Experts: cities like Chicago may lose population but they don’t shrink

A group of experts at a recent conference suggest Chicago may have lost population but it is not shrinking:

Chicago’s population may have dropped 20 percent since 1950, but experts who gathered at the DePaul Center yesterday said the rise of developments on the city’s south and west sides are promising signs that the city isn’t “shrinking,” according to Medill Reports.

“Physically, cities don’t shrink,” said Brian Bernardoni, director of government affairs for the Chicago Association of Realtors. “What does shrink is productivity, jobs and job opportunity, tax bases and population.” The Chicago Association of Realtors’ seminar that looked at the concept of “shrinking cities” (places with sustained population loss and spiking levels of blight and abandoned properties) found recent developments like Oakwood Shores and Park Boulevard, and potential future megaprojects such as plans to convert the old South Works steel mill site to a mixed-use city within a city or McPier’s McCormick-area arena and hotel proposal, may protect us from the unflattering moniker.

According to Medill’s recap, “of all North American cities with a million people, Chicago recorded the greatest population loss in the last census,” but the city officials, urban planners, and developers at the event – including Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th); Scott Freres of The Lakota Group; Joe Williams of Granite Companies, Myer Blank of True Partners Consulting; and DePaul professor Joe Schwieterman – seem to hold a hardy optimism.

This may be parsing words. In a popular sense, cities that lose population do not look good. For example, Rust Belt cities that have lost population, including Chicago, are seen as having major problems. On the flip side, cities that gain population, like Sunbelt cities in recent years, are seen as successful and making progress. In a more technical sense, these experts are probably right: it takes a long time for the physical footprint of a city to significantly decrease. This is an issue Detroit is facing right now. The population has dropped significantly but what is to be done with vacant houses and land? And what happens if development blooms at one spot in a city, like at the old South Works steel mill site, while other parts of the city really languish?

There are important long-term issues to consider. Chicago still faces an uphill battle in terms of fighting the trends of recent decades and it will take quite a bit of money and work to pull off these new projects. In cities growing at faster rates, growth does not necessarily lead to good outcomes even if it is often viewed as a good sign.

Chicago’s explosive 19th century growth driven by excrement

Whet Moser argues Chicago’s remarkable growth from frontier town to big city was the result of excrement and new sewers:

The city was literally shaped by excrement. Its biggest single period of growth, the growth that turned Chicago into the Second City by population, came in the late 1800s, when the city’s sewer and sanitary systems were the envy of what were then suburbs. Lake View Township (the whole of the northeast side from North Avenue up to Rogers Park), Hyde Park Township (the south side between Pershing, State, and 138th), Lake Township (the southwest side bordered by Pershing, State, 87th, and Cicero) all latched on to the city when sophisticated sanitary systems were beyond the reach of booming townships, which were tightly restricted by the state’s limits on local debt.

Read on for more of the story of Chicago’s sewers.

This story in Chicago was not wholly unique. The late mid- to late-1800s were a period when numerous suburban communities outside big cities like Chicago, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were annexed into the city. This annexation was approved by suburban communities for several reasons. First, as Moser notes, sewers and other infrastructure improvements like water and electricity were too expensive for small communities. Second, these communities wanted to be part of the big city and the status that came with that.

Yet, the story changes quite a bit from the 1880s onward when suburban communities started rejecting annexation efforts from big cities. The price of the infrastructure improvements dropped, putting them within reach of smaller suburbs. Cities were growing so fast that they couldn’t keep up with social problems as well as infrastructure improvements, limiting the status appeal of being part of the big city. Finally, an idealism was developing among the suburbs themselves as places people wanted to move to in order to escape the big city. By the 1920s, annexations had basically stopped.

This was a major turning point for most Northeast and Midwest big cities. Once annexations stopped and suburbs decided to go on their own, the boundaries of big cities became fixed. Later, as wealth and jobs fled the city for the suburbs, there were few opportunities for Rust Belt cities to expand their boundaries. In contrast, cities in the South and West (the Sunbelt) have had different annexation histories and many are much bigger in land area.

Living alone in higher percentages in Rust Belt cities

Living alone is not limited to young singles: some Rust Belt cities have higher percentages (compared to the national figures of 27% of single households) of older single households.

Pittsburgh, former capital of the nation’s steel industry, has seen its population drop by more than half to about 306,000 since 1950, according to the 2010 Census. The government said 41.7 percent of households consist of one person, the sixth-highest rate in the nation…Now, about one in eight Pittsburgh households is occupied by a single elderly person, the fifth highest among U.S. cities. Russell said a significant share of the single households consist of elderly women, whom he calls “Rust-Belt babushkas.”…

In the Census data, Atlanta and Washington were tied at 44 percent for the highest percentage of one-person households.

Cincinnati ranked third in the nation with 43.4 percent of its 133,420 households consisting of single people. In 1900, Cincinnati was the nation’s 10th largest city, with a population of about 326,000. In 2010, it was the 62nd largest, with about 297,000.

The city’s relatively high number of singles is probably the result of families leaving for suburbs starting in the 1970s, combined with an influx of young professionals to the central city, where University of Cincinnati and Xavier University students also live, said Jeffrey Timberlake, an associate sociology professor at the former.

