If Colorado wants to become home to Disney and be the anti-Florida, would all the evangelical organizations in Colorado Springs want out?

As Florida moved to revoke the local governance power granted by the state to Disney, Colorado Governor Jared Polis extended a welcome to Disney:

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Colorado Governor Jared Polis has invited Disney to relocate to Colorado after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ “socialist attacks” on the company.

“Florida’s authoritarian socialist attacks on the private sector are driving businesses away,” Polis tweeted on Tuesday. “In CO, we don’t meddle in affairs of companies like @Disney or @Twitter.”

Polis then made his pitch for a new theme park in Colorado. “Hey Disney we’re ready for Mountain Disneyland,” he continued—a statement DeSantis’s office told Newsweek was “an odd invitation.”…

Polis also invited Twitter to launch headquarters in Colorado, regardless of “whoever your owners are.”

States fight over companies and jobs regularly, even as this round includes a particular culture war dynamic.

I am interested in the possible fallout for the cluster of evangelical organizations in Colorado Springs. While Colorado as a state made have made several decisions in the last decade or so toward blue status, it has longer featured two centers of power: a more progressive Denver and Boulder and a more conservative Colorado Springs. Even though the latter center has fewer residents than the cities to its north, it is home to many evangelical organizations. The profile of the city was particularly boosted by the move of Focus on the Family from the suburbs of Los Angeles to Colorado Springs in the early 1990s and the rise of local megachurch pastor Ted Haggard to president of the National Association of Evangelicals in the 2000s.

Would a continued shift left in Colorado lead evangelical organizations to want to go somewhere else? Some of the factors that made Colorado Springs attractive in the first place might still be there but the political climate and state policies less friendly. And where would they go? There might be safer clusters. For example, one study examines three other evangelical parachurch clusters in addition to Colorado Springs – Tulsa, Nashville, Washington, D.C. Would Tulsa and Nashville be safer and/or attractive choices compared to a changing Colorado?

Some city or community might also take advantage of this. Instead of waging a Twitter and media campaign impugning the choices of another state, why not quietly offer tax breaks, a promise of limited red tap and regulations, and a welcome plus reassurance that the evangelicals of Colorado Springs would be welcome in a political environment more to their liking.

The Chicago region has a lot of human capital…and the workers have a stronger work ethic?

A recent article discusses the potential workers in the Chicago region and how hard they work:

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“Probably the strongest work ethic of laborers is the folks in the Midwest,” the Houston-based founder of SparrowHawk Real Estate Strategists said, definitely not rhyming. “They’re just, I don’t know what they put in the water there, but they’re hard workers. And so you’ve got a good labor force.”…

Illinois Manufacturing Association president and CEO Mark Denzler recalls a businesswoman who recently moved her small manufacturing operations of about 50-70 workers to Mississippi with the goal of saving on costs. She regrets the decision, he said…

“When I’m around the warehouse workers in the Midwest — Chicago and all these other Midwestern cities — they’re different than the folks in the southeast and the folks in the West Coast. They just have a different work ethic,” he said…

“It would be really hard. I’d be suspicious of anybody who said they can do it,” Bruno said. “But there is this strong experience with work in the Midwest that it’s part of your development. It’s connected to your health and well-being.”

Contrary to the final paragraph above, I bet this could be measured. But, what would it show? And how would workers in Boston or New York City or Atlanta or San Francisco respond to the argument that Chicago workers have a stronger work ethic? Or, within the Midwest and Rust Belt, how about workers in Milwaukee, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh?

This is part of a bigger narrative about Chicago. it is part of its character. Even as it is a global city with an important finance sector and many professional and white-collar workers, it imagines itself as a blue-collar city relying on manufacturing. The loss of manufacturing jobs in the last sixty years hit Chicago hard, as it did many cities, yet the narrative continues.

I would be interested in a more recent study that looks at how residents of the Chicago area think about the purported work ethic. Does the narrative hold across locations, groups, and occupations? Does the idea of “the city that works” extend throughout the region and different kinds of workers?

