True for Chicago and elsewhere: “cities don’t just crop up in random places”

At Instapundit, Gail Heriot explains how Chicago came to be:

FATHER JACQUES MARQUETTE AND LOUIS JOLLIET: On this day in 1673, a 35-year-old Jesuit priest and a 27-year-old fur trader began their exploration of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, leaving from St. Ignace at the north end of Lake Michigan. From there, they went up the Fox River and then overland (carrying their canoes) to the Wisconsin River, which took them to the Mississippi River. Out of fear of running into the Spanish, they turned back at the Arkansas River. By then, they had confirmed that the Mississippi does indeed run to the Gulf of Mexico.

The route back was different. And this becomes important to the history of the country and especially of the City of Chicago: Friendly Native Americans told them that if they go up the Illinois River and the Des Plaines, rather than the Wisconsin, it would make the trip easier. That’s because the portage distance from the Mississippi watershed and the Great Lakes watershed was shortest there. The Chicago River, which dumped into Lake Michigan was only a short distance away.

If you’ve ever wondered why Chicago grew into a major city so quickly, this is why: Location, location, location.  In the modern world it’s easy to miss how much topographical issues like that mattered (and in different ways continue to matter).  But cities don’t just crop up in random places.

The locations of major population centers may seem fairly obvious now: a large population has been there for a long time and the city by its own large inertia continues to draw more people. This may be particularly true for cities outside of North America where there may be centuries or millennia of accumulated settlement.

Yet, looking at the founding of major cities in the United States often shows that there are located at places that provided major transportation advantages for people of that time. Even though this might be less obvious now since we do not think much about sea travel and shipping, a number of major coastal cities have protected ports. Inland, many cities are located on key bodies of water, primarily rivers. Even more recently, communities developed around railroad junctions and highway intersections where a lot of traffic converged.
Perhaps in a “perfect world,” major cities would be spread out at fairly even intervals. But, development does not typically work this way: it often follows earlier transportation links or patterns of development.

The ongoing stark inequality of Chicago and other major cities

Alana Semuels discusses the inequality present in the global city of Chicago but it reminds me that (1)  sociologists have studied this for roughly 100 years even (2) as conditions have both changed and stayed the same.

The contrast between a seemingly prospering city and groups and individuals who cannot access this prosperity is an old theme in the Chicago School of urban sociology. In The Gold Coast and the Slum, Zorbaugh explains how some of the wealthiest and poorest Chicagoans can live in such proximity. Two neighborhoods that are geographically close are worlds apart socially. This is little different from descriptions of industrializing cities in England in the mid-1800s (which helped prompt the work of Marx and Engels) or examining today’s megacities in developing nations where a wealthy core is surrounded by slums and shantytowns.

The reasons for this disparity are both similar and different. Semuels sums up the two major issues:

Why are large swaths of Chicago’s population unable to get ahead? There are two main reasons. The first and most obvious is the legacy of segregation that has made it difficult for poor black families to gain access to the economic activity in other parts of the city. This segregation has meant that African Americans live near worse educational opportunities and fewer jobs than other people in Chicago. City leaders in Chicago have exacerbated this segregation over the years, according to Diamond, channeling money downtown and away from the poor neighborhoods. “Public policies played a huge role in reinforcing the walls around the ghetto,” he told me.

The second factor is the disappearance of industrial jobs in factories, steel plants, and logistics companies. Half a century ago, people with little education could find good jobs in the behemoths that dotted Chicago’s south and west sides. Now, most of those factories have moved overseas or to the suburbs, and there are fewer employment opportunities here for people without much education. Chicago underscores that it’s not just white, rural Americans who have been hard hit by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs.

The segregation of one hundred years ago is still with us, even if it has changed form (from overt discrimination to more covert means). The business district of Chicago was a thriving place 100 years ago as many of the poorer and less white neighborhoods languished. The job front has changed; yet, it is not as if the manufacturing jobs that started appearing in cities with the Industrial Revolution were all that helpful for the lower classes at the time (again think of Marx and Engels).

On the whole, it is helpful to regularly remind people of the complexities of cities. Cities should not be viewed solely as their impressive skylines or booming economies. Even the leading cities of the world are home to many less advantaged residents. Whether the gaps in cities themselves could go a long ways toward determining whether broader social inequalities can be successfully addressed.

