Uneven development by neighborhood continues in Chicago

Examining both population change and development activity across Chicago neighborhoods between 2010 and 2020 reveals stark differences:

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Overall, the city’s population increased by about 50,000 during that decade. But aside from those top 10 communities — which are found mostly on the North Side or near downtown — the rest of the city actually declined in population by more than 40,000 people.

WBEZ conducted an analysis of growth in Chicago community areas within the past decade, examining growth in population, new construction permits, jobs, and licenses issued to new businesses. The analysis showed that majority-white communities, collectively, experienced high growth in all areas: population, jobs, new construction and new businesses. The same was true for areas experiencing significant growth in white population, like the Near West Side and the Near South Side…

When compared with majority-Black and majority-Latino communities, and communities with no majority racial or ethnic group, majority-white communities also had higher rates of job growth, new construction and new businesses…

“Race is a big factor in the growth and development and revitalization in Chicago communities,” said Saunders, who studies Rust Belt cities and urban dynamics. “It’s a big factor that many people do not want to acknowledge.”

Such disparities across Chicago neighborhoods and the role of race are not new. The 77 community areas and how many neighborhoods have had different reputations and resources available. For decades, Chicagoans have celebrated how these different communities can have a common identity while knowing that this did not mean they were treated the same.

What may be newer is that this issue has received more attention in recent years. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel was criticized for efforts directed at downtown and wealthier areas. He was Chicago’s leader for a good portion of the decade. Chicago remained an important global city, but those benefits did not reach all residents or neighborhoods. Many called for this to change.

And this is not an issue limited to Chicago or just big cities. Uneven or unequal development is a prominent feature of communities in our current system. Within metropolitan regions, some suburbs are wealthy and continue to accrue residents and businesses (see the example of Arlington Heights in the Chicago news) while others struggle. These patterns often follow race-based settlement patterns and residential segregation.

This could be a critically important issue for the twenty-first century: how to encourage development and growth within places that historically have not attracted residents or capital. Without significant interventions, these patterns do not easily change.

Arlington Heights and many other suburbs: looking for downtown redevelopment and independence from the big city

With the possibility of a Chicago Bears stadium in the suburb of Arlington Heights, Illinois, the Chicago Tribune profile of the community highlights changes in the suburb:

More than 150 years ago, the 19th-century farming community’s prosperity was inextricably tied to its proximity to the railroad line, which served as a trading hub bolstering the town’s agrarian economy. By the 1920s, the community would become home to professionals boarding commuter trains headed to and from the city.

Despite many of those residents working at home these days as a result of the pandemic, the Union Pacific Northwest line dissecting the village of 77,000 residents is still viewed as an economic engine. But Arlington Heights is no longer beholden to the fortunes of Chicago, making the prospect of a Bears stadium in town interesting, yet not essential…

Embracing change has been a recipe for success for the revitalization of downtown Arlington Heights, which like central business districts across the U.S., was languishing in the 1970s and ’80s after mom and pop businesses were devastated by shopping malls and big-box stores, said Charles Witherington-Perkins, the village’s director of planning and community development…

To build the Arlington Heights of today, crafting a new downtown master plan was only the first step. In order to execute the vision, officials needed to loosen building height and density restrictions — stringent regulations that were making it impossible to create an economically and aesthetically vibrant downtown, Witherington-Perkins said…

The contingent of new residents arriving in Arlington Heights — many of whom were commuters attracted to the complex’s proximity to the Metra station — ushered in a surge of downtown residential and retail development that has served as a model for neighboring communities along the Metra line.

Take out the name of Arlington Heights and a few other regional details, and this story might be told for dozens of suburbs in the Chicago region as well as dozens more outside of older American big cities. Here are a few of the common features:

  1. A founding before mass suburbanization. Communities were small, farming was a primary industry, and the railroad was very important for the initial mass of people at that spot.
  2. Mass suburbanization of the twentieth century brought many residents and changes.
  3. Revitalizing suburban downtowns became a priority in the last four decades as competition from shopping malls and strip malls moved business activity away.
  4. This revitalization included adding residential units in denser structures.
  5. As noted elsewhere in this article, these choices about downtown redevelopment often involved choosing more expensive housing units rather than affordable housing. Even when cases went to court (as one did in Arlington Heights), relatively few affordable housing units were created in these denser suburban areas. This leaves Arlington Heights as wealthy and whiter.
  6. This theoretically means the community is more independent from Chicago with its own ecosystem of residential and commercial life downtown and in the suburb.

Does all of this add up to a new state-of-the-art stadium with a multi-billion dollar price tag being constructed in the suburb? That may be a separate issue given how few stadiums are in even large metropolitan areas and the sizable available property at play here.

