More obnoxious in the suburbs: Prius with Coexist sticker, oversized pickup with Blue Lives Matter flag in the bed, or car with super-loud muffler?

Cars are not just cars; they are an embodiment of who Americans are. Even as suburbanites like cars, here is a quick description of three noteworthy vehicles that might raise some suburban hackles:

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-The Prius driver with the Coexist sticker on the back. Not only are they already signalling their green bona fides with their car choice, they accentuate their tolerance for different religious groups. Prius drivers are not thought of as being aggressive but the bumper sticker suggests they are interested in trumpeting tolerance or pluralism.

-The large pickup truck with the American flag and Blue Lives Matter flag proudly waving from the truck bed. These are not usually small trucks; they tend to be big versions that tower over other vehicles and can afford the loss of fuel efficiency to show their pride in country and police.

-The vehicle that makes itself heard through an intentionally loud muffler. This is not the occasional car that needs a muffler repair; this is a vehicle that added the sound so that it could be heard a mile away on a quiet night. Seeing the green light at a traffic light is an aural experience with these vehicles.

Other options for vehicles that might irritate suburbanites:

-The cool Tesla drivers. They can’t show off their autopilot features in stop and go suburban traffic but the quiet, sleek vehicles make their own statement.

-The upgraded SUV drivers. They do not just have a CRV or Rav4; they have the latest Lexus version or the Porsche Cayenne or a luxury Escalade.

-The person who lives on a nice street who drives the rusting clunker. I know many of your below-the-radar American millionaires drive their Toyota Camrys or Honda Odysseys into the ground but there are expectations about what a vehicle should look like paired with particular residences.

-Anyone who drives strictly slightly below the speed limit. This has less to do with the vehicle and more with the driver but the cool factor of the car isn’t going to save someone from the ire of drivers.

Become suburban village president by 2 votes in the era of low local election turnout

Local election turnout in 2021 was low in the Chicago area. And the final results of the village president race in one Chicago suburb illustrates one of the consequences of low turnout:

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On Wednesday, Khokhar was claiming victory in the village president race after unofficial results show him with 475 votes and Ontiveroz with 473.

A two vote margin of victory would be interesting in many elections, local or otherwise. Yet, the vote totals here are striking. The top two candidates received less than 500 votes each, fewer than 1,000 total.

Here is more information on the community in question: the Village of Glendale Heights. According to 2019 Census estimates, the community has 33,617 residents. Nearly a quarter of the population is under the age of 18. I do not know how many people are registered to vote. But, let’s say that roughly half of the adults (18+ years old) are registered to vote. This means the winning candidate for village president had roughly 3.9% of possible voters elect him (475/12,000 possible voters). If we take local turnout to be in the 15-20% range, 16.9% of voters elected the President (475/2,800 possible voters). The numbers suggest that not a whole lot of local residents cast a vote for village president.

The village president of Glendale Heights may not be able to, on their own, to make much change. On the other hand, communities elect such leaders for a reason. And Americans tend to like suburban local government and the ability of local citizens to help determine their own fate. So why don’t they turn out in greater numbers to vote for such officials? The fate of many suburbs and communities could hinge on this question.

Brooklyn Center, MN and the Fergusonization of suburbs

Suburbs like Brooklyn Center, Minnesota and Ferguson, Missouri are places that have undergone significant changes in recent decades:

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U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that Brooklyn Center is the most rapidly segregating community in Minnesota. In 1990, the city was 90 percent white; its poverty rate was low, at 5 percent. Three decades later, the city is 38 percent white and its poverty rate has tripled, to 15 percent. It is now the poorest major suburb in the Twin Cities region, and it has a higher percentage of residents of color than any other major municipality in the area. Ferguson underwent nearly identical changes in the years before a police officer shot Michael Brown to death in 2014; the city transitioned from 85 percent white in 1980 to 29 percent white in 2010. Over the same period, its poverty rate almost quadrupled…

