Tuesday, November 26th, 2013
[ You may remember Daniel Hertz from his mind-blowing analysis of growing public safety inequality in Chicago. He's back with another one, this time a look at how gentrification is affecting the performance of Chicago's neighborhood schools. It's probably relevant to any city that's experiencing gentrification. This one comes from a newish web site called Chicago Bureau, which focuses on youth issues - Aaron. ]
To be on track for college, an elementary student needs to “exceed standards” on the ISAT, according to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. In 2001, there were only three neighborhood elementary schools in the entire city with a quarter or more students doing that well.
As a result, for a certain kind of parent, there were only two options for educating a child: getting him into one of the city’s flagship magnets, or moving to the suburbs. That put a lot of pressure on magnets and other test-in schools: like the Daley Sr.-era condo towers that still line North Lake Shore Drive, they had to rise above the rest of the city and offer the people who could afford to move to Evanston or DuPage County some reason not to.
But just like there’s only so much lakefront, there were only so many seats in those magnet schools. And over the last 10 years, as downtown and North Side neighborhoods gentrified, the number of parents trying to seat their children in one of those schools has turned what was always a competitive process into a frenzy. Last year, about half the freshmen admitted to Whitney Young, Northside College Prep and Walter Payton had near-perfect test scores and straight-A report cards. And the crunch is too big to be solved by expansions like the one Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced for Payton and Coonley Elementary.
Just as the magnet system began to overcrowd, though, neighborhood elementary schools suddenly began making a turnaround. Some of them, anyway. By 2013, those three “high-achieving” schools had become 15. That’s a 400 percent increase over 12 years — and lots of other neighborhood elementary schools were on track to get there soon.
Unsurprisingly, though, CPS’s new high-scoring schools weren’t distributed all over the city. Instead, progress was contained to the same neighborhoods that had seen the greatest gentrification over the previous 10 or 20 years, or which were already solidly middle-class. As a result, the average high-performing school’s student body in 2013 was only 20 percent low-income, compared to 85 percent for CPS as a whole.
In some cases, the new high-achieving schools had had large middle-class populations from the start and their scores just gradually ticked up. But about half of them saw dramatic demographic transformations. Lakeview’s Blaine Elementary, for example, saw its low-income population fall by 29 percent since 2010. At the same time, the proportion of its students exceeding ISAT standards has jumped by 25 percent. At Audubon Elementary, less than a mile to the west, the number of low-income students dropped 28 percent while ISAT exceed scores have jumped 53 percent over the same four years.
Another eight schools that don’t yet meet the “high-achieving” threshold are also rapidly gentrifying, losing an average of 20 percent of their low-income population over the last four years and doubling their exceed scores.
At the elementary level, then, professional-class families in some parts of Chicago have solved the magnet problem. They don’t have to decamp to the suburbs: they can bring suburban demographics to the city just by sending their kids to their neighborhood CPS school.
And despite all the fuss over teacher accountability, charter schools and innovative curricula, the fact remains that in America, economic background is the single best predictor of a child’s academic success.
Which leaves the city…where? After decades of losing thousands upon thousands of middle-class families thanks to a struggling educational system, it must be good news for that process to be finally reversing itself. A city without a middle class isn’t going anywhere good; the tax receipts alone are cause for celebration, given the state of Chicago’s budget.
A school system without a middle class is also in big trouble, of course. So it’s heartening to see the beginnings, perhaps, of a decline in the kind of economic segregation that led to 87% of CPS students being low-income in the first place.
But if the number of low-income kids in our newly high-achieving schools keeps plummeting, not many of them will be in a position to benefit from the very transformation that’s pushing them out. After all, how many low-income families can afford a decent place to live within the attendance boundaries of neighborhood schools in Lincoln Park or Lakeview?
For a long time, the egalitarian promise of public education was frustrated by families with wealth fleeing the city for suburban school districts, leaving CPS with a heavy burden of poverty in all but a few elite test-in schools.
That dynamic seems to be changing, so that now a greater and greater number of middle-class families are choosing to send their kids to local elementary schools. But if we’re just moving the lines that divide the children who receive a good education from those who don’t—from district boundaries to CPS attendance boundaries—it would be hard to call that significant progress.
There is, though, a difference. The city of Chicago, and the leadership at CPS, have absolutely no power over any of the wealthier districts that surround them. But they can try to shape what happens entirely within their borders. The question of how to mitigate economic segregation in the city’s schools, so that all children have a chance at a decent education—without scaring the middle class back to the suburbs and starting again at square one—will be, I think, one of the greatest challenges our school system will face for the next generation.
This post originally appeared at Chicago Bureau on November 5, 2013.
Tuesday, November 12th, 2013
[ Ramsin Canon is one of the most keen left political observers I know in Chicago. Among other things he's been the politics editor at Gapers Blocks, a union organizer, and is now a law student I believe. Needless to say, he's no fan of "neoliberalism", even when practiced by those on the left. Here he provides his frame and critique of the current reigning governance model in our various levels of government re:cities. I may revisit this topic with my own thoughts in the future, but I'd like to make a couple of observations here. 1) Canon sees the locus of the problems facing cities as being at the federal level or otherwise beyond their control such that the response he decries is at least somewhat rational (if not the right one in his view). I take this as similar to my view that "gentry liberalism" has a certain sort of logic to it. 2) His articulation of the background is one that even many with diametrically opposite policy views could endorse. They just might take different lessons away (e.g., that federal intervention in cities actually caused many of the problems, see:urban renewal, downtown freeways, war on poverty, etc). This provides potential touchpoints for debate. In any case, this definitely makes you think about where we are, how we got here, and what to do about it. - Aaron. ]
Jamelle Bouie, a moderate liberal writer for The American Prospect, tweeted this:
There’s nothing good for workers in places where cities scramble to give benefits to companies for a handful of shitty jobs.
