Looking to define the first skyscraper

The ten-story Home Insurance Building constructed in Chicago in 1885 may or may not remain as the world’s first skyscraper:

New York’s proponents have long stressed that great height is the defining feature of skyscrapers. They point to the fact that lower Manhattan had tall office buildings on its Newspaper Row, like the clock tower-topped New York Tribune Building (a 260 footer), as early as 1875 — 10 years before the Home Insurance Building was completed.

But although the New York towers used commercial passenger elevators, which had been around since the 1850s, they were constructed of load-bearing masonry. Their thick exterior walls likely prevented ample amounts of natural light from entering offices. The walls also chewed up valuable interior space. The buildings were, in essence, dinosaurs — large and impressive, but, structurally at least, exemplars of a dying breed.

In contrast, Jenney’s Home Insurance Building did employ advanced structural technology, though the extent to which it did so is subject to debate. Jenney, who had earned the rank of major in the Civil War during his hitch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, appears to have improvised the structure, as he would have done when he designed fortifications at Shiloh and Vicksburg…

Highlighting a single building ignores the reality that American skyscrapers came into existence through evolution, not revolution. While there were decisive moments along the way, progress entailed steps and missteps, inspiration and improvisation, and an intense rivalry between Chicago and New York.

The rivalry between New York and Chicago continues, this time involving early tall buildings. Both cities are marked by iconic skylines and buildings: the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building versus the Sears Tower and Hancock Building, the view from the Upper Bay or Hudson River on Manhattan versus looking from Lake Michigan at the Loop. (And this just scratches the surface of the architecture in both urban regions.)

The final paragraph cited above is more interesting: at what point did a completely new type of building emerge? Earlier parts of the piece suggested it had to do with the shift from masonry walls to a steel frame structure. And perhaps it will be very difficult to find the first building that truly did this and to what leading heights it rose. At the least, it will be worth bragging and tourist rights. At its best, it might help historians, architects, and others better understand how the modern city that we are so used to just 135 years or so later truly came to be.

And I’m sure ink has already been spilled on this but the fact that the Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931 may factor into this. If the building was still standing, people would have a chance to see the structure. Though it lives on in books and memories, that it has been gone nearly ninety years probably does not help its cause in the court of public opinion.

Paraphrased future: “Love or hate McMansions, the ones in Chicago deserve to be recognized”

Brutalist architecture may have few admirers but this does not stop people from suggesting the style is worth examining or saving. Here is a recent headline from Curbed Chicago: “13 Brutalist masterpieces that every Chicagoan should know; Love or hate the style, Chicago’s concrete buildings deserve to be recognized.” And this is the argument made about why these buildings are worth looking at:

Popular during the 1960s and 70s, Brutalism should not be overlooked for its historical importance. Though Chicago lost a few Brutalist buildings—most famously Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, which was demolished in 2014—the style might even be poised for a comeback.

“In many cases, concrete buildings captured the aspirations of the city at critical times,” Chicago-based architect Iker Gil said in a statement last year. “As we shape the future of Chicago, it is worth trying to learn from the lessons and opportunities represented by these remarkable buildings.”

If this argument is successful, then it is a short step toward a similar argument for all kinds of architectural styles and buildings. In particular, the same case could be made for McMansions. Even though many critiqued such homes, what buildings better capture the consumeristic exuberance and grandiosity of the 1990s and 2000s? What buildings better illustrate the sprawling of America and a dedication to private single-family homes that flaunt the status of the homeowners? Why not preserve at least a few McMansions for future generations to remember and learn from?

Somehow, I suspect the calls for preserving McMansions will be more muted or absent. Brutalism seems to attract the attention of enough elite or leading proponents that some of its most interesting buildings will survive. Few leading architects, critics, or designers will stand up for McMansions. Still, I would suspect enough of them will last 50+ years and the legions of McMansion buyers and builders may just come together to make sure some survive much longer.