Imagining St. Louis as the capital of the US

It is fascinating to consider (1) a different capital in the United States in the center of the country and (2) a different center to the Midwest:

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In some ways, Arenson says, St. Louis was at the heart of these questions. Geographically, it was located where North, South and West came together. It had been a slave state, but had not seceded. It was central to many railroad lines. And it was growing at a remarkable place—it would rise from the country’s 24th most populous city in 1840 to the fourth biggest in 1870.

No one was more convinced of the importance of St. Louis than local businessman and booster Logan Uriah Reavis. Reavis was a remarkable man, with a remarkable appearance. He wore a long, messy red beard and walked bent over a cane due to a childhood illness. Born in Illinois in 1831, he failed in his early career as a schoolteacher “when the students ridiculed him ceaselessly,” according to Arenson’s book. In 1866, he arrived in St. Louis intent on starting a newspaper and elevating the image of his adopted hometown.

Reavis wasn’t the first to suggest the city as a new capital for the nation. In 1846, St. Louis newspapers claimed that the move would be necessary to govern a country that grew significantly in size after the end of the Mexican-American War. But Reavis may have been the most outspoken supporter of the cause. He presciently envisioned a United States stretching not just out to California but up to Alaska and down to the Gulf of Mexico. And he saw St. Louis as the obvious place for the government of this mega-United States: “the great vitalizing heart of the Republic.” In contrast, he wrote, Washington was a “distant place on the outskirts of the country, with little power or prestige.”…

In response, between 1867 and 1868, three House representatives from the Midwest proposed resolutions to move the capitol toward the middle of the country. As historian and educational publisher Donald Lankiewicz writes for History Net, the first two of these stalled in the Ways and Means committee. But a third, introduced by Wisconsin Representative Herbert Paine in February 1868, came to a vote on the floor. Eastern congressmen saw the proposal to move the seat of government to somewhere in the “Valley of the Mississippi” as a joke. But it shocked them with the amount of support it received, ultimately failing by a vote of just 77 to 97.

This story sounds very American: local boosters combined with an expanding frontier and disorder after the Civil War to produce a vision for a new capital in a booming city. Even though this did not come to fruition, it sounds like there was a short window in which is could have happened. And then what would have happened to Washington, D.C., one of the most important cities today?

I also cannot help but contrast this to the fate of St. Louis after this era. I recently showed my urban sociology class the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. This documentary puts the infamous public housing project in the context of a city that peaked in population in 1950, lost residents in white flight, and is racially segregated. Add this to the competition with Chicago for the center of the Midwest and St. Louis might be a great story of a city that did not live up to its lofty dreams.

A novel about urbanizing London and its social networks in Dickens’ Bleak House

As London grew tremendously in the 19th century, Charles Dickens tackled the city as the subject of the novel Bleak House:

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In The Turning Point, the literary scholar Robert Douglas-Fairhurst studies Dickens’s mid-career reinvention by zooming in on this single year, 1851. It was the year of the Great Exhibition in London. Marvels from around the world—an enormous diamond from India, saxophones from Paris—were displayed in the Crystal Palace, a colossal structure made of glass. (The young socialist polymath William Morris was reportedly so overcome by the exhibit’s crass materialism that he rushed from the glittering halls and vomited in the bushes.) Beyond the Crystal Palace, the world was becoming modern. The train and the telegraph made long distances feel short. Commentators hailed the progress of industry, as Britain’s robust manufacturing sector exported textiles, steam engines, and more. Yet the streets of London teemed with the starving and desperate. Raw sewage caked the banks of the Thames. Prescient British scientists warned that the destruction of tropical rainforests could yield “calamities for future generations.”…

In late November, Dickens began the work that became Bleak House, determined to wrest the chaotic realities of a world in flux into a narrative shape. Earlier industrial or “social-problem” novels by authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Benjamin Disraeli had aimed to document the suffering of workers and poor people; Dickens himself had presented a scorching critique of the Victorian workhouse system in Oliver Twist. With Bleak House, however, he sought to do something different: assimilate the new sensations of urban capitalism—marked by bewilderment, bureaucracy, and the collision of strangers—into a multi-plot novel…