Suburbs usually remain vibrant and thriving as they become more racially integrated. But eventually a tipping point is reached, and the corrosive effects of racial isolation and segregation begin to be felt. When this happens, middle-class residents—mostly white, but not entirely—begin to leave in large numbers. Since 2000, Brooklyn Center has lost 42 percent of its white population; Ferguson has lost 49 percent. Economic opportunity has vanished too. Adjusted for inflation, the median income in Brooklyn Center has fallen by about $9,000 since 2000, and the city has lost a sixth of its middle- and upper-income residents. In Ferguson, median incomes have dropped by nearly $15,000 during the same period…

The suburbs that these dynamics leave behind replicate many of the same conditions that existed in segregated center-city neighborhoods in the 20th century. As in those enclaves, certain aspects of the relationship between residents and the powerful institutions with which they interact—police, elected officials, school systems, landlords, employers—appear colonial in nature. At the time of Brown’s killing, Ferguson’s mayor and almost all of its city council were white. Many police forces in resegregated suburbs are staffed with a large number of nonresidents, who also may be disproportionately white. Even private economic arrangements in segregated places can be extractive in nature. Before the 2008 financial crisis, Brooklyn Center was the largest suburban hub of subprime lending in the Twin Cities area. Tragically, the residents of resegregated suburbs face the same obstacles that many had attempted to escape by leaving major cities: struggling schools, unemployment, poverty, and police violence…

The Fergusonization of suburbs is a nationwide problem, uniting many far-flung communities whose residents and leaders may not even realize they have anything in common. Census data show that in 2010, more than 20 percent of the suburban population in major American metros lived in a predominantly nonwhite suburb reminiscent of Brooklyn Center or Ferguson, and that share has grown every year since. Because the forces causing resegregation are larger than any one municipality, individual suburbs are unable to solve this problem by acting alone. But solutions do exist.

The demographics of many suburban communities have changed in recent decades with more racial and ethnic minorities moving to and living in suburbs, including Ferguson, and more people in poverty in the suburbs. Yet, as the piece above notes, this does not necessarily mean new suburban residents are evenly spread throughout suburban regions. When new residents show up, white residents and wealthier residents tend to leave for other locations.

Sociologist Samuel Kye has research that looks at ongoing white flight in the suburbs. Here is the abstract for a published article from 2018 titled “The Persistence of White Flight in Middle-Class Suburbia”:

Scholars have continued to debate the extent to which white flight remains racially motivated or, in contrast, the result of socioeconomic concerns that proxy locations of minority residence. Using 1990–2010 census data, this study contributes to this debate by re-examining white flight in a sample of both poor and middle-class suburban neighborhoods. Findings fail to provide evidence in support of the racial proxy hypothesis. To the contrary, for neighborhoods with a larger non-white presence, white flight is instead more likely in middle-class as opposed to poorer neighborhoods. These results not only confirm the continued salience of race for white flight, but also suggest that racial white flight may be motivated to an even greater extent in middle-class, suburban neighborhoods. Theoretically, these findings point to the decoupling of economic and racial residential integration, as white flight may persist for groups even despite higher levels of socioeconomic attainment.

In the past, a move to the suburbs would have been positive for numerous groups. It represented success and finding the American Dream. This is not necessarily the case today; residential segregation patterns plus inequality in the suburbs means just living in the suburbs is not necessarily a step up.

How to (not?) add a parking garage to a charming suburban downtown

The suburb of Wheaton, Illinois is considering adding another parking garage to its downtown. How does one add a large parking structure to a quaint downtown?

The idea of a parking garage is highly conceptual, one element of a broader study on parking needs, restrictions and the existing inventory downtown. The goal is to stay ahead of parking issues as new businesses take over long-vacant properties and bring more visitors to the shopping and dining district, especially on weekend nights…

City planners say replacing a surface lot behind city hall with a parking garage is a viable option because it’s city-owned property, eliminating the cost of land acquisition. It’s also tucked away from the main downtown arteries but still within walking distance of a Hale Street restaurant row.