Is Arlington Heights now truly independent of Chicago and self-sufficient? I would prefer to consider metropolitan regions as a whole as the fate of particular suburbs are connected both to the health of the big city and the suburbs. While a Bears stadium in Arlington Heights will be discussed as a win for the suburb (mostly – as the article notes, some residents oppose it) and a loss for the city of Chicago, the team and the benefits that come with it are still in the region.

Yet, it is worth noting that how the changing suburb understands itself is important. No longer a small farming community, Arlington Heights likely views itself as ambitious and making choices today to help secure its future success. A denser downtown provides a different experience than a bedroom suburb strictly made up of single-family homes. A Bears stadium would put them on the map in a way that few other nearby suburbs could equal. What Arlington Heights is and will be depends on choices made and responses from all of the actors involved.

Familiar road trip highways, Part Two: always seeing sites from the same perspectives

After two day trips on a recent weekend, I thought of what happens when you drive on the same highways many times. While yesterday I considered what the familiarity with roads and sites allows, today I briefly discuss what a slightly different route might bring. Two examples come to mind.

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The first example comes from the way I have approached the city of Chicago. For most of my life, this involved traveling east on the Congress Expressway. This meant that we passed through particular suburbs and neighborhoods, saw the skyline from a particular angle, and were in a particular relationship to the sun.

With a move after college east of Chicago, for a while my driving angle to the city changed dramatically. Now we approached via the Skyway and then either the Dan Ryan or South Lake Shore Drive. We saw different parts of the suburbs and city, the skyline of the same buildings looked different, and then shone from a different spot. The similar sites appeared quite different from a different highway just miles away. Chicago from the south is a different place than Chicago from the west, even from a fast-moving car.

A second example. Interstate highways often offer the ability to go around population centers. This speeds up driving. The city off in the distance is reduced to a set of tall buildings and/or landmarks that can be viewed from a distance.

One time, we took the business route through a small big city instead of skirting around its edges. We ended up in the same place and it took a little more time but we had a very different view of the city. Now we could see strip malls and residences. The big buildings from the distance looked even bigger close up. There was a sense of human activity rather than whatever life can be observed at 70+ miles per hour.

Familiar highways present opportunities but they limit what can be seen. The same familiarity that can contribute to an enjoyable road trip stop drivers from new angles.

Familiar road trip highways, Part One: going into travel autopilot

On a recent weekend, I made two separate day trips. Each sojourn required driving on highways in and out of the Chicago region that I have traveled on, either as passenger or driver, at least dozens of times. Because of its location and its transportation infrastructure, the Chicago area has numerous highways plus a good number of interesting locations within several hours.

One feature of such drives is the ability to go into a kind of travel autopilot. These roads are familiar. You know the sights. In the Midwestern landscape, there may be relatively variation in scenery.

To me, this eases the drive. Yes, hours may pass but you have done this before and you can get it through it again. On these routes, I have encountered clear skies, dark, rain, snow, and light traffic and heavy traffic. The drive is still roughly the same.

This may seem boring to some. What is the point of such a drive? Why not just go a lot faster and get there as soon as possible?

However, the familiar roads and scenery can open up room for other activities. Enjoying music is easier when the roads are familiar. So is good conversation or listening to an audiobook or doing some contemplating. Because what is going on outside the vehicle is not much of a distraction, many of the things that people celebrate about road trips are possible.

Tomorrow, what can happen when you are on a slightly different highway near what you thought were familiar locations.

Use better social science categories than “generations”

Millennials, Boomers, the Silent Generation, Gen Y, etc. are all categories that people generally think describe real phenomena. But, are they useful categories for describing patterns within American society?

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This supposition requires leaps of faith. For one thing, there is no empirical basis for claiming that differences within a generation are smaller than differences between generations. (Do you have less in common with your parents than with people you have never met who happen to have been born a few years before or after you?) The theory also seems to require that a person born in 1965, the first year of Generation X, must have different values, tastes, and life experiences from a person born in 1964, the last year of the baby-boom generation (1946-64). And that someone born in the last birth year of Gen X, 1980, has more in common with someone born in 1965 or 1970 than with someone born in 1981 or 1990.

Everyone realizes that precision dating of this kind is silly, but although we know that chronological boundaries can blur a bit, we still imagine generational differences to be bright-line distinctions. People talk as though there were a unique DNA for Gen X—what in the nineteenth century was called a generational “entelechy”—even though the difference between a baby boomer and a Gen X-er is about as meaningful as the difference between a Leo and a Virgo…

In any case, “explaining” people by asking them what they think and then repeating their answers is not sociology. Contemporary college students did not invent new ways of thinking about identity and community. Those were already rooted in the institutional culture of higher education. From Day One, college students are instructed about the importance of diversity, inclusion, honesty, collaboration—all the virtuous things that the authors of “Gen Z, Explained” attribute to the new generation. Students can say (and some do say) to their teachers and their institutions, “You’re not living up to those values.” But the values are shared values…

In other words, if you are basing your characterization of a generation on what people say when they are young, you are doing astrology. You are ascribing to birth dates what is really the result of changing conditions.