Chicago’s road construction in the long term

Curbed Chicago provides an update on the city’s work to resurface streets:

[T]he city rolls out plans to resurface 135 miles of streets, according to an announcement from the mayor’s office.

The work is expected to begin mid-April when the asphalt plants open for the 2018 construction season. The Chicago Department of Transportation and the Department of Water Management are leading the project and plan to resurface at least 275 miles by the end of the year.

Since 2011, more than 1,850 miles of streets and alleyways have been resurfaced (that’s out of the city’s 4,600 miles of roadways).

If these numbers are roughly consistent on a yearly basis, it would take 17 years to resurface everything. On the city’s page for Streets, Alleys, and Sidewalks, there is no description of how long an overall cycle might take. But, there might be some mitigating factors affecting which roadways are addressed: particularly bad pothole seasons that cause damage and draw attention and roads that are used much more than others.

And while residents may not be fond of all of this construction, roadways are a constant work in progress. Given the American emphasis on driving, they get a lot of use for commuting, trips within the community, and delivering goods and services. Poor roads do not look good for the local government and could impede activity. Residents can get unhappy pretty quickly if they feel their tax dollars are not leading to good roadways. Yet, if people truly do not want construction, they should really consider driving less and helping to create places with less driving so that the roads last longer.

Construction, ride-sharing doom Chicago parking lots

Parking lots are disappearing in Chicago:

Big increases in condominium sale prices and apartment rents have pushed up the value of well-located land, Lev said. At the same time, revenue has decreased as much as 30 percent in some parking lots his firm owns. “Many downtown garages are not doing the kind of business they used to, which is indicative of ride-sharing and not as many people owning cars,” Lev said.

The lowly surface lot will play a role in reshaping Chicago’s skyline, with plans for two of the city’s tallest buildings in the works on parcels now used for parking…

U.S. parking needs will be cut in half during the next three decades, the Newport Beach, Calif.-based real estate research firm projects. Widespread adoption of ride-hailing and self-driving cars will eliminate the need for swaths of parking spaces — enough that the square footage of the unneeded spaces will be more than the cumulative size of every currently existing apartment, office, shopping mall, retail strip center and warehouse property in the U.S., according to the Green Street report.

Dwindling car ownership could have a major impact on land use and urban planning in the coming decades. It’s already affecting the way new towers are designed. Towers built over parking lots often include spaces within the new structure.

Americans may like driving and owning cars but a decrease in the number of vehicles could influence many areas of American life. Parking lots may just be one domino in a chain of cultural phenomena that will slowly fall if driving patterns change significantly.

Or, perhaps this change in parking could be seen as a necessary correction to having too much parking supply in the past. Some have argued American parking has been too cheap for too long as it encourages driving. This reminds me of two past phenomena. First, communities had battles over free parking and parking meters as customers came to expect plentiful free parking at shopping malls. Second, you can find plenty of images of Chicago in the mid-twentieth century where parking is prominently displayed even as the city was booming. For example, Grant Park was an important area for parking (and still is – it is just better hidden underground).

Additionally, holding on to urban parking lots could be a lucrative investment strategy. In the short run, an owner and/or operator could collect parking fees. In the long run, they could wait until the price of land increased dramatically and then convert a humble parking lot or structure into an expensive development. These urban surface parking lots are rarely meant to be there forever.

Proposing rent control for Chicago and Illinois

Political efforts will put the idea of rent control in front of some Chicago voters in the coming months:

Real and tangible, indeed, for the Lift the Ban coalition, a bloc of community groups that has been leading a two-year campaign against Illinois’ ban on rent control. The group is pushing for a repeal of the state’s 1997 Rent Control Preemption Act, a law that prohibits municipalities from enacting any form of regulation on residential or commercial rent prices.

“Because of the preemption act, it’s essentially illegal for any municipality to explore the idea of regulation,” said Jawanza Malone, Lift the Ban leader and executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. “It just doesn’t make sense. The food we eat is regulated; there are environmental protections. Why is it that rent isn’t regulated? We’re just advocating for economic well-being for all of our communities.”…

The coalition’s efforts have already resulted in a question about rent regulation slated for the March primary ballot in nine wards and about 100 precincts around Chicago, Malone said. Couple that with state Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, introducing a bill to the state House last year repealing the rent control ban and Democratic gubernatorial candidates J.B. Pritzker and Daniel Biss expressing support of a repeal and you have a number of people optimistic about the repeal coming to fruition…

But rent regulation is not a tool that economists and realty professionals want to pull out of the tool kit. In fact, Brian Bernardoni, senior director of government affairs and public policy for the Chicago Association of Realtors, likens it to “throwing a hand grenade on your lawn to get rid of dandelions.”

