Small Illinois town becomes intermodal facility and warehouse central; long-term benefits are not good

Elwood, Illinois is home to facilities of a number of important American companies but the small community experiences few benefits:

It’s hard to find anyone who will admit to it now, but when the CenterPoint Intermodal freight terminal opened in 2002, people in Elwood, Illinois, were excited. The plan was simple: shipping containers, arriving by train from the country’s major ports, were offloaded onto trucks at the facility, then driven to warehouses scattered about the area, where they were emptied, their contents stored. From there, those products—merchandise for Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot—were loaded into semis, and trucked to stores all over the country. Goods in, goods out. The arrangement was supposed to produce a windfall for Elwood and its 2,200 residents, giving them access to the highly lucrative logistics and warehousing industry. “People thought it was the greatest thing,” said Delilah Legrett, an Elwood native…

But this corporate valhalla turned out to be hell for the community, which suffered a concentrated dose of the indignities and disappointments of late capitalism in the 21st century. Instead of abundant full-time work, a regime of partial, precarious employment set in. Temp agencies flourished, but no restaurants, hotels, or grocery stores ever came, save for the recent addition of a dollar store. Tens of thousands of semis rumbled through Will County every day, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure. And as the town of Elwood scrambled to pave its potholes, its inability to collect taxes from the facilities plunged it into more than $30 million in debt…

According to the Will County Center for Economic Development, at least 25,000 tractor trailers a day come through the Intermodals. That amounts to three million containers annually, carrying $65 billion worth of goods. A staggering $623 billion worth of freight traversed Will County infrastructure in 2015 alone, roughly equivalent to 3.5 percent of the U.S.’s total GDP…

But when it comes to the long-term prospects for the region, optimism is scarce. Paul Buss’s son, who works as a building inspector in Joliet, told his dad there’s concern “these companies are gonna come in, they’re gonna build these buildings, and they’re gonna use them for however long they can get a tax break on them, and then they’ll move someplace else.” The threat of empty warehouses looms large.

The freight industry, composed of both railroads and trucks, has to be placed somewhere. The southern edge of the Chicago region is a logical place with close connections to major highways, cross-country railroad lines, airports, and both the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River as well as proximity to the third largest metropolitan area in the United States. And there are likely benefits to these companies and industries to have a concentration of facilities rather than scattering them across multiple communities and regions.

But, the article suggests we should not view the communities where these facilities are placed just as collateral damage. There are real consequences to the trucks and trains that ship all the goods we need on a daily basis. People’s lives are affected. Could the facilities should be placed outside of towns and away from residences as possible?

Perhaps the true test of all of this is whether the next town that is chosen or selects itself as the possible next facility center turns down the opportunity or they dive headlong into the same issues.

 

Americans love It’s A Wonderful Life but did not heed its main lessons, Part Two

Americans like the movie It’s A Wonderful Life (see its ranking according to the American Film Institute). Yet, I am not sure that those same viewers and reviewers have taken the morals of the film to heart. Part Two today:

George spirals downward because of financial problems at the savings and loan. Additionally, he was not sure about a life running the family business (which he thought his brother Harry would do). In the end, he finds joy in his family and friends in the community. The local relationships, from the local girl he married to the people who utilized the savings and loan, provide him reasons to keep living.

Yet, since the film came out (1946), Americans have moved away from the close-knit relationships. This has happened in two noticeable ways. The shift to suburbs from both big cities and more rural areas led to different kinds of social ties. Suburbanites can be fairly transient and build relationships around avoiding open conflict (see The Moral Order of a Suburb) and through local institutions (like school districts rather than because of immediate geographic proximity.

Additionally, sociologists and others have suggested Americans have fewer close friendships. Even if our social media and online friends and followers have exploded, these are different kinds of relationships compared to close relationships with people with interact with regularly in-person. Furthermore, advice columnists regularly suggest seeing therapists or counselors, more impartial third-party professionals, to work out issues.

Clarence shows George that the lives of those who cares about would be markedly different if he was not around. The closing scene finds the townspeople rallying around George and a proclamation that he is rich because of his relationships. How many people today would hope for such an ending? (Granted, this is a film so how often such joyous community celebrations happened is unknown.)

Of course, the appeal of It’s A Wonderful Life may just be its nostalgia for an age that seems long gone. In an often harried and disconnected world, Americans may yearn for a (fictional?) world where the good guys win, local companies and residents help each other, people have rich friendships, and people live in small towns. But, if anything, our collective decisions since the release of the film have likely moved us further away from these realities.

Why suburbanites want to have their own police departments and local governments

Writing about a recent incident of police violence in a Pittsburgh suburb, one writer looking at all of the small police forces in suburbia asks:

It’s not often clear what the rationale is for these small municipalities to have their own city administrations and law enforcement agencies.

