American battle: weirdness vs. wealth

In a closer look at what is happening to retailers in New York City, Derek Thompson suggests two contrary forces are at work in urban America:

A war is playing out in American cities between wealth and weirdness. The former encourages the pursuit of national trends and national brands—high-end fitness studios adjoining Sweetgreen franchises—for the purpose of maximizing profit on a per-lease basis. That spirit runs counter to the desire for diversity and experimentation, which requires policies that actively promote the survival of small companies in an economy that would otherwise eat them up.

I would suggest this goes further than just big cities. One could argue this is a larger battle fought since at least the end of World War Two involving revered ideals in American culture.

On one side are the powers of standardization, efficiency, predictability, and national chains. Think the rise of McDonald’s, Walmart, and Google. These companies came to represent whole sectors of business and their actions helped lead to predictable user experiences and outcomes across different geographic contexts. They are good at efficiency, offering customers a cheap service while turning out billions in profit.

On the other side are the powers of small businesses, entrepreneurs, diversity, and American individualism. Think the quirky and interesting shopping districts that attract visitors. Many of the establishments offer unique experiences that are difficult to replicate elsewhere. Think businesses that reflect the traits of their owners. These are people trying out ideas and participating in the local community. Non-conformity and cool are still sought after.

Both of these types of businesses reflect American ideals. Many of the national chains we know today started as the more unusual business options that became wildly successful. Some owners and founders want to remain small and others want to try for everything they can get. Obtaining a good balance of these approaches is likely hard to do from a policy level.

What was present and missing from my peak suburbia drive to Costco

A few days ago, I picked up a few family members and we visited the nearest Costco (utilizing one of their memberships). One family member remarked this may have been a peak suburbia experience – and they may be right for several reasons:

  1. We traveled in a minivan. We didn’t necessarily need all of that space but it could have proved useful at some point.
  2. We stopped at McDonald’s along the way. The minivan went through the drive-through, a common American occurrence.
  3. We traveled to a quintessential big box store: Costco. The store was crowded, we browsed for over an hour, and we purchased a good number of items.

At the same time, we missed a few elements of a truly peak suburban experience:

  1. The trip to Costco was not sandwiched between a kid’s activity. Put a pick-up from preschool at the beginning and a travel to a lesson or sports practice at the end.
  2. The crowds and traffic were not too bad because of the time of day we went to Costco. Instead, make this all part of a evening commute between roughly 3:30 PM and 6:30 PM.
  3. While we certainly purchased items that we did not need, I would not say that we mindlessly consumed on bulk items. Most or all of the items had a justifiable reason for their purchase.

The combination of driving in a large vehicle for consumption purposes among a semi-dense landscape…is this what Americans dream of when choosing to live in suburbia?

Building a Sears mail-order home

The Chicago Tribune offers a summary of Sears mail-order homes from the first half of the twentieth century:

From the early 1900s until 1942, Sears, Roebuck and Co., more commonly known as Sears, sold thousands of mail-order kit homes, which buyers could pick from a catalog. The Barrington, for example, cost $2,606 and came with everything from trim, windows, millwork and flooring — some 30,000 pre-cut and numbered parts shipped by rail for assembly by owner or a local contractor. Housing styles were in the hundreds, floor plans customizable and prices from around $100

Ohio has the largest number of Sears kit homes, followed closely by Illinois, according to Solonickne, who started researching the topic seven years ago thanks to her daughter’s school project. Because many of the original sales records weren’t easily accessible, Solonickne decided to take on the task herself…

As of late summer, Solonickne counts 213 Sears homes in Elgin, 149 in Carlinville, 146 in Rockford and 69 in Downers Grove…

A number of companies — such as Aladdin Co. of Bay City, Mich., and Chicago-based firms Montgomery Ward and Harris Brothers — produced and sold mail-order homes. Each of these companies, including Sears, offered large luxury models (around 10 rooms) as well as two- and three-room vacation cottages, said Hunter.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this to me is the number of people who might live in such homes without knowing it. When you purchase a home, you actually do not find out much about the past of the home unless the seller goes out of their way to provide that information (and if they do, they are likely to doing so to justify a higher selling price).

It is also a bit strange to me that Sears itself would not have kept records (or those records did not survive) of to whom they sold home kits. Given the size of the order, wouldn’t Sears keep track of this information?

If Amazon is a direct descendant of Sears, we can expect Amazon to at some point sell homes or kits. Perhaps they would sell you all the materials and then offer an Amazon Expert to build it for you.

Old Navy map of Chicago emphasizes trendy, whiter areas while ignoring other areas

A shirt recently on sale at Old Navy made some interesting choices in displaying Chicago neighborhoods:

Freeman, 35, who does freelance writing on comedy for the Tribune, tweeted out a picture of the T-shirt on Thursday. He was out looking for pajamas for his young children last Saturday and saw the T-shirt at the Old Navy in Oak Park.

“May have found the worst Chicago map ever — on a shirt at Old Navy,” Freeman tweeted. “Wicker Park has its own listing but #2, #13 and #14 sum up the entire south and west sides.”

Indeed, every neighborhood from Galewood to Little Village to Lawndale to Austin and the Island is part of the “Far West Side,” according to the map. Englewood, West Englewood, Gresham, Marquette Park, Brighton Park and a host of other neighborhoods are part of the “Southwest Side.”…

A spokesman for the city department in charge of official maps pointed out that Old Navy has a presence in Chicago, which might excuse a mistaken T-shirt.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I wonder if this reflects what a suburbanite or a tourist might know. Most of the smaller areas are closer to the Loop and Lake Michigan. The O’Hare and Midway Area neighborhoods are named after the one location in each place that an outsider might ever visit.