The issue of affordable housing needs to be addressed in some way in the Chicago region. If there are plenty of people opposed to rent control – and I assume at least a few business leaders will fight against the idea – what alternatives will they propose? At the least, perhaps a public discussion of rent control will push other parties to put some other ideas on the table.

I know the various problems in Illinois are vast but it would be great to hear a business leader or a government official step up soon and say that they had plans to build thousands of affordable housing units. I do not know how this could be done but could this not lead to a significant improvement for residents as well as positive public perception to whoever makes this happen?

New mixed-income development strategy: connect them to libraries

Chicago is pursuing three small mixed-income developments that have a unique feature intended to bring the residents of different social classes together:

At the University Village/Little Italy development, a one-story public library will connect with two four-story mixed-income residential units, according to a news release from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP, the design firm working on the project. It will also include retail and community spaces, and a rooftop will be accessible to residents and visitors of the library.

The housing portion of the development will have 37 Chicago Housing Authority units, 29 affordable housing units and seven market-rate apartments, according to a news release from the city.

Brian Bannon, commissioner and CEO of Chicago Public Library, said at the groundbreaking that the library will offer free tutoring to students, early childhood centers, and study and meeting rooms. The branch will also have digital resources available to residents like a 3-D printer and a recording studio. The entire development is expected to be completed within a year…

“My view is that what we are breaking ground on is community,” Emanuel said. “And a whole new different way of thinking about how do you create space. … We aren’t divided so much as we are disconnected. If we could create a place that people from different walks of lives can come together and share an experience together — we are actually going to create community.”

There are few public institutions that could serve as an anchor like this. The only other options I could imagine include a school or a child care facility or a medical clinic (all scaled to the appropriate size given the number of housing units present). Yet, each of those have a more focused use compared to a library that could be home to many different activities.

At the same time, I’m not sure a library will be a panacea to the difficulties facing mixed-income communities. Just placing residents of different social classes together does not guarantee interaction, even if they have a joint building to use. Perhaps the library will have programs and activities intended to bring the adjacent residents together. Yet, even libraries can provide plenty of spaces and opportunities to not interact.

A man on a mission: correct Chicago area road signs

Steven Bahnsen is determined to change signs on the Dan Ryan Expressway from “22nd Street” to “Cermak Street.” This is not a singular issue for Bahnsen:

A retired Chicago postal worker, Bahnsen has spent years complaining about missing, inaccurate, poorly placed and misleading signs along Illinois roads.

He has written so many letters to government agencies that one exasperated Illinois Department of Transportation manager told staffers that they did not have to respond to him, according to a 2013 email Bahnsen obtained through a public records request…

 

As Bahnsen notes, 22nd Street was changed to “Cermak Road” by the Chicago City Council in 1933, following the assassination of Mayor Anton Cermak. The shooter had been aiming at President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The road is “Cermak” from 400 East to 4600 West, said Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation…

In response, IDOT spokeswoman Gianna Urgo said there are two exits from the northbound Dan Ryan to Cermak, and so two names are used. “As to not confuse the motoring public, the labels are different to distinguish between the two exits,” Urgo said in an email. She said that Exit 53C is labeled as I-55 N, Lake Shore Drive and 22nd Street, while exit 53A is labeled as Canalport Avenue and Cermak Road. As for whether it might be less confusing to refer to the roadway as Cermak in both cases, Urgo explained: “Because of the close proximity to each other, having the same exit sign posted in different spots could confuse people more.”

I am sympathetic to the general argument: signs that do not seem to match up streets can be very confusing to visitors. What particular roads and highways are called can be a very local thing. Just listen to a traffic report on the radio and between the speed at which the report is given and the local monikers for roads, it can be difficult to understand.

Bahnsen is not the only concerned resident when looking at street signs; see another case a few years back in Los Angeles where a resident took things into their own hands in correcting signs.