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) December 12, 2012
around the same time that Mick Dumke, a left-leaning Chicago Reader reporter, wrote this:
Desperate for money, state and local governments around the country have explored all sorts of privatization deals, or public-private partnerships, as advocates prefer to call them. Florida, Arizona, and other states have sent inmates to private prisons. Detroit has considered outsourcing management of its street lighting system…Chicago isn’t just part of the trend. For more than two decades, it’s been one of the privatization leaders. “You could say they’re at the head of the pack,” says Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform at the libertarian Reason Foundation. “Chicago is reflective of the outsourcing that’s been going on for years.”
Not long after, we read about this:
Beginning January 1, Chicago’s parking meters will be the most expensive in North America. It’ll cost drivers $6.50 per hour to park in the Loop. Near downtown the rate will be $4 per hour. Other metered areas throughout the city will be $2 per hour.
For Skyway drivers, tolls are going up from $3.50 to $4.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration will explore the possibility of privatizing Midway Airport but will take a shorter-term, more tightly controlled approach than was employed by former Mayor Richard Daley’s team on the city’s first go-round.
All the while, Mayor Rahm Emanuel continues to be lauded by left-neoliberals and fellow travelers for his aggressively pro-business economic development policies, including mass privatization. Meanwhile labor unions and community organizations scrambled to find a critique of these policies that will resonate with a public increasingly incensed with a policy atmosphere that regressively taxes them while slashing jobs and services.
With the election over and no longer sucking all the air out of the room, and with President Obama comfortable ensconced in his second term but before the 2016 jockeying starts in earnest, now may be the time to step back and think about the big picture. What is this amorphous policy regime to which Mayor Emanuel, and mayors across the country hew? A policy regime that is comfortable enough for the wealthiest and most powerful Americans that they can comfortably donate both to Mayor Emanuel and Mitt Romney?
What we’re feeling viscerally, but seeing from too close to appreciate, is the logical end of decades of neoliberalization of government, which has transformed a managerial state into an entrepreneurial one. Our Mayors are now “entrepreneurs-in-chief,” and the result is that governance has been transformed from a participatory process of pooling resources and regulating behavior for the public good into one of government by private negotiation and enticement of capital through competition between states, cities, and even neighborhoods.
The neoliberalization process, broadly speaking, began in the 1970s. Neoliberalization impacted local governments in various ways, but the most directly relevant are, first, the shift in federal policy from direct spending to “pro-growth” policies and, second, the liberalization of trade and regulatory regimes that introduced international competitive pressures on localities, particularly cities. The abandonment of federal and state commitments to infrastructure and social welfare programs required localities to resort to debt (in the form of bonds) and the active pursuit of capital investment to make up attendant budgetary shortfalls. The introduction of international competitive pressures made this need more acute.
In the pre-neoliberal Keynesian context, cities behaved more managerially, responsible for administering programs like public housing and developing regimes like Euclidean zoning, as well as encouraging business development and protecting labor interests. When cities were “disciplined” by a loss of federal and state funds, they were expected to either shrink in size or find private sources for revenue–the antithesis of the Keynesian principles of recession response. Both to avoid capital flight and to attract new capital, therefore, cities must act entrepreneurially, engaging businesses and enticing them to develop new projects.
Enticing investment can take many forms, of course. Among these are tax incentives like tax-increment financing (“TIF”) overlay districts or sales tax rebates, direct subsidies, and “particularized” regulations that permit the government to be more flexible to the needs of development parties. Particularized regulations (for example, development agreements with developers that exempt them from the controls in a zoning statute) counter the unpredictability and vicissitudes of the administrative and legislative process and thus have inherent value to businesses; it reduces risk by vesting contractual rights, and thus ensuring predictability. The parking meter “lease” deal is a perfect example.
The story of the parking meter lease deal is the perfect neoliberal story. Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, Chicago’s budget survived in large part on a particular tax, the real estate transfer tax. In the housing bubble years, there was no problem relying on this revenue to fund transportation, mental health clinics, and living wage city jobs. But as with the neoliberal bubbles of the past, it couldn’t last; between 2006 and 2009, revenues from the transfer tax cratered, from $242 million to $63 million. Between 2007 and 2008, the drop was over $80 million–representing nearly 40% of the budget deficit in the year the parking meter lease deal was made. It’s no secret now that Mayor Daley entered the deal to make up for a huge deficit without raising taxes.
Bubble that made some people very rich bursts. Revenues disappear. Working class families pay the price (see above, “most expensive parking.”) Only two options are available to the government of the New Model Entrepreneurial City: race to the bottom in terms of taxes and regulations to encourage “growth,” and thus boost revenues, and start selling off assets.
Why not raise property or luxury taxes, or institute a city income tax, to make up the deficit? Why not divert money from the TIF districts?
See above; Chicago is no longer a political community, it is an economic entity that is in competition with other cities in the region, in the state, across the world. In that mental framework, tax is cost, or price. You raise prices, you drive away your clients. In the case of the neoliberal city, the client is the developer, the investor, the employer. The federal government and the state are not going to give the city any real money; they are not investing in infrastructure, or education, or social welfare in any real way, the way they did up through the late 1970s and 1980s. The name of the game is “growth” through enticement of capital.
And capital plays the game perfectly. They condition “jobs” they’re supposedly creating on tax rebates, regulatory relief (i.e., from zoning codes), and more and more say in how the city is run–World Business Chicago being an example of that. Big business can always periodically threaten to leave the city, setting off the competition between cities and states that drive down standards, that abrogates regulations, that eliminates taxes.
