How Naperville can present its suburban sprawl in its proposed bicentennial museum

Naper Settlement officials suggested they want to build a museum for the city’s 200th birthday:

Naperville’s 200th birthday is still about 16 years away, but Naper Settlement officials already are thinking about what the city should give itself to mark the occasion.

Their answer is Scott’s Block, a history museum made to look like a downtown building that existed between 1854 and 1975 as a bank and a gathering hall.

Imagined as a 31,000-square-foot museum to be built on the Naper Settlement campus at 523 S. Webster St., Scott’s Block would give Naperville’s historical stewards space to tell stories beginning with the city’s founding era in the 1830s. Stories of war heroes, women business leaders, even iconic ice cream shops could be displayed in the new space the settlement hopes to build in time for Naperville’s bicentennial in 2031, said Rena Tamayo-Calabrese, president and CEO…

Scott marked the nation’s 100th anniversary by building a gathering place, and the city marked its first 100 years in 1931 with the creation of Centennial Beach. Next for the city’s 150th anniversary came the Riverwalk, and Tamayo-Calabrese says now it’s time to think about what should commemorate the 200th year…

Having additional space would let the settlement bring many of the 55,000 artifacts it has in storage out for all to see in themed exhibits that could rotate throughout the year.

Naper Settlement primarily emphasizes the city’s early decades after the community was founded in the early 1830s. While these are important years, Naperville was quite small until after World War II. It is since then that the community grew to over 140,000 people and over 35 square miles. The Naperville of today is built on some of these early decisions but looks quite different now. So, what could Naper Settlement present about this era? I offer three key things Naperville residents and leaders like to discuss and one other feature that might be a bit harder to present:

1. The role of Harold Moser, known as “Mr. Naperville.” Moser ended up building dozens of subdivisions as the city expanded. The first major one was Moser Highlands just to the southeast of downtown. Moser was also involved in the community, giving lots of money and serving in a variety of roles.

2. The opening of Bell Labs in the mid 1960s just northwest of the intersection of Naperville and Warrenville Roads. The East-West Tollway opened in 1958 and Bell Labs announced the construction of a large facility in 1964. The arrival of high-tech white-collar jobs helped kick off a boom in such positions in Naperville. Today, the city is home to a number of notable companies.

3. The construction of the Riverwalk about the DuPage River. This park was part of a mid-1970s plan to help revive Naperville’s downtown that was facing stiff competition from areas like the newly-opened Fox Valley Mall (where the developer had sided with Aurora rather than Naperville). Volunteers and civic groups helped put together the first small stretch and the Riverwalk has expanded since then. It is a lively attraction during the summer and helped bring people and businesses to the downtown.

4. The one feature that might be harder to present because it doesn’t emphasize a particular person or event is the willingness of Naperville to annex land. After World War II, many suburbs across the United States had opportunities to expand. Naperville truly pursued this, annexing multiple large chunks and expanding to the north to encompass land around the interstate (capturing some of this white-collar job growth) and particularly to the south and west until finally running into other communities (Aurora in the 1970s, others in the early 2000s). One of the remarkable features of Naperville is its size and wealth; few communities its size have its level of wealth, good jobs, low crime, and low poverty.

The difficulties of merging or dissolving local governments in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has the third-most local governments but there is difficulty in trying to merge or dissolve these bodies:

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow dissolution and limit municipalities’ stay in the state’s distressed program. Thirteen cities have been stuck with that designation for at least a decade, and fragmentation at the local level makes it harder to turn them around, said Matt Fabian, managing director at Concord, Mass.-based research firm Municipal Market Advisors…Some localities have shrunk so much they may be unable to operate, according to Ross. The communities are stagnating as Pennsylvania’s economy is falling behind, with job and population growth trailing most states, said Standard & Poor’s…

In Pennsylvania, every square inch of land must be incorporated, preventing dissolution. Municipalities in Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont also restrict dissolution, said Michelle Wilde Anderson, who studies distressed communities as an assistant professor at University of California Berkeley School of Law…

The path of merger or consolidation is often unavailable because municipalities are reluctant to take on neighbors, which may be distressed.

