The long-lasting consequences of the original conditions in Levittown

When subdivisions or communities are built, conditions at their starting point can have long-lasting effects. See Levittown.

Levittown was built on rules. No fences around the yards. Grass had to be maintained and trimmed. Clothes could only be hung to dry in the backyard on weekdays. Only white people could live there. Though these rules no longer apply, their mere existence has continued to shape and permeate the town’s culture today, particularly for Levittown’s teens, who speak about traditions and customs and the deep-rootedness of certain conservative mentalities…

Today, the museum features a model Levitt kitchen, bedroom, and living room from the 1950s and a sports memorabilia collection. Paul Manton, the president of the Levittown Historical Society and Museum, says the school kids learn about the farmland, Levitt’s mass-production techniques, and suburban expansion. When I ask about the whites-only restriction, he says, “We don’t talk too much about the deeds and restrictions because it’s a small part of Levittown, really.” His response parallels the one Kushner, the writer, heard at the museum. “Levitt was the largest real estate developer in the country, but each state you went to had those kinds of restrictions,” Manton continues. “Levitt himself was personally opposed to it. He was a progressive man. He would hire large numbers of black workers and he had a black sales manager.”…

The layouts were more or less uniform, which provides a familiar comfort still today. Things can get tricky if the design veers off course. “My front door opens to our living room in front of the stairs and I remember my friends getting lost and not knowing where anything was,” says Jacqueline Testamark, a senior at Division Avenue…

When Bill Griffith’s family moved to Levittown in 1952, it was “an old white world.” By the early ’60s, he started to feel suffocated and broke several Levittown molds. Most teens ride their bikes within the town limits. Griffith rode his to Walt Whitman’s birthplace an hour away. He didn’t learn one piece of Levittown history in school, he says. “I grew up in a time when we were being handed myths and legends. History was full of blank spaces or made-up stories.”

The character of a suburb can last for a long time, particularly if later decisions reinforce earlier conditions and choices. Some quick thoughts in reaction to the conditions in Levittown discussed above:

  1. The legacy of no blacks in the community is a long-lasting one. According to the Census, the Levittown CDP is less than 2% black (though the community is nearly 15% Latino).
  2. It would be hard to change either lot sizes or significantly increase the footprints of the original homes. And because Levittown was all roughly built at the same time, it does not offer the level of variation in housing stock that many suburbs might offer.
  3. In The Levittowners, sociologist Herbert Gans noted that teenagers are limited in Levittown and similar suburbs because so much driving is required and many of the social activities are geared around raising children in the home. This may still be the case in many suburbs as teenagers need rides and spaces friendly toward teenagers and young adults can be hard to find.

Going further, this article suggests continuity marks Levittown. Would it be possible to find signs of change or significant alterations from the original conditions? The Levittown of today could be more similar to the original Levittown but communities can follow significantly different paths given certain decisions and social forces.

Race, development, and reversing the designation of MLK Blvd in Kansas City

A majority of voters in Kansas City decided to change the name of a street that had just recently been named for Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Kansas City voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved removing Dr. Martin Luther King’s name from one of the city’s most historic boulevards. The decision comes less than a year after the city council decided to rename the street, which had been known as The Paseo…

The debate over the name of the 10-mile boulevard on the city’s mostly black east side began shortly after the council’s decision in January to rename The Paseo for King. Civil rights leaders who pushed for the change celebrated when the street signs went up, believing they had finally won a decades-long battle to honor the civil rights icon, which appeared to end Kansas City’s reputation as one of the largest U.S. cities in the country without a street named for him…

The campaign has been divisive, with supporters of King’s name accusing opponents of being racist, while supporters of The Paseo name say city leaders pushed the name change through without following proper procedures and ignored The Paseo’s historic value.

Emotions reached a peak Sunday, when members of the “Save the Paseo” group staged a silent protest at a get-out-the-vote rally at a black church for people wanting to keep the King name. They walked into the Paseo Baptist Church and stood along its two aisles.