This reminds me of Eric Klinenberg’s earlier book Heat Wave that looked at the implications of the elderly living alone in Chicago. There are large social forces at work that can lead to certain communities having larger populations of elderly single people.

My thought: the implication here is that Sunbelt cities (South and West) don’t have as large single populations. What is the primary reason for this: the cities simply aren’t as old and they haven’t seen these cycles of population that the Rust Belt cities have experienced? Is it because Sunbelt cities don’t have some of the same kinds of dense urban neighborhoods and downtowns (and instead have more sprawl)? Are these cities more attractive to families (certain kinds of jobs, values, lower crime rates, more single-family homes in suburban subdivisions, etc.)?

One firm look at a particular subset of singles (they “restricted its analysis to single, widowed, and divorced women age 25-64. Without this cap on the age range, places with higher concentrations of elderly people would show a misleading number of single women.”) argues these are the 10 US cities with the smaller percentages of singles:

People tend couple up more in the smaller towns, though there are big city outliers like Edison, NJ, and Nassau-Suffolk metro area in New York. Many places that view themselves as traditional boast marriage rates above the national average.

A few college cities buck the trend of having more singles. North Carolina cities, Raleigh and Charlotte–each home to a university with more than 20,000 students–are in the bottom 25% by percentage of singles.

Logan, UT, and Provo, UT, both have fewer than 20% singles, the lowest in the country. Texas cities McAllen and Laredo have similarly low numbers of single people.

See their statistics for the 100 biggest US cities here. Since Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are so much further down this list, it suggests that those Rust Belt cities have larger percentages of elderly singles.

 

“Detroit Suburbs Harder”

A store in the Detroit suburbs is now selling shirts with this phrase: “Detroit Suburbs Harder.”

Detroit Hustles Harder. Three words. A mantra that swaggers at you, bearing an unflinching gaze. A saying that suggests only one answer — just put your head down and work…

Now the Triple Threads t-shirt and printing company in Clawson want some of the myth-making. Thanks to a tip on Facebook, we saw a photo of a new top they’re hawking — “Detroit Suburbs Harder.”

There are some obvious questions here.

How exactly does one ‘suburb?’ Does this verb describe the act of enjoying a lunch in downtown Birmingham or raking leaves in Northville? Or is it a political philosophy eschewing mixed-use development and building re-use for more roads and far-flung McMansion developments?

Assuming “Detroit Suburbs Harder,” does that mean that our suburbs are more suburb-y than those of Atlanta? Are we out-suburbing Orange County and Chicagolandia? Was there a contest here I wasn’t aware of?

And if “Detroit Suburbs Harder,” is this shirt a companion wardrobe piece for people in Detroit who already hustle harder, or a philosophical distinction? Is ‘suburb-ing’ now supposed to be the opposite of ‘hustling?’

Perhaps this isn’t the meaning at all but here is a possible sociological/historical answer: Detroit may indeed be a poster city for suburban development in the United States, particularly for Northeastern and Midwestern cities (even as the prototypical region for suburbs is probably Los Angeles). While Detroit tends to garner attention for its Rust Belt demise in the last half century (see here and here), the suburbs have done decently well. In other words, while the core of the region has experienced difficulty, the suburbs go on. Detroit is known for “white flight” and segregation though recent data suggests more blacks are now moving to its suburbs. The fate of urban Detroit may still be bleak (particularly financially) but its suburbs might hold out for much longer.

Still using Chicago as “urban laboratory”

Following in the tradition of the Chicago School which saw the city as an “urban laboratory,” sociologist Robert Sampson explains how the findings from studying Chicago apply to the entire country:

Many cities were considered as a possible launching pad for the study, but Chicago got the nod for its composition of whites, blacks, and Latinos — the three largest groups in the United States — and for the access to the city’s extensive statistics on health, police, and more. “Chicago offered us a picture of American life that we thought was broadly representative,” Sampson said.

According to Sampson, a vast array of social activity is concentrated in place. “We studied crime, health, altruism, cynicism, disorder, collective efficacy, civic engagement, leadership networks — all of which are influenced and shaped by neighborhood effects.”…

Even as the world is increasingly globalized, neighborhood structures remain local and important. “Neighborhoods have legacies,” he said. “Crime and poverty are durable over long periods of time. From the 1960s onwards, cities went through amazing social change — riots, crime — to one of the largest decreases in violence from the late 1990s to the present. Yet communities are persistent in rank ordering. People are moving in and out of neighborhoods, but the perceptions of neighborhoods stay largely the same.”

What’s more, he found, no community in Chicago transitioned from black to white, a pattern he shows is similar to the United States as a whole.

To sum up: place matters.

I’ve thought several times over the years that I would like to see more work about whether Chicago is really representative of America as is often suggested or if other cities are better options. To put it another way, is Chicago studied more often because there is a legacy of studying Chicago well at the University of Chicago and other schools or because Chicago is truly unique? Others have argued that other places are more emblematic of more recent patterns – check out the Los Angeles School for a differing opinion. Chicago might represent Rust Belt cities but what about Sun Belt cities?