The nuanced reasons for population loss in Illinois

With the problems facing the state of Illinois, how many people are actually leaving?

In 2018, the state had an estimated net migration loss of 6.5 people for every 1,000 residents, according to the most recent census data. Five years earlier, the net loss was about 3 people per 1,000 residents.

The latest number puts Illinois 49th out of the nation’s 50 states on net migration loss. Only Alaska had a worse rate, with a loss of 11 people per 1,000 residents…

Population decline is also happening in more parts of the state. From 1990 to 2000, 68 of Illinois’ 102 counties gained population. But so far this decade, only nine counties, including Kane, Will and DuPage in the Chicago area, have added residents…

In 2017, Indiana drew nearly 9% of the Illinois residents who moved out of state. Florida, California, Wisconsin and Texas were among the top destinations as well…

But the city’s black population has shrunk much more. Over the same time period, Chicago had a loss of about 35,600 black residents. Meanwhile, the number of white, Asian and Latino residents all grew…

But the biggest reasons people usually give for moving, Percheski said, are jobs (or shorter commutes), schools and to be closer to family. People also seek out available housing that fits their needs, she said, whether that is more space for a growing family, a smaller place because children are grown, or a more affordable option.

This is a well-done article: lots of good data with helpful commentary from experts. There is not an easy headline here but a full read leads a more complete understanding of the issues. A reader should go away from this thinking population loss is a multi-faceted issue that is more nuanced than “high property taxes mean people are leaving Illinois.” One piece that is missing: in an earlier post, I noted that there are also many reasons for people to stay in the Chicago region (including inertia).

This also means there are multiple ways to address the issue. Just from the numbers I pulled out above: is it about net migration loss or attracting more new residents? How could prospects be improved in most of the state’s counties? What do other states offer that Illinois does not? What might lead black residents to stay? Is this primarily about good jobs and available housing? Tackling all of these at once would be difficult. For example, simply adding jobs does not necessarily mean that they are located in places that many people can access, that those jobs can support a household or family, that housing is available nearby, or that such jobs are more attractive than jobs elsewhere. Yet, some targeted efforts at a few of these trends could help slow or reverse them.

Of course, this all comes amidst trends of population loss in Chicago and within a larger backdrop that American communities believe population growth is good. The reasons behind the population decline may be complex but this nuance may matter little if the trend continues.

 

Ronald Reagan lived in Chicago; conservatives for cities?

A Chicago Tribune story on the troubles facing President Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon, Illinois includes some interesting information about where else Reagan lived when he was young:

However, Theodore Karamanski, a history professor at Loyola University Chicago, said presidential birth and boyhood homes aren’t often historically significant, with the possible exception of presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Historians tend to favor places that were central during periods of power.

He pointed out that presidents often have several homes they lived in during childhood, including Reagan, who even lived for a time on the South Side of Chicago.

Instead, it is the local communities that generally push for a historic designation for birth and boyhood homes.

According to WBEZ, Reagan lived with his family in Chicago for a little more than a year:

Before Barack Obama, only one U.S. President had called Chicago home. As a boy, Ronald Reagan lived on the first floor of the building at 832 East 57th Street.

The Reagans moved into their apartment in January of 1915. They’d come to the city from the western Illinois village of Tampico. Jack Reagan, Ronald’s father, got a job selling shoes in the Loop. His wife, Nelle, stayed home with the two boys, 6-year-old Neil and little Ron–called “Dutch”–who was going on 4…

Sometime in 1916 the Reagan family left Chicago and moved to Galesburg. It’s not clear whether Jack quit his Loop job, or was fired. But their time in Hyde Park was over.

Reagan lived more of his younger years outside of the big city; but, imagine he lived there longer. Or, he chose to remember the Chicago experience as more formative. Or, the Chicago neighborhood put more effort into remembering him as living there.

