Cities that rise from the dead

With Easter today and Atlanta in the news, I was thinking of American cities that claim to have risen from the dead. The phoenix has been the symbol for Atlanta for over a century:

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Like the Phoenix, Atlanta had risen from its own ashes following its destruction in 1864. Many times during the city’s history, Atlanta has redefined and reinvented itself, rising again as the city slogan, Resurgens, suggests. The “Atlanta Spirit” is another oft-referenced slogan describing an entrepreneurial and ambitious attitude that has shaped the city’s historical identity.

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, boosters and others were eager to rebuild:

On October 11, 1871, three days after the fire started that devastated the city, Bross’s Tribune proclaimed, “CHEER UP. In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world’s history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN.”

Bross, who was an avid promoter of the city, predicted that Chicago would be rebuilt in five years and would reach a population of 1 million by the turn of the century, as Donald Miller reports in City of the Century.

There is an accepted narrative that the fire created a blank slate upon which Chicago was quickly rebuilt. That blank slate allowed it to become a dynamic city of innovative architecture with a fresh skyline dotted with a brand-new building called the skyscraper.

“The great legend of Chicago is that it’s a ‘phoenix city’ – it almost instantly rebuilt itself bigger and better from the ashes. And to a certain and significant extent, that’s true,” said Carl Smith, professor emeritus of English at Northwestern University and author of Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City.

And the city of Phoenix draws on the presence of people hundreds of years before:

Those former residents were industrious, enterprising and imaginative. They built an irrigation system, consisting mostly of some 135 miles of canals, and the land became fertile. The ultimate fate of this ancient society, however, is a mystery. The accepted belief is that it was destroyed by a prolonged drought. Roving Indians, observing the Pueblo Grande ruins and the vast canal system these people left behind, gave them the name “Ho Ho Kam” — the people who have gone…

By 1868, a small colony had formed approximately four miles east of the present city. Swilling’s Mill became the new name of the area. It was then changed to Helling Mill, after which it became Mill City, and years later, East Phoenix. Swilling, having been a confederate soldier, wanted to name the new settlement Stonewall after Stonewall Jackson. Others suggested the name Salina, but neither name suited the inhabitants. It was Darrell Duppa who suggested the name Phoenix, inasmuch as the new town would spring from the ruins of a former civilization. That is the accepted derivation of our name.

Many cities have faced crises, disasters, or unusual starts. Local histories and narratives can also emphasize positive moments (and downplay negative moments). The rising from the ashes, overcoming great obstacles, coming back to life, these are all powerful narratives for big cities. They imply success, progress, and hopefully growth.

What these narratives mean now may be harder to ascertain. What does the aftermath of the Chicago Fire mean for Chicago today? Is Phoenix still rebuilding a great civilization? More than 150 years after the Civil War, is Atlanta continuing to reinvent itself? A city rising from the dead once is impressive but it may be harder to pull off over decades of change.

Private city for business opens in Honduras

A Honduras city primed for business will soon open for remote operators:

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Próspera is the first project to gain approval from Honduras to start a privately governed charter city, under a national program started in 2013. It has its own constitution of sorts and a 3,500-page legal code with frameworks for political representation and the resolution of legal disputes, as well as minimum wage (higher than Honduras’s) and income taxes (lower in most cases). After nearly half a decade of development, the settlement will announce next week that it will begin considering applications from potential residents this summer.

The first colonists will be e-residents. Próspera doesn’t yet have housing ready to be occupied. But even after the site is built out, most constituents will never set foot on local soil, says Erick Brimen, its main proprietor. Instead, Brimen expects about two-thirds of Prósperans to sign up for residency in order to incorporate businesses there or take jobs with local employers while living elsewhere…

The idea behind charter cities, along with their predecessor seasteading, which sought to create independent nations floating in the ocean, is to compete for citizens through innovative, business-friendly governing systems. For some reason, the idea has long been linked to Honduras, an impoverished country whose governing system is classified as “partly free” by the human rights organization Freedom House. Paul Romer, an American economist who pioneered the idea of charter cities, tried to start one in the country a decade ago. It failed, but Honduras has spent much of the time since then writing a law to enable such cities, which are known in the country as Zedes, short for zonas de empleo y dessarollo económicos (employment and economic development zones).