This is our challenge in the coming era. Breaking this backward idea that the purpose of the city is to prostrate itself in pursuit of investment that is never really satisfied. Part of this will be a political solution: we need a Mayor unsatisfied with his pathetic role as an entrepreneur begging for investment, and willing to work politically to change the status quo. The other answer is a social one: alternative models to big business investment. Whether that means large-scale cooperatives, developing local sources of investment that can be pooled to provide employment, or some other method doesn’t matter. What matters is that cities begin to show that they can remove themselves from the uneven geographic development of capitalism that forces cities to regressively tax working class families and immiserate workers through wage depression and service elimination.
This post originally appeared in Same Subject, Continued on January 4, 2013.
Wednesday, November 6th, 2013
Chicago architecture critic, photographer and cultural commentator Lee Bey unearthed this gem of a 1961 video of Chicago called “City of Necessity” that is well worth watching. I know most people don’t watch videos online, but despite the 22 minute length, this one is a must for the serious urbanist. Among other things, it fills in part of the historical gap that exists in a lot of people (often including myself) about how our cities actually evolved to where they are today. According to Bey, this film was produced by local religious institutions in order to showcase the benefits of city living, while calling for a more fair and inclusive urban sphere. It’s shot in Chicago but is really about cities generally. Here’s the video, then a couple of my own observations after the embed. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
It’s clear that portions of this film would have transposed well to a timelapse film. Construction scenes, for example, frequently feature in timelapses. But what sets this apart from the contemporary timelapse, possibly because of its production by religious institutions, is the overwhelming focus on people. And not just crowds of people, but actual individuals and small groups. Last week’s time lapse is almost entirely about Chicago the built environment, with the people existing in the abstract to some extent (inhabiting it like scurrying ants) though not in the sense that we find any of the living, breathing human beings that make Chicago the city that it is. This film, by contrast, gives us a peek into the lives of a many Chicagoans, not just a look at the city in abstract.
Terry Nichols Clark once described cities as “entertainment machines.” The notion of the city as machine rather than a habitat for people permeates the time lapse genre. It also seems to be an implicit part of how a lot of people process the city, something I’ve always tried to caution against by saying that cities are about people, not buildings – you can’t say you love the neighborhood if hate the neighbors. Today more often perhaps its simple indifference to the neighbors.
Also, this film depicts a Chicago that’s much less diverse than today. It’s predominantly, though not exclusively, shown as white and black. That may be an artifact of what they chose to include, but my sense is that Chicago is much more diverse today, which perhaps shows the changes that an increase in immigration in the current era has brought.
In any event, this film is well worth watching.
Wednesday, October 30th, 2013
All I can say is – WOW. This spectacular time lapse of Chicago, the product of two years’ work by Max Wilson, is arguably the best time lapse I’ve ever seen of any city, anywhere. It’s a must watch. In full screen, high definition, of course. Chicago looks absolutely spectacular. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Friday, October 25th, 2013
I’ve written a lot about the two Chicagos, one successful, one struggling. Obviously that’s a problem, but from the standpoint of a lot of Midwest cities that’s a nice problem to have as they have more broadly struggled to reinvent themselves for the new economy. While most Midwest cities have areas of relative affluence, mostly in favored quarter suburbs, very few of them have managed to pull off any type of material urban core revival. Although incomplete and not inclusive, Chicago has many square miles of thriving neighborhoods. How did this happen?
There are a lot of reasons, but I want to highlight one thing about Chicago that seems to me to be different from other cities: the unusually strong commitment of the corporate community to Chicago. I’ve written before about the decline of civic leadership culture resulting from structural economic change. And while Chicago has experienced many of the same things – the fortunes of its businesses and executives are seldom actually linked to the success of Chicago as a whole, for example – corporate leadership has retained an usually strong civic commitment.
One way this has manifested itself is in defending corporate headquarters, especially through mergers. When Bank One of Columbus, Ohio bought first Chicago, First Chicago agreed to be bought, but insisted that the HQ be in Chicago. IIRC, Jamie Dimon was Bank One’s CEO at the time and took over the merged entity. (You can argue that with somewhere around 15,000 JP Morgan employees, Columbus still got the better end of the bargain, but the symbolism of the headquarters was important). Similarly, in the Continental-United merger, United was ok with Continental’s CEO taking over, but the merged airline had to be based in Chicago. When AON insurance reincorporated its HQ in London and moved 50 employees there (a fairly minor move in the grand scheme of things), the Chicago directors on the board, although they agreed with the business logic I suspect, decided to abstain from the approval vote.
You might throw out a name like Dan Gilbert as an old school industrial titan who’s a booster for his hometown of Detroit, but he’s of recent vintage. Clearly in other cities corporations and their chieftains are involved in various civic ventures, but my anecdotal observation is that there’s something different in Chicago.
A Well-Heeled Followup
In follow-up to my recent article on Chicago’s active pursuit of elite oriented urbanism, this week provided yet another clear example of it. In a shrewd move designed I suspect mostly to embarrass Rahm Emanuel by making him put his cards on the table, a south side alderman proposed implementing a $25/year bicycle registration fee.
Let’s put aside the merits of such a fee. I’m not categorically opposed to it as it regularizes and in a sense institutionalizes and officializes bicycles as a transport mode on par with the car, one able to stand on its own two feet. However, it’s also very clear that most of these proposals are simply gratuitous provocations designed to annoy bicyclists and cause them pain. I would probably say this is just trying to nickle and dime bike owners and would by unlikely to push one myself.
In this case, knowing bicycles are a priority of Rahm, the proposal is appears to be intended to force Rahm to reject it, while continuing to move forward with a raft of other fee increases he wants, including a $0.75/pack cigarette tax hike.
