An arboretum next to a parking lot for Amazon vehicles

The Morton Arboretum is no stranger to the juxtaposition of nature and suburban development. Founded in 1922 in Lisle, the Arboretum later adjusted to the construction and opening of the East-West Tollway (now I-88) on its edges:

1957

Construction of the East-West Tollway and widening of Illinois Route 53 changed the Arboretum landscape, resulting in new lakes, roads, and a staffed gatehouse.

In a recent popular exhibit, the Arboretum even leaned into the nearby development with one installment looming over the highway:

Note the large power lines, the evidence of two major highways nearby (I-88 and I-355), and office buildings.

Recently, I drove around the east side of the property. This land has had a number of office and warehouse properties for years. This makes sense: the properties have access to multiple highways and there are plenty of residents/workers nearby.

However, I have noticed a more recent addition to this set of land uses: there is a parking lot just for Amazon trucks and vehicles. As far as I could see, there was no building next to the lot; just many spaces for vans and trucks. Looking at Google Maps, there is indeed a parking lot there among some other development and some undeveloped land. There is an Amazon facility nearby – one of many in the Chicago region – but it is not directly connected to the parking lot so drivers would have to exit to the main road and then turn back into the Amazon facility.

It is hard to completely escape development when in the Arboretum. Traffic noise can be heard, airplanes fly overhead, and houses and other signs of suburbia are visible from different vantage points. Yet, the presence of an Amazon parking lot reminded me of what nature is in the suburbs: present but often in-between roads, homes, and other buildings that speak to the ways that humans have and continue to transform natural features to their own particular suburban goals.

City government funded by cryptocurrency

At least one leader in Miami thinks the city can raise substantial revenue through partnerships with cryptocurriencies:

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The lofty idea is the byproduct of a cooperation with CityCoins, a nonprofit that allows people to hold and trade cryptocurrency representing a stake in a municipality. By running software on their personal computers, CityCoins’ users mint new tokens and earn a percentage of the cryptocurrency they create. A computer program automatically allocates 30 percent of the currency to a select city, while miners keep the other 70 percent.

Since the nonprofit unveiled “MiamiCoin” in August, it has sent about $7.1 million to Miami. (City commissioners agreed to accept the donations on Sept. 13.)

While the program is still in its infancy, Suarez (R) estimates the effort could generate as much as $60 million for Miami over the next year and ultimately “revolutionize” how the city funds programs that address poverty and other societal issues…

Over the past year, several financial and tech firms set up offices in the city, including Goldman Sachs, SoftBank and Blackstone, according to Suarez. In June, the crypto wallet Blockchain.com announced it was moving its headquarters from New York City to Miami, citing the city’s “welcoming regulatory environment serving as a hotbed of crypto innovation,” the company revealed in a news release. That same month, the stock-trading platform eToro announced plans to establish offices in the city.

In many ways, this is a continuation of what cities have tried to do for decades: diversify their tax base and/or become a leader in a certain industry or sector, particularly in a new area. All of this helps bring in new tax revenues, jobs, and provides a certain status for the city.

Because of its growth in recent decades plus expectations that it will continue to grow, many American cities want to attract tech companies and grow the tech sector in their own community. If cryptocurrency is the new hot thing, everyone wants that.

On the other hand, chasing after the new thing does not always work out. Some cities will succeed in becoming cryptocurrency hubs, others will not. In a few years or decades, we can better assess Miami’s efforts. How much does cryptocurrency, or any tech business, need to be anchored in a particular place as opposed to conducting their business online or through a more distributed set of locations?

Additionally, cities are also interested in ways to generate easy revenue. When I read this article, I also thought of tourism. Many cities want to play in this game because there is a lot of money involved and visitors come, spend money, and then go home and do not require the long-term services that come with population growth. But, tourism is also dependent on factors like weather, pandemics, broad economic patterns, and more. Is cryptocurrency the newest easy money?

“Welcome to the Metroburb” in the NW Chicago suburbs

This week I heard a radio ad saying “Welcome to the Metroburb.” Here is more on this new development outside of Chicago:

Chicago area suburbs advertising their communities is not unusual; see examples here and here. Far less common are new suburban developments making broad appeals in mass media. This project has been in the works for a while now – see an earlier post – and it is on an intriguing site as Bell Labs was important for the Chicago region (read more about the effects on local development of their Naperville facility) and the country as a whole.

If you ran a business or were searching for a residence or wanted to be part of an interesting scene, would this ad or website persuade you? This is a unique development and a large one. Suburbs around the United States are looking to fill empty suburban headquarters, denser suburban areas are popular, and standing out in a crowded suburban landscape can be difficult.