But the prospect of creating pockets of prosperity that play by their own rules is controversial for obvious reasons. Próspera has drawn protests from local residents who see a lack of transparency and little to gain from its existence, and a group of local political leaders signed a letter of opposition in October. This month, an arm of the Technical University of Munich said it’s reevaluating its relationship with Próspera and that it generally withdraws from projects if there are indications of human rights violations. Representatives for TUM didn’t respond to requests to elaborate. A spokeswoman for Próspera says it has had a “great working relationship with TUM over the years.” 

Although this city has been in the works for years, it seems appropriate that is will open for remote businesses in the COVID-19 era. Even without a physical presence in the city, corporations will be able to incorporate there and enjoy the benefits.

Down the road, it is interesting to imagine what a thriving or beleagured charter city could be like. For some reason, I am thinking of some of the more colorful communities from Star Wars where all sorts of characters come together to conduct their activities. How many people would come to live and work versus how many will access the city’s benefits from afar? What kinds of alterations to the regulations might be necessary? How many free market cities might this inspire elsewhere?

What the architecture of City Hall communicates

A new book titled City Hall looks at the design of city hall across American communities:

“Our democratic heritage goes back to ancient Greece, and so it stands to reason that when America was born, so to speak, in the late 18th century, municipal buildings referred to the Greco-Roman architecture, with the pillars and pediments and cornices,” he says. But as the country matured, different forms of architecture began to emerge. “Then it becomes, ‘Do we still embrace the neoclassical style architecture, or do we start embracing our own time?’” he adds. (That argument more recently played out at the federal level, when former President Donald Trump tried to make neoclassical architecture the default style for all national buildings in his controversial “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” effort.)…

In many of these examples, governments used their city halls to express civic pride, and to be “at the forefront of progressive building technologies and changing architectural styles,” architectural historian Thomas Mellins writes at the beginning of Drooker’s book…

Regardless of the architecture, there is a recognition among mayors and architects that municipal buildings are ultimately places for the people, and that the designs need to convey a message of approachability. In San Jose’s new city hall, which opened in 2005, Richard Meier’s postmodern design made extensive use of glass, making a statement about government transparency as well as energy efficiency. The building’s unusual three-part structure emphasized that theme: There’s the rotunda and the city council chamber, and in between them at the heart of the complex is an open plaza that then-mayor Ron Gonzales and his administration wanted toserve as the “people’s living room.”

Public or civic buildings present a unique opportunity to highlight particular values and create public space to be used and enjoyed. This can be done in a variety of architectural styles or forms, affected by trends in architecture, regional differences, the size of the community, the resources available, and more.

This reminds me of James Howard Kunstler’s critique of Boston’s City Hall, a building designed by noted architect I. M. Pei. Kunstler argues that the space is not inviting and not a worthy public space. The Brutalist architecture does not necessarily invoke warm fuzzies about local government.

In contrast, many suburban communities opt for modest city halls in either more traditional styles or simpler postwar forms. Many suburbanites like the idea of smaller local governments and the suburban structures can highlight tradition and/or efficiency.

West Chicago City Hall depicted on Google Street View.

Part of the approachability of these a city hall or civic building involves how well they fit with the surrounding landscape. A Brutalist building could be more approachable with lush greenery around it. A plain suburban city hall could be more inviting if it did not sit behind a large parking lot. More broadly, American communities would benefit from inviting public spaces that are connected to civic buildings.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and cities

With the start of my Urban Sociology class this week, I spent a little time this weekend reflecting on the connections between Martin Luther King, Jr. and cities. Looking at just a few aspects of King’s life suggests he was shaped by cities and he shaped cities.

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-King was born in Atlanta, his father was a pastor in Atlanta, he did most of his collegiate and graduate work in cities (Atlanta and Boston), and he was a pastor in Montgomery and Atlanta. King was assassinated in Memphis.

-Much of the Civil Rights Movement activity took place in major cities. The names are familiar: Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Washington. Other activity in cities may be less known today to the general public, such as the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement or why King was in Memphis in 1968.

-The issues King addressed are associated by many Americans with cities: race, injustice, inequality, housing, access to public transportation, jobs. Of course, these issues are not exclusive to urban life but the demographic differences in many parts of the United States between cities and suburbs or rural areas and the ways Blacks were often restricted from certain locations (such as in sundown towns) highlighted the different conditions and realities across places.

Rent prices down in Chicago during 2020

Several sources suggest rent dropped in Chicago during this past year:

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And she’s not alone; in Chicago, rents dropped by almost 12% in December compared to December 2019, according to a new report from Apartment List, a website for apartment rentals. Average rent was $1,355 in Chicago a year ago; it fell to $1,193 in December.

