Chicago’s suburbs as quintessential American suburbs in cultural products

A number of Chicago suburbs have appeared on television and in movies in recent decades:

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Rightly or wrongly, I concluded that suburbia was segregated and snobbish, an attitude I’ve never been able to shake. I didn’t get that attitude from movies about just any suburbs, I got it from movies about Chicago’s Northern suburbs, which, over the last 40 years, have come to be seen as representative of all American suburbia. (My first job in Chicago was covering the Lake County suburbs for the Tribune. That didn’t change my mind.)

During the first wave of suburbanization, in the aftermath of World War II, the suburbs of Northeastern cities got all the attention, in movies such as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and in the fiction of John Updike, John Cheever and Richard Yates. When Hollywood rediscovered Chicago in the 1980s, though, it also discovered Chicago’s suburbs, through the work of writers and directors who grew up there. Paul Brickman, who directed Risky Business, was from Highland Park; Hughes was from Northbrook.

In the 1980s, suburbia was in its prime. Back then, nobody with money wanted to live in urban America. Rich people wouldn’t start moving back to cities for another decade. The suburbs are often mocked as a cultural wasteland, but towards the end of the 20th century, that’s where a lot of Chicago’s cultural energy was coming from. Even The Blues Brothers, which is revered as a document of post-industrial, pre-gentrification Chicago, was co-created by John Belushi of Wheaton. Steppenwolf Theatre Company was co-founded by Jeff Perry of Highland Park and Gary Sinise of Blue Island. According to his National Lampoon colleague P.J. O’Rourke, Hughes in particular was eager to rescue his native grounds from the notion that “America’s suburbs were a living hell almost beyond the power of John Cheever’s words to describe.”Chicago’s 1990s alternative music scene may have been born in Wicker Park, but its leading lights were suburbanites: Liz Phair of Winnetka, Billy Corgan of Elk Grove Village, Local H of Zion. Urge Overkill formed at Northwestern University. High Fidelity, the movie which celebrated that scene, starred Evanston’s own John Cusack as Rob Gordon, a guy from the suburbs who opens a record shop on Milwaukee Avenue.

Chicago’s suburbs continue to define suburbia in popular culture. The 2004 movie Mean Girls, the quintessential depiction of high school cliques, was set at fictional North Shore High School (i.e., New Trier). The characters even shopped at Old Orchard, although it was inaccurately depicted as an indoor mall. Greater Chicagoland also makes an appearance, and provides a contrast: Wayne’s World, set in Aurora, and Roseanne, set in the fictional, Elgin-inspired collar-county town of Lanford, are on the outside, physically, culturally and economically.

As someone who has researched locations and television shows, this raises several responses:

  1. Would viewers of these different suburbs know that the Chicago suburbs were unique in some way or do they look like suburbs all over? For example, does North Shore High School look or feel different than schools in Westchester County or outside Boston? One of the films cited, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, clearly shows Chicago locations but the suburban shots could fit in many American suburbs.
  2. There is an empirical question here: were Chicago suburbs depicted more often than suburbs of other locations? Or, based on viewers or ticket revenue or albums sold, how does the creative energy of the Chicago suburbs compare to cultural products linked to other locations?
  3. There is still some sense that suburbs are not creative places. This stereotypes dates back to at least the mid-twentieth century when suburbs were criticized as conformist and bland. True creative energy can only come from cities, not homogeneous and exclusive suburbs. Yet, as more Americans lived in suburbs compared to cities starting in the 1960s, it is not a surprise that cultural products would come from suburbanites.
  4. Even as a number of creatives grew up in suburbs, how much did their adult work and products rely on cities, including Chicago? The major culture industries in the United States are often located in big cities so even suburban or rural themes are mediated through more populous and denser communities.

Taking Los Angeles from 10 million planned residents down to nearly 4 million

Today, Los Angeles has almost 4 million residents. At one point, planners thought it could have 10 million residents. What happened in local government in the 1970s helped lead to this change:

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Come 1970, there was broad support for a portentous shift: Los Angeles would abandon the top-down planning that prevailed during a quarter century of postwar growth in favor of an ostensibly democratized approach. The city was divided into 35 community areas, each represented by a citizen advisory committee that would draw up a plan to guide its future. In theory, this would empower Angelenos from Brentwood to Boyle Heights to Watts.

