My argument: a championship does not bring lasting urban hope or change

As the World Series gets underway with two starved fan bases, I’m sure some will suggest that a win for the Cubs or Indians will be good for their cities. A victory will give their Rust Belt cities suffering from numerous problems a needed boost.

I don’t think it works this way. Sports are primarily (1) entertainment and (2) business. On the first point, a win will excite people. It may scratch something off their bucket list to see their team win. There will be joy. But, cities have plenty of entertainment options and people will move on. See the White Sox: they had their own World Series drought before winning in 2005. But, where are they now? They have been an average to mediocre team in recent years and the hope is gone (as evidenced by the lack of fans attending games as well as by the general lack of interest). As the win moves further and further into the past, it will linger in memories but people will find other entertainment options. More and more, fans require their team to win now or lately. Maybe the leash will be a bit longer in Chicago or Cleveland but eventually fans will become upset if they don’t win again.

As for the business side, a win brings in money with more games (tickets, concessions), more merchandise sold, and a higher value for the franchise. Generally, we’re told by team owners and other boosters that sports franchises boost the local economy. However, related to the entertainment side, studies suggest if teams moved elsewhere, residents and visitors would simply spend their money elsewhere (rather than that money disappearing from the city). Who benefits most financially when teams win? Owners.

A championship does not affect the fundamental issues facing cities. Is Cleveland really a better place to live because the Cavaliers finally won? Did the 1985 Bears Super Bowl win set Chicago on a better course? All those Bulls and Blackhawks titles? The fans may have felt better, the city could celebrate, the owners could see their valuations go up, and regular city life would eventually go on. Manufacturing jobs were lost, white residents continued to flee for the suburbs, public schools and other local institutions suffered, politicians and leaders looked out for their own, and so on.

A championship may be for the fans but it is not really for the city.



A zoning paradox: sacred residential spaces are dependent on their market values

The last page of Sonia Hirt’s book Zoned in the USA lays out a key paradox in the American zoning system:

Isn’t it ironic that American residential space is so sacredly residential (so protected from intrusion through land-use law, that is) only because it is so commercial (because it is an object of trade rather than an object of our sentiments)?

Perhaps this another piece of evidence that single-family homes are one of the biggest objects of American consumption as well as key pieces in the American economic system.

Video gambling in Illinois trickles money into local coffers

As video gambling has spread across Illinois, who is making money? A little is going to local governments:

Video gaming revenues, after payouts, are taxed at a flat 30 percent rate. Five-sixths of those tax proceeds go to the state and one-sixth to the local government. Remaining revenues — the other 70 percent — go to the establishments, like Lucky Jack’s, and the video terminal operators.In the year ended in September, almost $12.7 million was played at Lucky Jack’s in Waukegan, and $11.7 million was won by gamblers, according to Illinois Gaming Board statistics. That means the terminals netted just shy of $1 million. Of that, more than $246,000 went to the state and about $49,000 to Waukegan. The rest is split between Lucky Jack’s and Gold Rush Gaming, its terminal operator…

In Waukegan, a resolution passed in 2014 earmarked virtually all of its cut of gambling revenues for the underfunded pension plans of its police officers and firefighters. Were it not for video gambling, the resolution said, taxpayers might have to cover the shortfall.

Not every municipality, however, is looking at the terminals as a cash cow. Chicago, Naperville and Arlington Heights don’t allow them…

The cities with the most video gambling terminals are Springfield, Rockford and Decatur. The counties with the most machines are Cook, Lake and Winnebago counties, the commission report said.

In an era when many municipalities are looking for every cent they can, video gambling can provide some revenue. But, many communities likely consider a fraught deal: it may start a trickle of money but it also projects a particular image. One anecdote in the article suggested people pull up to a local establishment with video gambling and idle as they wait from some signal from inside that a spot at one of the machines is open. Is this what a wealthier community wants to be known for? Like tattoo parlors and bars, many places wouldn’t want to avoid the stigma of gambling establishments.

It would also be interesting to know whether these more local operations siphon money from casinos which could generate significant revenues for local governments. In other words, if every gas station or local eatery had video gambling, would there be enough money to go around? Do people simply go to the places that are most convenient to them or would they cluster in places with either better or more video gambling options?

