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.

Coldwell Banker’s map of Chicago area locations missing parts of Chicago

A Coldwell Banker insert in the Chicago Tribune included a map and listing of all their Chicago area locations (zoomed in portion below):

ColdwellBankerChicagoMap060219.jpg

It is easy to see all of the suburban locations, particularly in the north and west suburbs. In contrast, check out the city map. From my count, there are seven Chicago Coldwell Banker agencies. Five of these are on the north side. Two are not: one in the West Loop and one in Hyde Park.

But, the Chicago map does not just show disparate locations. It is not an accurate map. The city is oddly shaped. Let me count the ways:

  1. It has an oddly drawn western edge that happens to make the south side much smaller.
  2. The west and south sides do not exist in their full form compared to the north side which looks like it has the biggest area.
  3. The West Loop location should be roughly in the center of the city – it is not. The size of the south side is diminished.
  4. The locations in Chicago have a weird relation to each other. Why are the West Loop and Hyde Park locations so close to each other? According to Google Maps, they are an over 8 mile drive away from each other. Yet, Google Maps suggests the West Loop and Lincoln Park locations are roughly 3 miles apart.

Perhaps this is a function of making a map with labels (the text all has to fit). Or, this may be about marketing: Coldwell Banker has particular clients and they want to highlight their proximity to those potential customers.

Yet, the map severely distorts Chicago. As noted above, the west and south sides do not fully exist. Recent Chicago maps aimed at particular audiences have done this before. This map also hints at the relationship between real estate practices and decades-long discrepancies in where people in the region live. Real estate professionals are not passive bystanders in residential segregation; they were active participants working alongside lenders and governments. Homeownership today is still not completely a free market and is more available to some Americans than others. Coldwell Banker does not have locations in certain places and this likely has ties to race, ethnicity, and class as well as practices and patterns developed over decades.

I am not asking that Coldwell Banker open locations in certain places. I am asking for an accurate map that clearly shows where Coldwell Banker is and where it is not.

(And for those who think I am reading too much into this, my starting position is this: I assume race is a causal factor in American social life until shown otherwise, not vice versa.)

Predatory contracts took $3-4 billion from blacks in Chicago

A recent study looked at the financial cost of contract buying for two decades for black homeowners in Chicago:

Black families in Chicago lost between $3 billion and $4 billion in wealth because of predatory housing contracts during the 1950s and 1960s, according to a new report released Thursday.

The Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University and the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago sought to calculate the amount of money extracted from black homeowners on the city’s South and West sides from home contract sales. The report is titled “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts.”

Contract buying worked like this: A buyer put down a large down payment for a home and made monthly installments at high interest rates. But the buyer never gained ownership until the contract was paid in full and all conditions were met. Meanwhile, the contract seller held the deed and could evict the buyer. Contract buyers also accumulated no equity in their homes. No laws or regulations protected them.

Home contract sales were a ruthlessly exploitive means of extracting capital from African Americans with no better alternatives in their pursuit of homeownership, the report said. Contract loans were rampant all over the West Side — in East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park and North Lawndale — but also in Englewood on the South Side.

The key here is that wealth generated through homeownership is the sort of asset that gets passed down over time and helps build intergenerational wealth. Many Americans today rely on this same logic: owning a home is a significant investment to draw on later in life. That wealth then enables other possibilities, such as education or moving or acquiring other goods. This long-term wealth goes far beyond the benefits a homeownership has while living in that home; the wealth enables possibilities for future generations.

As one study puts it:

If public policy successfully eliminated racial disparities in homeownership rates, so that Blacks and Latinos were as likely as white households to own their homes, median Black wealth would grow $32,113 and the wealth gap between Black and white households would shrink 31 percent. Median Latino wealth would grow $29,213 and the wealth gap with white households would shrink 28 percent.

Earlier public policy decisions and social practices can have long-term consequences, even decades later.

Can American residents and leaders be convinced population stagnation or loss is not that bad?

Chicago continues to lose residents and Houston is coming up fast. A sociologist is cited as saying the population decrease is not that bad:

Christine Percheski, an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, cautioned that while it is significant to note that Chicago is losing people, “this does not necessarily reflect the health or the functioning of the city.”

An array of complicated factors are at play in population numbers, including changes to mortality, fertility and immigration rates, she noted.

I believe Percheski is right: the relatively small population loss in Chicago plus the city’s ability to avoid the larger population losses experienced by many Rust Belt cities means this is not a huge deal. Of course, getting passed by Houston in population will matter (though Toronto passing Chicago barely registered).

