“Blue surge in [suburban] Georgia” quote

I talked earlier this week with Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor about the primary race in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in the Atlanta suburbs. Here is part of the story published on Wednesday:

In part seen as a referendum on President Trump, Ossoff’s out-of-the-blue campaign also offers a mirror on how changing suburban values are coming to a head in unexpected ways.

In the past decade especially, Atlanta suburbs like Cobb, Dekalb, and Fulton, parts of which make up the Sixth, have become younger, more diverse, more place-focused, and more urbane than their dad’s suburbs. A values shift toward walkability and sustainability is creating opportunities for moderates like Ossoff who respect suburban traditions while also seeking not to exclude people by race or wealth…

The new suburban appeal resonates not just for younger Americans in search of authentic experiences, but older ones as well, ranging from empty nesters who want a more urban lifestyle without having to move to the city to Gen X divorcees who are trying to juggle jobs, social lives, and two households without being stuck in Atlanta traffic all day.

“The suburbs are not just composed of wealthy conservatives, even though such communities do exist,” says Brian Miller, a Wheaton College, Ill., sociologist who studies the suburbs. The difference is that “there are now a variety of populations with a variety of concerns.” That means “local and national elections may [now] depend on reaching voters in middle suburbs who might go either way depending on the candidates, economic conditions [and] quality of life concerns.”

I’ll add a bit more since this touches on one areas of my research: from the outside, suburbs may look all the same. The physical pieces may be similar (different configurations of subdivisions, roads, big box stores and fast food establishments, etc.) and there are presumed to be similar values (middle-class homeowners who fiercely protect local interests such as property values). Yet, if you spend time in suburban areas, you find that communities can differ quite a bit even if they all fit under the umbrella term “suburb.” Depending on the demographics of particular communities (and suburbs are increasingly non-white as well as have more poor residents) as well as unique histories (which are influenced by the date of founding, distance from the big city, and actions of past and current leaders), suburbs can be quite different and have their own character.

So trying to understand voting patterns in suburbs can be complicated. Suburbs closer to big cities tend to lean Democratic and those at the metropolitan edges lean Republican. In the middle, voters can be swayed and are less predictable – indeed, they may be the real swing states for politicians to fight over. This map of the primary results in the New York Times supports these earlier findings: there are different clusters of support for the various candidates throughout the suburban district.

The potential decline of mature, wealthier suburbs

If you are not growing, you are falling behind. Does the principle apply to older suburbs? See the case of several New England suburbs:

This has little to do with the housing market broadly speaking: In cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston, prices are rising and homes are sold within days of listing. Rather, it’s a sign that suburban neighborhoods straight out of Mad Men are no longer as in-demand as they once were. Around Boston, for example, 51 towns and suburbs started the year with price declines while the city’s prices skyrocketed. Indeed, as Blackwood drives me through this picturesque New England town just an hour from New York, we pass dozens of for-sale and for-rent signs outside home set back from the road. These are homes that, one day, might have been on any family’s dream list, back when suburbs were where everyone wanted to live and there were dozens of companies to work for nearby. Median home values in Fairfield County, where New Canaan is located, are down 21 percent from their peak in 2003, according to Zillow; for the state as a whole median home values are down 18 percent from their 2004 peak. By contrast, home values nationwide are down just 5 percent from their 2005 peak. In urban areas, they are up—often substantially; in Boston, Charlotte, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle, prices this year have set record highs.

Cities are in vogue again, and that’s starting to be a problem for places that are made up mostly of suburbs. Companies like General Electric that were once headquartered here in the suburbs are decamping for city centers, where they say they can more easily find the talent they need. In 2010, Aetna abandoned a giant campus in Middletown, Connecticut; Pfizer recently tore down 750,000 square feet of unused laboratory space in nearby Groton. At the same time, the baby boomers who flooded the suburbs to raise their children are getting older and no longer need big homes, but their children’s generation doesn’t have the desire—nevermind the savings—to buy up the houses, at least not at the prices boomers are looking for.

The Northeast has long been growing more slowly than other, warmer, parts of the country. Now, parts of the region are starting to see net losses in population. Between 2014 and 2015, Connecticut lost nearly 4,000 residents as Florida, a retirement hub, added 366,000. During that same period, the Northeast and Midwest together lost half a million people to the South and West. “Where the real action is is the Sun Belt,” William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institute, told me.

The losses are exacerbated by the fact that the region’s median age is growing. Connecticut, alongside New England neighbors Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, is one of only a few states to have a median age over 40, which means half of its population is over child-bearing age, according to Peter Francese, a New Hampshire-based demographer. “Connecticut is a basketcase demographically, as are many of the states in New England,” Francese told me.