What I want you to consider is Rahm’s own stated rationale for why he rejects the bike tax:
Two years ago the city of Chicago was ranked 10th in protected bike lanes and 15th for startups. IBM did a survey. We moved to 5th in protected bike lanes – and are making more progress – and we moved from 15th to 10th, according to IBM, worldwide on startups. Now the two are not correlated, but it’s not an accident that Google and Motorola chose to move their headquarters to where the first protected bike lane went, and where there’s a mass transit stop. This is why transportation is so essential, not just to move people, but recruiting companies. So as it relates to her tax, she can propose it. It’s her idea. But I argue that’s not the right way to go [slight cleanup for flow]
A high school buddy of mine once said ZZ Top would never be a band accused of hidden sexual lyrics, because they’re not hidden. Similarly, it doesn’t take any parsing or inference to understand Rahm’s strategy to cater to the high end. He’s very transparent about it. It’s how he publicly justifies his decisions. Again, the point I want to make here is that, actual impacts on rich and poor and the wisdom of the tax aside, Rahm Emanuel defends his position by explicit appeals to its impact on the elite.
Here we have a guy who’s basically saying that if the city imposes a $25/year fee on the well-paid employees of one of the world’s largest and most profitable tech companies, firms like that might not choose Chicago. What does that say about how attractive he thinks Chicago is as a place to do business that companies might be so easily discouraged from choosing it?
Apparently high end residents and businesses can’t even have the most minor of inconveniences imposed, while the city piles on regressive “sin taxes” on a population that is addicted to tobacco and disproportionately low income. That’s Chicago’s policy in a nutshell.
Thursday, October 17th, 2013
A couple weeks ago, noting the apparently immunity of global city Chicago to problems elsewhere in the city, I asked the question: What happens when global city Chicago realizes there’s a good chance it can simply let the rest of the city fail and get on with its business?
I’d argue we’re seeing the results right before our eyes.
At the same time murders in significant parts of the city are even higher than during the peak of the crack epidemic, when the city says its too poor to hire more cops, when 54 schools are closed and a 1000 teachers laid off, half the mental health clinics closed, libraries cut back, etc., Chicago has found a nearly limitless stream of money for elite amenities, most recently – and appallingly – $50+ million in TIF subsidies for a new DePaul arena. There’s also been hundreds of millions of dollars more in corporate welfare under Daley and Rahm.
Investing in success is a great idea – if you plan to harvest a return on that investment to fund city services and your safety net. It’s clear there’s no intention of doing this in Chicago. I discuss this in my most recent City Journal piece, “Well-Heeled in the Windy City.” Here’s an excerpt:
Clearly, cities like Chicago must retain a substantial portion of upscale residents and businesses. Detroit and other cities show the results of failure on this front. Yet the moral case for elite amenities has always rested on the assumption of a broader public good: what benefited the wealthy would also make life better for the rest of the city….Under Emanuel’s leadership, though, Chicago has made peace with a two-tier society and broken the social contract. Rather than trying to expand opportunity, Chicago has bet its future on its already successful residents—leading some on the left to call Emanuel Mayor 1 Percent. The Windy City isn’t alone in following this strategy. Detroit has gone bankrupt, but that hasn’t stopped city government from lavishing $450 million in subsidies on a new Red Wings arena.
Since I critique bike infrastructure as part of Chicago’s splurge for the elite, I want to clarify that point here where there are lots of bike advocates. I strongly support bike infrastructure. In fact, I once gave a presentation where I said protected bike lanes and bike share should be Rahm’s top two transport priorities on taking office because they are cost-effective and can leverage outside funds. However, even the most passionate advocates must admit that the optics are bad on making a full court press on bike lanes when cutting core services elsewhere. More importantly, Rahm’s explicit rationale on bike infrastructure has been luring talent for the tech economy, thus it is an elite focused venture. For example, the Sun-Times reported:
Emanuel called protected bike lanes central to the city’s sustainability plan and his efforts to make Chicago the high-tech hub of the Midwest. Chicago “moved up dramatically” in the list of major cities whose employees bike to work, he said.
“It’s part of my effort to recruit entrepreneurs and start-up businesses because a lot of those employees like to bike to work,” he said.
“It is not an accident that, where we put our first protected bike lane is also where we have the most concentration of digital companies and digital employees. Every time you speak to entrepreneurs and people in the start-up economy and high-tech industry, one of the key things they talk about in recruiting workers is, can they have more bike lanes.”
Thursday, October 3rd, 2013
Back in 2008 I posted a piece called “Corporate Headquarters and the Global City” in which I observed that global cities, which had previously been defined in terms of financial and producer services firms by Saskia Sassen, were now starting to attract corporate headquarters back as well. These weren’t the old traditional HQ’s, but rather what I called an “executive headquarters” consisting of just the top people.
We see another example of that in the case of Archer Daniels Midland, the agribusiness concern. ADM is currently based in Decatur, IL but is planning to relocate its headquarters. It’s nominally a bake off but Chicago is the odds on favorite and I would expect them to win. Beyond the jobs, which at 100 would be fairly small, this would a nice HQ for the city to have. ADM is a marquee name.
Additionally, Chicago tech startup Braintree, a payments engine, recently announced its acquisition by Ebay/Pay Pal for $800 million. That’s a nice exit. Some people had predicted even bigger things for them, but if someone offers you enough money up front, there’s no shame in taking it! In a bit of further good news for the city, Chicago managed to lure a 10,000 delegate convention from Indy after implementing much-needed work rule changes at McCormick Place.