Perhaps the biggest issue (besides the length of time the family lived in Chicago) is that this image of a big city boy does not match Reagan’s own politics or how he was perceived. Can a Republican leader in the United States claim to be from a big city, not from the metropolitan region but from the big city itself? Given the voting breakdown of recent elections as well as the anti-urban inclinations of conservatives, this does not sound likely. In a country that still idealizes small town life, claiming to represent those parts of the country can go a long ways.

Current President Donald Trump presents an alternative to this conservative small-town vision. Born in and still a resident of New York City, Trump is hardly a small-town or even a suburban conservative. As a real estate developer, he aims to bring large buildings with his name on them to big cities around the world. His policies do not align with a pro-urban vision even as he is clearly a city person. And, I would guess this big-city conservative is an anomaly rather than an ongoing trend for Republicans.

Ronald Reagan as a Chicago native is far-fetched but it does suggest an alternative vision: conservatives who are from and for big cities. This would require a massive shift in ideology but it is not unprecedented nor impossible. Perhaps it would just take a mythical icon of the party would saw the city as their home and priority.

Declining populations in the New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago regions

The biggest metropolitan areas in the United States are losing residents:

Source: William H. Frey

And what is behind this?

Each of these Chicago phenomena—declining immigration, revitalized downtowns coinciding with a middle-class exodus, and the specific decline of the black population—has spread from the heartland to America’s largest coastal metros…

First, immigration to both New York and Los Angeles has declined by 30 percent in the last five years. This could be for a variety of reasons, including the fear, and reality, of more restrictive immigration policies; richer and safer home countries; and a less affordable housing stock in these metros.

Second, higher-income residents bidding up the price of housing in both cities has accelerated the middle-class exodus. Earlier this decade, Los Angeles was the fastest growing county in all of southern California. But in 2018, it was the only major county in the region to shrink, even as its median home price set a new record. As more middle-class families leave the Los Angeles area for cheaper markets in the West and Southwest—their preferred destinations: Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Dallas—California’s population growth has slowed to its lowest rate in state history. This might have something to do with the recent tax law, which, in capping the state and local deductions, effectively raised the cost of living in these places for the upper-middle class. (The next few years will tell us more about whether high earners are fleeing high-tax metros for the South, as well.)

Third, the black population of both New York and Los Angeles peaked in the early 2000s and has since been in steady, and perhaps accelerating, decline. The political implications of the first Great Migration were immense, as blacks moving into northern cities forged an alliance with urban liberals and pushed the Democratic Party to prioritize civil rights in the middle of the 20th century. The political implications of the Reverse Great Migration could be equally ground-shaking, if blacks moving south redraw the political map for the second time in 100 years. The slow decline of America’s largest metros may also mark the beginning of a new political movement in the suburbs of the South and Southwest.

When it was just Chicago losing residents, it was easier to write it off as inevitable Rust Belt decline combined with particular issues that have dogged the city and region for decades. But, if New York and Los Angeles are also losing people, then this becomes more interesting as even the glitzy coastal cities are losing people to other parts of the United States and there are fewer new residents via immigration.

Is there evidence then that cities are losing steam compared to suburban areas? Not necessarily; Sun Belt cities are growing in population. At the same time the three biggest cities draw outsized attention in the United States (consider the relative anonymity of Houston which is approaching Chicago for third in population). Americans generally do not like what declining populations connote and particularly not in their largest locales.

Ultimately, the actual population figures which could fluctuate slightly from year to year might matter less than the perception that the biggest cities are floundering. Would they then put into place big plans to try to attract residents? Would second tier cities step up their efforts to toot their own (growing) horns?

Final note: Chicago’s long-standing quest to put itself in the same company as New York City might be looking up if both cities are losing residents.

The role of disasters – such as the Great Chicago Fire – in pushing people to leave cities for suburbs

A thought experiment considering what would happen if the Chicago Fire of 1871 never happened includes this tidbit about suburban growth:

But then, after that second big fire in 1874, Chicago officials extended the restriction on wooden buildings to cover the whole city.