Several thoughts:

  1. As the article notes, there is both inter-regional competition for residents and businesses as well as intra-regional competition. It would be interesting to know whether these communities have seriously considered changes to attract new people. Of course, doing so might mean altered demographics or character.
  2. The problems here are partly regional but also common across American suburbs. What do communities do when (1) they run out of new greenfield space and (2) stop growing? This stage of development might require large decisions to be made because of a default of not changing much could lead to additional issues – see #3.
  3. I would also add that these suburbs are also competing with other nearby suburbs in addition to cities. There are plenty of suburbs trying denser housing or more cultural events or affordable housing that might just attract some of those residents who are leaving or city residents who want the suburban life.
  4. It would be fascinating to compare suburbs at this mature stage – limited land to develop, aging populations and an older housing stock, population plateau or decline – that differ on social class. The suburbs profiled here are wealthy and it could take some time before outsiders could truly point to noticeable decline. In contrast, suburbs with fewer resources could more quickly decline. And once the “decline” starts, what can stem the tide or reverse it?

Thorium contaminated soil out of West Chicago; still groundwater

Earlier this week, the last thorium contaminated soil was shipped out of West Chicago:

After more than 30 years and $1.2 billion worth of cleanup work, the final rail cars filled with contaminated materials from the former Kerr-McGee factory site in West Chicago have been shipped out of town.

Mayor Ruben Pineda said the occasion is cause for celebration. On Tuesday, he gathered with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, Weston Solutions, DuPage County and other organizations that have helped with removing thousands of pounds of thorium waste produced by the factory. They watched the rail cars head to Utah, where the materials will be buried in the desert.

However, this is not the end of the thorium saga:

Although the soil is gone, city officials said they are waiting for the federal government to provide about $32 million to resolve issues with the contaminated groundwater at the site.

“We still have a lot of work to do out there,” Pineda said. “If we were to get (the $32 million), we could finish the project relatively quickly and (the factory site) would turn into a beautiful park.”

Both parts of this process – removing the soil and finding the funds to completely finish the job (see earlier posts on the long search for funds) – have been lengthy.

With an end in sight, I wonder how long it will take for the idea that thorium is part of West Chicago’s character to dissipate. This has been an ongoing issue for over four decades and this industrial, working-class suburb has often attracted certain attention because of the radioactive material. But, once the thorium is gone for good, those who lived in the community will move away or pass on and newer generations have little or no understanding or experience with this part of the community’s past. Will the community want to remember how it came together to get the thorium out or would it be better to just forget the whole episode and its negative connotations?

How a growing suburb plans to remain “a small town at heart”

Many growing suburbs claim to still be small towns in spirit. Here is how the mayor of Warrenville makes this argument while explaining a new development:

At the September 21, City Council meeting, nearly unanimous preliminary approval was given to a new development that will occupy a 4.3-acre site adjacent to the Warrenville Library called Settlers Pointe. this moderate dense development will consist of 34 single-family homes, 14 two-story and 20 three-story units, selling in the $350,000 to $450,000 price range. I believe this project will be a wonderful addition to Warrenville on many levels, but there was a time when I would have viewed this development through a different lens, and because of its density, would have been adamantly opposed to it as “not in line with the character of Warrenville”…

In the case of Settlers Pointe, it will be good for Warrenville in many ways. It is an attractive development being done by an accomplished and quality developer (google David Weekley Homes) who knows the market. You have told us that a very high priority is economic development. Essential to that goal is “rooftops”. Businesses will not invest in areas without enough people to support them. these new homes will help spur the redevelopment of our downtown, something else you have given us as a priority…

Rural may no longer be geographically possible for our town, but we have resolved to remain a small town at heart. this is the “character” that you have consistently told us that is most important to you to enhance and preserve. It is independent of housing style or lot size. The people who choose to come to Settlers Pointe in Warrenville will do so because they see who we are and want to be one of us: small town folks enjoying the best of all possible worlds.

This explanation seems to me to be a bit odd given the relatively small size of the development – it is a small site though centrally located – yet the way it is made is similar to pitches I’ve seen in other suburbs in my research. Here are some key elements:

  1. Americans generally like the ideas of small towns. As this earlier post put it, American politicians push small town values in a suburban country. The vast majority of Americans live in urban areas – over 80% – yet they hold to older visions of community life. Appealing to small town ideals is a safe move.
  2. Broader social forces have pushed a community past its old identity and the community can’t go back. Once there is a certain level of growth or enough time has passed, “progress” is happening with or without us. (Of course, there are plenty of communities where they try to freeze things in time. See this example. But, those who support new development often say this can’t be done – and they’re probably right in thinking about the long-term.)
  3. New growth can be good, even as it contributes to change and a newer identity. Economic reasons are typically cited: business growth is good, an expanded tax base is good, new attention from potential new residents is good.
  4. The development under approval is not too different from what already exists. If there is a group fighting the project, they will argue otherwise.
  5. Even with change and growth, it is possible to hold on to the “character” or “spirit” of a small town. Local officials typically refer to the actions of residents and community groups, implying that people still know and care for each other. For example, Naperville leaders suggest their suburb with over 140,000 people still has this spirit.