I could go on, but these few recent news items show that the global city side of Chicago continues to hum along apace. Yet all of this takes place against the backdrop of serious and severe problems in the “other Chicago.” For example, 13 people were recently shot in a park. The long term finances of the city are terrifying and Illinois seems incapable of getting its act together on pensions. And so on.
What does global city Chicago make of all this background? Apparently nothing. That’s not to say no one cares, but it would appear that none of the problems have affected the business climate or attractiveness of Chicago’s global city side at all. Even the prospect of a municipal financial trauma seems not to worry ADM.
Indeed, if you simply come to Chicago as a tourist, you’d probably never know there were any problems at all, at least if you don’t check the news. I was there a couple weeks ago and the Loop and North Side were pulsing with life. You would have thought I was in a boom town. And in a sense that’s right.
Some may say, “Aaron, weren’t you the one who said Chicago wasn’t a global city?” To which I’d respond, I’ve always said Chicago is a global city. I only think that the global city side of Chicago is not sufficient to carry the load for this gigantic region and state. It can’t even carry just the city, though to be fair if you broke off global city Chicago into a standalone municipality of 600-800,000 like San Francisco, Boston, and DC, it would be a very different story, at the municipal level at least.
Even back in the 90s Sassen had noted that globalization tended to detach the global city from its hinterland. However, for a place like Chicago, I had always thought that the two halves of the city would remain linked because global city Chicago would realize that an implosion elsewhere would eventually drag it down to.
But would it? Other than public finances, it’s tough to see trends in most other areas getting materially worse than they are now in the other Chicago. Yet it seems to be having little to no effect on the attractiveness or success of the global city. It’s like a multi-stage rocket separating. The smaller upper stage is rocketing up higher and higher while the larger earlier stage is falling back to earth and burning up on re-entry. But there’s no longer a connection of shared interests holding them together.
One troubling question: what happens when global city Chicago realizes there’s a good chance it can simply let the rest of the city fail and get on with its business? One can argue it’s already happening, but I’ll save that for a future post.
Tuesday, October 1st, 2013
This post is part of a series called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.
The photo above is how I used to think of Union Station: the architecturally famous Great Hall. But as the nation’s third largest station, I always wondered why so few people were in it. Before I share the answer, please allow this summary background.
Score: 61 (see full scorecard)
This series’ previous post analyzed Philadelphia’s Center City stations as representing the top category called “The Sustainables;” those stations leading their transit systems toward fiscal sustainability. Other stations serve transit metropolises, but are not leaders because each has a fatal flaw. To help these flawed stations, we create a special class called “The Inexcusables.”
The Inexcusables are often trapped by lousy politics and solving each station’s flaw requires an effective governing structure. This article will expose that flaw for Chicago’s Union Station, the dominant hub in my hometown. Also typical of The Inexcusables, Union Station’s key flaws derive from mistakes made decades ago and that have not been publicly confessed; compounding the problem and raising the cost of solutions. These Inexcusable patterns betray the public’s trust and must be changed before the public invests sufficiently.
In the final analysis, the Second City’s grandest station is the center of one of the nation’s largest, disintegrating transit networks. Today, agencies are broke and don’t seem to know how to correct their mistakes.
Yet, this insolvency can be Chicago’s chance to make a new main station to lead this transit town into an era of sustainable transportation. Multiple proposals for a West Loop Transportation Center are promising, but collect dust due to lack of funding.
To understand how this condition evolved and how we can break through it, let’s start this history when Union Station was helping Chicago become the nation’s rail center.
The Best A Station Can Be: Integration Leads To Prosperity
Built by Burnham’s firm as a consortium of five competitors and led by the Pennsylvania RR (the nation’s largest railroad), Union Station tells us collaboration can serve everyone’s passengers better with easier transfers and, thereby, increase rail travel overall. In short, integrated systems lead to growth. When completed in 1922, Unions Station repeated a similar collaboration that built the central depot of the 1880s. To handle Chicago’s record-breaking growth during the previous three decades, the 1922 Station tripled capacity and innovated by terminating 24 northern and southern tracks into one convenient hub. All good… and soon-to-be-great.
Boosting economic growth, this consolidation of five companies’ terminals allowed Chicago’s Central Business District to expand; having been hemmed in by eight rail-yards and terminals. Adapting the laws innovated for New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Chicago permitted 1920s’ office buildings to be built over tracks; thus expanding the CBD and its convenient access by commuters.
The collaboration that built the 1880s depot and its replacement by the 1922 Station bookended Chicago’s ascent as the nation’s transportation center. This leverage, in turn, gave the metropolis the edge to emerge as the nation’s manufacturing center.
Union Stations’ early economic triumphs are matched by its long-history of aesthetic awards. The most recent was in 2012 with a “Great Public Space” award given by the American Planning Association. This coincided with other accolades derived from the publicity around the $65 million update, mostly of the station’s Great Hall and Amtrak facilities.
Bad As A Transit Town Can Get: System Dis-integration
The way Union Station works today is similar, metaphorically, to my closeup of this clock that centers the Great Hall. (Honestly, this is no Photoshop.)
Key functions are off just enough to distort other aspects; multiplying dissatisfaction, particularly during rush hour. The causes are mid-century mistakes made when we thought inter-city train ridership would decline further and, hence, the Station could downsize. All inter-city travel lost from its 1940s peak has been replaced by commuter ridership, plus another 20% daily ridership in this century. Union Station’s concourse overflows with passengers and cannot catch up with the times. The Station that helped make Chicago the nation’s train center now holds Chicago back.
Serving as terminus for half of Chicagoland’s suburban lines, Union Station declined for the last half century; making passenger convenience worse.
