The role of disasters – such as the Great Chicago Fire – in pushing people to leave cities for suburbs

A thought experiment considering what would happen if the Chicago Fire of 1871 never happened includes this tidbit about suburban growth:

But then, after that second big fire in 1874, Chicago officials extended the restriction on wooden buildings to cover the whole city.

Elaine Lewinnek, author of the new book The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl, says the aldermen contributed to suburban sprawl by making it cheaper to build outside the city. After they changed the law, a real estate booster reported “a brisk demand for building just outside the city limits.” (Some of those areas outside the city limits in the 1870s later became part of the city through annexations.)…

“Things were already changing, as railroad lines and industry were crowding out housing,” Keating says. “The fire made this happen more quickly but it would have happened anyways. People moved more quickly south to Prairie Avenue or out to new suburban towns like Riverside.”

“The fire pushed 27,000 humble homes out of the central city and the North Side, leading to fewer residences downtown,” Lewinnek says. “Yet suburbanization was already happening before the fire, in elite suburbs like Riverside and more humble suburbs too.”

I have not heard this argument before. At the time of the fire of 1871, suburban populations were very modest. Railroad lines had only been in present in the region for a few decades. For example, the suburb of Naperville, which had just lost out on being the county seat to Wheaton, had just over 1,700 residents in 1870 while Wheaton had 998 residents and Aurora had over 11,000 residents.

As noted by numerous scholars, by the late 1800s fewer areas surrounding Chicago were willing to be annexed into the city (unlike communities like Hyde Park). This is usually attributed to the declining status of city life compared to suburban life alongside the declining price of public infrastructure that made it possible for suburbs to have electricity and their own water supplies. But, the scholars above hint at another factor that would become a long-running feature of suburban life: cheaper housing. If Chicago required less flammable materials for homes, people would move to suburbs that did not have such regulations.

More broadly, it would be worth examining whether major disasters in urban areas push people to move to surrounding areas or even other regions. Do earthquakes in the LA area influence population patterns? How about hurricanes in the southeast? Do people leave population centers after terrorist attacks? It would take some work to separate out the effects of disasters on movement compared to other factors.

Suburban efforts outside Atlanta to secede and form a new community; about race and income or business development?

Voters yesterday in unincorporated suburbia outside Atlanta voted on a proposal to create a new suburb:

The proposal to form a new city, up for a vote on Tuesday, has roiled Henry County, raising tense debate about racial and economic disparity and voting rights. Once a sleepy rural, predominantly white region, the county has seen an influx of minorities and a solidification of black political power as its population has exploded in recent years. In 1980, whites made up more than 80% of Henry County’s population, but now they have dwindled to less than 50%…

If Eagle’s Landing manages to wrestle away the southern portion of Stockbridge — a section that includes its most affluent residential pockets as well as its main commercial corridor that brings in nearly $5 million of the city’s $9 million annual revenue — Ford has warned the city would be forced to impose a new property tax on remaining residents…

Backers of Eagle’s Landing counter that their aim is nothing more than to lure new fine dining and retail to a freshly coined community with a median household income of about $128,000 — more than double that of Stockbridge. Imagine, they tell their neighbors, a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s, a California Pizza Kitchen or a Capital Grille…

For more than a decade, rich, white pockets of metro Atlanta have led a national movement to form new cities out of unincorporated land in an effort, they say, for greater control, more efficient government and lower taxes. But this could be the first time a new city would take an existing city’s land without all the residents of the existing city having a vote.

Perhaps both arguments could be true: there is a race and class component to the proposal for a new suburb and backers of the change are interested in unique business opportunities that might come to a wealthier suburb. This reminds of the argument Freund makes in Colored Property. By the late 1960s, conservatives realized they could no longer object to non-white residents in or near their communities based on race. They instead switched over to economic arguments to justify ongoing residential segregation: people with fewer resources simply could not access nicer communities.

The matter about annexation law in Georgia is strange. The annexation of suburbs to big cities was fairly common in the late 1800s in the Northeast and Midwest as suburbs saw advantages in joining the big city. But, as cities changed, suburbs in those regions became less interested in being annexed. Laws usually reflect this: people being annexed or affected by annexations generally have to agree to the changes.

Even if race was truly not a factor (and it certainly sounds suspicious here), it also sounds like some growth machine activity is taking place. Local officials and businesses (developers?) see possible profits at stake in a suburban area with little wealth thus far. They get the state legislature to make some special regulations. Who exactly will profit here? How much of the money will come back to the (new) community?

