Next steps to knowing a suburb

The six steps I discussed yesterday for knowing a suburb would provide a good starting point for any resident, outsider, or student. Here are the next steps to take in the same domains that would provide explanations of how things came to be rather than just a description of what is:

  1. A community’s website often includes a lot of interesting information. It may not be easy to find – after all, the website’s front page is intended to put the community’s best image forward – but there are minutes of local governmental bodies, announcements about projects, information on local officials, and more. I would go to the City Council (or equivalent) minutes or videos to start. They are often dull documents with records of the bills the community paid and other basic work that the average resident doesn’t care about. Yet, you can see the important matters that the Council discussed. What made it to their discussions (usually moving their way up through other local government bodies) and how did they decide? Attending such meetings can also help though reviewing documents and videos can probably be done more quickly.
  2. A zoning map provides a single view of how the land in a community is apportioned. But, how did the map develop? This is where finding the minutes of the Zoning Board or Plan Commission is useful. The City Council minutes show what projects were eventually approved but the Zoning or Plan Boards will reveal all the proposals that came forward (the ones that are voted down rarely make it to the full City Council). Again, many of the requests may be fairly dull – requesting a variance for a larger sign or building a residential garage a half foot over the allowed line – but discussions about the larger projects can be very consequential.
  3. Suburbs often have an “official” local history or two published by a local historian or group. Dig deeper than this through several avenues. Search through newspaper archives (a local or regional paper); some of these are now available online while others might be present in local libraries or museums. Go to local history museums, see what is on display and how they describe the formation of the community, and ask to look at the archives. (At these facilities, there may be a difference between the deeper archives and what the public is able to regularly look at in vertical files or published sources. Finally, the local library may be the most accessible option: they often have local history material including local government publications. In either a local museum or library, look for a comprehensive plan document: this is a formal moment when the community crystallized how they wanted to use land.
  4. Talking to any long-time residents may be helpful but talking to particular residents can provide more detailed information. In particular, talk with local officials and business leaders. These are the people intimately involved with the inside operation of the community, the movers and shakers. They can often articulate the vision that leaders have of who the community is and where it should go. Some of them may be harder to talk to while others are more approachable; look for venues such as community meetings of various kinds where they are available. Don’t be afraid to talk to these leaders: they either would like your vote or business and many like to talk about the community. (Talking to leaders of other community institutions can be spotty. For example, leaders of major non-profits or churches may have a sense of what their organization is up to but not necessarily have insights into the community as a whole or have much influence over the broader community.)
  5. Walking around helps provide insights into street-level social life but spending extended time in certain spaces can be very fruitful. Such spaces could include business districts, parks, central coffee shops or restaurants, community centers, main streets, and local festivals. Not all suburbs will have such spaces; indeed, many car-dependent suburbs lack public gathering spaces. However, the advantage of extended time in these spaces allows for observations over time (throughout a day and across months and seasons) as well as an opportunity to observe and enter into social interactions with those in such spaces.
  6. Census data can provide a quick snapshot of the community now but can also provide more detailed information. Here are three options: (1) look at the data over time to see how a community has changed; (2) focus on particular geographies such as a census tract, block group, or zip code; (3) dig into certain aspects of the data further (such as race and ethnicity, income and education, characteristics of the homes); and (4) compare across different parts of the suburb or nearby suburbs to get a sense how this community differs internally and with other nearby areas. There are also a number of non-Census websites that use the data in interactive ways. For example, use a detailed racial dot map to see where different racial and ethnic residents live.

All of these options are fairly accessible to the average person as long as they know where the resources are located and have some extra time beyond what the first steps (the earlier post) require.

The difficulty of building suburban housing for the homeless

A groundbreaking for a new facility providing housing for the homeless recently took place in LaGrange but it wasn’t an easy path:

The three-story brick building will house 20 individuals in single apartments on the second and third floors and have administrative offices and the day program that will provide counseling, job training and referrals for services on the first floor…

In 2015, La Grange residents sought to block the sale of property, then owned by Private Bank in Chicago, to BEDS Plus. The suit contended that a corporation, McGee Family Holdings, with a La Grange resident listed as manager, owned portions of the parcel on which the facility will be built…

At the same time as the lawsuit was being handled, Patrick Johnson, an assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, conducted an investigation into whether the efforts to block the project were a violation of the Fair Housing Act that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities….

La Grange Village President Tom Livingston said he believes the facility is a great thing for the community. At the same time, he said the village will keep an eye out to be sure it doesn’t present any of the problems, such as safety concerns, that opponents had voiced.

Even when plans are presented by local community groups – such as religious congregations or non-profit organizations – suburban residents are often wary of group homes or facilities near residences. But, of course, if such facilities can’t be built near any residence, where in suburban communities can they be located? Industrial parks?