Streets named after Dr. King are common in American cities. As a pastor argues at the end of the cited article, honoring important figures through naming roads after them could influence people. Whose names are applied to schools, parks, highways, and other public buildings and settings indicate something about how a leader is remembered and by whom.

When so many cities in the United States have already done this, how could changing the name back not indicate something unique about Kansas City? King’s name is revered in many circles – including among white evangelicals – so going out of their way to change the name back may hint at larger issues. As described in the article above, opponents of having King’s name on the boulevard valued the historic designation for the road. Protecting local character and history is a common argument in many American communities. At the same time, could they have suggested another major road that could have been named after King or could a portion of the road have carried both designations (think of Chicago’s many honorary names for stretches of streets)?

I would guess this is not just about a road: it is about who gets to define Kansas City and what histories are remembered. To that end, I would recommend sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham’s book Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000. From the description of the book:

Using the Kansas City metropolitan area as a case study, Gotham provides both quantitative and qualitative documentation of the role of the real estate industry and the Federal Housing Administration, demonstrating how these institutions have promulgated racial residential segregation and uneven development. Gotham challenges contemporary explanations while providing fresh insights into the racialization of metropolitan space, the interlocking dimensions of class and race in metropolitan development, and the importance of analyzing housing as a system of social stratification.

Such patterns influenced numerous American cities but this book has much to say about how this all occurred in Kansas City.

Naperville gaining a reputation for racist incidents?

A recent controversy involving race at a Naperville Buffalo Wild Wings leads to considering evidence for and against the idea that Naperville has more racism than other suburbs:

The city, which census figures show is nearly three-quarters white, has also faced concerns about diversity and inclusion. After Naperville resident and state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray said the city had a legacy of white supremacist policies, the city convened a public Naperville Neighbors United discussion, where organizers said the city had work to do in areas like building minority representation among city leaders

Kevin Mumford, a University of Illinois professor who has studied race relations, said racism could be on an upswing in suburbs such as Naperville because of events in Chicago and nationally. African-Americans in high-profile positions in Chicago, such as the new mayor and leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union who were highly visible during the recent teachers strike, can cause “status anxiety” among white residents across income levels. That can be exacerbated by Trump supporters who feel a strong anti-Trump sentiment in Illinois, he said…

“I know about Naperville,” tweeted pop singer Richard Marx, who grew up in north suburban Highland Park. “And, disgusting as this is, it’s not terribly surprising.”…

Naperville has a problem with racism, but it’s no worse than in any neighboring suburb, Sullivan said. Instead, she suggested Naperville residents are more willing to confront it. Residents shared the video of the gas station confrontation and the essay from the former Naperville resident because they wanted to talk about them, she said.

The two sides presented in the article put it this way: is Naperville more racist than other suburban communities or does it just get more attention because of its status and the willingness of community members to talk about the issue? Figuring that out would require deeper knowledge of how race and ethnicity has played out in Naperville as well as insights into how race and ethnicity is treated across a variety of American suburbs, including suburbs similar in characteristics to Naperville.

No suburb wants this reputation, particularly one with lots of accolades, wealth, and a vibrant downtown. And Naperville leaders would likely point to some significant demographic changes in the community in recent decades plus efforts to encourage interaction between groups in the community as well as with local government. At the same time, communities can acquire a status or reputation through repeated events. Similarly, what leaders say is happening in a community does not always match day-to-day realities of what residents and visitors experience.

(UPDATE 11/6/19 at 10:48 AM: The character of suburban communities can change through different decisions and reactions to both internal and external social forces. In recent years, Naperville has become home to political protests, a change that would have been difficult to forecast for a traditionally conservative community.)

Marijuana sales viewed as hurting family-friendly suburbs, Naperville edition

Tuesday night the Naperville City Council voted against allowing marijuana dispensaries to locate within the suburb:

Naperville City Council members voted 6-3 Tuesday to opt out of recreational marijuana sales within city limits, and directed staff to come back with information on a potential referendum question for council consideration.