In practice, it enabled what the Los Angeles land-use expert Greg Morrow calls “the homeowner revolution.” In his doctoral dissertation, he argued that a faction of wealthy, mostly white homeowners seized control of citizen advisory committees, especially on the Westside, to dominate land-use policy across the city. These homeowners contorted zoning rules in their neighborhoods to favor single-family houses, even though hardly more than a third of households in Los Angeles are owner-occupied, while nearly two-thirds are rented. By forming or joining nongovernmental homeowners’ associations that counted land-use rules as their biggest priority, these homeowners managed to wield disproportionate influence. Groups that favored more construction and lower rents, including Republicans in the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce and Democrats in the Urban League, failed to grasp the stakes.

The Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations, a coalition of about 50 homeowners’ groups, was one of the most powerful anti-growth forces in California, Morrow’s research showed. It began innocently in the 1950s, when residents living below newly developed hillsides sought stricter rules to prevent landslides. Morrow found little explicit evidence that these groups were motivated by racism, but even if all the members of this coalition had been willing to welcome neighbors of color in ensuing decades, their vehement opposition to the construction of denser housing and apartments served to keep their neighborhoods largely segregated. Many in the coalition had an earnestly held, quasi-romantic belief that a low-density city of single-family homes was the most wholesome, elevating environment and agreed that their preferred way of life was under threat. Conservatives worried that the government would destroy their neighborhoods with public-housing projects. Anti-capitalists railed against profit-driven developers. Environmentalists warned that only zero population growth would stave off mass starvation.

Much like the Reaganites who believed that “starving the beast” with tax cuts would shrink government, the anti-growth coalition embraced the theory that preventing the construction of housing would induce locals to have fewer kids and keep others from moving in. The initial wave of community plans, around 1970, “dramatically rolled back density,” Morrow wrote, “from a planned population of 10 million people down to roughly 4.1 million.” Overnight, the city of Los Angeles planned for a future with 6 million fewer residents. When Angelenos kept having children and outsiders kept moving into the city anyway, the housing deficit exploded and rents began their stratospheric rise.

Americans tend to like local government. And this is one reason why: local citizens get involved and they are able to advocate for what they want.

Whether these local decisions are good for the broader community, city, or region is less clear. On one hand, these homeowners groups wanted their neighborhoods to be a particular way. They purchased a home in a certain setting for a reason. They tried to protect this way of life. (Even a freezing a neighborhood or community in time is difficult.) On the other hand, this had consequences for many others. These are neighborhoods within a larger city. Housing decisions contribute to residential segregation. Decisions about density reduce housing options.

The residents of these specific neighborhoods might have won but at what cost?

Big drop in construction of starter homes of under 1,400 square feet

For younger adults looking for smaller homes to purchase as their first home, there at least one reason they are not easy to find: few have been built in recent years.

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The supply of entry-level housing, which Freddie Mac defines as homes up to 1,400 square feet, is near a five-decade low, and data on new construction from the National Association of Home Builders shows that single-family homes are significantly bigger than they were years ago.

Homeowners from previous generations had access to smaller homes at the start of their financial lives. In the late 1970s, an average of 418,000 new units of entry-level housing were built each year, according to data from Freddie Mac. By the 2010s, that number had fallen to 55,000 new units a year. For 2020, an estimated 65,000 new entry-level homes were completed…

“What was really striking to me was the consistency in the decline in the share of entry-level homes, irrespective of geography,” Mr. Khater said. “The thing that struck me the most was that really, it’s all endemic. It’s all over the U.S. It doesn’t matter where.”…

Homeownership leads to greater wealth for those who buy earlier. An analysis from the Urban Institute estimates that those who became homeowners between the ages of 25 and 34 accumulated $150,000 in median housing wealth by their early 60s. Meanwhile, those who waited until between the ages of 35 and 44 to buy netted $72,000 less in median housing wealth.

Three things stand out to me from this article:

  1. The decline in the construction of these smaller homes is real. The numbers cited above suggest roughly 15% of these smaller homes are constructed now compared to the late 1970s.
  2. At the same time, the definition of an entry-level homes is contingent on square footage. These days, 1,400 square feet is not that large for a home. These standards have changed over the decades; new homes in the 1950s in Levittown were more around 1,000 square feet while many new homes today are over 2,500 square feet. As builders construct larger homes (presumably making more money) and some buyers want larger homes, what is now an entry-level home may have changed.
  3. The final paragraph above considers the wealth implications about being able to buy a home earlier on. This is important: homes are one of the biggest generators of wealth for Americans. Yet, this also marks a shift in viewing homes as investments as opposed to good spaces for people to live.