For example, today’s Union Station commuters and visitors connect to a subway via an unprotected two block walk south that, as a statement on priorities, enters under the Congress Expressway. Or Union Station commuters can walk three blocks east to catch the downtown Loop Elevated. This walk is even worse six months a year when Chicago is either brutally cold or hot ‘n humid. For passengers walking to rapid transit with baggage, there is no credible way to say “Thanks for visiting” or “Welcome home.”
Telling the tale of the times that caused today’s divorce from rapid transit, Union Station had its own “L” (Elevated) stop per the 1957 photo above (Bruce Moffat Collection.) The Loop connection starts on the right, crosses the river and train-shed with the “L” stop in the parking lot. (Across the street, the existing Great Hall is in the middle of the 8 story office block with the original concourse to its right.) This neat track connecting to the CBD was demolished in 1958 to clear the block next to what would be the world’s tallest building for over two decades.
Despite the huge increase in commuters who needed to circulate during three decades of the downtown’s redevelopment boom, Chicago never replaced the “L” station and kept Union Station disconnected from rapid transit.
When considering that Union Station ridership would rank it as the 10th busiest American airport, we need to ask how many airports that large have inadequate rapid service. Since Chicago’s airports have had almost constant and continuing public investment for the past sixty years, the City’s investment priorities can only be felt as a protracted slap to two-thirds of downtown’s daily rail riders who have made Chicago’s economy work and probably contribute more than their fair share of taxes.
Union Station’s growth mostly was based on easier transfers and the high opinions of its 1922 Concourse (above shown serving the war effort.) The Concourse evoked New York’s exquisite 1903 Penn Station; yet both met mid-Century mistakes. Chicago’s concourse was demolished in 1969. Developers of the Concourse’s substitute and its high-rise office towers got their deals; but no agency got passengers a deal that respected the visual glory and artful functionality of their former Concourse.
The 1970s design of the concourse’s substitute was so bad that an extensive $23 million renovation in 1992 (by a European star-architect) could not conceal the dirt that had been done: Chicago’s former train “cathedral” had been scrunched under an office tower. Today’s concourse is little more than a passenger pipeline dressed-up as a fast-food mall. I have been jostled through the concourse during several rush hours and I still find it confusing and claustrophobic. I’m still looking for a fellow traveler whose eyes do not seem glazed over. Seeming to reflect my feelings about leaving the concourse, the photo below is borrowed from the 2012 CDOT Plan referenced below.
Municipal failure for an over-crowded concourse gets worse as rush hour passengers next are dumped into a street-level melee as they try to cross the river or Canal Street. This frequently looks like the breakdown of civil rules. Taxis, cars, busses compete for space that doesn’t exist; so they feel justified stopping in or racing through crosswalks. To avoid over-crowded sidewalks and crossings, pedestrians also get crazy; often jay-walking Canal Street and inventing new ways to defy common sense.
Overall, this break-down of order converts an otherwise safe train commute into a hot zone endangering public safety once it encounters the street.
Seeking to explain this failure in the primary job of government, I recall the field of mathematics that says human behavior is unpredictable when systems are at capacity. This Chaos Theory says things can go wrong spontaneously. The streets outside Union Station — at almost any daylight hour — proves to me the value of this Theory.
As a final sign of system disintegration, only slow, noxious diesel buses directly serve a station with 125,000 daily weekday passengers, the nation’s third largest. Since only 11% of METRA riders get on a CTA bus, it has obvious limits. Those who choose to walk get a type of gallows satisfaction because the pedestrians often move faster than fellow commuters packed into a rush hour bus.
To sum their personal experiences, transit commuters are doing the Right Thing and deserve much better. At the least, a decent deal would reward commuters with enough convenience to encourage more good behavior.
Reflecting further government failure, Union Station’s owner (Amtrak) does not grasp the collaboration of 125 years ago that led to Chicago’s growth. The Station’s largest tenant (METRA) has so many scandals it is unlikely to survive the recommendations of the blue-ribbon committee appointed by the Governor. The same goes for the Regional Transportation “Authority.” Its four decades of failed oversight has allowed system dis-integration and agency waste of public funds. And Chicago’s Transit Authority carries baggage of recurring fiscal failures and two decades of deferred maintenance.
Recognizing the uselessness of transit’s major operators, Mayor Emanuel has put in-charge Chicago’s Department of Transportation. CDOT capped off 12 years of downtown planning with its May 2012 “Union Station Master Plan.” While not as forthright as my analysis (and certainly not written in my style), The Plan is candid for a government document; which I see as a sign of hope.
After wasting a decade of grand planning when the City had some cash, The 2012 Plan is practical… now that Chicago is flat broke. The Plan details improvements today, most of which are probably affordable. And it inspires some hope that its 5 to 10 year goals of realigning and widening Station platforms will help overcome crowding and, maybe, make more probable the benefits of through-routing. But… no funding, as yet.
Finally, the Plan clearly knows a new station is required and repeats the long-term vision of an integrated West Loop Transportation Center (imagined above) that, rich in irony, could be built over the concourse demolished in 1969. The Plan also analyzes an alternate Center one block west and stretching two blocks north to the updated Ogilvie Transportation Center; thus making the economic benefits of through-routing theoretically possible for 8 of Chicagoland’s 12 lines. With commuter travel predicted to increase between 25% and 40% within two decades, this Center offers hope that Chicago transit could enter a sustainable era… hopefully closer to on-time.
With history as judge, planning promises will not overcome the reality that governments are poorly aligned and, thus, are unlikely to spend tax dollars intelligently. But this dismal Big Picture gets more hopeful when we consider CDOT’s first small step to rebuild connectivity with a Loop Bus Rapid Transit. We hope BRT, sometime in 2015, will serve Chicago’s largest downtown buildings and reconnect the largest three commuter stations with the CTA’s rapid rail.