Zillow data, too, marked the starkest plunge in year-over-year rental prices in the Chicago metropolitan area since it began analyzing national rents in 2014, with a decline starting in July and continuing through the latter half of the year.

Zillow reported a 2.2% decline in Chicago-area rents in November compared to a year earlier. When including the suburbs, Apartment List’s figures — which the service claims is more closely aligned to U.S. Census Bureau data — showed a similar decline of 6%, suggesting the suburban markets have not been as hard hit as the city.

Chicago was among the most severely impacted cities when it came to falling rents, said Rob Warnock, who co-authored the Apartment List study. Due to the pandemic, more expensive cities with competitive job markets saw rent decline — many for the first time in a decade.

It is good to see more data on the effects of COVID-19 on housing. As the article suggests, even a small drop in rents could be helpful for people in more uncertain economic times. This is not a big drop percentage-wise in Chicago, particularly compared to larger drops in Manhattan or San Francisco, but the Chicago market as not as overheated as some locations.

At the same time, it would be fascinating to see more detailed data addressing:

  1. Within cities and metropolitan regions, where have rents dropped, stayed about the same, or risen? And how does this line up with other social patterns?
  2. How much longer can renters and landlords continue on this path? How might this matter by location, different kinds of housing, and different landlords?
  3. Does this do anything to help address long-standing affordable housing issues in Chicago or is it a slight blip?

Some of these will take time to resolve as will the question of whether rents will go back at some point. In the meantime, many people in many communities are affected by these changes.

Slight uptick as nearly half of Americans say they would prefer to live in a small town or a rural area

New data from Gallup suggests a slight shift among Americans toward a preference for moving away from suburbs and cities:

About half of Americans (48%) at the end of 2020 said that, if able to live anywhere they wished, they would choose a town (17%) or rural area (31%) rather than a city or suburb. This is a shift from 2018, when 39% thought a town or rural area would be ideal.

The recent increase in Americans’ penchant for country living — those choosing a town or rural area — has been accompanied by a decline in those preferring to live in a suburb, down six percentage points to 25%. The percentage favoring cities has been steadier, with 27% today — close to the 29% in 2018 — saying they would prefer living in a big (11%) or small (16%) city.

Current attitudes are similar to those recorded in October 2001, the only other time Gallup has asked Americans this question. That reading, like today’s but unlike the 2018 one, was taken during a time of great national upheaval — shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the public was still on edge about the potential for more terrorism occurring in densely populated areas…

The preference for cities is greatest among non-White Americans (34%), adults 18 to 34 (33%), residents of the West (32%) and Democrats (36%).

There is a lot to consider here and it is too bad Gallup has only asked this three times. Here are some thoughts as someone who studies suburbs, cities, and places:

  1. The shift from 2018 to 2020 is very interesting to consider in light of the shift in preferences away from small towns and rural locations between 2001 and 2018. What happened between 2018 and 2020? The analysis concludes by citing COVID-19 which likely plays a role. But, there could be other forces at work here including police brutality, protests, and depictions of particular locations or different factors could be at work with different groups who had larger shifts between 2018 and 2020.
  2. One reminder: this is about preferences, not about where people choose to live when they have options.
  3. Related to #2, Americans like the idea of small towns and there is a romantic ideal attached to such places. In contrast, there is a long history of anti-urbanism in the United States. But, people may not necessarily move to smaller communities when they have the opportunity.
  4. The distinction in the categories in the question – big city, small city, suburb of a big city, suburb of a small city, town, or rural area – may not be as clear-cut as implied. From a researcher’s point of view, these are mutually exclusive categories of places. On the ground, some of these might blend together, particularly the distinction between suburbs and small towns. More toward the edge of metropolitan regions, do people think they live in the suburbs or a small town? Or, how many residents and leaders describe their suburb as a small town or as having small town charm (I have heard this in a suburb of over 140,000 people)? Can a small but exclusive suburb with big lots and quiet streets (say less than 5,000 people and median household incomes over $120,000) think of itself as a small town rather than a suburb? I say more about this in a 2016 article looking at how surveys involving religion measure place and a July 2020 post looking at responses when people were asked what kind of community they lived in.