Building the ability to disperse billions in rental aid assistance in the US

Congress has allocated billions for rental aid assistance amid COVID-19 but it takes time and infrastructure to distribute it to American renters:

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With millions of Americans out of work due to the pandemic, the eviction moratorium helped keep people in their homes — but it also put a squeeze on landlords. To help, between the December and March COVID relief packages, Congress approved more than $46 billion in rental assistance. Exact amounts renters and landlords can receive depend on their income and where they live, but renters could get enough to cover rent from as far back as March 13, 2020, unpaid utilities and even, in some cases, future rent.

But by the end of May, only $1.5 billion had gone out. And officials are racing against the clock: The federal eviction moratorium ends July 31…

“While we have substantial funds through the American Rescue Plan, we as a nation have never had a national infrastructure to prevent unnecessary evictions,” White House American Rescue Plan Coordinator Gene Sperling said recently during an eviction prevention summit.

While there had been some state and local rental assistance programs, the scale of this program was beyond what they’d handled, a Treasury official said. State and local entities had to build IT systems and hire staff. Some programs did not even open until May or June — but since opening, a Treasury spokesperson said, there has been an exponential increase in renters getting money. Landlords and renters can apply directly for funds through their states, counties and in some cases tribal authorities depending on where they live.

Unprecedented times lead to unprecedented processes? Putting the money into the right hands in a timely manner is no easy task. The steps include:

-approving the monies and making it available

-letting people know that the money is available

-encouraging applications

-processing applications

-disbursing funds

-applying the funds to rent

-overseeing the program during the process and afterward

If it comes together, millions of Americans will be able to stay in their housing and landlords will rent they were waiting for.

Now, to tackle the broader issues of affordable housing in helpful locations…

Agglomeration, working from home, and the character of places

Why do certain industries cluster together in one location? Social scientists have answers:

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Economists believe agglomeration — like the clustering of tech in the Bay Area — has historically been the result of two main forces. The first is what they call “human capital spillovers” — a fancy way of saying that people get smarter and more creative when they’re around other smart and creative people. Think informal conversations, or “serendipitous interactions,” over coffee in the break room or beers at the bar. These interactions, the theory says, are crucial to generating great ideas, and they encourage the incubation and development of brainiac clusters. The other force is the power of “matching” opportunities. When lots of tech firms, workers and investors clustered in Silicon Valley, there were lots more opportunities for productive marriages between them. As a result, companies that wanted to recruit, grow or get acquired often gravitated to places like the Bay Area.

However, remote work could actually improve certain matching possibilities. Companies can hire smart people anywhere in the world when they drop the requirement that they physically be in a central office. Not only that, they can pay them less. Moreover, killing the office can significantly lower costs for companies, which no longer have to pay for expensive real estate.

So, in this theory, the future of work and the economic geography of America really hinges on whether companies can create those “human capital spillovers” through computer screens or in offices in cheaper locations.

This is a phenomenon with a pretty broad reach as cities could be viewed as clusters of firms and organizations. What has been interesting to me in this field in recent years is how places like this come to develop and what it means for the character of the place.

Take Silicon Valley as an example. This is the home of the tech industry and, as the article notes, the big firms have committed to physically being there with large headquarters (including Google, Apple, and Facebook). These headquarters and office parks are themselves interesting and often a post-World War Two phenomena as highways and suburbanization brought many companies out of downtowns to more sprawling campuses. At the same time, the impact of all of this on the communities nearby is also important. What happens when the interests of the big tech company and the community collide (see a recent example of a Facebook mixed-use proposal)? What did these communities used to be like and what are they?

This is bigger than just the idea of employees working from home. This potential shift away from clustering would affect places themselves and how they are experienced. If thousands of workers are no longer in Silicon Valley, what does this do to those communities and the communities in which more workers are now at home? Silicon Valley became something unique with this tech activity but it could be a very different kind of place in several decades if there is new activity and new residents.

The same could be said for many other communities. What is New York City if Wall Street and the finance industry clusters elsewhere or disperses across the globe? What happens to Los Angeles if Hollywood disperses? And so on. The character of places depends in part on these clusters, their size, and their history. If the agglomerations shift, so will the character of communities.

