Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Race Matters in Milwaukee – Part 3: The Effects of Milwaukee’s Segregation by Nathaniel Holton

Racial segregation is one branch in a thicket of economic and quality of life issues that together form the challenges of the day for Milwaukee. As Part 2 of the series suggested and as various researchers have shown, segregation is both cause and effect of such challenges as income disparity, wealth accumulation, brain drain, unemployment, education disparities, health disparities, and so on.

Oftentimes it seems that civic leaders don’t talk of the problems of racial segregation, and instead focus on non race-centered issues that relate to it, such as jobs and education. These are more tangible and politically sensible, but the fact of the matter is that Milwaukee’s thicket of issues is a package deal, and ignoring racial segregation imperils efforts to attack the issues that relate to it. Jobs aren’t gained or lost in a vacuum, and our childrens’ education can’t be separated from the structure of the communities that our children reside in. For Milwaukee to truly move on its issues, the battle against segregation has to be waged alongside the battle for jobs and education.

To make this point clear, information on segregation and income described in earlier articles in the series can be viewed together to see how they are connected. The metric used for segregation in the graphs below is the average metro black/white segregation ranking, which was taken from the U.S Census Bureau’s study on segregation (see Part I). In this metric, recall that metro Milwaukee was ranked as #1, the most segregated metro area in the country.

In the graphs below, each blue dot represents a different metro area and the trend line shows the overall correlation between segregation and the other statistic. Also, each graph can be clicked on to see a larger view.

Black Income

Segregation can most easily be connected to black family income. As previously discussed, low average incomes in the black community bring about segregation. Meanwhile, segregation decreases black income in part because it limits access to employment.

The connection between segregation and black income is significant. If a city were to improve by ten spots in the segregation rankings (e.g. going from 1st to 11th), that would correlate to a rise in black median family income of over $3,800 per year.

This is not surprising. In the famous Gautreaux housing mobility experiment, statistically identical groups of low income families were either assigned to live in low-income housing in segregated areas or were given vouchers to live in mostly white suburbs. Those families that moved to the suburbs saw higher employment, higher income, and better results in education compared to the families that remained in segregated environments.

Income Disparity

Segregation decreases the black community’s piece of the pie. Seven of the top ten metro areas that had the worst income disparity were also in the top ten for most segregated metro areas. One of the three exceptions, Kansas City, is just outside of the top ten, at 11th most segregated. If you want the black community to stay poor relative to whites, keep the black community highly segregated.

Gross Domestic Product

While decreasing segregation correlates with higher black income, what needs to be emphasized is the fact that decreasing segregation benefits the entire metro area. Gross domestic product (GDP) is a measure of economic activity for a metro area. Since metro areas with larger populations will naturally have more economic activity than metro areas with smaller populations, GDP per capita* can be used to make apples-to-apples comparisons between metro areas. When politicians talk about growing the economy, they are talking about increasing Milwaukee’s GDP per capita.

Less segregated places tend to have stronger economies than more segregated places. For the average metro area, a ten spot improvement in the segregation rankings correlates with a GDP per capita increase of over $1,600 per year. Suburban communities suspicious of any talk of decreasing segregation should be apprised of this.

* The number used here is the average metro GDP per capita between 2001 and 2008, in chained 2001 dollars.

White Income

Those who have put in hard work trying to uplift the black community often run into resistance from suburbs that consider community uplifting proposals to be a direct attack on their own quality of life and well-being. However, it has to be stressed that decreasing segregation benefits everyone, this doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. Good strategies that reduce segregation would directly benefit white households as well as black households. A ten spot improvement in the segregation rankings translates to an increase in white median household income of over $1,300 per year.

Racial Animus

Advancing mutually beneficial policies that would decrease segregation requires the entire community to understand that they have something to gain from this effort. Unfortunately, in a catch-22, metro Milwaukee’s segregation separates people and makes it difficult for us to see our shared fate.

Ever since the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel opened up comments on its online articles, there have been many examples of the sorts of outrageously ignorant, racially-tinged comments that could only be made by individuals who have no understanding or experience with people who don’t look like them. Here are a few unedited examples:

I suggest building an enormous wall with borders of 43 to the east, 94 to the south, 84th st to the west and brown deer to the north and then pull all city services out of that area and let the inhabitants figure it out for themselves. I’m so sick of hearing how bad they have it and about the terrible crime it is such BS. Stop making excuses for your inability to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps like every other immigrant that came to america over our 235 year history. Even the mexicans have made something of themselves, they might be just as violent but at least they aren’t lazy and many of them can’t get welfare so they bust their asses trying to make a better life for their families.

