The marketing pitch in Chicago’s motto “Urbs in Horto”

Chicago’s official motto helped sell the city in the mid-1800s:

But as European descendants forcibly settled the region, and began turning land over to agriculture and then urbanization, the trees that remained were sparse holdovers from pre-settlement times. Many of the new trees they planted were non-native species for landscaping purposes, while animals distributed invasive tree species.

So the idea that Chicago was a “City in a Garden” when the motto Urbs in Horto was adopted by the city government in the 1830s is a bit of a misnomer, said Julia Bachrach, former historian for the Chicago Park District.

Bachrach said the 1830s brought a flurry of land speculation in the Chicago area, which city officials encouraged by enticing East Coast developers to buy up stretches of land. But first they had to convince developers the land was valuable.

“It was a bit of a PR move to call this marshy, windswept, ‘smelly onion’ city the ‘City in a Garden’,” Bachrach explained.

As this article goes on to describe in more detail, many of the trees, parks, and boulevards came later to Chicago. And many of the things Chicago later became known for – including “the city of broad shoulders,” skyscrapers, meatpacking, and divides – have few clear links to gardens and trees.

I recall reading Ann Durkin Keating’s Rising Up From Indian Country and being surprised by the presence of sand dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan in the early days of white settlement. As a kid reading and hearing about Chicago, the story always seemed to go the other way: filling in land along the lake with refuse from the great fire, reversing the flow of the Chicago River, and building a booming metropolis over whatever was there before. Chicago conquered nature to become what it was and then thought of parks, trees, gardens, and a lakefront. That it could feature nature in particular ways was a product of this mechanical and human progress.

Bonus facts: the motto is featured at the bottom of Chicago’s seal and is represented by one of the points of the fourth star on the Chicago flag.

Metrics we need: claim that an expensive and lengthy construction project will cut delays 50%

With the unveiling of the reconstructed Jane Byrne Interchange in Chicago, this promise was made:

Photo by Life Of Pix on Pexels.com

Illinois Department of Transportation engineers are promising a 50% improvement in traffic delays as the interminable Jane Byrne Interchange rebuild wraps up…

It’s estimated the redo could save more than $180 million hours annually in lost productivity from workers in traffic jams and result in a one-third reduction in greenhouse gases.

Can we start tracking this immediately and see if the promise is true?

With numerous major projects facing longer-than-predicted timelines and significant cost overruns, perhaps this is a way forward in marketing. Ignore the extra time and money; it will be worth it!

At the same time, why not use similar metrics for all sorts of infrastructure projects? Infrastructure is needed for many areas of modern life to go well. Yet, people may not want to endure construction or costs. Promises like this at least fix a number on what people might experience as a positive outcome. And if the modeling is so difficult, does this mean that it might be hard to justify a big project? (I could imagine a different number that is also accurate but less negative: without this project, there will be this % of a negative outcome.)

Chicago to add money to budget to provide tiny houses to address homelessness

The proposed Chicago budget includes money for tiny houses to fight homelessness:

Photo by Elle Hughes on Pexels.com

Now, under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2023 budget that passed last month, the city will direct $3 million in federal COVID-19 stimulus funds toward a tiny homes project that she said will be the “first of its kind.”

Though a small fraction of the nine-figure sum the city will spend on affordable housing investments, “we must push ourselves to be creative,” Lightfoot said when she unveiled her budget. “Tiny homes are an interesting innovation that we should embrace as a city.”

Cron said that was a long-sought victory for his organization, which has watched the concept take off elsewhere in the U.S., including several in Midwestern states. He blamed the earlier resistance on “red tape” and “politics” hindering city officials from moving forward…

Upon construction, the 500-square-foot tiny homes will compose a “micro-neighborhood” on two to five city-owned lots, with an average of two to four homes per lot, Department of Housing spokesperson Eugenia Orr said in a statement to the Tribune. The housing will be long term, with heating, plumbing and other required features under the Chicago building code. The structures will not be mobile, unlike the RV homes that make up existing communities in some pockets of the Chicago area. Specific locations for the city pilot program have not been determined.

Though the project is pitched to combat homelessness, the city intends to cater to specific subpopulations such as veterans, new mothers, LGBTQ youth and high school or college students, Orr said. She also listed “nontraditional” students, young professionals and members of a “limited-equity co-op,” a homeownership program where residents buy a share of the complex and resell it in the future.

I would be interested to know how much the pilot program follows practices from other cities and makes changes for the particular program, context, and goals in Chicago.

Additionally, if this shows promise, how might it be scaled up? I imagine finding sites is difficult and these micro-neighborhoods benefit from services. Can a larger version of this put a significant dent in homelessness in Chicago or is this always a viable option among a number that are needed?