Trying to attract suburban voters by fighting Critical Race Theory

The ongoing struggle for suburban voters now extends to Critical Race Theory:

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“In suburban areas, the number one cultural issue is critical race theory. The suburbs are on fire with anger,” said Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist who works on congressional races. “We are at the beginning of this issue, not the end.”…

While critical race theory is animating the party’s base, Republican operatives say the issue will have wider appeal than other cultural wedge issues because some parents see it as having a direct impact on their children’s education.

Republicans are zeroing in on winning back the white college-educated, suburban voters that abandoned them during former President Donald Trump’s tenure. A new study from Pew Research Center found that Biden won suburban voters by 11 percentage points in the 2020 election after Trump won them by two points in the 2016 election.

“Parents all over the country have been mobilized because they do not want their children being taught they are automatically racist because of their skin color. I fully expect Democrats’ support for this controversial theory to be at the center of 2022 campaigns,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer said in a statement to McClatchy. “The most compelling electoral issues are those that focus on the issue of fairness, and that’s why critical race theory will be incredibly damaging to every vulnerable Democrat.”

While it remains to be seen how effective this will be, multiple aspects of suburban life and history may fit:

  1. Many suburbs were built on exclusion where whites worked to keep particular racial and ethnic groups out. Even as suburbs overall have become more diverse in recent decades, this has not necessarily occurred in all suburban communities.
  2. Suburbanites are often viewed as individualistic and emphasizing meritocracy. They feel they made it there by their own success and then want to live in their private spaces (usually single-family homes).
  3. While suburbanites in regular social life might want to avoid confrontation with neighbors, the emphasis on local control in suburbs means that national issues can spark conflict at the local level.

As the article asks, will this issue that touches on what suburbs are crowd out other common election issues like the economy or taxes?

Parkway tree diversity in Naperville

The Naperville city logo prominently features a tree. And in replacing parkway trees lost to a tornado last month, the city is working with a number of species:

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Residents are being given the option of choosing the type of tree they’d like planted in their home’s parkway. The only stipulation is the choice needs to be approved from Public Works’ forestry division, and anyone who doesn’t make a selection will be assigned a tree…

The city’s spring list of authorized trees includes the shingle oak, Kentucky coffee tree, Hackberry, hybrid elm, tulip tree, plane-tree, Japanese tree lilac, silver linden, chinquapin oak, crabapple, American linden, red oak, swamp white oak and heritage oak.

There’s also a list of tree species that never will be authorized by the city’s forestry division. Among those are the ailanthus or Tree of Heaven; evergreen conifers such as a pine, spruce or fir; any variety of ash; Hawthorns, unless they’re thornless; Bradford pears; pin oaks; box elders; poplars; willows; cottonwoods; silver maples; and elms, unless they’re disease resistant.

I presume such a list of approved species exists for multiple reasons. Having a variety of species helps prevent issues with diseases or insects that wipe out trees, like elms or ash trees. The shape, size, and foliage of certain trees is better for a parkway setting. Some trees are simply not desirable generally; a few months, I heard a speaker give a short digression on why they hate bradford pear trees.

This is not a choice that should be taken lightly. There is a section in James Howard Kunstler’s TED Talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” where he discusses the multiple benefits of trees along streets. This includes providing shade and a canopy for the street and sidewalks as well as separating the street and its vehicles from the sidewalks. If done well, trees along a road create an inviting environment. If done poorly, the trees are too few, they die or are scraggly, and the roadway and pathways just look barren.

Chicago as ongoing railroad hub: one quarter of freight trains pass through the region

With Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in Chicago yesterday, the Chicago Tribune provided this context for the need for infrastructure money in the region:

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His next stop was the CSX Bedford Park Intermodal Yard with Gov. Pritzker, and U.S. Reps. Marie Newman, of La Grange, and Mike Quigley, of Chicago planning to join him.

The event was an opportunity for Buttigieg to talk up how Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for billions in investments to improve freight and passenger rail infrastructure.

The CSX terminal, the nation’s third largest by volume, serves domestic and international intermodal freight. One of every four U.S. freight trains passes through Chicago., according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Chicago area residents can catch glimpses of some of these intermodal areas, often on the side of major highways, and they certainly know about the frieght trains that can block their roadways. But, how many know that 25% of national freight traffic passes through the region?