This sounds like a two-step process:

1. Providing the legal means for dissolving local governments. Residents may not think about it much but a group of local residents can’t simply declare themselves an incorporated community or start collecting local taxes – this process has regulations and procedures.

2. But, even if such moves were legal, the article hints at another difficult issue: getting communities or governments to agree to merge with others. Americans are generally unwilling to give up local control, even in difficult financial times, or to take on the problems of nearby local entities that might threaten their quality of life. As an example, see the shift in the late 1800s as suburbs stopped desiring annexation from big cities.

Given the financial difficulties a lot of local governments face, I suspect stories about this will be more common in the coming years. Yet, consolidation or dissolving is not a quick process and generally requires consent from all parties involved.

Chicago’s annexations through the years

Watch Chicago expand through annexation here.

Maps at the Chicago History Museum show that in 1837, city borders were:

  • Lake Michigan to the east
  • North Avenue to the north
  • 22nd Street to the south
  • Wood Street to the west

In the Great Fire of 1871, much of the city was destroyed. The most significant annexation in Chicago history came almost two decades later, in 1889.

That’s when Hyde Park, Lake View and Jefferson and Lake townships became part of Chicago. The annexations were the result of an election and added 125 miles and 225,000 people to the city, making it the nation’s largest city by square mileage at the time…

“One of the reasons annexation stops […] in the early 1900s is because the city really doesn’t want to annex any more territory,” said Chicago historian Ann Keating, who wrote Chicago Neighborhoods and Suburbs: A Historical Guide and co-edited The Encyclopedia of Chicago. “Our vision is suburban communities wouldn’t want to join in to the city, but the fact of the matter is the city kind of hits a point where they can no longer extend services.”

This is a common trait of most American big cities: they started relatively small and then annexed quite a bit of territory. However, Chicago’s experience mirrors cities in the North which essentially couldn’t annex much past 1900. While suburbs prior to this point had been willing to join the city to gain from the big city’s services and the city’s prestige, by around 1900 these local services were cheaper to build themselves and cities had different reputations. But, annexation was still quite common for Sunbelt cities, most of whom were able to continue to annex through the 20th century. David Rusk tracks these annexations in his book Cities Without Suburbs. Here is one chart:

RuskCitiesWithoutSuburbsTable1.5Quite a big difference which Rusk argues allowed Sunbelt cities to capture more of the suburban growth and benefit from a wider tax base and more diverse population.

Chicago’s explosive 19th century growth driven by excrement

Whet Moser argues Chicago’s remarkable growth from frontier town to big city was the result of excrement and new sewers:

The city was literally shaped by excrement. Its biggest single period of growth, the growth that turned Chicago into the Second City by population, came in the late 1800s, when the city’s sewer and sanitary systems were the envy of what were then suburbs. Lake View Township (the whole of the northeast side from North Avenue up to Rogers Park), Hyde Park Township (the south side between Pershing, State, and 138th), Lake Township (the southwest side bordered by Pershing, State, 87th, and Cicero) all latched on to the city when sophisticated sanitary systems were beyond the reach of booming townships, which were tightly restricted by the state’s limits on local debt.

Read on for more of the story of Chicago’s sewers.

This story in Chicago was not wholly unique. The late mid- to late-1800s were a period when numerous suburban communities outside big cities like Chicago, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were annexed into the city. This annexation was approved by suburban communities for several reasons. First, as Moser notes, sewers and other infrastructure improvements like water and electricity were too expensive for small communities. Second, these communities wanted to be part of the big city and the status that came with that.

Yet, the story changes quite a bit from the 1880s onward when suburban communities started rejecting annexation efforts from big cities. The price of the infrastructure improvements dropped, putting them within reach of smaller suburbs. Cities were growing so fast that they couldn’t keep up with social problems as well as infrastructure improvements, limiting the status appeal of being part of the big city. Finally, an idealism was developing among the suburbs themselves as places people wanted to move to in order to escape the big city. By the 1920s, annexations had basically stopped.