I hope few suburbanites would say that they don’t care at all about what happens to homeless people but it is another thing altogether to ask people to live near homeless people. This reminds me of the Bogardus social distance scale; it is one thing to express concern or interest about a group of people in the abstract or at a great distance but something very difficult if they live nearby. Take race relations in the United States as an example. Attitude questions on the General Social Survey since the 1970s suggest white Americans are more positive regarding African Americans. Yet, these improved attitudes don’t necessarily translate into less residential segregation.

A push for Naperville to declare itself a “welcoming city”

The Naperville City Council has recently discussed declaring the suburb a “welcoming city”:

Some Naperville residents and city council members want the city to adopt a resolution that would declare Naperville a welcoming city to people of all backgrounds. The push comes amid an election that includes the first openly gay candidate for Naperville City council…

O’Meara is part of a couple women’s groups that are asking the city not to become a sanctuary city, but to name itself a welcoming city, she said. “We believe that becoming a welcoming city is something that you’ve already done over the years that people have been coming here,” O’Meara said. “It’s important that people moving into this town know that this town is going to support them in what they have to do going forward.”

Councilwoman Becky Anderson floated the idea of adopting such a resolution at an earlier City Council meeting after Naperville resident Anthony Castagnoli spoke during public comment period, asking the City to act in resistance to President Donald Trump’s actions…

“One of the things I would task us to think about as council members as we approach our next social service grant cycle is what could we be doing with the social service grant to make people feel more comfortable, or to aid those who are struggling in our community because of discrimination whether it’s through immigration or otherwise,” Boyd-Obarski said. “As we confront the country around us, if we really want to be welcoming, let’s think about ways that we can do that with our dollars as well as our voices.”

This could be viewed as interesting as a community that traditionally has been fairly conservative. As noted here, perhaps that is why being a sanctuary city is not on the table. At the same time, Naperville is home to a number of wealthier, well-educated residents and wants to continue to attract both high-end businesses and residents. One thing Naperville has done well over the last six decades as it has expanded from a small town to a giant suburb is created a high-quality of life, which today likely includes the values of tolerance and diversity (see Richard Florida’s work for an argument on why this is so important for today’s cities).

The people quoted from this article primarily cite Naperville’s welcoming attitude to gay residents. Have all minority residents had similar positive experiences? It wasn’t that long ago that Naperville was a sundown town or a place where black residents could not be shown housing. Or, in the last twenty years or so, the Islamic Center of Naperville has faced opposition over their locations.

When a suburb dismantles a plane in a homeowner’s driveway

You don’t see too many airplanes parked on the typical suburban street but this incident in New York may serve as a warning to those interested in just that:

A 70-year-old Long Island man who allegedly ignored 17 summonses calling for him to remove a plane parked in his driveway threatened to use a crossbow on town officials who dismantled it.

Crews spent most of the day Thursday disassembling the single-engine Cessna parked outside Harold Guretzky’s home in Oceanside, ending a 1½-year saga that pitted Guretzky against his neighbors and the town…

Town officials said housing the aircraft in Guretzky’s driveway violates building safety codes…

Last year, Guretzky likened it to parking a boat in a driveway and has said he didn’t have money to house the plane in a hangar. Some neighbors, however, said there’s no comparison.

What a production that included local officials giving a press conference in front of the plane in the driveway of street of raised ranch homes. The main reason given for removing the plane was safety but no one said exactly why it was a safety hazard. The owner compares it to a boat and the safety issues there could be similar: large gas tanks just sitting there. Presumably, he is not going to try to take off on the suburban street (though wide streets of many recent suburbs would help avoid clipping mailboxes).

My guess is that this is more of an eyesore/property values issue. For similar reasons, communities may not allow RVs or work trucks to be in driveways. Is a plane that is rarely used really more of a safety hazard than a large truck? However, it does look unusual (particularly with the wings spread out) and probably draws the ire of some neighbors who are worried about potential homebuyers or outsiders getting the wrong idea about the block.

One solution is for Guretzky to find a suburban airplane subdivision. They do exist: see the example of Aero Estates in NapervilleAero Estates in Naperville.

CHA takes care of its own finances, waiting list grows

The Chicago Housing Authority doesn’t exactly have a distinguished history in serving those that need housing and that trend appears to be continuing:

While tens of thousands of families languished on a waiting list for assistance, the Chicago Housing Authority paid off practically all of its debt and overfunded its pension plan, according to a report released Friday by the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

The agency also socked away hundreds of millions of dollars in cash reserves even as its ambitious plan to replace thousands of demolished public housing units lagged years behind schedule…

By the end of 2016, the waiting list for housing assistance stood at more than 119,000 households…

Originally, the [Plan for Transformation] was supposed to be completed in 2009, but by then the CHA had delivered just 71 percent of the promised units. The goal was eventually pushed back to 2015. By the end of that year, however, more than 2,000 units still hadn’t been built, the report found. The plan is now expected to be completed by the end of this year.