Even as motor vehicles and airplanes came to dominate landscapes – and Chicago has plenty of traffic and one of the busiest airports – the railroad continues to provide food, consumer goods, and transportation. Chicago’s status as a leading global city partly depends on it. The economy of the United States partly depends on it.

The railroad was one very important reason for Chicago’s rise. With its location on the southwest corner of Lake Michigan, Chicago quickly became a railroad hub for connecting the Northeast to a growing Midwest as well as Western expansion and all of its abundance.

The railroad can be an inconvenience. News of railroad traffic increasing in the region can induce concerns from residents and community leaders. But, the railroad traffic in the region at large helps the region as a whole.

More Americans looking for vacation homes in Europe

Those with means and resources can purchase real estate around the globe. This is essential for development in many locations, including major cities as well as vacation destinations in Europe:

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From Lisbon to the Greek islands, the Americans are back, ready to take advantage of the buyer’s market in many of Europe’s leading resort areas. There are bargains to be had at the entry and mid-levels, with prices buoyant at the top end…

Knight Frank last week released its Global Residential Cities Index for the first quarter of 2021, giving a view of price changes from the year-earlier period, when lockdowns began to take hold world-wide. It shows double-digit increases clustered in the Nordic countries and Eastern Europe, while prime European second-home destinations that had been inching toward the top in previous years—including Lisbon and Malaga on Spain’s Costa del Sol—are seeing declines…

Americans typically play a niche role in Southern Europe’s luxury second-home markets, which tend to be dominated by sun-hungry Northern Europeans. But they have traditionally made themselves more conspicuous at the very top of those markets.

This is different than Americans looking for relatively inexpensive places to retire; this is about finding real estate to invest in and profit from in the long term in desirable locations. This is an opportunity to make money in locations where prices have decreased, in contrast to numerous markets in and around big cities where prices have increased for years. Homes are places to enjoy and to invest in, as sociologist Brian McCabe argues. Being wealthy and staying wealthy can depend, in part, on buying real estate when it is available and then profiting later.

All of this is an opportunity that most Americans do not have or could not even dream about. A second home in a foreign country? The ability to travel there regularly? Being able to sell this property later and/or pass down profits to heirs? Just as those featured on HGTV’s International House Hunters are a select group, those who can take advantage of a European buyer’s market are limited.

An ongoing American antagonism toward big cities

As noted in a recent opinion in the New York Times, the divide between cities and other kinds of communities in the United States has a long history.

From the beginning, Americans have differed on whether to uphold as ideal the urban life or the rural life. Should the model be New York, Boston, or Philadelphia or the plot of land in the country? These differences became more pronounced as urbanization picked up in the 1800s. With the majority of Americans now in the suburbs, the issue still is ongoing as many Americans say they prefer small towns (the suburbs?) while enjoying proximity to urban centers (jobs, cultural opportunities, transportation, etc.).

This is not just a geographic distinction or a set of preferences that some people have compared to others. These choices and systems that push people one way or another (with a lot of social actors and forces involved in encouraging uburbanization) also include a moral dimensions or a set of values and meanings. These are not just spaces; Americans have processes of meaning-making in all of these contexts.

With that in mind, there are several ways one could think about this ongoing contrast:

  1. A binary between city and country. This encourages each side to praise the traits of their option and denounce the other. Very black and white, one is better and one is worse.
  2. The suburbs are an attempted solution to this ongoing binary: some of the country, some of the city (or, as critics of the suburbs might say, none of either).
  3. Connected to different political battles. In the early days, this was part of the issues between Jefferson and Hamilton. Today, this is an issue between Republicans and Democrats. This is also about local/state/regional politics where urban interests go against those of other locations.
  4. A superfluous debate for a long time as we should think about regions with cities as anchors for wide territories where economic, social, and political activity is all intertwined. Think of Boston in the Northeast.
  5. A reaction to the rapid urbanization of the last two centuries that has upset much of human history where most people lived in small communities. Perhaps we are still figuring out how everything works with megacities where so much – population, economic activity, political power, globalized activity – is so concentrated.

In short, this divide is probably not going away soon. Hopefully, the conversation is more productive than denigrating other kinds of communities but rather seeking ways of working together since many of the issues Americans care about would benefit from cooperation across geographies.