The origins of Chicago’s residents-only parking

An article on rethinking Chicago’s residential parking permits system reveals how it all started in the first place:

The first residents-only parking signs were put up in 1979 to protect North Side bungalow-belt homeowners who were tired of fighting Northeastern Illinois University students for spaces. Since then they’ve proliferated across the city, with 1,466 zones currently on the books. Aldermen often don’t want to say no to residents who ask for a parking zone, fearing the political backlash.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. It is not surprising that such a program might spread. What was intended for one particular problem suddenly appeared appealing to all sorts of people and before you know it, permits were applied everywhere. This is a good example of the ease of creating such regulations – they spread really quickly – but the difficulty of putting the cat back into the bag when such regulations become normal and institutionalized.
  2. Chicago is often touted as a city of neighborhoods but what this means is that a lot of people are able to keep cars as the neighborhoods have plenty of lower density residences as well as single-family homes. The underlying issue here isn’t necessarily whether there are permits or not; rather, how do encourage people to have fewer cars? Is this even possible in a city that wants people to be able to own detached homes?

Can McMansions ever add to the charm of a neighborhood or community?

I’ve seen many stories over the years of how teardown McMansions ruin the charm of older neighborhoods. Here is a recent case from the north shore of Long Island:

Call it a neighborhood dispute over home sizes. A small village on Long Island is seeing more and more small homes torn down to make way for so-called ‘mcmansions.’

Some neighbors have been pushing back, saying the huge homes are taking away from the charm of their community.

Are there any conditions under which a new McMansion might be considered charming? While I can’t recall seeing such a positive description used, here are a few scenarios in which it might work:

  1. The replaced home was small, decrepit, and in severe disrepair. McMansions may not be the preferred replacement option but some homes can be terrible shape and such eyesores are appreciated by few neighbors.
  2. The owners of the new home go significantly out of their way to placate neighbors. Regular deliveries of baked goods? Lots of volunteering for local duties? Handwritten notes asking for forgiveness? Hosting regular parties for neighbors in their spacious new home?
  3. The McMansion meets certain conditions: it is not so large compared to nearby homes, it does not seem to be bursting out of its lot, and the architecture is tasteful and consistent with nearby homes. Even with these, I suspect some neighbors will never be able to get past the idea of a McMansion.

Critics of McMansions tend to pick out clear-cut cases but not all larger teardowns are so easily categorized.

Comparing the architecture of Chicago and LA

If baseball teams from two cities square off, why not use it as an opportunity to compare the architecture of the two locations? “Chicago vs. Los Angeles: Which city has the better architecture, public art, and parks?” Here are the comparisons in the iconic skyscraper and landmark categories:

Willis Tower

During much of the twentieth century, Chicago was a merchant city and the biggest name in the business was Sears. In the late ‘60s, the company decided to build a new headquarters and tapped Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design what would become the tallest building in the world. Designed by Bruce Graham and Fazlur Rahman Khan, the building’s “bundled tube” design not only allowed it to reach new heights, but to also make a grand gesture in the Chicago skyline. With an official height of 1,450 feet (1,729 feet if you include its antennas), the tower held the world’s tallest title until 1998 when the Petronas Towers in Malaysia were completed.

US Bank Tower

The tallest building on the West Coast—until about six weeks ago, anyway—is strong and mighty—it was built to withstand an 8.3 magnitude earthquake. But that hasn’t mattered much to filmmakers. It’s such a standout building that director Roland Emmerich targeted it in no less than three of his blockbuster disaster films; Aliens destroyed it in Independence Day, Tornadoes swept through it in The Day After Tomorrow, and it was felled by an earthquake (presumably above 8.3) in 2012. Completed in 1989, it was designed by architect Henry N. Cobb, who outfitted the structure with its signature crown. This year, the tower unveiled a terrifying glass slide that suspends riders above the street 1,000 feet below. (Even the engineer admitted it’d be “scary as hell” to ride in an earthquake)…

Chicago Water Tower

The Chicago Water Tower in many ways is a reminder of Chicago’s ability to endure through difficult times. The 154-foot tall limestone structure is a physical connection to the city’s early days as it is one of the rare buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which wiped out most the city’s downtown. Today, it is surrounded by towering skyscrapers but remains a popular tourist destination and symbol of Chicago’s strength and determination.