Interestingly, there is also a partner project involving the former Bell Labs facility in Holmdel, New Jersey.

Reasons for suburban legislators leading the Illinois Democrats

As American political divides currently sit in the suburbs, the tension between Chicago Democrats and suburban Democrats in Illinois is interesting to consider:

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In adding suburbia to the Democratic base, it turned out, Madigan also created a party that would no longer tolerate his Chicago ward boss style of leadership.

“Suburbanites tend to be less enamored of machine politics,” said Christopher Z. Mooney, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “Machine politics is about one thing: getting jobs. Suburban voters tend to be more concerned about corruption. They’re a little better off,” and thus don’t need the government jobs political bosses can dole out…

While many suburban representatives had benefited from Madigan’s operation, the ComEd scandal marked the moment that “a limit had been reached,” Mooney said. “They felt that his usefulness was over. The fact that they were from the suburbs allowed them to have some cover. Madigan’s political tentacles are more effective in the city of Chicago or Cook County.”…

Suburbanites haven’t just changed the way politics is conducted within the Democratic Party, they’ve also made certain issues more important to the party. Abortion, for instance. In the 1980s, the Catholic Madigan declared himself “100% pro-life.” In 2019, he supported the Reproductive Health Act, which ensured that abortion will be legal in Illinois if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and declares that a “fetus does not have independent rights under the laws of this state.”

The explanations here suggest the changes in suburbs have had significant consequences for politics. As noted above, corruption turns off suburban voters – who often like the idea of more virtuous smaller local government – and there are more pro-choice suburban voters.

I could imagine several other factors involving suburbia that have influenced this change:

  1. The increasing suburban population compared to the population of Chicago. As a proportion of Illinois residents, there are more suburbanites than in the past. This does not necessarily guarantee changes toward what suburbanites want but it could be a factor.
  2. The suburbs have changed in demographic composition. There are now different kinds of suburban residents, including more racial and ethnic minorities and more lower-income residents. The whiter and wealthier suburbs still exist in places but so does more complex suburbia. The suburban voters today are not just more educated whites.
  3. While the comparison above is between Chicago style politics and suburban politics, I wonder how suburbanites view the big city more broadly as compared to the past. Are more suburbanites interested in life in denser communities with more cultural opportunities (even if they are in the suburbs)? How essential is Chicago to the region and state compared to all of the activity – business, cultural, civically – in the suburbs?

The growing $100+ million in debt for the most expensive home in Los Angeles

Subprime lending helped bring about the housing crisis of the late 2000s but it is also utilized by very wealthy actors, such as in the case of a home valued in the hundreds of millions:

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The first loan, which a source close to the project said also refinanced existing bank debt, was $82.5 million with a minimum interest rate of 11%. It included an agreement that should the house sell for more than $200 million, Hankey would get $3.5 million of the sale.

Niami came back a little over a year later and borrowed an additional $8.5 million at the same rate, paying a loan fee of $82,500. He also agreed to more onerous terms: giving Hankey a percentage of the profits if the house sold for $100 million to $200 million.

Two months before the loans were due, Niami came back for a third helping, and got an additional $15 million at the same interest rate. There were no changes to the profit-sharing arrangement, but this time the developer had to cough up a $1-million application fee.

The total: a whopping $106 million that Crestlloyd defaulted on when it all came due on Oct. 31, 2020 — and it’s growing with interest and penalties. But Hankey is not the only lender owed by Crestlloyd, according to a title report provided by the receiver.

There is a lot of money wrapped up in this house and it is unclear whether those involved will get what they hoped for. Almost regardless of what happens in the short-term, this house will live on in future memories because of its price-tag and location. Will it end up being a cautionary tale/disaster or an eventual success in a land of mega-mansions and wealthy residents?

Because this is one of the most expensive properties around, would the fallout from the subprime lending receive more attention or less attention compared to the consequences of subprime loans in the late 2000s? How long would it take to sort out debt and payments in court? While there are wealthy actors involved, a lot of money could be lost and even the wealthiest would feel a loss of $50-100 million on a single house.

Chicago starts new round of advertising battle with Texas

Chicago and Illinois have been part of advertising campaigns from other states – Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin – in recent years. Several weeks ago, a Chicago group countered with a full page ad in the Dallas Morning News:

World Business Chicago, the city’s public-private economic development arm, purchased the print ad, which opens with “Dear Texas” before jumping into reasons companies should consider moving north. It cites the Midwest city’s startup ecosystem, attraction of tech and engineering graduates and a top-ranked logistics and transportation sector as strengths.