And he later says:

If having multiple police departments makes for inefficient and unprofessional work across St. Louis County, imagine what it means for Allegheny County, which has almost twice as many police departments. Micro-department intrusions add up to macro-resentment of police in general.

The argument for efficiency in consolidating local government and police forces may make sense in this particular context. Perhaps a larger-scale police force could better avoid such incidents through training and more familiarity with a broader area.

But, there are two related and powerful reasons that the American urban landscape is broken into so many local governments: Americans like the idea of local control and they like the idea of living in a small town. In a smaller community and with their own officials, Americans think they can exert more influence on local processes and the size of each local agency does not become too large. It is theoretically much easier to meet an official or register a complaint or run for local office if there is a major precipitating issue. This can especially be the case with wealthier suburbs that want to maintain their exclusivity by remaining small.

The only factor that may push suburbs and smaller communities to give up this dream of local control and small town life is difficult financial positions or seeking certain efficiencies. See an example of Maine communities that have dissolved due to a lack of local revenue. Illinois has tried banning the formation of new local taxing bodies while DuPage County has moved to reduce the number of local governments. But, if the resources are there, Americans might prefer these small units of government. (Another argument that could be leveled at all these small governments is that they may be corrupt or inept. Small suburbs can become little fiefdoms with weird rules, as illustrated by Ferguson and other communities in St. Louis County. But, even in those cases it is less clear that the residents of these small suburbs do not like their local governments where it may seem obvious to outsiders that there are problems.)

Also, it is important to note for this story that Pennsylvania is a leader among states regarding the number of local governments. Not every state does it the same way. Similarly, many metropolitan regions in the South and West are much larger in terms of square miles compared to Rust Belt cities that had difficulties annexing any suburbs into city limits after 1900.

Data on Americans’ preferences for small towns

Following up on yesterday’s post, here is some survey data from recent decades which shows the preference Americans have for living in small towns:

  • From a 1985 Gallup survey: “In the latest poll, the category preferred by the largest percentage of those surveyed, 23 percent, was a small town with a population of less than 10,000. This group, combined with the 17 percent who said they preferred to live on a farm and the 8 percent who wanted to live in a rural area but not on a farm, accounted for the 48 percent who preferred less populated settings.”
  • From footnote #2 in the first chapter of Wuthnow’s Small-Town America: “[A] 1985 Roper Poll found that 61 percent of those surveyed thought a small town was best for “the kind of friends you’d have,” compared with only 12 percent who thought a big city would be best (26 percent volunteered “no difference”). Small towns received equally large or larger preferences as places for leading a healthy life, privacy, and raising children.”
  • From Pew in 2009: “Americans are all over the map in their views about their ideal community type: 30% say they would most like to live in a small town, 25% in a suburb, 23% in a city and 21% in a rural area.”

A significant issue may be what exactly counts as a small town. A good number of Americans think a small town can include a suburb – this is different than traditional definitions of rural small town. From the same Wuthnow footnote:

Poll results are difficult to interpret because, as I mentioned in the preface, many Americans who live in large metropolitan areas imagine themselves to be living in small towns. In a 2006 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, for instance, 26 percent of those who responded said they lived in a small town, 16 percent said they lived in a rural area, and 57 percent said they lived in a city or suburb (51 percent said they would prefer a small town or rural area if they could live anywhere)… If those responses were taken at face value, 78 million Americans lived in small towns, whereas the US Census showed that only 52 million lived in unincorporated places of under 25,000 (including incorporated places of that size that were in metropolitan areas), and indicated that 222 million Americans lived in urban areas, whereas the poll responses suggested only 174 million…

However you want to put it, a good number of Americans may still prefer small-town values but they now express that by living in suburbs.

America’s small towns are now in the suburbs

A piece arguing that rural small towns are at the core of America misses an important point: many of the American suburbs are now the small towns of today.

There’s been a recognition, he says, that communities must adapt or die. After his book, Hollowing Out the Middle, was published, Carr heard from a number of people from different regions, who were trying a variety of rejuvenation tactics. For example, a career academy in Iowa had begun providing training for high-school students, both college-prep and vocational. Elsewhere, educational and civic jurisdictions were pooling resources and asking employers for input about their needs.

But if such initiatives are to succeed, Conn suggests, they’ll have to listen to Arthur Morgan and stay open-minded. Immigrants can boost local economies; small towns should welcome them, not oppose them. Government is not the enemy of small towns, but many in small towns have grown to distrust government at all levels: The TVA, a giant federal project, was largely a success, and so was rural electrification, another federal project. Today, many small towns rely heavily on state and federal money to keep their economies afloat. Resentment of cities, especially the often mistaken impression that cities soak up all the government spending, is counterproductive. Even Morgan recognized that “the village was too small a unit to fulfill the destinies of human society.” The United States needs its cities. But it need its small towns and rural areas, too.

