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.)

Chicago’s beautiful Riverwalk…what took so long to put it together?

On a recent beautiful summer afternoon, I had my first chance to walk the full Chicago Riverwalk.

ChicagoRiverwalk1ChicagoRiverwalk2

The city’s website suggests the plans for the Riverwalk started in the late 1990s. Why did it take so long for the idea to come together? For a city that has so much pride in its lakefront parks and protected areas, the river was overlooked for decades. In much earlier decades, economic activity was centered on the riverbanks: rail lines brought goods from throughout the region to ships and counting houses. But, it has been a long time since this activity ended and important buildings have lined this stretch for decades. If a Riverwalk can do much for places like San Antonio and Naperville, what took so long for Chicago to enhance this stretch?

Freeway revolts had a point: evidence from Chicago regarding the problems with highways

Two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia looked at the effects of building highways and found a number of negative effects for Chicago neighborhoods near the highways :

FreewayRevoltsWorkingPaper

The literature criticizing urban renewal and highway construction in major cities after World War II has made a similar point: the construction of highways broke up established neighborhoods and encouraged urban residents to leave for the suburbs since they could easily access the city via highway.

At the same time, it sounds like this working paper suggests highways themselves are not necessarily the issue. The bigger problem may be that the highway is located on the surface and creating negative local effects including acting as barriers. Sometimes, this may be intentional such as when the Dan Ryan Expressway on Chicago’s South Side had the intended side effect of separating black and white neighborhoods. Other times, the highway could bisect what was a connected neighborhood and sever it. But, if the highway was underground, perhaps everyone could win: there would not be a 6-12 lane barrier, local neighborhoods would not see or hear the highway in the same way, and suburbanites could still access the city center. While it is hard to imagine, picture the Eisenhower headed into Chicago underground with parks, surface level streets, social and business activity, and a CTA line above it. Local residents could still have access to the highway without having to live right next to it.

This solution would likely not satisfy everyone. If the goal of countering highways is not just to protect neighborhoods but also to limit driving and promote mass transit, burying the highway is not enough. The eyesore may be gone but the larger problem still looms: Americans like driving and the associated lifestyle and too many cities are subservient to cars rather than to pedestrians and community life.

Processes, events, and decisions add up to significant consequences from Chicago’s 1919 riots

With the 100 year anniversary of the 1919 violence and riots in Chicago approaching, the Chicago Tribune considers some of the long-lasting consequences of a violence-filled summer:

The riots ended after seven days, brought about by the intervention of the Illinois militia — which critics said came too late. The riots changed Chicago in ways it continues to grapple with. Days after the riot, the City Council, for example, proposed formalized segregation on the South Side that remains in place informally today…

Consequently, the trauma of the white assault on the black community left another lasting legacy: the black street gang. “To be sure, the 1919 riot contributed directly to Black gang formation in Chicago as Black males united to confront hostile White gangs who were terrorizing the Black community,” author James C. Howell wrote in his book “The History of Street Gangs in the United States: Their Origins and Transformations.”…

The end of the riots brought swift condemnation, expert groups to examine the cause and criminal charges — though primarily against alleged black rioters — but no real consensus on what to do. On the latter point, in the days after the riot, Cook County State’s Attorney Maclay Hoyne initially charged only black citizens with rioting, leading to a walkout by members of the grand jury hearing the cases…

“In the aftermath, you call it an interracial consensus that the best way to prevent something like this from happening again was to keep the races separate. That was the lesson that was mislearned from the riot,” he said.

This is a reminder that a long legacy of residential segregation, inequality, and racism in the city of Chicago does not just happen: it is the result of specific social processes (some under the control of Chicago leaders and residents and others not), particular events, and reactions to those processes and events. Similarly, it is not easy to simply “turn the page” from past events or reverse the consequences; the same processes, events, and decisions have to be countered with different options.

And if this latter statement is true, Chicago and many other American places have a long way to go regarding countering these legacies. Remembering the past processes, events, and decisions is very important. As the Tribune article notes, how many Chicagoans think the 1919 riots are an important part of the city’s legacy? But, then more work needs to be done. And at this point, it is hard to say that Chicago has done much to reverse these patterns started in the early 1900s.

1859 Chicago gas pipe finally out of service

Infrastructure in American cities can go back a ways. See this recent case in Chicago involving a gas pipe:

A small crowd gathered as a flatbed truck carefully backed into position next to a cavernous hole in the ground that revealed the retiree: a 17-foot-long piece of cast-iron pipe, believed to be the oldest natural gas pipe in the city of Chicago.

The pipe was in operation from 1859 until just last week, when the last customer relying on it officially switched over to a modernized polyethylene natural gas main, said Andy Hesselbach, Peoples Gas vice president of construction.

When the retiree began its work, the streets were paved with dirt and frequented by horse-drawn carriages. The Great Fire of Chicago wouldn’t occur for 12 years…

Replacements are prioritized based on risk, he said. In the last 30 years, the pipe excavated on Friday experienced 30 leaks, making it a prime candidate. Not every pipe that is retired is excavated, he said. Some are left in place while a new main is installed nearby.

Building good infrastructure to support all sorts of positive social and economic activity requires regular attention and maintenance. The cost to replace infrastructure can often seem prohibitive but upgrades are needed for systems that can be improved upon and/or consistently need repairs. Of course, it would be best to build for the long-haul at an efficient price from the beginning but this is not always possible as technology and places change.

Leader who does not like “Mayor 1 percent” label joins Wall Street investment firm

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel does not like one of the names applied to him during his mayoral tenure:

Dellimore also pressed Emanuel on the “Mayor 1 percent” tag that has dogged him for years, a nickname critics use to tie him to wealthy supporters and downtown development they say he favors at the expense of struggling outlying neighborhoods.

Emanuel first responded by taking a swipe at wealthy Blackhawks and United Center owner Rocky Wirtz, who has publicly ripped Emanuel for raising entertainment taxes at big venues such as the United Center: “Go ask Rocky Wirtz what he thinks about being part of the 1 percent.”

When Dellimore said the criticism comes from poor and working-class neighborhoods that feel like they’ve been left behind while the Loop and adjoining neighborhoods have boomed under Emanuel, the mayor changed tacks. He defended investments downtown.

“You name me one world-class city in the world with a decaying central business district,” Emanuel said. “Name one. They don’t exist. I’m proud that we have a thriving, successful central business district that gives us the revenue to also fund from 14 to 33,000 kids in summer jobs.”

Few local governments would argue that downtown development is a bad thing. After all, growth is good and stagnation or decline is terrible.

Yet, if a leader wanted to counter an image of working for the wealthy or the better-off neighborhoods in a city, would joining a Wall Street investment firm be a good next move?

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is joining the Wall Street investment firm Centerview Partners LLC, whose leaders include long-time friends and campaign donors…

“Rahm’s leadership and vast experience providing strategic advice, coupled with a track record of successful planning and execution, will bring tremendous value to our firm and our clients,” Effron said. “Establishing a presence in Chicago is a logical next step for Centerview as we continue to grow, and it positions us to better serve existing and new clients throughout the Midwest.”…

Emanuel on Wednesday rejected any notion that his work as mayor affected the hiring…

Emanuel previously spent more than two years as a Chicago investment banker at Wasserstein Perella & Co., from 1999 to 2002, a job he took after serving as a top aide to President Bill Clinton.

So perhaps this is little surprise given Emanuel’s track record as mayor and roles prior to becoming mayor. Or, maybe he thinks providing commentary for The Atlantic and ABC News will help balance out or help people forget about the Wall Street work.