Call for Chicago to annex nearby suburbs

Amidst population loss and persistent social issues, could Chicago improve its situation by annexing suburbs?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago expanded aggressively, luring in the formerly independent entities of Lake View, Jefferson Park, Hyde Park and Pullman with the promise of city services such as sewers and electricity. But except for the addition of O’Hare, that movement ended in 1930. By the post-World War II era of suburbanization, Chicago was boxed in by established villages that marketed themselves as escapes from filthy, crowded city living.

By contrast, Houston has used annexation-friendly state laws to inflate itself to three times Chicago’s geographic size over the past 70 years.

“Houston and other Sun Belt cities are really different than Eastern cities, in that many of them have never been surrounded by municipalities,” says Kyle Shelton of Rice University‘s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “Annexations were easier for them to pursue because they didn’t have anyone to fight.” As a result, seven of the nation’s 10 largest cities are in the Sun Belt. Toronto used a similar process to leap past Chicago in population, amalgamating with five neighboring suburbs. Miami, Nashville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., and Indianapolis have all merged with their surrounding counties…

But just because something makes sense financially doesn’t mean it’s easy to make happen. Politics and civic pride are two obstacles: In Illinois, annexation requires a referendum in both the annexing city and the targeted community. Village residents and trustees are reluctant to give up power and patronage. Consider the story of East Cleveland, a bankrupt Ohio suburb whose mayor was recalled after proposing annexation to Cleveland.

This may not make sense for those calling to contract cities (Detroit as one example) but annexation may make sense at a metropolitan level. David Rusk writes about this in Cities Without Suburbs: cities that are more “elastic” (have expanded through annexations since the early 1900s) have lower levels of inequality as cities have been able to capture many of the benefits of suburban life (wealthier residents, property tax monies, etc.). Cities that have been able to merge governments – whether through annexation or joining city and county governments (such as in Indianapolis) – have experienced benefits.

At the same time, this call for Chicago to annex suburbs doesn’t say much about how this would benefit the suburbs. Even as inner-ring suburbs have experienced many of the same problems facing big cities, would the residents and leaders want to join with the big city next door? I doubt it.

 

Four suburb annexation plans thrown out by a judge

Efforts to combine Warrenville, Woodridge, and Lisle with Naperville were derailed by a judge earlier this week:

Judge Paul M. Fullerton granted motions to dismiss the question filed by mayors of the three smaller communities, who oppose the idea of annexing their towns into their larger neighbor…

The question will not come before Warrenville and Woodridge voters because the idea’s originators — who have not come forward publicly — failed to gather enough signatures.

In Warrenville, 177 signatures are required to meet the threshold of 10 percent of the voters in the previous municipal election, but only 81 signatures were filed. In Woodridge, 235 signatures are necessary for ballot placement and 50 were filed…

The petitioners’ attorney Avila did not immediately return a call or email seeking comment. Avila previously said petitioners brought forward the idea as a way to decrease property taxes in Lisle, Warrenville and Woodridge, but mayors say there is no proof such a merger would have resulted in lower taxes.

An odd affair all around: not enough signatures, no public campaign to support the effort, the mayors of all four suburbs denounced the annexations, and the reason for the proposed changes has not been clearly explained.

Still, the idea raises interesting questions. In an era of tight budgets, it is worth it in American metropolitan regions to maintain separate communities and taxing bodies? Would there be advantages in some merging? In denouncing the idea of annexations, the mayors of these suburbs said it is not clear how the cost savings might happen (property taxes around here primarily support schools so merging municipal boundaries may have very little effect) and that residents of each community like their distinct characters. But, if voters were told that merging would reduce their tax burden at least $500 or $1,000 a year (particularly given the property tax burdens in Illinois), would that overcome an interest in local control and character?

Referendums to annex suburbs to Naperville filed in court

An annexation effort in several suburbs is official: papers were recently filed in court.

Petitions to put the annexation question before voters in Lisle, Warrenville, Woodridge and Naperville were filed Tuesday in DuPage County’s 18th Judicial Court and Will County’s 16th Judicial Court.