Of course, these arguments are often challenged by residents who don’t see it the same way. NIMBY responses typically don’t want a community to fundamentally change; the way it is now is why those residents moved into town. But, some change is inevitable so perhaps these arguments are really about the degree of perceived change. Will this “fundamentally” alter the community? Is this a slippery slope? This can be the case with development decisions but significant change tends to come through a chain of decisions and these patterns are easier to diagnose in hindsight. (See Naperville as an example.) Residents can also feel relatively powerless compared to local politicians or businesses who have power to make decisions while local leaders tend to claim they are looking out for the good of the whole community.

Change is not easy in suburbs. And it is often a process that may look different in its physical manifestations even as the elements of the arguments made both for and against development follow some common patterns.

Chicago suburbs fight over new downtown development

New developments in suburban downtowns can bring praise and dissent as leaders and residents pursue different goals:

From northwest suburban Barrington to Clarendon Hills in DuPage County, a recent mini-boom in post-recession construction projects has sparked bitter battles over historic preservation and building heights and, in one case, a lawsuit by residents who claim a condominium project was illegally approved and would destroy their hometown’s quiet charms.

The stakes can be so high for community leaders that, in north suburban Highwood, officials have offered a local bocce club the chance to move into a new, $4 million facility in order to make way for a proposed five-story development. Yet where local leaders sometimes see a chance to revitalize aging commercial districts and bring in more tax revenue, existing residents and businesses often worry about what such changes will bring.

“It’s all a balancing act. How do you maintain the vibrancy of a downtown business district for the segment of the community that is clamoring for that, without destroying its history and everything that makes it a quaint village,” said Jason Lohmeyer, a recently elected Barrington village trustee…

Rachel Weber, an urban planning and policy associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the conflicts that frequently erupt between pro- and anti-development factions pit residents fearful of any dramatic changes to their hometown against those who view new development as essential to a healthy local economy.

I have found similar stories in my own research on suburbs. Community leaders often want a vibrant downtown: it can bring in more tax revenue (increased sales taxes, more money through property taxes if the land is improved) and avoid a languishing or sleepy downtown (a black mark) while replacing it with a lively place that draws in visitors and boosts the community’s image. Improving the downtown might become particularly important as a suburb grows in size or if it runs out of open space. Residents may want some of these things as well (lower taxes are good, lively shopping entertainment and cultural options nearby might be desirable) but can often resist development that is out of scale or challenges the quaint look of the downtown. Some of this is hyperbole – one resident in this story claims a three-story condo building is a “skyscraper” – yet residents worry that the suburb that moved into won’t be the same suburb later.

There are several ways to summarize this process and I’ll conclude with my own take as a sociologist studying suburbs:

  1. This is just NIMBY behavior from suburban residents. Some residents act as if they would like to freeze a community in time right when they move in. (There is some truth to this.)
  2. Suburban leaders are determined to grow, even if the residents don’t desire it and their community can’t handle much growth. This would lean toward a growth machines explanation where leaders want to benefit from local deals and make their mark. (There is some truth to this.)
  3. A more comprehensive view: situations like this demonstrate the negotiated aspect of a community’s character. Although large or consequential discussions between residents and leaders are relatively infrequent, some of these discussions over important areas – like downtowns where many people feel they have a stake – can have long-term effects. Because suburbs privilege local control and residents often have some measure of social status (income, education, homeownership), these discussions are bound to happen at some point. Some suburbs will veer toward a quainter character, some will aggressively court new growth and transform their downtown, and others will try to pursue a middle path of growth that matches the community’s character. Yet, these discussions are important to track and analyze if we want to understand how suburban development happens and how it matters for later outcomes.