But, will residents and leaders ever be convinced that a lack of growth is not bad? Because growth is good and this argument is rarely challenged, population stagnation or loss set off an alarm bell. Why exactly this is the case is a bit harder to articulate but it likely involves a loss of status and a suggestion that the city has limited momentum heading into the future.

At this point, the United States does not have good models of cities and communities that have stalled out in population or even declined that are widely regarded as successful places. Chicago could be one of these models and perhaps it could work because it is so big and so storied. On the other hand, if Chicago has small population loss for decades, this adds up and will require Chicago leaders to work harder and harder to convince residents and businesses that the long-term story is not bad.

Strategies for renovating old downtown office buildings to compete with new towers

Pressure on office and residential space in Chicago’s Loop is coming from multiple angles, including the need for older buildings to adapt to modern office requirements:

Kamin said he expects more office buildings to find a second life as hotels or residential towers. “I don’t think there’s a successful path for some of these functionally obsolete buildings as offices,” Kamin said…

The high cost just to acquire a property presents relatively few opportunities for major overhauls, said developer Craig Golden of Blue Star Properties…

The venture took out a nearly $100 million construction loan in 2016, and converted the 20-story building into modern offices, branded as The National — a reference to the property’s 1907 opening as the home of Commercial National Bank.

The developers added the type of distinguishing feature that has helped properties thrive in recent years, creating the sprawling Revival Food Hall on the ground floor. The food hall brings in lunch crowds from throughout downtown, adding to the building’s vibrancy. Office tenants include co-working firm WeWork and the headquarters of Paper Source.

I have heard that it is often cheaper for companies to build a new big box store than to reuse and/or renovate one built by another company. Thus, problems with vacancies when companies close locations. Could the same be true for downtown office buildings – the cost of renovation is too high? I find this a little hard to believe given the difficult process that can ensue in order to construct a sizable building in a major city.

Similarly, the strategy of adding enticing dining options echoes what is happening with shopping malls expanding beyond retail to dining, residences, hotels, and a variety of entertainment establishments. The goal is to both promote multiple uses but also cross-traffic between organizations and business as people need to work, eat, enjoy life, and sleep.

Perhaps we will know there is really a problem when multiple older structures are torn down to make way for new buildings.

Measuring the success of a leader by the number of buildings and public amenities named after them

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn suggests the Chicago Riverwalk should be named after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and also discusses the number of buildings named after prominent Chicago mayors:

In situations like this I usually invoke my “hall of fame” rule. That rule requires that, when faced with the urge to slap a politician’s name onto public property, we emulate how pro baseball and pro football halls of fame require players to have been inactive for at least five years before they can be considered for induction. (Hockey and basketball make their luminaries wait only three years.) The purpose is to prevent cheap sentiment and spasms of nostalgia from coloring the cool judgment of time.

For instance, the years have not been kind to Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley. The further his six terms as mayor recede in memory, the more fiscally irresponsible and ultimately destructive Daley seems.

He dined on our seed corn — most notably by selling 75 years’ worth of parking meter revenue for a paltry $1.15 billion in 2008. He failed to make the painful decisions that would have kept local pension funds healthy. He left flaming piles of debt for the Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Transit Authority. I need not go on.

There’s a reason that a neighborhood branch library is still and perhaps forever the most significant public structure to bear Richard M. Daley’s name (compared with his exhaustively honored father, Richard J. Daley). By 2024, similarly harsh retrospective assessments may discourage us from putting the Emanuel name on the riverfront jewel he relentlessly championed.

Attaching names of prominent officials to buildings and other public structures (such as highways or an interchange) has a long history. Once a leader is out of office, they can fade from public memory. A prominent feature of the urban landscape with their name on it can help keep their name in public view for decades, perhaps even centuries.

Often, the name is attached to something they helped create. This is where putting Emanuel’s name on the Riverwalk makes sense: if he helped make it happen, his name reminds Chicagoans of at least one good important thing he did. His legacy will likely be mixed but who can deny the value of a nice public amenity?

But, the gesture can also seem vain, backfire in the long run, or . Self-application of a name probably would not work. Consider the fate of streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. in major American cities. Or, the numerous honorary streets in Chicago that few notice. Even worse may be names that few remember even as the name is regularly invoked (the fate of the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago).

It will be worth tracking (1) how many places in Chicago bear Emanuel’s name in the long run and (2) how these named places affect his legacy.