The referendum in each town would ask a basic yes or no question. In Woodridge, for example, it would ask voters “Shall the Village of Woodridge be annexed into the City of Naperville?”…

Officials in all four municipalities said the chances of actually merging the towns are remote and any such effort would be enormously complicated, adversely affect other taxing bodies such as park and library districts, and raise countless other issues…

Brummel, Chirico and Lisle Mayor Joe Broda said officials in their cities are studying the petitions and looking for potential flaws that would allow them to file an objection and try to scuttle efforts to put the question on the ballot. Brummel said the towns have until early next week to file such objections, although there’s some confusion as to the actual deadline.

This continues to be an interesting case. As I suggested before, the best reason I could see for this happening is for some ideologue to push the point that conservatives should put their money where their mouth is in wanting less government.

Some in Warrenville, Lisle want to annex to Naperville

This would be a rarity: at least a few residents of two suburbs are interested in being annexed by the large suburb next door.

Apparently spurred by the recent emphasis on government consolidation in DuPage County, residents in Lisle and Warrenville are circulating petitions to place referendum questions on the April 4 ballot to measure support for proposals to annex their communities to Naperville. A similar petition has been rumored to be circulating in Woodridge.

Officials in all four towns said Friday they don’t know what’s behind the effort and stress that the complexities and likely resistance to such consolidations make them extremely unlikely…

“I would oppose that proposal 100 percent,” Broda said. “Each town has unique characteristics that make them special. Longtime Lisle residents wouldn’t even want to think about it. We want to keep the uniqueness of our communities.”…

Naperville is a fine community, he said, “but we have a strong identity of who we are and we have no desire to be part of Naperville.”

The general idea is intriguing if you want to put some conservative ideals into practice. Illinois, in particular, has many local taxing bodies – over 6,000 – and reducing the number of these could streamline operations and possibly lower taxes.

But, why would these particular suburbs want to be part of Naperville? What would they gain? The only thing I could really think of is prestige: for a few decades, Naperville has impressed both with its growth and its amenities. However, that growth has slowed (and won’t significantly increase unless Naperville makes some big decisions about allowing denser developments) and to some the amenities might be outweighed by the downsides of being large (think more traffic, lots of outsiders, etc.). Leaders of nearby suburbs are very aware of Naperville’s growth and, like in this article, are quick to note that they do not aspire to be Naperville and their communities have their own strengths.

Generally, I can’t imagine many existing suburban communities would want to merge with another suburb. The only two scenarios I could imagine: one suburb goes broke and/or one suburb is so small and their infrastructure costs so high that annexation makes sense to spread the cost.

Just to note: the time to become part of Naperville was decades ago. Warrenville finally incorporated in the 1967 after several failed votes in order to help protect itself from Naperville’s expansion. Naperville and Lisle also had conversations in the postwar decades about where each wanted to expand.

Deannexation option could lead to smaller Tennessee cities

Efforts by the Tennessee legislature may make it easier for residents and neighborhoods to deannex from large cities:

The growing deannexation debate could ultimately shrink six cities in Tennessee, including Knoxville, Chattanooga, Memphis, Johnson City, Kingsport, and Cornersville.

For more than six decades, communities across Tennessee could simply pass an ordinance to forcibly expand their city limits, whether the people who owned the annexed property liked it or not.  In 2014, the state passed a law requiring residents to vote in favor of joining a city before their property can be annexed…

However, the 1990s and early 2000s were a time of rapid expansion under former mayor Victor Ashe.  Knoxville grew by 26 square miles during his time as mayor, mostly through what was nicknamed “finger annexation” that extended the city limits in the shape of fingers along the interstates…

Deannexation means the city would also lose out on some property taxes.  Rogero said if every annexed neighborhood left the city, it would add up to around $377,000 in annual property taxes.  That figure is actually much smaller than you may expect based on how much property Knoxville annexed in the late 1990s.  Rogero noted only residential property would be eligible for deannexation and much of Knoxville’s annexed property was zoned for commercial use.

Annexation stopped for many Northern cities around the turn of the 20th century as suburbs stopped wanting to join big cities but Sun Belt cities have often had different policies and more land growth over recent decades. Forced annexation would be one of the worst things one could do to many suburbanites who prize property rights and local control. But, it is another thing to allow them to deannex themselves. Would a better solution be to have both parties – those who want to leave as well as the larger community – both approve the annexation or deannexation via vote?

More broadly, there are various efforts for more metropolitan government, particularly to help balance out disparities (housing, education systems, tax bases, etc.) wrought by residential segregation, or to consolidate or limit the growth of local taxing bodies. Thus, it is interesting to hear of an effort to go the direction and let people continue to fragment within regions.