2. Another possible defense for the neighborhoods listed: it would be harder to fit all 77 official community areas and 178 official neighborhoods on a shirt.

3. It would be interesting to know how well Chicagoans know all the community areas and neighborhoods.

4. How many of these shirts could Old Navy sell? Several thousand? Perhaps the company should know better but the map may have had more exposure through the media reports about it than through actual sales.

One of the best uses of empty church buildings: homes for new religious congregations

A recent piece by Jonathan Merritt suggested there are many empty American churches and communities struggle to know what to do with them:

Many of our nation’s churches can no longer afford to maintain their structures—6,000 to 10,000 churches die each year in America—and that number will likely grow. Though more than 70 percent of our citizens still claim to be Christian, congregational participation is less central to many Americans’ faith than it once was. Most denominations are declining as a share of the overall population, and donations to congregations have been falling for decades. Meanwhile, religiously unaffiliated Americans, nicknamed the “nones,” are growing as a share of the U.S. population…

Converting old churches into residential spaces, like St. Augustine’s and St. Vincent De Paul, is becoming more popular. Churches’ architectural flourishes—open floor plans, exposed brick, vaulted ceilings, and arched windows—often draw buyers of means who are looking for a residential alternative to ubiquitous cookie-cutter developments.

While this type of sacred-to-secular conversion may be a tough pill for former members to swallow, many are even less satisfied with the alternatives. A large number of abandoned churches have become wineries or breweries or bars. Others have been converted into hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and Airbnbs. A few have been transformed into entertainment venues, such as an indoor playground for children, a laser-tag arena, or a skate park.

Based on research I have been working on in recent years, I’ll offer a suggestion of what could be done with these buildings that is not covered in the article: repurpose these buildings for other religious groups. I have found a variety of religious congregations that are willing to buy and/or use older religious buildings constructed by others: megachurches that are opening satellite campuses, new congregations that would not have the resources to buy land and construct a whole new building, and minority religious groups or immigrant groups who are new to areas. The biggest stumbling block might be not just the price of the building but also the possible price of renovations. At the same time, a church in decent condition could look very attractive to religious groups with limited budgets or who want a building that already fits in with the surrounding neighborhood. Numerous churches and synagogues in the Chicago area have been reused by different religious groups, particularly as certain groups left urban neighborhoods in white flight or congregations dissipated due to declining attendance.

Are there any religious organizations that try to match buildings with possible congregations? The article discusses a group that works with churches to use less of the building and use of the rest of it for community space. But, how about a directory where a new or growing congregation could go to in order to find a congregation that is trying to leave their building?

Below the surface, one of the issues present in this article is the matter of zoning. It is not necessarily easy to initially get approval to build a religious building in certain locations but it can be even harder to take what was once a religious building and convert it to another use once the neighboring residents get used to the religious building over decades. Residents like the predictability of their surroundings, even if they do not necessarily like the religious building in the first place.

What it takes to run for local government positions in the Chicago suburbs

Getting elected to local suburban office may not require many votes but how do you become a candidate in the first place? A look at some of the steps in the Chicago suburbs:

Most suburbs — as well as school boards, library boards, fire district boards and park boards — require nominating papers to be filed from Dec. 10 to Dec. 17. A few towns like Elgin, Aurora and Naperville had early filing periods…

The number of signatures required to get on the ballot varies by race, the state board of elections says. For example, for library districts it’s at least 2 percent of the votes cast in the last election for library trustees, or 50, whichever is less. For nonpartisan village board positions it’s at least 1 percent, and for nonpartisan city council positions it’s a minimum of 5 percent of votes cast in the last election for those offices.

Candidates must file a statement of candidacy and a receipt showing they filed a statement of economic interest with the appropriate office (most will be with the county clerk’s office), Meyer said. The latter can be done online, but Meyer recommended first-time candidates do it in person. They can also sign a voluntary oath to the state constitution, he said…

Money is the biggest obstacle to running for office, said Audra Wilson, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Illinois. She estimated a strong campaign for a contested suburban city council or village board position could require close to $30,000. Direct mailers are the most significant cost, followed by hiring a campaign staff, she said.

File nominating papers, get signatures from local residents, file a statement of candidacy, gather money, and then run a winning campaign. And with the article suggesting “Just 31 percent of local races were contested in 2017 in Cook, DuPage, Kane and Lake counties,” it may be enough to just get on the ballot.

Based on these steps and numbers, does this suggest there are too many local government offices to fill? Even as Americans like local suburban governments, it may not be as effective if few suburbanites actually want to participate. Consolidating local government units – such as the push in Illinois to limit new governments and consider eliminating other units, albeit at a slow pace and some governments defend their existence – could address the issue but many wealthier suburbanites are probably unwilling to hand over control of their own communities to others.

Mapping county votes in the 2018 House elections

More media outlets are using maps to illustrate the results of the 2018 election. See this story from NPR that uses country level voting to show where the two parties picked up or lost House seats:

NPRcountyelectionresults2018.png

Of the 41 congressional districts that Democrats turned from red to blue this election, 38 were suburban, according to an analysis by The New York Times. (Democrats may pick up one to two more seats, once all votes are counted and elections are certified.)

But more granular than congressional districts overall are the counties that compose them. We mapped the percentage of House ballots cast for the party that received the most votes in each suburban county, and we looked at how that compared with 2016.

This map hints at metropolitan regions swinging toward one party or another while still generally adhering to the patterns of big cities and close suburbs vote Democratic and further-flung suburbs vote Republican. Regions like Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston swung entirely Democratic. Some were more split: Denver, San Antonio, Miami, Orlando, and Washington, D.C.