Suess said a city hall garage would address neighborhood concerns about overflow parking on residential streets around Memorial Park, a summer magnet that recently underwent a $5 million restoration, the centerpiece of which is a new band shell…

Other council members said they still want to consider another location that’s been floated for a parking structure over the years: the east surface lot of the Wheaton Public Library.

There are practical matters that any community would need to consider: how much parking is needed? What is the cost of the structure? Is this the right location?

There are also bigger questions about what a suburban downtown is supposed to be. Many downtowns would like to have more people visit and spend money in shops, restaurants, and festivals. But, more people and traffic can change the atmosphere. This means more cars. Where to put them?

Parking garages offer a possible solution as multiple stories can pack in more cars than street parking. Wheaton already has a few parking garages so this is not a new idea. But, parking garages are rarely attractive structures. Do they fit in with the surrounding streetscape?

The proposed location above tries to mitigate some of these issues. Wheaton has done this with other parking garages; tuck them behind other buildings so they are not as visible. The proposed garage would be behind City Hall, hiding is from a main stretch of Wesley Street. Yet, it then backs up to residences on the west side, is on a different scale than City Hall to the south, is visible from Memorial Park (site of festivals and events that would drive people to the garage), and is across the street from a school and its green space to the north.

The other proposed site mentioned above has some similar issues. While it would be next to the library on one side and across the street from a multi-story apartment building on the other side, it faces single-family homes on the other side and smaller apartments on another.

Wheaton wants its downtown to exist on a particular scale so that it remains an attractive place for residents and visitors. More broadly, the community protects its character as a quieter, single-family home community (see how a discussion about zoning along a main thoroughfare played out). The city also wants to bring in people and address parking issues which can mar the experience on streets and in nearby residential neighborhoods. Is a four story parking garage the answer? Local leaders and the community will have time to discuss and decide.

White flight spontaneous or planned?

Sociologist Orly Clergé’s 2019 book The New Noir: Race, Identity & Diaspora in Black Suburbia includes the history of Blacks moving to New York and its suburbs. In her study, Clergé talks to both Black residents and white residents of suburban communities. Here is how Clergé responds to the claim by some white residents that their families left neighborhoods spontaneously as Black residents moved in:

Although White flight is discussed as a spontaneous response to Black in-migration, White fight and flight were well thought-out, collective, strategic, and immoral acts against Black people condoned by the state. (101)

White flight is the American phenomena where white residents left urban neighborhoods for the suburbs when Blacks and other racial or ethnic minorities moved in. This is most common in the decades after World War Two when government policy and community changes combined to lead to often rapid turnover in cities. In some Chicago neighborhoods, the population moved from +90% white to a significant Black majority in just a decade or two.

A number of studies explain how white flight happened in particular cities such as in Detroit as detailed by Sugrue in The Origins of the Urban Crisis or Atlanta as discussed by Kruse in White Flight. White flight affected all areas of life, ranging from the suburbanization of jobs as Wilson highlights in When Work Disappears and the move of white churches to the suburbs (an area I have done a little work in with a study of Protestant denominations in the Chicago region).

What the quote above highlights is just how prepared white residents were regarding potential changes in their neighborhood. Over the course of at least a few decades, whites deployed a range of techniques that culminated in white flight: restrictive deeds and covenants, blockbusting, redlining, and threats and violence. As each of these techniques was rendered illegal or went against public opinion, white residents moved onto the next option. And white flight was eventually the choice as white residents left en masse. It did not just happen; it was part of well-established patterns of exclusion that would then continue in suburban communities.

The difficulty of keeping up with all the choices in local elections

I voted in the local elections held yesterday. I study suburbs and am aware of the fondness many Americans have for smaller and/or local governments. And I find it difficult to know who or what I am voting for in local elections.

In class yesterday, I started by talking about the importance of local elections. If residents care about their community, they can run for local offices or serve on volunteer committees. Without all of this important work that can require high levels of commitment for limited compensation, things would not get done. Because turnout can be low in local elections, candidates can be elected with relatively few votes.