This was a major turning point for most Northeast and Midwest big cities. Once annexations stopped and suburbs decided to go on their own, the boundaries of big cities became fixed. Later, as wealth and jobs fled the city for the suburbs, there were few opportunities for Rust Belt cities to expand their boundaries. In contrast, cities in the South and West (the Sunbelt) have had different annexation histories and many are much bigger in land area.

The three issues behind an incorporation vote in a Utah suburb

After writing earlier this week about the decisions of The Woodlands, Texas to not incorporate, here is the story of the Salt Lake City suburb of Millcreek that is considering incorporation on election day:

To supporters, a city would cobble together a few suburban neighborhoods into a more perfect union. After years of living at the whims of county codes and tax rates, residents of Millcreek said they would, for the first time, be able to keep their tax dollars inside their own borders and write their own future…

Opponents say the status quo works fine. Forming a city would heap municipal rules and expenses atop existing layers of county, state and federal bureaucracy. They say a new city would need money for lawyers, accountants, city buildings and other services now provided by the county, and ultimately be forced to raise taxes.

In 2011, an independent study said that Millcreek’s economics, population and geography would make it a “viable and sustainable” new city. But it also said the area was mostly built-out and had few new opportunities for development, raising the prospect that its expenses would outstrip the money it takes in. If Millcreek goes its own way, the surrounding county would also stand to lose $30 million in annual revenues from one of its wealthiest areas, and be forced to cut services or raise taxes on other residents.
If the measure fails, some residents say they are worried the community will be torn apart. At a time when city budgets are strained, they say that Millcreek’s Home Depot, its for-profit hospital and supermarkets would make ripe targets for annexation by nearby cities.

It sounds like there are a few issues present. First is the issue of revenues. Could an incorporated community afford the services it would be expected to provide? Would it increase the local tax burden, something many suburbanites abhor. Second is the issue of annexation. Incorporation typically provides a community more protection against adjacent communities annexing land. this article suggests what is most at stake are revenue sources such as retail and commercial establishments and perhaps job providers as well.

Though not stated here, I imagine there is also a third issue: the tension between individualism and communitarianism that is often present in American suburbs. On one hand, the suburbs offer homeownership, small parcels of land, the idea that individuals have a little space in which to live their own lives. On the other hand, suburbs, even unincorporated ones, require services such as roads, sewers, schools, police and fire protection, and more that is more easily realized when people pool their resources (tax dollars). Can you have a fully developed community life if individualism wins out? Is community, not just services but also strong and weak ties to neighbors and others in the community, desired by a majority of American suburban residents?

Quickly, some Census statistics about Millcreek: it has just over 62,000 residents; the median household income is $57,385 (about $1,000 above the median for Utah), is 87.2% white and 8.4% Latino, and 41.9% of adults have a bachelor’s degree.

One other note: the article suggests “the election here next Tuesday is a fight about what happens as America’s suburbs grow up.” This is a typical phase that many suburbs go through though it is a bit unusual, as it is for The Woodlands, for a community to grow so large and still not be incorporated.

100 year old Wilmette L station illustrates suburban exclusion

A celebration today for a 100 year old L station in Wilmette illustrates some of the issues between cities and suburbs:

The station [today serving more than 315,000 people per year] originally came as an unwelcome overnight surprise. After coming to loggerheads with village officials, a crew secretly worked “under cover of darkness” to create a small depot at Fourth Street and Linden Avenue.

According to a story in the Chicago Tribune on April 3, 1912: “During the night the Northwestern Elevated company invaded the suburb with a large force of men. At dawn the evidence of their work was plainly visible.”

Back then, the people of Wilmette enjoyed their lakefront, and their seclusion.

“Exclusive residents opposed the entrance of a new line largely because they believe trainloads of picnic parties will be dumped there in summer,” the Tribune story said.

Some things haven’t changed. During a recent Wilmette Park District discussion regarding a fence to limit access to the south beach at Gillson Park, resident Fred Fitzsimmons referred to nonresidents picnicking lakeside as “freeloaders.”