The most popular posts of 2020

With the start of 2021, here on thoughts on the top five posts of 2020 on LegallySociable:

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  1. Demolish a vacant mall anchor store, build new apartments. This post about possible changes to the Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, Illinois had the most views. The local aspect of the story hints at the local dimensions of this list: #1, #4, and #5 had specific mentions of nearby suburbs.
  2. New York City, Los Angeles on different COVID-19 trajectories. With much written about COVID-19’s effect on cities, this post from March 2020 hints at the different ways COVID-19 played out in different communities. This is still a story to watch in 2021.
  3. Designing your own Peytonville, Part 1. The Peytonville commercials started in Fall 2019 and I wrote five posts about specific aspects of the ads. The first one was the most popular.
  4. When protests make it to the wealthier suburbs, this means… The protests of 2020 took place in many communities, including suburbs. This post discusses the implications of protests moving to wealthier suburbs that are not used to protests.
  5. How garbage is moved out of suburbs. Posted just a few days ago, this one looked at the garbage infrastructure in suburban areas but likely received a lot of views due to local disagreement about the possible waste transfer station.

All of these popular posts had something to do with place. This is a primary focus of this blog with a particular emphasis on western suburbs of the Chicago region. The top five posts either involved suburbs or cities. Even as 2020 renewed focus on both locales – with effects from COVID-19 and its effects, police violence and protests, and national and local politics – I would argue that place and communities still do not receive enough attention. My published research attempts to tackle several of these dimensions. It is hard to predict what exactly will be worth posting about in 2021 but I do know I will continue to focus on places.

Companies moving out of California – yet continuing offices and operations in California

I have read several news stories discussing the move of companies out of California. Such news feeds chatter about companies and residents leaving places because of politics, taxes, discontent, etc. But, the details in this one story suggest some companies are shifting some workers and activity while retaining operations in California.

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“Oracle is implementing a more flexible employee work location policy and has changed its corporate headquarters from Redwood City, California to Austin, Texas,” the filing said. “We believe these moves best position Oracle for growth and provide our personnel with more flexibility about where and how they work.”

The company already has a significant presence in Austin, opening a five-story, 560,000 square-feet campus overlooking Lady Bird Lake. It also has employment hubs in Redwood City, Santa Monica, Seattle, Denver, Orlando and Burlington…

Oracle follows a handful of similar moves by California companies and high-profile business leaders leaving the state. Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced he had moved to Austin last week at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council summit. His exodus followed months of bashing California for its handling of the pandemic. The billionaire CEO said he is maintaining company operations in California, but also has significant operations for Tesla and SpaceX in Texas…

HP Enterprise also announced its decision to relocate its headquarters from San Jose to the Houston suburb of Spring earlier this month. Palantir Technologies relocated from Palo Alto as well this year, landing in Denver. Tech giants Google and Apple have also been expanding their presence in Austin over the last several years.

Headquarters are important, particularly for cities. Attracting the headquarters of a major company is a big status symbol for any big city. See the interest in trying to attract Amazon’s second headquarters. The implication is that the new location has a favorable business climate and is on the rise (with the opposite assumed of the previous location).

But, headquarters are just part of a company. They may be the nerve center and the physical home of company executives. Yet, large companies today can have offices and plants all over the place connected to a headquarters elsewhere.

Another way to read the moves out of California above is to suggest that these companies are hedging their bets by being located in numerous advantageous locales. Having multiple locations can help take advantage of local tax breaks for particular purposes, build on local work forces, maintain their place in local social networks, and provide points to pivot around when conditions change. The headquarters may have moved but they may move again and the companies still see some value in keeping operations going in California (even if some of this is simply due to inertia).

This suggests a different future reality than one where cities serve as anchors for major corporations. Instead, major multinational corporations keep offices and facilities all over the place, ready to move when needed or when an opportunity arises. Austin and Houston might be attractive now, Miami or Denver in a few years (just sticking to US locations). And as cities continue to look for an edge over their competition, attracting another big company is important…even as that company is actually rooted in multiple locations.

Using old technology to get around twenty-first century cities

Tom Vanderbilt considers how innovation in transportation affects urban life:

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And yet, there was something else that struck me about that scene in New York. For all its feeling of novelty, just about every one of those ways that people were getting around were technologies that dated back to the 19th century. The subway? It officially opened in 1904, but its basic technology was first demonstrated in 1869—the year Jesse James robbed his first bank. The car? Karl Benz sold his first in 1885. The bicycle? 1860. Ferries have gotten a revival in New York City in the past decade, but they have been around since the Dutch. Even e-scooters, which could be read as some Millennials-led plot on boomer NIMBYs, were piloting New York City streets—albeit powered by gas—more than a century ago…

It raises the question: Why hasn’t there been more innovation in transportation? Why is the 21st-century street still being trod by 19th-century vehicles? The pandemic gave the world a pause, the sort capable of disrupting entrenched habits—Zoom changed our notions of social connectivity almost overnight. Had a similar glitch in the matrix allowed us the temporary means to envision better—safer, cleaner, quieter, more efficient—ways to move around?