The decision to opt out of recreational pot sales came several hours after hundreds of people began packing the Naperville City Council chambers as residents and non-residents waited their turn to comment on the issue of whether to allow the retail sale of pot. The discussion on marijuana sales brought 238 people to sign up for public comment on the topic — a vast majority speaking in favor of opting out while wearing white and orange “opt out” shirts.

Over the past couple weeks, the group was organized to rally and lobby city council members to keep recreational cannabis dispensaries out of Naperville. At the same time, residents in support of retail marijuana sales have circulated a survey on the issue.

People who asked city council to opt out Tuesday night are concerned recreational pot dispensaries would lead to increased availability to children and would hurt the “family friendly” brand of Naperville.

This is not a surprise. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the likelihood that wealthier suburbs would not want to sully their brand by allowing marijuana sales. A community like Naperville has a reputation to protect: it is large, wealthy, has a vibrant downtown, highly-rated school districts, and acres upon acres of single-family homes. While marijuana sales may do little to affect behavior in a community of over 140,000 residents, this is about an image. Not too long ago, the vibrant downtown presented a similar issue: alcohol-related incidents were getting out of hand and the city responded.

At the same time, Naperville could change its mind later. Perhaps the dispensaries will not cause issue in similar communities. Perhaps the city will want the extra sales tax revenue. Perhaps the group that turned up in large numbers in front of the City Council to opt out will fade away and advocates will win the day. But, at least for now, Naperville wants to – and to be honest, does not need to look for quick money or be on the leading edge of this – protect its brand.

More broadly, how long until marijuana sales and use becomes normal fare in the American suburbs? For decades, some claimed the suburbs makes people conservative: they want to protect their families and homes. However, the political tides of suburbia have turned (including in DuPage County as well as in Naperville) and attitudes toward marijuana and other drugs have changed.

Rethink Rezoning, Save Main responses share similar concerns – Part Two

Yesterday, I summarized the redevelopment plans for the East Roosevelt Road Corridor in Wheaton and the Giesche Shoe project in Glen Ellyn. Based on online sources, I will summarize the concerns of residents. There is a common theme: they perceive the character of the community is at stake.

In Wheaton, here are some of the stated concerns:

“We are a residential city, and our city planning should reflect that,” she said. “A forward-thinking city understands that pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and bike lanes are what attract new homebuyers, keep residents, increases equity for current homeowners and subsequently increases city revenue based on increased home value and an increased tax base.”

Nancy Flannery, the chairwoman of the city’s historic preservation commission, worries about the possible demolition of another Jarvis Hunt-designed house, now converted into offices at 534 Roosevelt. Built in 1896, the house was one of the first summer cottages constructed for members of the private Chicago Golf Club.

And a few more representative comments from the same May 28, 2019 meeting:

expressed concern that the proposed changes would build up retail, contribute to congestion and be detrimental to neighboring residents. He stated there are already vacancies and the report is not clear on what types of businesses would be interested in Roosevelt Road…

stated he thinks the plan as presented harms the neighborhood in terms of traffic, safety, noise, light and visual aesthetics, and he doesn’t think there is a problem on Roosevelt Road that needs fixing…

stated she does not want developers to be able to build commercial businesses on lots behind Roosevelt Road. She stated she does not want to see 4- or 5-story buildings being constructed right near residential areas.

In Glen Ellyn, some representative comments from an online petition:

Local congestion, size out of proportion (too large and bulky), traffic pattern near local churches & private school, etc…

It’s going to ruin the quant village that we choose to live in. We want to live in a village not a city with large structures – we would have chosen to live in Wheaton Or Naperville ( village is the key word – we are not a city Or town. We are the Village of Glen ellyn )…

a number of villages used to have charms that brought shoppers and new residents (e.g. elmhurst, arlington heights, mt prospect). their boards allowed developers to build in violation of existing codes and these charms were lost. don’t let that happen here…

My husband and I moved here because the town was still lovely, quiet, and mostly unmarred by the huge, unsightly, commercial behemoths scarring most of the surrounding suburbs. Glen Ellyn still has charm and an organic feeling of development. This development does not fit in at all with the feeling and aesthetic of the town. Say no!