There are reasons to side with skeptics saying that this BRT is not a suitable solution; particularly if this City continues to tout itself as a global hub while only able to implement BRT, a technology used by developing economies. But, BRT is all Chicago can afford; having lost taxpayer support by treating its transit customers for decades as second class.
How Do We Convert Dis-integration Into Sustainable Integration?
Even for someone who enjoys writing about the future, I’ve just made a tough ask here. But starting relative to today’s transportation agency dis-integration, the positives are that the Loop BRT can meet a very low standard and still be considered a success. Yet, BRT will not renew Chicagoans’ transit greatness as long as Union Station is stuck behind the times.
Chicago’s boosters cannot mask much longer their inadequate downtown transit. This will lose the city its status as a global hub. While Public-Private Partnerships are floated to fund the low-hanging fruit, use of PPPs sufficient to make a new transit center will require reducing private risk with public funds. Politicians can pretend different and commuters can hope and pray (and buy lottery tickets), but anyone serious about transit must deal with reality: that public funds are the missing ingredient in updating Union Station and its transit network for the 21st Century.
Obstacle: taxpayers have made it implicitly clear that they have lost faith in the current transportation regime fed mostly by sales taxes; having supported the regime, only to have it fail at maintaining itself in good working order… METRA disgracefully so.
I boil down this analysis to the key strategic challenge of re-integration and how Chicagoans are likely to judge future investments: did their money for the West Loop Center replace non-integrated rapid and commuter rail with integrated systems that contribute to the economic and fiscal balance that the City needs to compete globally?
Any future strategy will not work if decision-making authority still resides with agencies proven to avoid problems and whose directors are appointed by politicians who have not admitted past mistakes, nor promised to correct them.
To get on track, Chicagoans must radically restructure bankrupt agencies; and probably start anew. To raise the funds to break beyond BRT, I advocate raising public capital and investing it through an independent publicly-elected Infrastructure Board. (Watch future posts for that proposal, separate from this series on stations.) This Board will be dedicated to increasing rail travel and protect future public investment by also serving as chief advocate for reducing the radical bias and subsidy to cars.
As guardian of taxpayers’ new infrastructure capital to integrate systems and increase commuter convenience, this dual-dedicated Board could help re-organize transportation providers into a sustainable competitive collaboration and build a suitable West Loop Center. Another pipe-dream proposal? Hardly. Here is our lesson from history: collaboration twice (1883 and 1922) built stations that led Chicago’s prosperity. Both times, Chicago clearly had the ambition to be ahead of its time. Does it now?
Thursday, August 15th, 2013
My latest piece is online at Governing and is called “Beyond the ‘Brain Drain’: How Cities Really Need to Sell Themselves.” Though the “brain drain” paradigm is dominant lens through which cities pursue a talent strategy, it’s incomplete and leads to lax efforts to actually recruit people. I suggest actually sales, not just marketing, is critical, and highlight a couple examples – Vegas and Chicago – where we are seeing the start of a new recruiting approach. Here’s a sample:
The dominant talent paradigm in America today is “brain drain.” The idea is to prevent educated people, particularly the young who grew up or went to school in a particular place, from leaving.
This is a model with serious flaws. Notably it implies a sort of “wages fund” view of talent in which each community is endowed with a fixed reservoir of it and the goal is to prevent leakage. It downplays attraction, both “boomerangers” and true newcomers, and by implication suggests that there’s not much to recommend about a community if you didn’t grow up or go to school there. And it misses the point that in an ever more globalized, diverse, complex world, a place’s best interests are not well served by people who’ve never lived anywhere else.
Monday, August 12th, 2013
[ Daniel Hertz writes over at his City Notes blog. He was gracious enough to give me to permission to repost the results of his research into changes in crime patterns in Chicago over time - Aaron. ]
Here are two maps:
HOMICIDE RATE BY POLICE DISTRICT
Like the captions say, the one on the left shows homicide rates by police district in the early 90s, when crime was at its peak in Chicago, and the one on the right shows the same thing, but about two decades later.* The areas in dark green are the safest; the ones in dark pink are the most dangerous. The colors are calibrated so that green areas are safer than average for the early 90s, and pink ones are more dangerous than average for the early 90s. The 2008-2011 map keeps the same calibration: green is safe compared to the early 90s, so that you can see change in the levels of violence over time.
And, indeed, the first thing that jumps out from these maps is that there’s way more green nowadays, and it tends to be darker. The city is way safer! Some areas we might consider a bit dicey today – like, say, the Lawndale/Little Village area – actually register as light green, meaning that by early 90s standards, they would be considered relatively safe.
[For those of you craving numbers, the murder rate averaged 30 per 100k during the first period, and 17 per 100k during the second, a decline of nearly 50%.]
Of course, the other thing we notice is that there are some very distinct patterns to safety. These maps are breaking exactly no news by indicating that the more dangerous parts of the city are on the West and South Sides, but it is striking, I think, to see that nowadays, basically the entire North Side is the darkest green, which translates to a homicide rate of less than 6 per 100k. In fact, the dark-green part of the city has a murder rate of 3.3 per 100k.
Three point three. In New York City, which is constantly (and mostly correctly) being held up as proof that urban safety miracles can happen in America, it’s 6.3. Toronto, which as far as North American big cities go occupies a fairy tale land where no one hurts anybody, had a homicide rate of 3.3 per 100k as recently as 2007. The North Side is unbelievably safe, at least as far as murder goes.
But there are none of the darkest green on the West or South Sides. There’s actually a fair amount of pink, meaning places that are relatively dangerous even by the terrifying standards of the early 90s.