As this piece notes, popular discourse often treats generations as monolithic blocks. Everyone in a particular generation has similar experiences, outlooks, values. Is this actually true? Or, are other social forces at work including changing conditions, lifecourse changes, social markers like race, class, and gender, and more?

I remember seeing earlier this year an open letter from social scientists to Pew Research asking them to discontinue using generation categories. This is one way that change could occur: researchers working in this area can replace less helpful categories with more helpful ones. This could be scientific progress: as our understanding of social phenomena develops, we can better conceptualize and operationalize these. With sustained effort and keeping up with changes in society, we could see a shift in how we talk about differences between people born at different times.

Yet, this also takes a lot of work. The generations labels are popular. They are a convenient shorthand. People in the United States are used to understanding themselves and others with these categories. Sociological categories are not always easy to bring to the public nor do they always find acceptance.

At the least, perhaps we can hope for fewer articles and opinions that broadly smear whole generations. Making hasty or less than accurate generalizations is not helpful.

Can a “great novel” be set in the Chicago suburbs?

A new book from author Jonathan Franzen chronicles of lives of a family in the Chicago suburbs:

Q: Your novels are often set in the Midwest, but why set a trilogy in suburban Chicago?

A: I wanted it near a major metropolitan area in the Midwest. I wanted it big because my recollection of the early 1970s is strongest ‘73 onward. I was in suburban St. Louis and the stuff that was happening in suburban St. Louis was probably happening a year or two earlier in Chicago. For that reason, the book begins in late 1971. I could be more assured of getting the cultural references and spirit right. But also, gosh, the Midwest just recurs in my work, right? I was born in suburban Chicago, I knew Chicago starting from the mid-70s on. Both of my brothers moved to Chicago, and with a novel, it’s nice to feel like you know the streets in a place. It’s that extra research you don’t have to do.

This leads to two related questions:

  1. Can a great cultural work be set in the American suburbs of the postwar era? Can the space that is often criticized for sprawl, conformity, exclusion, and dullness serve as a compelling setting?
  2. Are the suburbs of a city like Chicago, set in the Midwest, a kind of shorthand for central or normal America?

Of course, the simpler answer may be what is above: Franzen is familiar with the Chicago suburbs and its ways of life. But, the questions above still stand: are there great cultural works set in the suburbs? In a country where a majority of the residents live in the suburbs, I would suggest those experiences have not necessarily translated into critically acclaimed or very popular cultural works.

See this earlier post on different kinds of cultural works involving the suburbs.

A denser suburbia in California and the rest of the United States

The single-family home is the most important feature of American suburbs. What happens when conditions change and pressures lead to more multifamily housing units and denser housing in suburbia? From California:

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In June, as Ms. Coats told me about the house and the neighborhood from the doorstep of her bungalow, she gazed toward a fresh foundation that had entombed the back half of Lot 118 in concrete. Over the next few weeks, a construction crew erected a two-story building that filled in a green rectangle from the Clairemont Villas brochure. A few feet away, the original four-bedroom house was loudly gut-renovated into a pair of apartments.

When the workers head to their next job this month, they will leave what amounts to a triplex rental complex on the type of lot that in the seven decades since Ms. Coats’s family moved in had been reserved for single-family houses. It’s part of a push across California and the nation to encourage density in suburban neighborhoods by allowing people to subdivide single-family houses and build new units in their backyards…

In the vast zone between those poles lie existing single-family neighborhoods like Clairemont, which account for most of the urban landscape yet remain conspicuously untouched. The omission is the product of a political bargain that says sprawl can sprawl and downtowns can rise but single-family neighborhoods are sealed off from growth by the cudgel of zoning rules that dictate what can be built where. The deal is almost never stated so plainly, but it is the foundation of local politics in virtually every U.S. city and cuts to the core of the country’s deepest class and racial conflicts…

“It doesn’t fit.” “It’s adding people.” “We don’t want that here.” “There’s other places for that.” “We just want to keep our neighborhood like it is.” “They want to push us out and tear our houses down.” “Parking.” “Parking.” “Parking.”

Several quick thoughts on these changes in many suburban communities:

  1. Where exactly this density will happen will be fascinating to watch. Will it happen in wealthier suburban communities or will they be able to keep it at bay? Inner-ring suburbs are often already more familiar with such density but this is less common in suburbs further from the big city.
  2. The housing pressure is acute in California but is not so clear or as well publicized in many other locations. If this works in California, where else does it show up?
  3. The NIMBY concerns cited above will be vocally shared again and again. The appeal for many single-family home owners is the space between neighbors, relatively lots of room for parking, and not feeling like the neighborhood is crowded.
  4. How much are #1-3 above linked to another long-term pattern in suburbia: race and exclusion? Homeowners will say it is about protecting their properties – particularly their property values, which single-family home zoning is intended to do – but it is also about who is able to live in the neighborhood and community.
  5. The addition of units and people to existing single-family home neighborhoods is a different approach to denser suburbia than creating larger-scale “surban” projects that some would find desirable near suburban downtowns or in large-scale redevelopment.