The period one hundred years ago was an interesting period for relationships between cities and suburbs. Prior to 1900, many cities annexed adjacent suburbs. These suburbs were generally agreeable to this as they needed the infrastructure that cities could provide (sewers, water, fire protection, etc.) and the status of being part of the growing city was exciting. But around 1900, things changed. More suburbs rejected annexation. Building their own infrastructure became cheaper. Being part of the big city, seen more and more as big, dirty, and home to many new residents, was no longer a draw. It was at this point that the size of many cities in the Northeast and Midwest drastically slowed.

Thus, a new L stop was seen as a threat in Wilmette, a means by which the city could still come to the suburbs. Back then, just as today, part of the reason for moving to Wilmette was to get away from the city and its residents, not to have encounter them through public transportation. It is intriguing that the Chicago Tribune ties these old concerns to current concerns in Wilmette. In this sense, the suburban mindset promoting exclusivity has not changed much in a century. (At the same time, I assume many in the Wilmette area see the L stop as a nice amenity since it means they don’t have to drive into Chicago.)

Another thought: could this also illustrate why suburbanites might be opposed to public transportation? There could be more than just the idea that cars are considered more convenient; public transportation could be associated with different kinds of people. If you can afford it in the United States, you generally pay (outside of a few denser cities) to avoid having to ride public transportation.

When Naperville property switches from proposed church to proposed mosque, opposition emerges

I’ve thought about this scenario before: in an American community, would a proposed church and proposed mosque of roughly the same sizes and impact on the neighborhood encounter the same amount of opposition from neighbors and community members? Here is a case in Naperville that fits this scenario:

For years, HOPE United Church of Christ advertised on its front lawn plans to build a church on 14 acres it owned just southwest of Naperville, and the minister there says he never heard so much as a peep of displeasure.

But those plans fell through, and now that the church wants to sell the property to another religious group, protests have erupted at the Naperville Planning and Zoning Commission. Handmade signs critical of the deal have sprouted on utility poles…

In DuPage County, the Islamic Center is asking Naperville’s Planning and Zoning Commission to recommend annexing the unincorporated Will County land into Naperville. The city surrounds the parcel, and desirable Naperville subdivisions — Tall Grass and Pencross Knoll — are on three sides of the property.

The Islamic Center says it wants to hold gatherings on the property and use the home located there as an office — just as HOPE United has done in the past.

None of the people who publicly addressed the commission about the center’s proposal at Wednesday night’s meeting specifically objected to a mosque.

But more than a dozen said they opposed the annexation and long-term plan to place a religious center on the site.

Fascinating. The complaints from neighbors sound like a lot of typical NIMBY complaints: concerns about traffic, safety due to more kids being in the neighborhood, whether the mosque will be used late at night or at odd times, and the implicit idea that property values might be negatively influenced by this construction.

At the same time, it seems like there is more going on here. One resident would really rather have a trailer park? In Naperville? So a mosque is more problematic than a trailer park? And there are signs being put up to oppose the mosque? This sounds unusual – but also hints at the real reasons mosques are opposed by suburban residents.

I’ll keep watching the situation.

(I’ve been keeping track of several other mosque proposals in the Chicago region. Here are several posts on a proposed mosque in unincorporated Lombard: 9/13/11, 6/29/11, and 1/28/11. In the Lombard case, it appeared the neighborhood was much more welcoming. One survey suggests Americans would be open to a large Buddhist temple nearby but I would guess this question has some social desirability bias and opinions would change if the proposed temple was right near the respondent’s home.)