Luxury apartments with Cabrini-Green heritage

A new luxury apartment building on the location of the Cabrini-Green public housing high rises appears ready to build on the site’s heritage:

A new luxury apartment tower at 625 W. Division Street is set to open this autumn, delivering 240 new rental units and 5,500 square feet of retail space to the former Cabrini-Green area. And instead of fighting the neighborhood’s name or trying to rebrand it as something else, developer Gerding Edlen is perfectly fine with describing the area as Cabrini-Green. In a press release, a Gerding Edlen rep states that they are very well aware of what is happening in the area and want to embrace the neighborhood’s past. “With Xavier, we had an opportunity to be part of the continued story of this neighborhood,” their Director of East Coast and Midwest Acquisitions Matt Edlen says, “We are particularly conscious of this neighborhood’s rich and long standing history, and feel the project will have positive long-term impacts on the area.” In embracing the area’s history, Gerding Edlen might help other developers come to terms with and accept the Cabrini-Green name and the neighborhood’s next chapter—which is looking to be dominated by high-end rental towers.

Designed by GREC Architecture, the 18-story tower dubbed Xavier is not unlike many other luxury towers being built throughout the greater downtown area. It’ll boast many upscale amenities such as a fitness center, both an indoor and outdoor dog run area, an outdoor terrace and pool deck and a rooftop lounge space. The LEED Gold-certified tower will also include some high tech offerings like electric car charging stations, and its units will feature finishes made some sustainable materials and Nest thermostats.

Presumably, the new building will be cast as part of the rebirth of the neighborhood. New residents can be part of something new. But, how exactly do the luxury apartments fit with the legacy of the public housing project (which could be remembered by different people for their crime, lack of maintenance, a land grab by the city) or even with the Little Sicily area that preceded the high rises? (Hence the name borrowing from Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants.) Who exactly gets to decide what the new neighborhood will be called – new developers, former residents, others? Location names aren’t just geographic; they have social connotations that often do not change quickly.

Those opposed to the teardown of the high rises might see this as another instance of whitewashing history by removing public housing residents from the public eye. In a few years, perhaps Cabrini-Green will simply mean another luxury apartment neighborhood outside of Chicago’s Loop.

Reflecting on McKinney, TX as Money’s Best Place to Live

Following the pool incident McKinney, Texas, one former resident thinks through how the event matches Money‘s claim that it is the Best Place to Live in the United States:

Before this month, the last time McKinney made major news was in the fall, when it was named the best place to live in America by Money magazine. It’s among the fastest-growing cities in the country, and lately big companies have infused the region with thousands of jobs in fields such as energy and aviation. Starting this year, Money wrote, every high-school freshman in McKinney would be issued a Macbook Air to aid in his or her studies.

“Underlying McKinney’s homey Southern charm is a thoroughly modern city,” the Money story gushed…

But the events of recent weeks suggest that even as McKinney has boomed and prospered, some of the more repressive aspects of small-town thinking persist. Perhaps now that so many have come to McKinney to claim what they feel is theirs—a better job, a bigger house, a more private swimming pool—people feel more entitled than ever to push away anyone unlike themselves. Perhaps some cops believe they have an even bigger mandate to crack down on those who pester the well-heeled. Adults at the pool were reportedly telling the black children to “go back to Section 8” housing, and in the aftermath of the incident, local homeowners defended the police. “I feel absolutely horrible for the police and what’s going on… they were completely outnumbered and they were just doing the right thing when these kids were fleeing and using profanity and threatening security guards,” one anonymous woman told Fox 4 in Dallas…

McKinney, more modern than ever, isn’t always recognizable as its former, sleepy southern self. (The Money article speaks of its art galleries, boutiques, and, oddly, shoe-repair shops.) But becoming a “thoroughly modern city” doesn’t just mean a job at Raytheon and access to craft beer. It implies compromise and integration. It requires an understanding of the fact that, in order for a newly rich town to keep growing, it needs a diverse environment in which every person feels at home. When McKinney tops the rankings as the best place to live, it’s worth considering for whom, exactly, that’s actually true.

A few thoughts:

1. Even the best places to live have ugly incidents. This reminds me of Naperville, Illinois which was ranked several times in the top 5 places to live by Money but which has some high profile crimes in recent years. Granted, the crimes were rare. But, Naperville has also dropped to #33 in the rankings.

2. Rapid population growth always comes with adjustments to the character of a community, particularly for suburbs. As late as 1990, McKinney had a population of just over 21,000. There will be rifts between old-timers and new-comers, people who remember when they could know everyone and those who are used to anonymity, those who resent new developments and others who like the new housing options. New populations will arrive – McKinney is over 10% black and over 18% Latino. The suburb will wonder how they can have a single community – and maybe this isn’t possible any longer.

3. Quality of life issues are huge in suburbs. Protecting private property through homeowners associations (and their private pools and security guards) and expensive housing (often leading to separate parts of town based on housing values) is common. Of course, there are places within suburbs where people across these divides do come together. But, the emphasis is often on private lives and avoiding open conflict with other suburban residents.