Some authors find it necessary to maintain distance from the society they’re writing about. Dickens felt the opposite. The world he created in Bleak House arose from his enmeshment in the city of London and his familiarity with the streets on which he walked as many as 20 miles a day. From its first word—“LONDON”—Bleak House announces itself as a study of contemporary urban life…

Through images of shared engulfment—fog, mud, disease—Dickens joined together seemingly disparate elements of modern life. He also presented an implicit case for social reform. By tracing the vectors that link various levels of society, such as disease, kinship, and the simple fact of shared residence in London, Dickens encouraged his readers to think of the rich and the poor as, in Douglas-Fairhurst’s summation, “parts of the same story.” Processing the chaos of London through a powerful and idiosyncratic imagination, he depicted a community bound together in a common fate.

The growing cities of Europe in the 1800s did not escape the attention of writers, sociologists, and others. The speed at which cities grew and changed was unprecedented. I would argue that what it all means for human life and society is still being sorted out as we examine and adjust to a highly urban world with huge population centers.

Examining the city in the novel – and in other creative forms – is essential for helping people make sense of new phenomena. It is one thing to produce a factual report about urban change; this number of people moved, here are the conditions in which people live, here is the amount of money flowing in and out, etc. It is another thing to tell the stories of people there and then connect those stories to each other and to the larger whole.

As an urban sociologist, I would be very interested in a literature course that addresses urban novels and literary works.

Why people do not flock to the American cities that keep showing up in the most affordable places to live

I recently saw another list of the most and least affordable metropolitan areas in the United States with a key metric of how many families in the region could purchase a home at the median price. Here are the five most affordable places:

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Home prices and incomes vary widely, and there are oases of affordability, mainly in the Rust Belt and Midwest. The top five most affordable places among metro areas with population of 500,000 or more:

Lansing, Michigan: As a result of modest home prices, 90.6 percent of all new and existing homes sold in the fall months were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $79,100. The median home price was $155,000 in the fourth quarter of 2021, the builders’ index says.

Scranton-Wilkes Barre-Hazleton, Pennsylvania: Wages here are below national levels, but so are home prices — the median sale price was $150,000 in the fourth quarter. As a result of rock-bottom prices, 88.5 percent of all new and existing homes sold in October, November and December of 2021 were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $70,600.

Pittsburgh: This metro area has a median family income of $84,800 and a median home price of just $166,000. As a result, 88.4 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Indianapolis. This metro area has a median family income of $81,600 and a median home price of $215,000. As a result, 87.6 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Akron, Ohio: With a median family income of $83,300 and a median home price of $165,000, fully 86.5 percent of homes were in reach of median-income families in the state capital.

Two features quickly stand out: the homes in these regions really are cheap (particularly when compared to local earnings) and they are all in the Midwest/Rust Belt.

Still, I have seen some version of this list many times now and I am not sure what to make of them. Why aren’t people moving to these locations?

The most obvious answers to me: it is not necessarily easy to move and these cities are perceived to have a lack of opportunities (economic, cultural, housing, etc.). American geographic mobility as a whole is down but do people actually move just for cheaper housing? What this list does is highlights that median income families can access median level housing in these five places. Get a decent job and owning a house is possible.

There are other possible answers that get more complicated:

  1. People just do not think of the Midwest/Rust Belt when thinking of places to live. Lack of opportunities, the weather, the middle of the country, a Midwestern blah-ness, etc.
  2. It is not just about a lack of opportunity; these are places seen as on the decline. Even if they are cheaper, who wants to live in a place that has already seen its best days when “growth is good” is a key marker of communities?
  3. These communities are lacking incentive campaigns to try to attract new residents.
  4. These communities may not want too many people to move in because it could drive up prices and bring in outsiders. (Yet, growth is good and many declining communities would do a lot to become a destination again.)