The population shift of Americans away from small towns and rural areas from the early 1900s to today is quite dramatic. But, it was not just cities that grew: the suburbs came out as the biggest winner with over 50% of Americans now residing there (roughly 30% live in big cities and under 20% live in rural areas).

Even though there are plenty of existing American small towns, for many Americans the true small towns are now suburbs. They have some similar features to the small towns of earlier decades including what residents perceive as a more responsive local government as well as significantly fewer people than the big city. At the same time, they differ significantly: they are not as close-knit, any small suburb is not as cut off socially or geographically from larger population centers, and urban amenities are not far from the suburbs.

Adaptations to Walmart leaving communities

Joel Kotkin considers the fate of smaller communities where Walmart has decided to close stores:

None of this suggests that the retreat of big boxes from smaller towns and some urban areas will be painless. Yet those who see this trend as the harbinger of the end of malls or Main Streets may be in for a surprise. Rather than die off, bricks-and-mortar shopping will change, adding new elements and moving from ever greater uniformity to more variety and differentiation, which are critical to independent business’s survival. Much of this change will take place in small towns, but also in suburban areas, which have long been the happy hunting ground of big boxes.

Why not in the big cities? One of the chief ironies of our times is that chains and their attendant sameness now define much of our most sophisticated urban core—Starbucks on every corner, global brands and restaurants serving the same trendy cuisine. The recovery of large cities, suggests New York researcher Sharon Zukin, has also made them more alike by “bringing in the same development ideas—and the same conspicuous textual allusions and iconic corporate logos inevitably affixed to downtown architectural trophies—to cities across the globe.” Efforts to make the city “safer and less strange to outsiders’ eyes”—tourists, expatriates, media producers, and affluent consumers—are making one global city barely indistinguishable from another…

Some small towns—and suburbs even more so—will be transformed by immigrants and millennials, who may want to set up their own unique shops along the very Main Streets once targeted by firms like Walmart. In wealthier communities, this may mean more boutiques and high-end restaurants. But among less affluent areas, other institutions, such as cooperatives—300 already nationwide and another 250 on the way, as well as farmers markets—could provide some of the products that many once found at Walmart…

As the retail world become more digitally focused, and less big-box-dominated, there is a golden opportunity to restore the geographic and local diversity that has seemed doomed for nearly a half-century, but now may enjoy a new burst of life.

There is little doubt that the retail industry will continue to change. Walmart and other large corporations may seem inevitable today but they didn’t exist decades ago and may not have much presence in the future. Yet, Kotkin seems pretty optimistic about online retail which requires its own set of adjustments as well as infrastructure that could be threatened in the future.

For small towns and many suburbs, do these future changes leave much space for residents themselves to create and experience local differences? On one hand, online retail offers customization yet relies on large companies located elsewhere and on the other hand, local diversity in things like restaurants and small stores draws upon local entrepreneurs. Is the secret to promote an experienced based consumption – local culture and food – as opposed to decades of goods based consumption?

Did Back to the Future succeed because it was set in a small town?

One journalist argues Back to the Future was aided by its small town setting:

Strip away the time-travel facade and Back to the Future is a fun, zany small-town comedy, with its nastiest villain a high school bully and its biggest triumph a kiss between his two victims. Director Robert Zemeckis seized upon the concept of Marty McFly’s DeLorean trip to 1955 while looking through his parents’ basement and stumbling upon relics from their graduating class. He pitched the idea to Steven Spielberg, who agreed to produce the project. The strength of the movie is that its most fantastical element is rendered as something any audience member could imagine: the bizarre and frightening experience of meeting your parents as their teenaged selves. Compared to the current era of summer movies, so focused on omnipotent superheroes doing battle on a planetary scale, that simplicity feels revolutionary…

But Back to the Future topped them all, literally traveling back in time to tap into America’s small-town ‘50s nostalgia.

An interesting argument as Americans do like the idea of small towns. And I suspect that data may suggest that most recent blockbuster films – whether action/superhero movies, disaster films, and dystopian films – are primarily set in big cities. Big cities may offer bigger spectacles, more potential for destruction and a broader scale for both danger and heroism, while small towns in such films suggest more intimate lives. Of course, the devastation and action portrayed in such films would have a profound impact on a suburban or rural landscape (disturbing major sources of agriculture could be quite problematic) but there are fewer people and buildings involved.