Lawsuit over “super-majority white neighborhoods” in Atlanta suburbs

Atlanta is often held up as an example of Southern sprawl. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports on a new lawsuit filed against some recently created suburban communities north of Atlanta:

The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus filed a lawsuit Monday against the state of Georgia seeking to dissolve the city charters of Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Milton and Chattahoochee Hills…

The lawsuit, filed in a North Georgia U.S. District Court Monday, claims that the state circumvented the normal legislative process and set aside its own criteria when creating the “super-majority white ” cities within Fulton and DeKalb counties. The result, it argues, is to dilute minority votes in those areas, violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution…

Sandy Springs, created in 2005, is 65 percent white and 20 percent black. Milton, formed a year later, is 76.6 percent white and 9 percent black. Johns Creek, also formed that year, is 63.5 percent white and 9.2 percent black. Chattahoochee Hills, formed in 2007, is 68.6 percent white and 28 percent black, while Dunwoody, created in 2008, is 69.8 percent white and 12.6 percent black.

Emory University law professor Michael Kang said the case is unique because the Voting Rights Act focuses on redistricting, whereas this lawsuit challenges the legality of cities. Kang, who has not reviewed the case in its entirety, said the plaintiffs will likely have to show evidence of discriminatory purpose to have a strong claim. Kane said the case has interesting implications.

“If we look at this realistically, there is some white flight going on. The creation of these Sandy Springs-type cities enables white voters to get away from black voters,” he said. “It does strike me that the Voting Rights Act might have something to say about this, but it’s unknown what the courts will say about it.”

There is little doubt that there are exclusionary practices that take place in suburban communities, whether this is through zoning for particular uses (typically to avoid apartment buildings or lower-income housing – read about a recent debate over this in Winnetka, Illinois) or high real estate prices.

But the idea that incorporation itself is exclusionary is an interesting idea. Certainly, this is done along class lines: wealthier communities have incorporated in order to help protect their status and boundaries. Cities and suburbs have a long history of annexation in order to expand their own boundaries and their tax base (see this argument that Detroit should annex surrounding areas to help solve some of its problems). But was this done intentionally in regards to race (as opposed to just class or other issues) in these Atlanta suburbs? And what sort of evidence would a court find persuasive in this argument?

An argument for expanding Detroit rather than contracting it

In the last few years, a number of commentators have suggested contracting cities like Detroit or Youngstown. So it might seem strange to suggest expanding Detroit instead – but this idea is rooted in some interesting recent works:

I’ve come to learn my friend’s idea is a favorite thought experiment among a certain subset of Detroit-area urbanophiles. Sometimes they will reference David Rusk, the former Albuquerque mayor whose book Cities Without Suburbs makes the case for the economic vibrancy of “elastic” cities (like Houston, Austin, Seattle and Nashville) whose central hubs have the capability to annex or otherwise regionalize their surrounding suburbs into a unified metropolitan area.

The takeaway from the census stories was that Detroit plummeted to 19th place on the U.S. city-size list, behind Austin, Jacksonville and Columbus (Columbus!). But the Detroit metropolitan area — which we’ll define, for these purposes, as Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties — still retains a population of nearly four million. If our territorial-expansion fantasia could have been magically enacted with even two-thirds of this figure, the Greater Detroitopolis would easily vault past Chicago to become the third-largest city in the U.S., behind New York and Los Angeles. This would translate into more state and national clout (and allocated funds, many of which are based on population) and eliminate the need for much of the wasteful duplicate spending inherent in maintaining dozens of tiny separate municipalities, especially at a time when many of these suburban communities have announced their own cutbacks. (In February, the westside suburb of Allen Park announced plans to eliminate its entire fire department.)

Super-sizing Detroit could also translate to better policy. When Indianapolis enacted a similar “Unigov” city-suburbs merger in the late Sixties (under Republican mayor Dick Lugar), the region experienced economic growth (and the benefits of economy of scale), AAA municipal bond-ratings and a broader, more stable tax base. The same could happen in metropolitan Detroit, which sorely needs to attract young people and entrepreneurs in order to fill the void left by the region’s dwindling manufacturing base. Elastic cities are less segregated and have fewer of the problems associated with concentrated areas of poverty. And though sprawl wouldn’t necessarily be reigned in, the region could finally adopt a sensible transportation policy to unite its businesses and residential areas. At the moment, suburban Detroit maintains its own bus system, separate from the city’s, and a planned $150 million light rail project, slated to run from downtown Detroit up the main thoroughfare of Woodward Avenue, would nonsensically stop at 8 Mile Road, the suburban border. That’s a formula to limit, not maximize, growth.