This raises a question: Has the great Crime Decline benefited the whole city equally? Are the South and West Sides still relatively dangerous because they started from such a bad place, or because they haven’t seen nearly as much of a decline as the North Side has?
Here is the answer in another map:
CHANGE IN HOMICIDE RATE, EARLY 90s – LATE 2000s
The areas in darkest green saw the greatest decline; red means the murder rate actually increased.
So: Yes, the great Crime Decline is a fickle thing. The North Side saw huge decreases (in Rogers Park, it was over 80%) pretty much everywhere; the few areas that are lighter green were the safest in the city to begin with. The parts of the South and West Sides closest to downtown – Bronzeville, the West Loop, Pilsen, etc. – got a lot safer. But most of the rest actually got worse, including some neighborhoods that were already among the most dangerous in the city, like Englewood and Garfield Park.
This is a complicated state of affairs, and probably goes at least part of the way to explaining why, in the face of a 50% decrease in homicides citywide over the last two decades, many people persist in believing that the opposite is true: because in their neighborhoods, it is. It’s a dynamic that defies an easy narrative, and makes me slightly less angry (though only slightly) at all those journalists who have written in the last year or two about murder in Chicago without mentioning that the city is, in fact, safer on the whole than it has been in fifty years.
Here is one final pair of maps:
RATIO OF POLICE DISTRICT HOMICIDE RATE TO CITY AVERAGE
This is slightly less intuitive. These maps show the how the homicide rate in any given police district compares to the citywide average, using ratios; for example, if the homicide rate in West Town is 10 per 100k, and citywide it’s 5 per 100k, West Town’s ratio is 2 to 1. If West Town were 2.5 per 100k, its ratio would be 0.5 to 1. (Obviously the numbers in these examples are made up.) Blue areas have ratios below 1, and so are relatively safe; red ones above 1, and are relatively dangerous.
With the help of these maps, I’m going to ignore what I said about all this defying an easy narrative, and try to supply one: Over the last twenty years, at the same time as overall crime has declined, the inequality of violence in Chicago has skyrocketed. The pattern of what’s blue and what’s red in each map is mostly the same; I count only three out of twenty-five districts that switched from one color to another. But the colors are much darker in the 2000s than they were in the 1990s. There have always been safer and more dangerous areas here, as there are everywhere; but the gap between them is way, way bigger now than it used to be.
Numbers will help this case. Imagine that for each of these two time periods, we cut the city into equal thirds: one contains the most dangerous neighborhoods; another, the safest; and the last, everything else. In the early 90s, the most dangerous third of the city had about six times as many murders as the safest third. By the late 2000s, the most dangerous part of the city had nearly fifteen times more homicides than the safest third.
In addition, here are two charts (click to enlarge):
The divergence is self-evident. The early 90s look very roughly like a normal curve: most neighborhoods are in the middle, and there’s a clear, if slightly bumpy, slope down towards the extremes.
Today, any semblance of a normal curve has been annihilated. Or, actually, that’s not quite right. Now it looks like there might be two completely separate normal curves, one with a peak at 0.2-0.4, and the other peaking at 3.1-4. Plus a few guys who got lost in the middle.
I suppose there are many, many things that one might say about what this means, but here’s the bottom line: The disadvantages and tragedies that people in “dangerous” neighborhoods experience are both absolute and relative. The death of an innocent person** is an indescribable loss no matter what. And, on that count, things are somewhat better for Chicago’s most violent areas: the homicide rate for the most dangerous third of the city declined from 51 to 39 per 100k in the time period we’ve looked at here. That is a real accomplishment, and hundreds, if not thousands, of people are still with their families and friends because of it.
But in other ways, it does matter if other parts of the city are getting safer much, much faster. When people weigh safety in their decisions about where to live, they do so by comparing: How much safety am I gaining by living in one neighborhood versus another? The same is true of entrepreneurs considering where to open their next business. The same is true of tourists looking to explore the city. The same is true of locals looking to travel to another neighborhood to eat out or go shopping.
On every one of those counts, the disadvantages that are accruing to already-disadvantaged neighborhoods in terms of lost population, investment, and connections to the rest of the city are now much more severe. The hurdles are that much higher.
That’s bad for those physical neighborhoods. It’s also terrible for the people who have good reasons to live there, like social networks, nearby family, or the affordability of real estate.
Because I don’t have the data in front of me, but who would doubt that over these same twenty years, there has also been a growing gap between how much it costs to live on the safe North Side compared to the more dangerous parts of the South and West Sides? Who would doubt that, as the North Side reaches Toronto-level peacefulness, the cost of rent has greatly diminished the number of apartments there affordable to the poor and working class?
In other words, just as the stakes have been tripled as to whether you live in Relatively Safe Chicago or Relatively Dangerous Chicago, it has become much, much harder to establish yourself on the winning side.
So: Next time you hear someone talking about “record violence” in the city, tell them that actually, murders are down almost 50% from twenty years ago. And then tell them that what’s really alarming is murder inequality.
* Why does this data end in 2011? Because I made these maps using data from the Chicago Police Department annual reports, which are available online, and which only broke down crimes by police district in the 1990s. In 2012, the police district boundaries changed, making it not quite an apples-to-apples comparison to prior years. Maybe somewhere data exists by Community Area for the early 90s, and then I could redo all of this.
** And I think reporting like that done by This American Life at Harper High in Englewood ought to challenge conventional middle-class ideas about “innocence” in the ghetto. It is very easy for those who don’t live in the neighborhood to talk about “thugs” and “gangsters” getting what they deserve. It is also very cruel, and very naive about what exactly “gangs” are, and what kind of people join one, and how, and why.
This post originally appeared in City Notes on August 5, 2013.