As the article notes, this is an interesting contrast to many other governments and taxing bodies in Illinois that are struggling to meet their budgets and fund their pensions. But, the trade off here repeats a pattern that the CHA has followed for decades: it doesn’t actually provide enough housing for the needs of city residents.

Once the public housing high rises were torn down (such as the Cabrini-Green towers coming down several years ago), the topic of public housing has not received much attention from the media or the public. However, why don’t we hear more about the slowed Plan for Transformation? What about the growing waiting list (it is not a new problem)? Ultimately, have the efforts since the early 2000s actually improved the housing situation in Chicago or simply moved the problems around (and out of the public view)?

I know there is a lot of concern about the lack of trust the public has in government institutions. From my perspective, a lack of trust in the CHA is entirely warranted (it may never have been warranted given its checkered history) and it would take a lot to reverse this.

Defining a McMansion, Trait #3: Architecture and design

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.
The size of the McMansion – whether absolute or relative – is important but not all large houses are McMansions. Another key trait is the architecture and design of the home. At the least, McMansions are considered to have a mish-mash of architectural styles, an architectural incongruence where the individual pieces don’t seem to go together. One guide to American houses described this as an eclectic style. More negatively, this may be described as garish or buffonish or unrefined. The particular design may have a purpose – to impress viewers – but the architectural purity is dubious or just plain wrong.
The recent Tumblr McMansionHell has great visuals explaining the architectural difficulties McMansions pose. I won’t repeat what is there (see a 2014 post about possibly the ugliest new build McMansion) but considering the design of McMansions leads me to several different areas of thought:
1. If McMansions are not acceptable architecture, what exactly is? American homes display a variety of styles involving historical periods as well as regional designs. (See some of these on one handy poster.) Of course, one of the oddities of McMansion designs is that they tend to colonize both older and regional designs into some new combination. Take, as one example, the ranch home of the postwar era. Are such homes beautiful or functional? Are they the result of mass production processes after World War Two? And yet, with the passage of time, some now find them worth celebrating and preserving.
2. Many Americans may not mind the architecture and design of McMansions. This could be for multiple reasons: Americans prefer other features of homes (such as their size or their location) over the architecture; Americans aren’t well educated in architecture (where exactly is this subject taught?); Americans don’t mind novelty and bricolage. As one Australian architect suggested, perhaps more residents would reject McMansions if their architectural awareness increased.
3. For good reason, including that it is easy to view from the street (whether from passing vehicles or Google Street View), the exterior (particularly the facade) of McMansions gets a lot of attention. Yet, the interior is a bit neglected. I’ve asked in earlier posts whether a home could be not bad by exterior McMansion standards but the interior is McMansion-like (see here and here).
4. I’m fairly convinced that if given a choice between modernist homes (a favorite of some architects and designers) and McMansions, more Americans would choose the McMansion. See earlier posts here and here.
5. I would guess that much of the architectural critique of McMansions is related to education levels. People with more money tend to live in nicer places regardless but think about the stereotypical image of who lives in McMansions or who you have seen or heard criticize McMansions. Additionally, if architects criticize McMansions, are they doing so partly due to self interest? A relatively small percent of American homes are designed by architects and criticizing bad designs could lead to more business.
6. Finally, I’m still waiting to find the builders and architects who would admit to designing and constructing McMansions. There are a variety of ways to get around the term (think “executive home” or “estate homes“) even if the architecture and design of the home clearly signals a McMansion.

Avoid public wi-fi

Here is a helpful reminder:

And finally, don’t forget for one minute that public Wi-Fi is dangerous.

This one illustration is humorous:

Evan, now 11, programmed fake Wi-Fi portals and took them to food courts shopping centers across the Austin, Texas, area and waited to see how many agreed to some pretty outrageous conditions. For the love of free internet access, they’d have to give their OK for the Wi-Fi owner to do things like “reading and responding to your emails, monitoring of input and/or output, and ‘bricking’ of your device.”

More than half of the shoppers shown these terms accepted them.

I like that this the article ties this issue to shopping malls. This might primarily be due to this time of year when plenty of people are out purchasing gifts. However, it also works because shopping malls are about as close as we get as Americans to public spaces. Where else can you regularly go for a safe environment to be around other people to do one of the ultimate American activities (consume)? While this article reminds us that the mall may not be so safe, is it odd that Americans tend to think of it as a safe place? And if malls want to keep attracting people (who then spend money), shouldn’t they do something about protecting their wi-fi?

I see an opportunity for either malls or security firms: ensuring that your public wi-fi experience is a good one.