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.

Chicago aldermen and affordable housing, public housing

HUD is examining the connection between the power of Chicago aldermen over zoning and development in their wards and affordable housing in the city:

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Housing activists and lawyers filed a complaint over aldermanic prerogative with HUD in 2018, alleging that allowing aldermen de facto veto power over most development proposals in their wards promotes housing discrimination by keeping low-income minorities from moving into affluent white neighborhoods.

The complaint against the city alleges that “aldermanic prerogative” helps residents who fear racial change pressure aldermen to block affordable housing projects by publicly raising concerns over school overcrowding, declining property values and other “camouflaged racial expressions.”

HUD officials continue investigating the matter and sent a letter to aldermen Dec. 1 asking them a series of questions about aldermanic prerogative, including how they define the term.

This reminded me of how aldermen helped shape the locations of public housing projects after World War Two. From the Encyclopedia of Chicago:

When Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949, which provided substantial funding for public housing, CHA was ready with a map of proposed sites for projects to be built on open land throughout the city, but the city council rejected this map altogether. White aldermen rejected plans for public housing in their wards. CHA’s policy thereafter was to build family housing only in black residential areas or adjacent to existing projects. This rejection explains the concentration of public housing in the city center on the South and West Sides.

In a city marked by residential segregation, numerous methods for keeping Black residents out of white neighborhoods, and white flight away from the city, the protection of certain areas has been a major emphasis. Affordable housing and public housing are typically viewed as unattractive land uses in whiter and wealthier communities with residents and leaders expressing concerns about property values, safety, and other matters with a sometimes stated and sometimes not underlying factor of race and ethnicity.

The need for affordable housing is great in Chicago, as it is in a number of major cities. But, who will compel neighborhoods or communities to accept that affordable housing should something everyone should bear responsibility for? Outside of some court cases and occasional legislative (Illinois and California as examples) or executive branch rumblings, the deck is stacked against affordable housing for multiple reasons. This includes an American emphasis on local government, particularly concerning local zoning and land use which is often set up to protect single-family homes. Americans often elect local representatives with the idea that they will protect the voter’s neighborhood and way of life.

Less clear from this article is what exactly HUD or others would if they find aldermen restricted affordable housing in the city.

Median home values in Austin more than double in one decade

In the last decade, housing values have jumped a lot in Austin, Texas:

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A decade ago, Austin, the capital of Texas often deemed a liberal oasis in a staunchly conservative state, was among the most affordable places to live. Now, according to a forecast prepared by Zillow, a real estate company that tracks affordability, the Austin metropolitan area is on track to become by year’s end the least affordable major metro region for homebuyers outside of California. It has already surpassed hot markets in Boston, Miami and New York City…

Home sale prices in the city of Austin skyrocketed to a record median of $536,000 in October, up from about $441,250 a year ago. And they have more than doubled since 2011, when the median sales price was $216,000, according to the Austin Board of REALTORS, a trade group. Rentals, too, have surged, with the average cost of an 864-square-foot apartment now $1,600.

Much of this article addresses the effects on the city and residents. The rapidly rising costs have consequences for many.

Thinking beyond this particular city, I wonder at the convergence of people, business, and real estate in the last decade in one city and region. Particular communities, including cities and suburbs, have experienced this before during boom times. Is Austin’s case unique or is it simply the latest American community to go through such growth? Austin has a unique mix of tech industry, cool culture, it is the capital of an important state and home to the flagship university in the state system, and once had cheaper housing.

At some point, the pace will slow down in Austin. This could happen because of the rising real estate values or other factors. What community and region is next? Based on what made Austin successful, I could venture some guesses. The first places that come to mind are on Richard Florida’s lists of creative class havens in The Rise of the Creative Class. Or, perhaps the tech industry gathers in a new yet unlikely location that offers similar advantages.

For five years running and the highest priced real estate by close to $2 million: America’s most expensive zip code

One way to consider the geographic concentration of wealth in the United States is to look at the most expensive zip codes. The leader is both persistent and has housing costs significantly above others on the list:

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“Reaching a new record median sale price at $7,475,000, Atherton’s 94027 remains the #1 most expensive zip code in the U.S. for the fifth consecutive year — nearly $2 million ahead of the runner-up,” the real estate property firm said in a news release. “Not only that, but the billionaire favorite also saw its median rise 7% year-to-year, suggesting that this exclusive enclave may continue to retain its leading position in the future.”…

The list of the ten most expensive zip codes includes several locations in the Bay Area, one in the Boston area, one outside New York City, one in Miami, several in southern California, and one outside Seattle. These are not surprising given the money in such locales plus the high real estate values in these markets.

At the same time, the Atherton zip code stands out. The housing is almost $2 million higher than other desirable locations. This does not necessarily it has the most expensive properties in the United States but it does speak to the uniformity across the zip code. And this has been the most expensive zip code for five years running. There is consistency which could be related to development activity (or a lack thereof), demand for housing in that particular place, and local regulations and zoning.