Then it hones in on what it perceives as Texas’ new weakness.

“In Chicago, we believe in every person’s right to vote, protecting reproductive rights and science to fight COVID-19,″ the ad states.

“We believe that the values of the city you are doing business in matters more than ever before,” World Business Chicago CEO Michael Fassnacht told Bloomberg News Friday.

So goes on the ongoing battle between different cities and states in the United States with sizable differences. Certain locations stand out as outliers for the two sides; places like California, New York City, and Chicago for liberals and Texas, Florida, and other Southern locations for conservatives. Certain places do have sizable differences in culture and character but are they as easy to reduce to stereotype as their opponents often do? Many Americans live in more in between spaces – such as suburbs – compared to the ideal type locations often discussed.

The real question in all of this is whether such marketing campaigns work. Would a business or resident in Texas or Dallas see this ad and then make a move to Chicago? What factors prompt people and organizations to move? Multiple features of Chicago mentioned in the article could matter: human capital, a central location, a particular culture, certain regulations. Texas’ new abortion restrictions seem to have fired up many and some companies have announced plans to help their employees in Texas. At the same time, moving is not an easy task. Texas, like most places, has its own appealing factors.

Ultimately, is such marketing more about dunking on the opponent? I would be interested in checking back in with World Business Chicago to see how the advertising worked out.

Is American unity only possible when confronting a common threat? Thoughts on reading about the Revolutionary War

After completing the second of two long academic books on the Revolutionary War period and teaching about groups, organizations, and social networks recently in Introduction to Sociology, I had a thought about what can bring residents of the United States together: a common outside threat or enemy. For many groups, knowing what or who they are against is helpful in forging their own identity and connections.

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Before, during, and after the American War of Independence, the colonists on the Eastern seaboard of the United States banded together to register complaints, revolt, fight, and then form a new country. This was no easy task; different groups had immigrated to the United States, ties to particular colonies were often stronger than any sense of common cause, and regional differences mattered. During the war, not all residents in the United States supported the colonial side and a good number fought for the British. After the war, it took significant effort to develop a centralized government that could tie all of the colonies together. Ultimately, the war against Britain led to enough collective effort to form a new nation.

Arguably, these patterns have continued throughout American history. There are moments when Americans are united. After Pearl Harbor, the country was devoted to the war effort. The quest to take over the frontier from the Appalachians westward required the efforts of many. The Cold War was fairly all-encompassing. For a short period after 9/11, Americans came together.

But, the opposite tendency is also very present as well. The long presence of slavery that culminated in a bloody Civil War and insufficient efforts to address the ongoing issues afterward. Acrimonious political divides. Different actors looking out more for their own interests rather than the common good. The polarization and outrage of today.

If today the United States is in a period marked by more disunity than unity, is there a common threat that could again bring people together? Hopefully, a war is not required. There might be no shortage of suggestions from different sides about what should be unifying: fighting racism and inequality, climate change, individual freedom, reproductive rights, a commitment to capitalism, to welcome immigrants or not, religious liberty, fighting diseases, the surveillance state, and so on. Such unity has happened before and it could happen again in ways that might be difficult to foresee in the moment.

(Related earlier post: the relatively few things 90% of Americans agree on.)

Divine Programming and watching two seasons of a critically acclaimed TV show that treats religion seriously

This summer I read the book Divine Programming: Negotiating Christianity in American Dramatic Television Production 1996-2016. Charlotte Howell argues that television often utilizes two techniques when portraying Christian faith: keeping it at a critical distance or depicting it a cultural feature of Southern life. However, not all television shows do this. One critically-acclaimed show Howell highlighted, Rectify, sounded interesting.

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I have now watched the first two seasons of the show. And it is indeed interesting to see how religion in incorporated as part of the plot. The main character in the drama, a man who has been released from death row even as law enforcement and legal actors are interested in putting him back in prison, finds religion in the middle of the opening season. He has a conversion and a baptism. He is attracted to this faith through the example of his sister-in-law who attends church regularly, encourages her husband to be more faithful, attends a small group, and has a gentle spirit.

Yet, at least through two seasons, the reassurances faith provides have difficulty matching up the problems the characters face. The released prisoner finds that his conversion is perhaps less important to his thriving than interacting with his sister-in-law. The sister-in-law confronts new problems and her faith no longer provides all the answers. The other main characters do not seem to interact with faith much at all and their own self-interest and hurt drives their decisions. Outside of several individual characters engaging religion (a common approach in American religiosity) , it is not present for the other characters or the community.