David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, has written several books (Cities Without Suburbs and Inside Game/Outside Game) about this subject. Rusk’s argument in both books revolves around this idea of “elasticity” which is the ability for cities to expand their boundaries. According to Rusk, more modern cities (particularly those in the South and West) have been able to annex more land compared to older cities like New York City, Chicago, and Detroit. With more land, Rusk argues these cities have lower rates of residential segregation, a broader tax base, and more beneficial outcomes.

Of course, these plans are not easy to implement. The trick is convincing suburbs that they should vote for annexation by the large city. Why would wealthier Detroit suburbs want to become part of the City of Detroit? Historically, such annexations in Midwest and Northeastern cities stopped in the early 1900s as suburbs no longer needed the city services big cities offered and the city was increasingly viewed as a dirty, problematic place.

The last city I recall reading about (in The American Suburb by Jon Teaford) that was able to successfully do this was Louisville, Kentucky. Teaford described how the city was able to convince the suburbs that the annexation would improve the city’s business standing, particularly through having a larger population.

The Atlantic piece suggests this annexation would be difficult to implement:

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s benign proposal to ease the ability of state counties to merge into loose metropolitan authorities has been a non-starter in the Detroit area. “I don’t think anyone would support it,” Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano told the Detroit News.

With a decreasing population (a “staggering 25% in ten years”), Detroit will have to make some decision about moving forward.

Aurora now second largest city in Illinois

The population growth in the Chicago suburbs has shifted from Naperville (in the 1980s and 1990s) to communities further west and south. In particular, Aurora grew during the 2000s and is now Illinois’ second largest city:

[T]he Alperins are among the nearly 55,000 new residents since 2000 who helped Aurora boost its population to 197,899 and officially eclipse Rockford as Illinois’ second-largest city, according to the recently released 2010 U.S. census figures.

Aurora’s 54,909 jump was the largest among Illinois cities. Its percentage increase of 38.4 percent was just behind top-ranked Joliet, which grew at a 38.8 percent pace to 147,433 and beat out Naperville as Illinois’ fourth-largest community.

The growth comes as Aurora makes strides resurrecting what had become a struggling downtown and boasts of statistics that show the city’s major crime rate is at its lowest in more than three decades. The physical size of the city also has grown to accommodate more people. Aurora has three times as many square miles as it had four decades ago.

There are several reasons that the community has grown including a growing Hispanic population and open land in a growing region of the Chicago suburbs. But the city has also dramatically expanded in size:

Aurora, meanwhile, now covers 46 square miles compared with 35 in 1990 and 15 in 1970. It sprawls through four counties, six school districts and seven townships. But like Naperville in the last decade, the city could eventually be boxed in by neighbors, Greene said. And there’s also no guarantee that brisk growth from the 1990s through part of the 2000s will repeat when the economy improves.

The explanation for why Aurora is growing is very similar to what led to Naperville’s growth between 1960 and 2000: it is located near highways, it has a number of businesses, and there is plenty of room to expand and the city has annexed a lot of land. But as Naperville discovered, the growth only goes on for so long: eventually, the land runs out and then Aurora will become a different kind of place. As the end of the article notes, the long-term course of the city will likely include denser development near the center of the city.

At the same time, Naperville and Aurora’s growth are not quite the same: Naperville has long had a wealthier profile compared to Aurora’s status as an industrial satellite city (named as such in this 1915 work).  During the 1980s and 1990s, Naperville’s growth was quite unusual: Naperville was classified as the only boomburb outside of the South or West during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Naperville is quite well-off for a large community, has a history of high-tech companies dating back to the mid-1960s, has very low crime and poverty rates, and has a vibrant and popular downtown.

It will be interesting to watch in the coming years how Aurora, Joliet, Plainfield, and other suburbs in the southwest suburbs continue to grow.