More young adults pooling resources to purchase homes

Limited in pursuing the American Dream of homeownership by college debt, economic conditions, and high housing prices? More young adults are buying homes with other people:

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For millennials, many of whom are getting married later in life, swimming in student-loan debt and facing soaring home prices, homeownership can feel more like a fantasy than an achievable goal. So, some first-time home buyers are taking a more creative route to make it happen—by pooling their finances with partners, friends or roommates.

Since 2014, when millennials became the largest share of home buyers in the U.S., the number of home and condo sales across the country by co-buyers has soared. The number of co-buyers with different last names increased by 771% between 2014 and 2021, according to data from real-estate analytics firm Attom Data Solution.

The pandemic added fuel to that trend, according to data from the National Association of Realtors. Among all age groups during the early pandemic months—April to June 2020—11% of buyers purchased as an unmarried couple and 3% as “other” (essentially, roommates). Those numbers were up from 9% and 2%, respectively, in the previous year.

This is an interesting situation: Americans continue to want to purchase homes. However, this is not within the reach of many unless they have ways to draw on additional resources.

I do wonder how this is connected to broader changes in households and the formation of families. How does this all work with more Americans living alone, changes in marriage rates, and extended emerging adulthood?

I have heard many warnings over the years about co-signing loans, even among family. Some of these arrangements could present complications in the long run:

Legal experts advise buyers to consult a real-estate attorney to help write a co-ownership agreement that covers every possible scenario, from job loss to marriage to personal fallouts. For example, who will hire the handyman if there is a plumbing issue? Who is in charge of collecting and making the mortgage payments? If one co-owner moves away, will the other co-owners have an option to buy them out or will there be a forced sale of the home?

While this is still a small minority of homeowners, it is worth paying attention to with high housing prices and economic anxiety.

Approving a controversial suburban mosque proposal – with conditions

Religious groups can face obstacles when they want to use land and/or buildings for religious purposes. The case of one Muslim group and property in Naperville that I have followed in research and on this blog winds closer to the end but approval might come with a number of conditions:

The city’s planning and zoning commission reviewed the plan over the course of 15 hearings and heard from about 500 speakers. On Wednesday, the panel voted 6-1 in favor of the project.

The proposal now heads to the city council for final approval, although that likely won’t happen until November, according to Naperville Director of Communications Linda LaCloche…

The vote came after three hours of closing statements, and after city staff detailed 12 conditions for the ICN to accept. Eleven were accepted by ICN attorney Len Monson and the wording of a 12th was adjusted before being accepted.

Among the conditions agreed to were the ICN’s responsibility for traffic management during the facility’s busiest times, no construction after the second phase of the project until 248th Avenue is expanded, a school pickup plan for the second phase, splitting the cost with the city for a traffic signal at 248th Avenue and Honey Locust Drive, and no outdoor amplification of sound.

Several points of my research may be relevant here:

  1. Compared to other religious groups, Muslim groups do seem to encounter a lot of opposition when they make proposals.
  2. This proposal is also for a property surrounded by residences. My research suggests such a location near single-family homes can lead to more opposition from neighbors.
  3. Conditions or negotiations between communities and religious groups do happen.
  4. The conditions described above sound like they address some of the concerns raised by neighbors (and community members generally in my research): traffic and the residential/single-family home character of the area.

This particular proposal has received a lot of public comment and if it is approved by the City Council, it would be interesting to follow the neighborhood and community relations between Naperville residentsand ICN at this location and in Naperville more broadly

Autonomous railroads and the importance of shipping goods by train

An exploration of autonomous trains in the United States includes this graphic about how cargo is moved in the country:

At this point, railroad shipping is very important: roughly one-third of cargo goes via train. This only follows trucks. And I wonder how this data works when cargo goes much of the way via train but then needs to make it “the last mile” from the railyard to specific locations.

So how much might autonomous railroads help? Here is some suggestive data:

A European Union-funded study published in 2020 found that moving to newer systems for managing trains could increase the capacity of existing rail networks by up to 44%. An internal study by Wabtec indicates in the U.S. the increase could be even higher, up to 50%. An increase of that magnitude in the ton-miles carried by America’s rail network would be the equivalent of moving approximately one million fully loaded Boeing 747-10 passenger jet planes from coast to coast every year.

Combine this with autonomous trucks (which, according to this piece, may take longer than moving to autonomous trains) and drones and perhaps more future goods could be moved even more quickly.