Even more broadly, does this hold promise for addressing affordable housing in Chicago? Can tiny houses provide enough units to help people have good permanent housing (and ownership, as suggested above)?

Perhaps programs like these will help unlock the potential of tiny houses. Instead of being luxury items for those who can afford it, they can provide housing for those who really need it but cannot access larger and more expensive housing.

A round earth and seeing the Chicago skyline from Indiana (or from other angles)

Standing on a beach in Indiana and seeing the Chicago skyline is a unique sight. Does it demonstrate that the earth is flat or round?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“If the earth was really a globe, the Chicago skyline from Indiana would be hidden by 1,473 ft. of Earth Curve,” reads the text included in one such Nov. 6 Instagram post (direct link, archive link). The post, which garnered more than 2,000 likes in one week, includes an image of the Chicago skyline taken from across Lake Michigan at the Indiana Dunes State Park.

But the claim is false.

Scientists say the photo actually proves that the Earth is indeed curved. While the buildings in the Chicago skyline are visible in the photo, parts of the buildings are obscured by the curve in the Earth. A simple trigonometric equation confirms that the buildings of the Chicago skyline are indeed visible from the Indiana Dunes State Park, where the image was taken…

“The image actually demonstrates that the Earth is round,” Oran said. “(The bottom) parts of the buildings are actually obscured because the Earth is curved.”

Oran noted the lower halves of the buildings are not visible in the photo. According to Oran’s calculations, roughly 500 feet of the bottom of the Willis Tower, the tallest building in Chicago, would not be visible based on the distance the picture was taken from.

While the flat earther phenomenon is interesting in itself, I am more interested here in how this is based on a unique view of the Chicago skyline. I know that seeing it from a different perspective can be disorienting or reveal new angles. Growing up, I mostly saw the skyline from the west coming into the city. In graduate school, I often saw the skyline from the south and southeast arriving from a different direction. I rarely see it from the north because I have little reason to come from that direction. And the view can be very different from an airplane depending on the approach or takeoff of a particular trip and the flight patterns for the day.

Would any of those views push me to conclude the earth is flat? No, but I have definitely noticed different buildings, different ways the sun or dark frames places, and how the city seems to be a different place when approaching from different directions.

Address crime and violence in cities by “addressing extreme segregation by race, ethnicity, and income”

Sociologist Patrick Sharkey suggests taking a long view of crime and violence in American cities:

Photo by Sasha Prasastika on Pexels.com

To answer this question requires thinking less in terms of months and years, and more in terms of decades. It requires thinking less about specific neighborhoods and cities where violence is common, and more about larger metropolitan areas where inequality is extreme and the affluent live separated from the poor. And it requires thinking less about individual criminals and victims, and more about bigger social forces, including demographic shifts, changes in urban labor markets, and social policies implemented by states and the federal government. All told, nearly six decades of data on violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods point to an unmistakable conclusion: Producing a sustained reduction in violence may not be possible without addressing extreme, persistent segregation by race, ethnicity, and income…

But we must also expand outward in time and space, and consider why American neighborhoods are vulnerable to violence. Zooming out can help reveal the truth about violence in our cities: This is a whole-society problem, not one isolated in the neighborhoods where it roars. Addressing it requires our whole society’s concern, investment, and attention, and that attention must be sustained well beyond the periods when gun violence is surging.

This is a good example of a sociological approach. Look at deeper, underlying issues. Consider patterns and relationships across contexts and time. Analyze evidence across decades. Think about institutions, structures, and networks at multiple levels (neighborhood, city, nation). Examine multiple causal factors and how they interact with each other.

Whether such a perspective is welcomed or utilized is another story. For many social issues in the United States, it is easier for the public to look for the one factor that many believe will address the concern. Or, it can be difficult to wrestle with longer histories and patterns that involve many. Some might ask if this is just academics making something more complex than it needs to be or they might want proof that a sociological perspective is helpful.

I hope to explain something similar when teaching sociology, whether in Introduction to Sociology to Statistics to Urban Sociology. As Americans consider society, what does a sociological approach look like and bring to the table? At the least, it can help broaden perspectives beyond individualistic mindsets or ones that only highlight a few individual and social forces. At its best, it can be a lens that sheds light on how a large-scale society actually operates with institutions, structures, networks, and relationships shaping contexts and lives.