In both cases, the concerns residents voiced are consistent across hundreds of development and redevelopment projects in suburbs across the United States. Having studied this in multiple ways (several of my projects address similar issues including “Not All Suburbs are the Same” and “‘Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Structure’“, residents generally bring up the same concerns: increased traffic, lights, and noise; a change in scale (particularly when it comes to height); and threats to residences (usually single-family homes) and the character of a suburb.

In Wheaton, the character issue is not stated as clearly but it is present. This major road is one of the primary ways people see the suburb. How should it look compared to the stretch of Roosevelt on Glen Ellyn which is more like the strip mall approach and Winfield to the west which is more green and residential (and not coincidentally they are fought their own battles over taking advantage of possible business opportunities on such a busy road)? This is not just about a busy roadway or the homes that back up to this stretch; this is about signalling what kind of place Wheaton is. One that values businesses or homeowners, one that prioritizes vehicles or pedestrians, one that celebrates its history or is looking to simply make money?

Interestingly, Wheaton comes up in the Glen Ellyn comments as a place that some Glen Ellyn residents do not want to become. Since the late 1990s, Wheaton has pursued downtown condos and office buildings. Other suburbs come up in the comments including more lively downtowns like Naperville and Arlington Heights. These Glen Ellyn residents have some similar concerns that most redevelopment projects engender – traffic, noise – but this particular project seems to be a step too big for their downtown. Can five stories “fit” with the existing downtown? This is not just about seeing the building from a distance: it is about a sense of scale for pedestrians, how the building might tower over nearby businesses and residences, and what this portends for the future of the downtown. Let this big development in and Glen Ellyn will become just another suburban downtown chasing after tall buildings and money to the detriment of residents who liked to feel they live in a small town.

Perhaps the big question here is this: are these concerns from residents valid? Are these just NIMBY responses? Who should control what kind of development occurs in a suburban community? Americans like suburbs in part because they feel like they have access to local leaders and can influence local decisions. From my own research on suburban communities, I am fairly convinced there are some suburban residents who move into a neighborhood and community and desire to freeze the place in that exact configuration. Indeed, they moved to the suburb for particular reasons. On the other hand, cities and suburbs are encouraged to grow (stagnation or population loss is failure) and development or redevelopment opportunities do not always come along easily or in forms that local officials or residents will like. If these communities do not act now, will they lose economic opportunities to other suburbs and in the long run shoot themselves in the foot by not upgrading when they can?

If local residents are vocal enough, they can likely slow down or nix these redevelopment projects. How many residents have to voice displeasure is not clear; few suburbanites are invested in local politics even if they count on the opportunities to voice this displeasure to protect their own investments. Local officials do listen and will encounter difficulty down the road if they just ram through projects.

Here is what I suspect will happen in the long-term in these two cases (and in suburban disagreements over development and redevelopment generally): few communities are so anti-development that they keep out all changes. Suburbs generally hope to keep growing and this becomes more difficult in more mature suburbs like these two which cannot add new subdivisions. There are only so many ways Wheaton and Glen Ellyn can add businesses and residents. If these changes do not happen now, they will probably happen eventually as the opportunity costs are too steep: local leaders will have a hard time turning down these chances when the possible consequences are lost money, vacant properties, and eyesores. Some local residents will dislike the changes and some might move away. But, the very conception of suburbs may be evolving as well: outside of moving to exurban areas, many suburbs are pursuing more density and vibrant downtowns. This may make suburbs all the more complex in how they are understood and experienced and in how residents think of their community’s character.