Even as numerous scholars have studied the concentration of poverty in certain locations or gentrification and changes in particular locations, I have not read as much on the concentration of wealth. How often does top-end wealth change locations? I would guess at least some of the zip codes in the top ten have been significantly wealthy for a long time. However, locations can change, new industries arise, and capital can move and real estate fortunes change. How different would a similar list be several decades ago or a century ago in the United States?

Design standards, paint, and appearances in a suburban downtown

A new business in downtown Naperville chose a different paint job compared to nearby establishments and this led to some discussion:

Members of the city’s planning and zoning commission gave a chilly reception to the freshly painted exterior at JoJo’s, a self-described “next generation diner” with milkshakes, milk and cookie flights and diner classics that’s scheduled to open this month at 5 Jackson Ave.

But because JoJo’s adhered to city codes regarding its main color choice and the amount of accent color it used, there’s not much the commission or the city can do except possibly ask JoJo’s to change the facade and create stricter guidelines for the future…

Behind white raised letters reading “JoJo’s Shake Bar” is a turquoise background stretching across the two-story building that looks like dripping ice cream extending down past the top of the second-floor windows.

Commission members said a uniform block of turquoise across the top would have been acceptable. They believe the dripping effect, however, isn’t appropriate for downtown Naperville…

The issue came up at the end of Wednesday’s meeting when Commissioner Anthony Losurdo said he saw the facade while driving by, labeling it a “sore thumb.” Stressing he wouldn’t have approved the look had it been subject to a vote, Losurdo said he has received complaints about the paint scheme from residents.

Many communities have guidelines for signs and facades. This helps create a more uniform look, ensures that no single property sticks out too much from others, and can limit concerns from nearby residents (such as signs that are too bright or too big). The aesthetics help contribute to an overall character the community wants to promote.

Naperville’s downtown is important for the community. With its revival in recent decades, the city is proud of the bustling business and social activity downtown. It wants to both nurture and protect that for the future. The downtown helps the community stand out from other suburbs and generates revenue.

So, protecting the look of downtown buildings makes sense. On the other hand, concerns about this new business could send out other signals. It sounds like JoJo’s followed existing guidelines. The end result may not be what some leaders and residents desire but it was within regulations. This commission is supposed to talk about issues like these; their task is to see how properties align with the city’s guidelines. The regulations can be changed to prevent such outcomes.

Even having an article with a headline like this might contribute to perceptions that Naperville is a snobby place. The appearance of dripping paint is a big problem for the community? Does a negative reaction welcome the new business? Is it helpful to have these conversations through a local newspaper?

It is unclear how many people and leaders in Naperville have concerns with the paint job. Will it soon be changed and/or the regulations updated to avoid a similar case? Or, can one building stand out a little in a successful downtown?

The boom and bust RV cycles of Elkhart

The latest rankings in the Emerging Housing Markets Index has Elkhart, Indiana at the top of the list:

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Small U.S. cities dominated The Wall Street Journal/Realtor.com Emerging Housing Markets Index in the third quarter, as high housing costs and remote-work opportunities drive many home buyers to seek out more living and outdoor space…

Elkhart, Ind., which bills itself as the RV capital of the world because its region is the country’s leading manufacturer of recreational vehicles, topped the housing index this quarter, followed by Rapid City, S.D., Topeka, Kan., Raleigh, N.C., and Jefferson City, Mo…

The recreational-vehicle industry is a major player in Elkhart’s economy. The Covid-19 pandemic spurred more RV demand, as households wanted to travel while keeping their distance from others. Wholesale RV shipments in the first eight months of 2021 rose 53.8% from the same period in 2020, according to the RV Industry Association…

The median home-sale price in Elkhart County rose 12.3% in August from a year earlier to $209,900, according to the Indiana Association of Realtors. There were 163 homes for sale that month, down from 220 a year earlier.

I am glad that Elkhart appears to be doing well at the moment. Having lived nearby for five years, the area has a lot to offer and economic development would be welcomed.

At the same time, it was not so long ago that Elkhart faced a difficult time. When the economy is not doing so well, such as in the late 2000s with a burst housing bubble, fewer people had money for RVs. Demand shrunk. Jobs disappeared. Before that, this area and South Bend were home to numerous manufacturers who went out of business or left. The homes have been cheaper here for a long time because few people want to move in.

It is good that this community in the Rust Belt at least has the opportunity to at times benefit from upticks in RV sales. Such industries and jobs could leave completely. But, having so many fates tied to one industry that can go up and down is trying in the long run. Numerous communities in the United States have looked to diversify their economic base – see the recent rush to add tech companies to their portfolios – even as they might have local economies based around a few companies or a few sectors. RVs may sell well one day and then conditions change and demand drops or new technology moves in. May Elkhart take some of this positive momentum and add to lineup of industries and services.

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.

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?