All the construction at the same time + the other factors that increase traffic

A “perfect storm” of traffic has hit Chicagoland:

Photo by Kanjo Melo on Pexels.com

The recent traffic backups aren’t a mirage, say transportation officials. It’s really a perfect storm of ongoing construction projects occurring at nearly all points of the expressway system. This includes the Jane Byrne Interchange project, the behind schedule and over budget construction job that offers one of the worst choke points for congestion in the heart of downtown Chicago…

The last week in September saw some of the worst traffic in recent memory, thanks not only to the ongoing construction — including the start of three-weekend lane reductions on Interstate 57 to accommodate ramp patching and resurfacing — but also an emergency closure of the outbound Dan Ryan Expressway ramp to the outbound Stevenson Expressway that isn’t expected to completed until Sunday, according to IDOT…

Transit experts say that Chicago, which has some of the worst congestion of any American city, is also grappling with its return to normalcy following closures brought on by the pandemic. The added congestion comes at a time when many workers such as Cavanagh are returning to the office after two years of work-from-home protocols. Rider usage of transit systems such as the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace also haven’t yet returned to normal…

“In other words, drivers are making more trips, but they’re shorter trips on average,” Dan Ginsburg, TTWN’s director of operations said in an email.

So the old joke in Chicago, “there are two seasons: construction and winter,” rings true again?

But, this is a bigger issue than just construction. The infrastructure needs help. More people are driving. People live and work in different locations. Mass transit is not being used much. Mass transit does not necessarily reach where it needs to reach. People want to drive faster. There is a lot of freight and cargo moving through the region and so on.

This “perfect storm” could be an opportunity to ask how to address traffic and congestion throughout the city and region for the next few decades? How will this get any better?

How much the big city mayor needs to fight to keep the major league team

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has publicly stated what the city could do to keep the Chicago Bears:

Photo by Trace Hudson on Pexels.com

Via Sports Business Journal, a Chicago mayoral committee will recommend that the city consider the feasibility of putting a dome over Soldier Field.

A dome, as reported by Crain’s Chicago Business, could cost between $400 million and $1.5 billion.

Other possibilities include upgrades to the stadium (including significant rebuilding of certain parts of it) and selling naming rights to generate revenue for improvements.

The Bears are most interested in pursuing plans for suburban Arlington Heights.

In the long run, it is not probably not worth it for the city and the others to spend hundreds of millions to keep the Bears. The team would benefit the most from new arrangements. The money spent on eight Bears home games a year will be spent elsewhere in the city. The team is not leaving for another market but just for the suburbs.

At the same time, losing the biggest team in town to a suburb is not a good look for leaders. The Bears have played in the city for a century. They are the most popular sports team in town. Soldier Field hosts other events but it has been the home of the Bears for decades. The loss of the Bears could be added to the narrative of losing companies and residents.

Discounting whether the offer from the city is a viable one – putting a dome on Soldier Field is no easy task – I think this is a necessary political move. The mayor and city leaders need to make a good offer to save face. The big city leader cannot let the big team leave without a fight. And ten years from now, when the Bears are playing in a suburban property that earns the team even more money and the city of Chicago has moved on, there may still be lingering blame for those who let the Bears leave no matter what offer or public statements they made.

29 years on a waiting list to access a housing voucher in Chicago

A Chicago alderwoman shared that she had received the opportunity to apply for a public housing voucher – 29 years after joining the waiting list:

Photo by Krizjohn Rosales on Pexels.com

Jeanette Taylor applied for an affordable housing voucher in Chicago in 1993, nearly three decades ago. But on Tuesday Taylor revealed that she received a letter dated May 20 informing her that she was on the top of the waiting list and could begin the “application for eligibility” process…

However, demand for the vouchers typically far exceeds their supply: about a quarter of the low-income tenants who need federal rental assistance actually receive it, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank. Waiting lists, which sometimes stop accepting new applicants for several years at a time, are typical. Landlords don’t always want to work with Section 8 renters, either.

“Everyone is shocked but this is pretty standard,” Courtney Welch, a council member in Emeryville, California, said in a post responding to Taylor’s thread on Twitter. “Twenty-nine years is exceptionally long, but I know two people personally that were on the section 8 wait list for over a decade. One got it after 11 years, the other after 13. They both signed up at age 18.”…

In 2020, though, the suburban Housing Authority of Cook County reopened its Housing Choice Voucher waiting list for the first time since 2001, with at least 10,000 people applying right away, according to the Chicago Tribune. In March, the nearby Oak Park Housing Authority also reopened its waiting list to applications for the first time since 2004.

Lengthy bureaucratic lines for public housing and housing vouchers may be normal but my sense from Chicago’s track record is that residents of the city wait longer than most.

In a related question, can a city or government really claim to offer something when the waiting list spans decades?

Finally, Americans have consistently showed that they do not particularly like the idea of public housing. Instead, more resources and effort go toward encouraging mortgages and homeownership. This could be one consistent way to signal this displeasure: do not provide enough funding and vouchers to meet the need present in many places.