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In certain elections, certain parts of the ballots stand out. Perhaps it is a development issue. Perhaps it is a referendum on a local tax increase to fund local schools. Perhaps it is a particular race, like a heated mayoral election or a pandemic facing members of the school board.

Beyond those more noteworthy circumstances, there are many choices. Forest Preserve commissioners. County Board members. Local judges. Township leaders. And so on. Sometimes, I know something that helps me make a choice. I read local news that helpfully presents local candidates. I watch some local forums where candidates talk. I am aware of some of the local concerns. I may know someone or know of someone. But, I cannot keep track of everything. Hence, the popularity of just voting a slate or a party for particular positions. Or, a set of endorsements from local media. This is all on top of what might be happening at the state of federal level.

This problem might be exacerbated by the number of units of local government Illinois has. However, I suspect this is a larger issue among Americans. Having many choices for many offices may help lead to lower turnout. Only some people have the motivation and wherewithal to find all of the information needed on local issues and candidates. People are disconnected from local groups and institutions through which they might hear about candidates and issues.

Americans like the idea of local elections but it is hard to keep up with all of the local government activity.

Naperville at #1 on several Niche.com Best Cities lists

Naperville adds to its rankings accolades with the new 2021 Niche.com lists:

Naperville was also ranked #1 for Cities with the Best Public Schools and #3 for Best Cities to Live in America. See previous posts about Naperville’s rankings: “wealthiest city in the Midwest” and “safest city over 100,000 residents.”

This ongoing praise for Naperville makes sense both for knowing the suburb as well as what sorts of communities make it to the top of these kinds of lists. Naperville grew tremendously in the final decades of the twentieth century but it also developed a high quality of life: vibrant downtown, highly-rated schools, local recreation opportunities, wealthy, and safe. The accolades have changed to some degree because the size of the community changed; for example, Naperville is the list of “cities” for Niche.com while the Best Places to Live in America tend to be smaller communities.

If you browse the Niche.com rankings just a little bit, you see wealthy suburbs from certain metro areas in the United States. That the same communities keep popping up on these lists year after year suggests they have an ongoing high quality of life but also it hints at what Americans – and people who make these rankings – think are desirable communities. Is the goal of American life to ascend to one of these well-off communities, most of them relatively white and wealthy suburbs?

In a land of driving, both a bifurcated housing market and car buying market

Americans like to drive and have structured much of daily life around driving. This means many people need a reliable car to get to a decent job, which then enables them to buy a decent home in a place they want to live. But, what if both the house and car buying markets do not provide a lot of good options at lower prices? From the auto industry:

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Yet that increase was nothing next to what happened in the used market. The average price of a used vehicle surged nearly 14% — roughly 10 times the rate of inflation — to over $23,000. It was among the fastest such increases in decades, said Ivan Drury, a senior manager of insights for Edmunds.com.

The main reason for the exploding prices is a simple one of economics: Too few vehicles available for sale during the pandemic and too many buyers. The price hikes come at a terrible time for buyers, many of whom are struggling financially or looking for vehicles to avoid public transit or ride hailing because the virus. And dealers and analysts say the elevated prices could endure or rise even further for months or years, with new vehicle inventories tight and fewer trade-ins coming onto dealers’ lots…

Charlie Chesbrough, senior economist for Cox Automotive, predicted a tight used-vehicle market with high prices for several more years…

In recent years, automakers had set the stage for higher prices by scrubbing many lower-priced new vehicles that had only thin profit margins. Starting five years ago, Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis) stopped selling many sedans and hatchbacks in the United States. Likewise, Honda and Toyota have canceled U.S. sales of lower-priced subcompacts. Their SUV replacements have higher sticker prices.

On the housing side, builders and developers have devoted less attention to starter homes. It can be difficult for some workers to find housing near where they work. The ideal of the suburban single-family home is not attainable for all.