In sum: some American metropolitan areas are much cheaper than others, they have common characteristics, and there are a number of compelling reasons why people do not move to the places with cheaper housing.

Hot rental market in Phoenix and supplying enough housing

In an article about a large and expanding encampment of the homeless in Phoenix, here are some details about how rental prices in the city have shot up:

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“People say, ‘Are you surprised?’ And I say, ‘No, not really, because all of the housing forces in Phoenix and Maricopa County have been working against us for years,’” said Human Services Campus Executive Director Amy Schwabenlender, who works in the area with the encampment, sometimes referred to as “the Zone.” “We’ve had ongoing population increases in Phoenix and Maricopa County. We haven’t had housing production at all income levels keep up and meet that increase in population.”

Real estate investors are pouring cash into Phoenix and driving up prices. Rents there have spiked 25.6% over the past year, compared to a 15.9% increase in the U.S. from January 2021 to January 2022, according to data analyzed by Zillow. (Other popular Sun Belt cities like Miami and Tampa have also seen dizzyingly fast increases in rent.) Vacancy rates in Phoenix, or the availability of places for people to rent, are also at their lowest in 50 years, according to the Arizona Republic

While much of the rest of the article focuses on addressing housing for the homeless, this sounds like a bigger issue. This is an area with a growing population: Phoenix is now the fifth-largest city in the US and had a little over 100,000 residents in 1950 before experiencing double-digit percentage population growth in all but one decade since. Housing opportunities, particularly in rentals, have not kept up. American sprawl often produces a lot of single-family homes but necessarily cheaper houses or multi-family units for those who cannot secure a sizable mortgage.

What can Phoenix and surrounding communities do? Addressing housing in the United States is a difficult task. It will take concerted effort across communities for years. It may not be popular. But, it is essential for ensuring housing for all who need it.

It would be great to have an example of a city and region in the Sun Belt – roughly Virginia to southern California – that has successfully addressed this even as they have experienced significant growth in recent decades. I do not know if there is a great example, outside of some places not becoming too popular such that it raises demand and housing prices.

Naperville’s status and Farley’s “Van Down by the River” performance inspired by Naperville bridge over the DuPage River

According to Naperville native Bob Odenkirk, he was inspired by his hometown when writing Chris Farley’s famous SNL skit “Matt Foley: Van Down by the River.”

Q: Speaking of “SNL,” that famous sketch for Chris Farley you wrote, about him living in a van down by the river — were you writing with Naperville in mind?

A: There is the DuPage River, and when I was writing that I did picture the bridge in Naperville over the DuPage. It was a bridge for stoners when I was a kid. Stoner kids hung out there. So this guy parking his van by a river — yes, that was the image I had.

There are several bridges Odenkirk could be referring to. Could it be this bridge (in a picture from nearly a decade ago)? This is a little removed from the busier downtown area and the more manicured areas of the lively Riverwalk.

Naperville has a reputation as a wealthy and large suburb with a thriving downtown and numerous high-status jobs. Does the image of a guy living in a van down by the river fit this or kids smoking pot by the DuPage River? Probably not and the city in recent years was not interested in marijuana dispensaries.

I cannot imagine a statue of Matt Foley near the DuPage River in downtown Naperville among the suburb’s collection of public art...but perhaps Odenkirk could eventually make the cut?

Complicated urban repairs: 20 years to repair 11 blocks of Park Ave above and below ground

Manhattan is dense, above ground and below ground. Hence, the city is planning for a 20 year project to to a portion of Park Avenue:

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The good news is the city finally has plans to restore 11 blocks of Park Avenue north of Grand Central to a semblance of its former glory, Bloomberg reports, expanding the median from a useless 20 feet to a potentially-rejuvenating 48 feet. That redesigned street could include bike paths, walking paths, and generally more space for things other than cars or pretty things for people in cars to look at as they drive by.

The bad news is many if not most of the people currently living and working in New York will not be around to enjoy it once it’s done. It will take 20 years to redesign these 11 blocks, according to the city’s Department of Transportation. Yes, you read that right. The project to redesign 11 blocks of a Manhattan street will not be completed until 2042.