Elaine Lewinnek, author of the new book The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl, says the aldermen contributed to suburban sprawl by making it cheaper to build outside the city. After they changed the law, a real estate booster reported “a brisk demand for building just outside the city limits.” (Some of those areas outside the city limits in the 1870s later became part of the city through annexations.)…

“Things were already changing, as railroad lines and industry were crowding out housing,” Keating says. “The fire made this happen more quickly but it would have happened anyways. People moved more quickly south to Prairie Avenue or out to new suburban towns like Riverside.”

“The fire pushed 27,000 humble homes out of the central city and the North Side, leading to fewer residences downtown,” Lewinnek says. “Yet suburbanization was already happening before the fire, in elite suburbs like Riverside and more humble suburbs too.”

I have not heard this argument before. At the time of the fire of 1871, suburban populations were very modest. Railroad lines had only been in present in the region for a few decades. For example, the suburb of Naperville, which had just lost out on being the county seat to Wheaton, had just over 1,700 residents in 1870 while Wheaton had 998 residents and Aurora had over 11,000 residents.

As noted by numerous scholars, by the late 1800s fewer areas surrounding Chicago were willing to be annexed into the city (unlike communities like Hyde Park). This is usually attributed to the declining status of city life compared to suburban life alongside the declining price of public infrastructure that made it possible for suburbs to have electricity and their own water supplies. But, the scholars above hint at another factor that would become a long-running feature of suburban life: cheaper housing. If Chicago required less flammable materials for homes, people would move to suburbs that did not have such regulations.

More broadly, it would be worth examining whether major disasters in urban areas push people to move to surrounding areas or even other regions. Do earthquakes in the LA area influence population patterns? How about hurricanes in the southeast? Do people leave population centers after terrorist attacks? It would take some work to separate out the effects of disasters on movement compared to other factors.

Defining “blight” still matters for urban redevelopment

The term “blight” might conjure up the urban renewal of the post-World War II era where the application of the term to poorer and non-white areas could lead to redevelopment. Yet, the term is alive and well: funding for the proposed Lincoln Yards project in Chicago is tied to the concept.

But the clock also was ticking for another reason. If Emanuel and Sterling Bay had waited much longer, the development no longer would have qualified for its record-high taxpayer subsidy, a Tribune analysis has found.

To get the money, the area had to meet at least five state standards to be considered “blighted.” The city could then designate it as a tax increment financing district. At the time of the vote, the area met the bare minimum.

Less than six weeks later, new property assessments were completed. The rising values of the Lincoln Yards land meant the TIF district no longer met one of the five standards, according to the Tribune analysis of the values of hundreds of parcels…

The Tribune’s finding comes as community groups are asking a judge to reverse the City Council’s decision. They say the area is not blighted and would be redeveloped without the taxpayer assistance, given that it’s centered on the Chicago River just west of Lincoln Park.

According to an Illinois government website, “blight” is not the only word used to describe land that might be eligible for TIF districts:

Funds may be used for costs associated with the development or redevelopment of property within the TIF, allowing blighted, declining and underperforming areas to again become viable, and allowing these areas to compete with vacant land at the edge of urban areas.

Not surprisingly, this is about money: how much public money would the developers get as they went about the project? As the article notes, such use of public money is contentious. In this particular project in Chicago, the location and size of the property is particularly valuable. Does a developer need much public money when there is so much that could be made on the project? Or, thinking in terms of opportunity costs, could such public monies be used to spur development in locations that are initially less attractive to developers?

More broadly, this gets at foundational questions about development in general. Who ultimately benefits from development: local residents, the city/municipality, and/or the developer? The growth machines model suggests development benefits local business leaders working with officials and other leaders who benefit from growth (and the status and revenues that come with that). Local residents could see some improvements through new development but the developers and business leaders are the ones who truly profit financially.

(See an earlier post regarding the term blight and its application to Foxconn’s development in Wisconsin.)