-poundsb27, 2/27/2010, City’s mean streets hard on young blacks

This is a character issue and all about common decency; a civil society must follow the rules that are in place. It just so happens that the people in this society that have the most problem with common decency are black. Its just a fact, society has to deal with this every day.”

-OneTug, 3/1/2010, MPS, Ald Will Wade butt heads over hat removal policy

Get all these stupid liberals together in one spot, load them on a bus, and ship them all out of town. When the hell are blacks gonna stop ruining the city and get their crap together?

-SkylarTatlock, 3/1/2010, MPS, Ald Will Wade butt heads over hat removal policy

We can only work together on our problems when we can look at our fellow citizens and see a reflection of ourselves. Decreasing segregation would help increase this sort of shared understanding, but increasing the shared understanding is required to collectively agree to do something about segregation. It’s a chicken and egg problem.

Job Growth

With good reason, Milwaukee’s most preeminent civic leaders are falling over each other talking about jobs. Whether by advocating for the magic of tax cuts or by celebrating the bribery of businesses, jobs are the main issue. But in case we start losing sight of the forest for the trees, or the rhetoric and ribbon cutting for the reality, we need to note that metro Milwaukee lost over 30,000 civilian jobs from December 2007 to December 2009. Jobs are obviously critical. Creating them and obtaining the socioeconomic benefit that comes with higher employment will be fleeting at best if Milwaukee’s segregation is not addressed.

Milwaukee’s job loss since the beginning of the recession (December 2007) represents a 3.85% decrease in the number of civilian jobs in the metro area. Most communities have been hit hard by the Great Recession, but as always seems to be the case, Milwaukee has been hit harder than most others. No local politician can control local job growth. The global economy can and does overwhelm even the best laid local plans at a moment’s notice. Local leaders can only be responsible for ensuring that Milwaukee fares better through the ups and downs of the global economy than other metro areas. Instead of making promises that only an uncontrollable global economy can make good on, our local leaders should be working on ensuring that metro Milwaukee outperforms our competitors.

In this effort, our local leaders have failed. Metro Milwaukee had the 6th worst civilian job loss amongst the 36 cities that were measured on segregation. Using a different metric and comparing metro Milwaukee to the 38 areas that have a workforce of at least 750,000, Milwaukee had the 3rd worst job loss in 2009.

The reasons for this are surely complex, but what has to be understood is that Milwaukee’s segregation puts it at a competitive disadvantage in today’s global market. Until it is adequately addressed, we will continue to see metro Milwaukee underperform relative to other cities.

This post originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum on March 8, 2010.

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

A Decade in College Degree Attainment

Metro area college degree attainment, 2010

This week the Census Bureau released its 2010 data from the American Community Survey. The ACS is what contains many of the core demographic characteristics that are frequently opined upon, such as college degree attainment, commute times, etc.

It used to be that the Census Bureau collected this information during the decennial census using the so-called “long form” that went to one out of every ten households. But that was discontinued as of this census and has been replaced with with the ACS. The ACS reports data more frequently (annually for geographies larger than a certain size), but has a smaller sample size and so there’s lot of statistical noise that I don’t think we are used to dealing with yet. For example, in 2008 the Indianapolis metro area ranked #3 in the US for growth in college degree attainment over the course of the decade to date among metros greater than one million people. But in the 2010 data Indy ranked #28 on the same measure. There are fluctuations year to year and the margin of error needs to be accounted for in serious statistical analysis. Nevertheless, this is what we have to work with.

I’m going to roll out a series of posts covering the highlights of some of this data. I’ll start with educational attainment, since that is something that is so key to upward social mobility and urban economic success.

But first I’ll put in a brief plug for my Telestrian tool. The Census Bureau site for distributing this data is a disaster. As one Brookings senior fellow put it, “Lots of Census data yesterday, today. Lots of angles, stories, conclusions. One shared sentiment: new American Factfinder is AWFUL” and “New Factfinder making mainframe punchcards look appealing.” Telestrian is designed for very rapid basic analysis and comparative benchmarking moreso than simple fact lookups (though it can do that do). In fact, I generated every table, graph and map in this post in ten total minutes with it. Even if you aren’t in the market for a commercial product, there’s a no credit card required free trial period, so if you are interested in perusing the ACS data and don’t want to beat your head against the wall with the Census Factfinder, I encourage you to check it out. Telestrian doesn’t have every data element, but it has a lot of interesting stuff.