When looking at American cities that seem to get most research attention or are covered in “classic works”, having an established research school with an interest in urban sociology seems to matter. Chicago gets a lot of attention as does Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City. This makes sense: these cities have great universities and it is logical that researchers and graduate students would look at some of the surrounding areas and be able to justify this study beyond simply saying it is more convenient or cheaper. In contrast, other major cities don’t seem to get the same level of scrutiny, places like Washington, D.C., Detroit, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and a number of other ascendent Sun Belt cities.

Perhaps my thoughts are too impressionistic and one could try to quantify just how much each city actually does get studied. But even then, there are cities with histories that matter, research legacies that have inertia and are likely to continue for some time. Someday we might have a Houston school or an Atlanta school but that requires resources, effort, and research that is recognized as being relevant and innovative.

A consequence of white flight: costs for aging infrastructure born more by minorities

The phenomenon of white flight in the United States refers to whites leaving urban neighborhoods in the decades after World War II and going to the suburbs to avoid growing minority populations. Several researchers recently uncovered a latent consequence of white flight:

Racial minorities pay systemically more for basic water and sewer services than white people, according to a study by Michigan State University researchers.

This “structural inequality” is not necessarily a product of racism, argues sociologist Stephen Gasteyer, but rather the result of whites fleeing urban areas and leaving minority residents to bear the costs of maintaining aging water and sewer infrastructure…

The researchers analyzed Census data on self-reported water and sewer costs in Michigan. The study found that urban residents actually pay more than rural residents, which refutes conventional wisdom, Gasteyer said…

Detroit is the “poster child” for this problem, Gasteyer said. The city has lost more than 60 percent of its population since 1950, and the water and sewer infrastructure is as much as a century old in some areas. Billions of gallons of water are lost through leaks in the aging lines every year, and the entire system has been under federal oversight since 1977 for wastewater violations.

Very interesting: another infrastructure problem to be solved and it happens to fall disproportionally on minority populations. It would be interesting to see this analysis extended beyond Michigan – is this primarily a Rust Belt phenomenon where the big cities have some infrastructure that dates to around 1900 or does this also apply to newer Sunbelt cities?

Overall, it might be helpful for those who argue the United States needs to seriously put a lot money into infrastructure to demonstrate how much this matters to everyone and how much the aging (leaks, potholes, etc.) costs everyone each year. It is pretty hard to live without water and sewers but it wasn’t too long ago that these were not regular amenities. Indeed, 1890 was roughly a turning point when both big cities and smaller suburbs could put together their own infrastructure systems to serve residents. (This also lines up with the period when suburbs started resisting annexation to big cities as they could handle these amenities themselves.) Add roads, electricity, and natural gas to this and you have a system that is vital to modern life but is relatively behind the scenes. If you could add a fairness/social justice dimension to it (the most aging infrastructure is in places that can least afford it), this could be a very public issue.

Rahm Emanuel says Chicago is “the most American city”

In announcing that a prestigious conference will be held next year in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made an interesting statement about the city:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced today that Chicago will host the 12th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates this spring…

The event is expected to attract high profile leaders from around the globe. All former Nobel Peace Laureates will be invited to attend. It will be co-chaired by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Walter Veltroni, the former mayor of Rome. Emanuel will serve as an honorary co-chair.

This event “has been held in Paris, it’s been held in Berlin, it’s been held in Rome,” Emanuel said. “And they picked, in my view the most American city in America, Chicago.”

Chicago was chosen “due to its rich heritage and international profile,” organizers said Thursday.

What exactly makes Chicago “the most American city”? Several reasons come to mind:

1. Chicago came to prominence during the late 1800s as Americans were expanding to the West Coast, the railroad became really important, and America became a larger player on the world stage. In these changes, Chicago helped lead the way as a major port connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi and becoming the railroad hub of the nation. Chicago was the boomtown of this era, growing from just over 112,000 people in 1860 to nearly 1.7 million in 1900.

1a. In comparison, the older cities of the Northeast, Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia are too dependent on the colonial era.

1b. However, one could make the case that Los Angeles (or maybe even Houston) is the quintessential American city of the 20th century with a rise of the suburbs, highways, culture industries, and a population shift to Sunbelt and West Coast. At the same time these things were happening, Chicago was also changing: its suburbs have continued to grow (and also experienced growth in high-tech/white collar jobs) even as the city has experienced the Rust Belt problems of white flight and the loss of manufacturing jobs.

2. Chicago embodies some of the best and worse of America. It’s skyline is beautiful and it features miles of parks along Lake Michigan. The downtown and Michigan Avenue area is relatively clean and full of tourists. Chicago is a prominent world city because of its finance industry. On the flipside, Chicago is well known for its segregation (bringing MLK to the city in 1966), corrupt politics, and crime/gangsters.

3. Chicago is middle America, not the more educated or stylish East or West Coast. It embodies American values of hard work and grittiness alongside success and entrepreneurship.

A side note: it will be a busy spring in Chicago with the G-8 and NATO meeting in Chicago not too long after this Nobel gathering.