On the driving side, cars are not cheap to operate and maintain. Moving to the suburbs and many American communities requires a commitment to driving to work. A reliable car at a reasonable price could go a long ways to keeping transportation costs down and freeing up household money for other items.

These issues require longer-term planning and attention: how can people with fewer resources still obtain decent housing and decent transportation options? COVID-19 may have exacerbated these issues but the article about the auto industry suggests these trends were already underway; car prices were on the upswing. Trying to tackle density issues or providing more mass transit are difficult to address in many communities and regions. A conversion to electric cars in the next decade or two sounds good but imposes new costs on drivers.

In the meantime, those with resources can likely pick up better options for both cars and homes. These choices can then have positive cascading effects on future spending and outcomes.

Will turnout increase for upcoming local elections?

Election season is near in our area. Local elections often have really low turnoutsuburban municipal officials can be elected by just a small fraction of the population. But, perhaps this year will be different for a few reasons:

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  1. Local battles over COVID-19. With disagreement with and mistrust of national responses, local elections offer an opportunity to weight in on local responses. In particular, decisions about school reopenings are hot issues in elections for school boards. Add in debates about local businesses and eateries and voters might want to weigh in.
  2. Carryover from national elections and political polarization. Traditionally, local elections are non-partisan. Yet, the rancor at the higher levels could carry over. For example, I saw a large sign today looking to turn township positions blue. How much local officials might actually be able to do in regards to these debates is likely limited but it could help some voters and officials feel better.
  3. The activism of Black Lives Matter in suburbs plus responses to it could send more voters to the polls. How should communities address inequalities or disparities?
  4. Concern about municipal budgets. COVID-19 has created new problems and a number of communities already faced issues. How should money be spent and what could be done to bring in more revenue? The competition might just be heating up among suburbs to find government and tax revenues.

In other words, these are not typical local elections during good times. The local election turnout malaise might not be there. Since suburbanites tend to like local government, will they turn out this time when there are multiple pressing issues?

The Limbaugh soundtrack to suburban life

For decades, the suburbs were said to be more politically conservative. One writer describes hearing Rush Limbaugh in his suburban childhood:

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As a kid growing up in Sacramento, I had a few friends I liked, but dreaded going to their houses to play. I suggested riding bikes, playing tag or hide and seek — anything to avoid their homes. I avoided their houses because their families usually had the radio tuned to KFBK, listening to a guy who was always furious about nothing, as though he was pleasant background noise — elevator music for single family, one story homes in the suburbs.

To my young ears, there was an uncanny vibe about his voice. He sounded like Santa Claus if Santa swallowed another Santa whole, but that Santa got stuck in his throat. Boots, beard, and furry coat, all jammed against his larynx as he croaked on and on, complaining about “illegal” elf workers wanting fair pay, health care and for him to stop grabbing their tiny butts.

My friends’ “nice” families had him on, all the time, stinking up their homes with hate the way others baked to make homes smell like cookies.

I wondered what that did to us, constantly breathing in his vitriol — for non-white people, for women, for gay people, especially if they were richer, smarter or more powerful than him. I wondered what he’d think of me, what they all think me — a Black kid with a working mom and absent dad — skin so light it sometimes camouflaged me from their sight.

The main contrast here is between the “nice” suburban families and the constant sounds of Rush Limbaugh. On the whole, the suburbs are often pitched as idyllic: single-family homes for families, middle-class people who have made it, green lawns and a quieter life compared to cities. The suburbs are supposed to be the retreat from the difficulties of the world.

Yet, from the beginning, whether the suburbs have delivered on these claims is debatable. Who could make it to these locations? How idyllic was it really or was it perceived to always be under threat? Did the gloss of suburbia cover up darker truths involving race, class, gender, broken families, and more?

It would be interesting to back and see if there is evidence of suburban talk radio listening patterns. Or, to mirror current political patterns, was Limbaugh more popular in exurbs and the outer suburbs and his listernship dwindled closer to the big city?