Transportation tends to resist rapid innovation. There’s the simple physical bounds of being human; as of yet, we can’t be zapped through the ether. The form of cities, built up over centuries, also makes wholesale change difficult. Transportation, too, must account for the way people actually want to move around: It needs to go to where people want to go and get them there reasonably quickly; it needs to be stored and then be available when you want it. Proposed innovations like Personal Rapid Transit (little pods that run on elevated rails), or the “Travelator” (moving sidewalks) have largely failed, outside of places like airports, either because there’s no room (or money) to build them or because they don’t carry enough passengers to where they actually want to go. The Hyperloop, for all its promise, can’t get around the idea it might take longer to get to a terminal in either San Francisco or Los Angeles than it would to travel between them…

But, he argues, we don’t challenge the image’s key assumption: “Why, in this coming world of wonder, are we still getting around in cars?” The passenger car so dominates our thinking that we find it neither desirable, nor possible, to easily imagine alternatives. “Even in our wildest dreams,” Townsend writes, “we can’t free ourselves from the status quo.”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. One way to look at this would be that the cities of today are still addressing the problems of the past few centuries. With the rapid urbanization of many major cities within the last century or two, how could any city coherently address transportation? The growth – often celebrated
  2. Transportation is not community destiny. And yet, changes in transportation technologies shaped numerous communities at key moments. The stretch from roughly the 1820s to the 1950s brought trains, streetcars, subways, bicycles, and automobiles/trucks (and not including airplanes and changes in ships that enabled more and faster travel between cities). This brought unprecedented speed to humans. It enabled commuting. As prices dropped, the modes became accessible to millions.
  3. I wonder if the true innovation with transportation technology in the future would involve new communities or cities developing around new technologies. Retrofitting the cities of today to new technologies limits options, is costly, and will require lots of time. If we are locked into streets and transportation grids once designed for cars, we can only do so much. But, if whole new places can arise, more opportunities might emerge.

What it means if a 20% rent price drop in Manhattan may be enough to reverse the market

With rents in Manhattan and San Francisco declining, how much will prices drop before demand increases? Perhaps 20% in Manhattan:

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A big drop in rental prices appears to be luring new, younger renters back to the city, even as office workers and wealthy New Yorkers remain in the suburbs and more rural resort towns. New leases in Manhattan increased 33% in October, making it the best October in 12 years, according to a report from Douglas Elliman and Miller Samuel.

The typical rent paid for apartments including discounts, or the median net effective rent, fell 19% from a year ago to $2,868 — a record decline. Smaller apartments, which cater to younger renters, fell the most. The price of studio apartments was down 21%, and one-bedroom apartment prices dropped 19%.

“I think we’re at a tipping point where the consumer starts coming back to the city,” said Jonathan Miller, CEO of Miller Samuel. “Sellers are slowly recalibrating what the values are, and the lower pricing is beginning to bring more people in.”…

And with the average rental price for a one-bedroom apartment still over $3,200 — more than twice the national average — Manhattan is still far from affordable for many young renters. Still, experts say the October increases could begin a long, slow recovery for the nation’s largest real estate market.

Manhattan is an important real estate market. It is part of the leading city in the United States and one of the most important global cities in the world. Housing is desirable there for multiple reasons.

But, Manhattan’s prices are unusual. There is a limited amount of land. Few other places in the United States have a similar local economy and cultural scene. Prices will remain high because they have been high for a while. There is a lot of capital tied up in buildings and land.

Thus, it is hard to know what to do with an article like this in regards to housing. The suggestion is a 20% price drop may be enough to attract new renters who are interested in Manhattan and have the resources to move in. Most people, and perhaps even most residents of the New York City region, do not have the interest or the resources. At the least, this is a reminder that real estate is a very local affair.

But, at the same time, housing is a city-wide, region-wide, and a national concern. The Manhattan market has unique traits but many people face housing challenges, particularly during COVID-19. Manhattan may be a bellwether or it could be more of a curiosity of how a small slice of people think about housing. The bigger question from a story like this could be: have housing costs dropped elsewhere in the United States? Since few markets are like Manhattan, perhaps not. How does this affect people? What are the long-term housing price prospects across different kinds of markets and for more typical residents?