The faith of this show is not simple or does not always provide an answer or does not even matter to many of them. The characters have religious highs and lows and wrestle with how faith matters in real situations. The faith on the show is not front and center in the way it is in Seventh Heaven (also a case study in Howell’s book) nor is it derided or just a cultural artifact.

At the same time, it is clear that faith or religion is not driving the plot: human desires are. I will keep watching and see whether this is ultimately commentary about the ability or inability for religious faith to intercede in human affairs.

Taking extra time to make a decision in Itasca on controversial proposal

I have followed the proposal to convert a suburban hotel to a treatment center from an earlier iteration in Wheaton, a march against the proposal in Itasca, and the ongoing discussion. The process is still ongoing and the final vote was recently delayed:

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Itasca’s plan commission on Wednesday unanimously agreed to recommend the village board deny Haymarket’s proposal. The Chicago-based nonprofit group is seeking permission to convert a former hotel along Irving Park Road into a 240-bed facility for adult patients with drug and alcohol use disorders.

The final decision rests with the village board. But trustees don’t want to rush their decision.

On Thursday, Mayor Jeff Pruyn said the village board plans to have at least two special meetings beginning in the middle of October. The first would allow public comment about the proposal. Haymarket representatives would make their case before the village board during the second.

As a result, the village board will not vote on the proposal until late October or early November.

Making a hasty decision may be in no one’s best interest. Particularly given the controversy surrounding the proposal, making sure everyone has a chance to voice their opinion and the board has all the time to make up their mind seems reasonable.

At the same time, what would change between now and then that would have a big effect on how the board members are viewing the situation? The proposal has been under discussion from some time and community members have made their voices heard.

This is not an easy decision for a smaller community to make. There could be consequences for life in the community and future development. Either way, some people will be upset. The village board decision will either agree with the plan commission or go the other direction (and the board is able to choose either option).

Yet, a decision needs to be made. I will be interested to see what happens: how will Itasca respond? Will Haymarket look for another suburban location? More broadly, what suburban communities might welcome land uses like these that are needed in metropolitan regions?

Preserving an important Chinese American church building constructed in 1968

Here is a discussions of whether to preserve an important church building in Queens, New York:

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Classis Hudson, the regional governing body of the CRCNA, will vote on Tuesday on whether to authorize an interim committee to figure out the future of the congregation. The Queens church officially has only 27 members, according to the denomination’s website, and no full-time CRC pastor. The church’s founder, Paul C. H. Szto, led the church until he died in 2019 at the age of 95…

The Queens church raised its own funds to build a church building next door in 1968. It is believed to be among the first—if not the very first—Chinese congregation to build its own church building in the US. With the church building in place, and a new wave of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants pouring into the country, the Queens CRC became a waystation for Chinese American Christians and a center for Reformed thought in the Chinese American community…

Pastor Szto, who had studied under the Dutch Calvinist philosopher Cornelius Van Til at Westminster Theological Seminary and under Christian existentialist Paul Tillich at Union Theological Seminary, turned the space into a lecture hall, seminar room, and theological library with more than 18,000 books. According to The Banner, an official CRCNA publication, Szto and his wife housed and hosted more than 2,000 students, immigrants, and refugees in his home…

Mary Szto would like to see the parsonage become a museum and cultural center to carry on that legacy and tell the story of her father’s life’s work and the history of Chinese American Christianity in New York City. She notes that Chinese American church history tracks closely with real estate laws and business ownership restrictions that limited where Chinese families could buy property until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

At this point, it sounds like the fate of the building is still under conversation among particular involved actors. Not all congregations last forever and making decisions about what to do with their buildings can be difficult.

More broadly, there are many church buildings in the United States that are no longer used by a congregation. Some older structures find new life as a home for a different congregation and others are converted to new uses. In places where there is demand for land, such as in New York City, the end of a religious congregation may present an opportunity for a new owner to raze the building and construct something else. Some argue more religious buildings should be preserved as they are important parts of community life.

Additionally, Queens is an important site for religious activity, particularly in the post-1965 era when immigrants arrived in the community in larger numbers. For more, see the work of historian R. Scott Hanson on religious pluralism in Flushing, Queens.

I am struck in this case by the relatively recent construction of the church building. Historic preservation conversations about churches can often consider much older structures. This building is just over 50 years old but it is also socially significant. The church building in an alternative form – museum and cultural center – could serve as a reminder of the efforts of the religious congregation that once gathered there as well as its impacts.