But there is no mistake, according to both DOT and Kaye Dyja, Powers’s spokesperson. As Dyja explained, “The reason the construction is going to take a long time is because they’re improving the underground railroads leading to Grand Central, as well as redoing the ‘train sheds.’ This entails that they’re digging up the ground, so the construction will have to take place in stages which will end up taking many years to complete.”

The project Dyja is referring to is a massive $2 billion renovation of the Metro North infrastructure underneath Park Avenue from Grand Central to 57th Street. Park Avenue is a bridge over those tracks, and like many of the U.S.’s bridges, this one is falling apart, too. The project will involve ripping up sidewalks and the median of Park Avenue a couple blocks at a time, going section by section, down the stretch of Park Avenue. It is expected to cause more or less permanent disruption to the Midtown East area, to varying degrees, over the next two decades. 

As a kid, I remember reading books with cross-sections of underground Manhattan. Seeing all of that infrastructure needed for modern urban life – pilings for skyscrapers, subways, water pipes and sewers, etc. – was fascinating.

The flip side of that is the work it takes to make significant changes to such a system. It takes time (and money) to work around what is there and complete the work.

The time is one factor but I wonder about how the budgets will work over a 20 year period. Large American infrastructure projects can have a tendency to stretch in terms of time and budget as the work is underway.

I would love to say I will check in on this in twenty years but that is a long commitment…

Seeing 1930s Los Angeles streetcars in color

The fabled Los Angeles streetcar system is visible in a colorized video with added sound of the city in the 1930s:

The streetcar system is no more with numerous works discussing how it was dismantled amid a push for cars and highways. But, the video is a reminder that cars and streetcars operated together for at least a while as the city and region grew quickly. Both provided opportunities to travel throughout the area and utilized the same roadways.

It is also interesting how such altered videos – here with color and sound added – have the opportunity to change perceptions of the past. When even relatively recent history is displayed in black and white, it seems less vibrant and real. Throw in approximate sound and such video could help viewers feel as if they are back in Los Angeles nearly a century ago.

New publication – More than 300 Teardowns Later: Patterns in Architecture and Location among Teardowns in Naperville, Illinois, 2008-2017

I recently published an article in the Journal of Urban Design (online first) analyzing several hundred teardowns in Naperville, Illinois. Here is the abstract (and several of the pictures I took for the study depicting recent teardowns):

Analyzing before and after images of 349 teardowns between 2008 and 2017 in the wealthy and sprawling suburb of Naperville, Illinois, shows patterns in aesthetic choices and their fit in older neighbourhoods. First, the teardowns are significantly larger and have different features including larger garages and more windows. Second, over 60% of the teardowns feature Victorian styling. Third, the teardowns are often next to other teardowns in desirable neighbourhoods near the suburb’s vibrant downtown. These visual findings show how teardowns that add to the housing stock often imitate common architectural styles yet exhibit disparate features compared to older neighbouring homes.

This project had several starting points.

First, I started studying the phenomenon of McMansions back in graduate school and eventually published a study looking at how the term was used in the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News. The idea of a McMansion has multiple dimensions – size, relative size, poor architecture and design, and a symbol for other issues including sprawl and conspicuous consumption – and the word can be used differently across locations.

Second, I started studying Naperville in graduate school as part of a larger project examining suburban growth and development. I published some of this research in two places: (1) examining consequential character moments in different suburbs, including Naperville, and (2) analyzing the surprising population growth in Naperville that helped take it from a small suburb to a thriving boomburb. Naperville is a unique suburban community with lots of teardown activity in recent decades.

Third, I am broadly interested in housing. This is particularly important for suburbs where owning and protecting single-family homes – and all that comes with it – are primary goals. Additionally, residential segregation based on housing is a powerful force in American society.

All three of these streams helped lead to this project. And there is a lot more that could be done in this area as teardowns affect numerous neighborhoods and communities in the United States.