 

West Chicago: founded around a railroad junction, host to Big Boy, and a missed opportunity to be a railroad tourist center

On Sunday, I had a vision of the suburb of West Chicago. Thousands of people regularly visited the community to see railroad displays and learn about the influence of the railroad on local history, the Chicago region, and the nation as a whole. Both regular and special trains drew onlookers. Local businesses, some with railroad themes, some not, benefited from extra visitors. Even as the car has dominated suburban life for decades, West Chicago remained an exciting testament to the power of the railroad in American life.

This vision may seem outlandish on a regular day but not so this past Sunday. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, Big Boy, one of the largest locomotives ever built, spent several days parked at the Union Pacific facilities just outside downtown West Chicago. On a hot summer Sunday, a large crowd gathered to see the locomotive and several passenger cars. Multiple generations turned out. People waited patiently to walk through one of the passenger cars. People stood next to the giant Big Boy and cheered when it released steam.

BigBoyOverhead

A community roughly thirty miles west of the heart of Chicago’s Loop, the community was founded as Junction around a railroad junction linking several other lines to the first railroad line in and out of Chicago (the Galena & Chicago Union). Workers came for railroad jobs. Factories and industrial facilities located near the railroad lines (including the later-arriving Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway). The community developed an identity around the railroad, with a Main Street that backed up to the railroad, the annual Railroad Days celebration and the prominent locomotive on the city seal. If there is a Chicago area suburb that can claim the railroad as its own, it is West Chicago.

Why doesn’t the suburb attract more visitors with such a rich railroad past? It may not be for a lack of trying. A display on Main Street featured a locomotive for a few decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, local groups developed plans to create a downtown railroad theme with one committee member saying West Chicago could become “Railroadsville, Illinois.” In the late 1980s, DuPage County planners said a railroad theme had great potential to offer something unique to families and visitors.

These efforts never quite came together. The suburb still benefits from its multiple transportation advantages – the railroad, DuPage County Airport, proximity to multiple major roads including Illinois Route 59, Illinois Route 64, and Interstate 88. But, the Illinois Railway Museum is located miles away to the northwest. West Chicago’s downtown struggles. The most attention many suburban residents pay to the railroad involves impatience when roadways are blocked by long freight trains or regular passenger trains.

When Big Boy leaves later this morning, perhaps it takes with it any hope that West Chicago can become a railroad tourist center. There is a minor chance it could happen; West Chicago has a history to build on. There is a market: thousands of visitors came out to see Big Boy. However, it would take sustained effort, resources, and some good timing.

Update 7/31/19: An estimated 45,000 people visited West Chicago to see Big Boy.

Suburbs do not want to sully their character by allowing marijuana sales

Selling marijuana may soon be legal in Illinois but this does not mean suburbs necessarily want to be places where this happens:

Naperville, Lake Barrington and Bloomingdale plan to officially ban sales, Libertyville leans toward the same and the mayor of Batavia said he will issue a veto if necessary.

Des Plaines officials have expressed concerns and are doing more research before deciding, which also will happen in Lincolnshire and Bartlett.

To date, only South Elgin and Elburn said they are OK with allowing one marijuana retail store…

Municipalities can choose to not allow marijuana stores within their boundaries, or can enact “reasonable” zoning ordinances and regulate how many and where they are located. That can include minimum distances from “sensitive” locations such as colleges and universities, the law states.

Imagine a suburban landscape starting in January where marijuana is primarily sold in communities that are not as wealthy and/or white. Does this lessen their reputation and bolster the status of communities that do not allow sales?

It will be interesting to see if the communities that are now saying no continue to hold out against marijuana retailers in order to preserve a particular character. The carrot being offered is extra sales tax revenue that municipalities can collect. A wealthier suburb might see adjacent communities benefiting from extra funds and decide they want a cut of it. Or, perhaps they do not see that other suburbs are viewed negatively because they allow marijuana sales so they decide to jump in.