Hollywood sign

Perhaps the most recognizable landmark this side of the Pyramids at Giza, the Hollywood Sign has come to stand in for so much—show business, fame, excess—but is locally a symbol of the city’s complicated relationship with growth and change. The sign originally read “Hollywoodland” and was merely an ostentatious billboard advertising a new subdivision during a 1920s development boom. Later, when it had become a recognizable local landmark, preservationists sought to restore and preserve the sign. And now, with tourists from around the world flocking to Beachwood Canyon to get a closer look at those giant letters, it’s apparently become the bane of local residents’ existence—some of whom have proposed dismantling the sign entirely.

If we are comparing the most iconic representatives of each categories, the cities may be closer than many realize. Chicago is widely recognized as a capital of architecture yet Los Angeles has a good number of interesting and well-known buildings and designs. Additionally, the “feeling” of each place – spatially, culturally – is quite different so it could be hard to make direct comparisons. Yet, I would guess that if we went with quantity as well as history, Chicago would be a more clear cut winner.

I would be interested to see how many architects worked in both cities. In other words, were they separate architectural worlds or was there a lot of back and forth? Given that the two cities are so different, I wonder how much overlap is possible and then how much either the cities or architects would want to broadcast such overlap.

The “night mayor” looks to improve the urban overnight experience

The head of an advisory NGO in Amsterdam is looking to make the overnight experience better both for city residents and night owls:

“I think that to really build a 24/7 economic system in Amsterdam, we should focus on creating one 24-hour area in the city,” Milan tells CityLab. “You could have working spaces there, and a library open 24 hours a day for students. It would also be a place for food. In Holland you can’t have a proper meal after 9.30 p.m., and when friends arrive late from out of town, all you can really offer them is fries.”

The idea might sound ambitious, but then forward-thinking about Amsterdam after dark is actually Milan’s job: he’s the Dutch capital’s “night mayor.” This innovative office, unique to Amsterdam when created in 2014 (as the development of a project itself begun in 2003), has helped to clear up a blind spot that many cities face. Too often, public officials view their city’s nighttime existence with suspicion—as a sinister doppelgänger of its daytime form but with added sex and crime, sleep-spoiling noise, and sidewalks slicked with vomit. Even liberal politicians can have little experience with this twilight zone, given that they’re often tucked up in bed by 10 p.m.

It’s the role of the night mayor to bridge this gap. The incumbent’s job is to manage and improve relations between night businesses, residents, and City Hall. Milan and his team have proved so successful in Amsterdam that the concept has taken off internationally. Paris, Toulouse, and Zurich now all have night mayors, while London and Berlin are considering creating their own. Within the Netherlands two other cities, Groningen and Nijmegen, also have their own professional nocturnal managers, part of a total of 15 Dutch municipalities that have some form of night mayor role…

“In the nighttime economy, there’s a lot of talent,” he says. “Think of all the graphic designers, party promoters, DJs—all these people that use the night as a serious playground to develop their skills and in the end, have their daytime job. Definitely the creative industries are really important for Europe and especially for cities like Amsterdam or Berlin, but actually for everywhere in the world.”

The big city is supposed to be the place where you can find all sorts of activities at all times of day. One of the biggest surprises for visitors to the city is the amount of activity in some places all night long. Imagine Times Square or The Strip with all the lights and people. (I’ve been to both late and it is remarkable just how many people are wandering around.) But, those places are not necessarily where a lot of people live and they are filled with tourists. What is the average urban night owl supposed to do, particularly if they are a resident and not a tourist?

It would be interesting to see every major city develop a night district. Presumably, such a district would need good public transit, a variety of uses to serve different interests (from restaurants to arts spaces to music venues to gyms to coffee shops), temperate weather (I assume this would be very helpful), and probably should be composed of smaller buildings in more of a neighborhood feel rather than within a set of tall, modern structures. Would enough people flock to such a place if it was located far from primary residential areas?