s crucial to keep the system going the way it should…

The Metropolitan Planning Council, which consulted with RTA officials and other experts around Illinois, determined that meeting the state’s transportation deficit requires an additional $43 billion over 10 years — on top of what is already expected in terms of capital funding…

He noted that no system is going to be in perfect shape all the time — it’s like your house, you want to keep it in a state of at least 90 percent repair, with a few projects on a to-do list. But Illinois’ state of repair is currently below 80 percent and could drop below 60 percent in the next five years, Skosey said.

It is unclear from this article whether this week is aimed at the public – who often doesn’t pay much attention to infrastructure and generally doesn’t like paying increased taxes for public services – or state officials and legislators – who aren’t doing much of anything in Illinois these days. I assume the general goal is to raise awareness but what would they like the public to do? Call a political leader? Vote different in the 2016 election?

Thinking about the role of governments, the public tends to assume or hope that governments will do the prudent thing for the future. In terms of infrastructure, this usually means keeping up with maintenance and taking care of needed changes before the situation gets dire. But, given the short-term outlook of many politicians these days plus many competing interests, infrastructure needs are often kicked down the road. Yet, compared to other major issues that can continue to be kicked down the road, at some point roads, railroad systems, airports, electric grids, and other necessary pieces of infrastructure can and will literally crumble and will require immediate attention.

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