Transitioning a glittering downtown shopping mall to a more experiential space

Water Tower Place on North Michigan Avenue has fallen on hard times, as have many malls, and plans are underway to revive the property with new uses:

In consultant-speak, today’s juice is “experiential” retail. It means that people not only want something they haven’t seen before, but they want an experience to go along with their purchase. The Apple Store and the Starbucks Reserve Roastery further south on Michigan Avenue are examples of that — places where shoppers come to see and feel as well as to buy. A pop-up show called the “Dr. Seuss Experience” filled Macy’s former space in Water Tower Place this winter. Down the street, a “Museum of Ice Cream” is opening at the base of the newly renovated Tribune Tower this summer…

But she and her colleagues are already thinking big. A report titled “North Michigan Avenue: Strategies for a Vibrant Future” issued in March by a group of business and city leaders envisions a grand promenade running from the historic limestone Water Tower, past the Museum of Contemporary Art, to the lake along Chicago Avenue; and a soaring pedestrian bridge stretching from Michigan Avenue, over DuSable Lake Shore Drive, to Oak Street Beach. The bridge, modeled on a structure in Moscow, would make it possible to see and get to Lake Michigan from the Mag Mile without descending into dank tunnels under the beachfront drive.

Also in the report: a more run-of-the-mill property tax on landlords raising about three quarters of a million dollars passed the City Council this year; it will be used for cultural events like “Music on the Mile” and for security cameras. The city also awarded Bares’ group money from a federal grant to deploy a team of uniformed “ambassadors” — unarmed security personnel with radios to help tourists, assist the homeless and report criminal activity on the Mag Mile — starting in June.

But most of the report is focused on getting people excited about going downtown to enjoy attractions such as music, art and culture, and Water Tower Place recently scored its own big get on that front. In April, the world-renowned Hubbard Street Dance Chicago surprised everyone and moved from a temporary home on the North Side into the mall’s fourth floor.

For years, shopping in a lively context was enough “juice” to bring in both serious shoppers, curious shoppers, and other visitors. Shopping was one of the most popular activities for Americans and the glamor of a downtown mall plus at least a decent-sized crowd would make it feel exciting.

Now that shopping is decoupled from physical space, these former shopping spaces do not have enough “juice.” They need more experiences, ranging from music to arts to unusual sights to places where people can post intriguing social media images.

Can cities and communities be flexible enough to shift spaces and experiences? And how many experiential areas can there be? On the first question, communities need to open to how spaces might be used in different ways when conditions change. Shopping malls may have worked for decades and brought in significant revenue, but when they struggle, what is next? For the second question, Chicago already has some of these experiential spaces: Navy Pier, the Museum Campus, a Riverwalk, and other concentrations of interesting activity. Can these work together in that a visitor could access several of these in a single day or trip or at some point do they start competing against each other?

The decline of in-person shopping is a big deal and a shift that many communities are struggling to address. Those who find successful alternative uses for these shopping spaces and also develop a mindset of needing to refresh certain places may just come out ahead.

NIMBY concerns about affordable housing even when it is not adjacent to single-family homes

A proposed project in northwest Chicago that would include some affordable housing units has raised concerns from residents…who do not live adjacent to the property:

Photo by Kayley Dlugos on Pexels.com

But the plans have not been embraced by all in the 41st Ward and its neighborhoods filled with postwar bungalows and ranch-style homes. Though the complex would be located in a far stretch of the city next to offices and hotels bordering Park Ridge, residents say they fear it will congest traffic and overcrowd schools.

John Frano, who lives about a mile away in Oriole Park, said the apartment complex will create too much bustle in a section of the city known for being more serene and spacious…

Retired Chicago police Sgt. Salvatore Reina, a longtime owner of a two-flat in Oriole Park, said he opposes the Glenstar tax break partly because it feels unfair to smaller landlords like him. He added that he worries about having to bid against the potentially lower rents in the future complex…

“These neighborhoods are not made for massive multiunit buildings,” Reina said. “When you bring more people in, other issues are going to arise with that too. Who knows what they are? Some could just be quality-of-life issues.”

While there is more at play here – the role of aldermanic prerogative and how exclusion shapes residential patterns – these are common NIMBY concerns: traffic, the effect on schools, large buildings, and how might move into the new units. At the same time, if you cannot build affordable housing units here, where can they be constructed? Even the location of affordable housing units in a building similar in size to adjacent buildings and not adjacent to single-family homes leads to such responses.

The reason I emphasize the proximity of residents is that I found when studying proposals for land or buildings from religious groups (here and here) proximity of residents to the property appeared linked to the concerns raised. Those who have purchased a home or housing unit often do not like the idea that someone wants to significantly alter the building or property next to you.

This is not the case here. Affordable housing is so undesirable in the United States for established homeowners and residents that it is difficult to construct. There are other barriers at play as well but consistent and loud opposition from residents in the community is common. They view affordable housing as a threat rather than as housing that could help local residents or workers, let alone help the larger city or region.