College Degree Attainment

College degree attainment (the percentage of adults with a bachelors degree or higher), is one of the most critical factors in urban success. If you’d like to know more, just check out all the great research on it under the heading of “talent dividend” over at CEOs for Cities.

The map at the top of the post is 2010 college degree attainment for metro areas. Here are the top ten, among those with a population greater than one million, showing total number of people with degrees and the attainment percentage:

Row Metro Area 2010
1 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 1,758,297 (46.8%)
2 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 558,519 (45.3%)
3 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 1,317,354 (43.4%)
4 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 1,335,276 (43.0%)
5 Raleigh-Cary, NC 301,012 (41.0%)
6 Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX 429,163 (39.4%)
7 Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO 651,661 (38.2%)
8 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 822,321 (37.9%)
9 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 867,193 (37.0%)
10 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 4,613,445 (36.0%)

And here’s the bottom ten:

Row Metro Area 2010
1 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 499,663 (19.5%)
2 Las Vegas-Paradise, NV 278,387 (21.6%)
3 Memphis, TN-MS-AR 209,987 (25.1%)
4 San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 344,247 (25.4%)
5 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 224,392 (25.8%)
6 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 513,182 (26.2%)
7 Birmingham-Hoover, AL 198,856 (26.3%)
8 New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 209,916 (26.8%)
9 Jacksonville, FL 241,801 (26.9%)
10 Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ 731,643 (27.2%)

While we are on the topic, here is a map of college degree attainment by state:

State college degree attainment, 2010

And here is county level college degree attainment for those counties covered by the 1-year ACS:

County college degree attainment, 2010

Changes in College Degree Attainment

Beyond just the raw 2010 numbers, it’s interesting to look at which places are growing their college degree attainment the most. That is, which places are growing their talent base. So here’s a look at metros by their change in college degree attainment over the last decade:

Change in percentage of adults with college degrees, 2000-2010.

Some places already have very high college degree attainment, which can make it tougher to grow even higher. Speaking of which, the US as a whole raised its college degree attainment as well. To some extent, this is purely a function of demographics. Older generations have lower educational levels than younger ones. (None of my grandparents had a college degree, and my father’s parents never even finished high school. I don’t think that was atypical for their day).

What might be more interesting to look at is whether places are increasing their college degree attainment faster or slower than the US overall. There’s a measure that does capture that. It’s called location quotient, and is used in economic analysis to measure the concentration of industries in certain locations.

An economist told me once that he likes to look at this for all sorts of things, not just industry clusters. The formula works for other stuff. I really haven’t seen this used before, so caveat emptor, but here’s a look at shifts in location quotient for metro areas over the course of the decade:

Metro area change in location quotient for college degree attainment, 2000-2010. Increase in LQ in blue, decrease in red.

The blue metro areas had a higher concentration of college degrees relative to the nation as a whole in 2010 than they did in 2000. The red ones a lower concentration. This is certainly an interesting area for further exploration.

While I’m on the topic, here’s the same chart, only limited to graduate and professional degrees. There’s some interesting variability here.

Metro area change in location quotient for graduate and professional degree attainment, 2000-2010. Increase in LQ in blue, decrease in red.

A Closer Look at Indianapolis

Just as one more granular example, I wanted to take a look at the Indianapolis vertical. Here’s 2010 college degree attainment for the city, metro, state, and America as a whole:

College degree attainment, 2010

As we know, urban regions tend to be more highly educated. Here we see that while Indiana is one of the lowest states in terms of college degree attainment, the Indy metro area actually beats the US average. However, the city of Indianapolis falls short of the US average. Because Indy is a consolidated city-county government that includes a lot of inner ring suburban areas, it’s hard to draw conclusions about the true urban core, but it does seem clear that the center is less educated than the periphery of the metro.

Now lets look at the change in attainment for the decade:

Change in the percentage of adults with a college degree, 2000-2010.

Here we see that the rich get richer, as Indy metro not only started out on a higher base, but had the best showing in attainment growth as well. OTOH, going back to our LQ measure, Indiana actually boosted its LQ while the Indy region was stagnant. That’s because this is a percentage point change, not a percentage change, and growing from a low base makes it easier to boost LQ. It’s one of the quirks of that formula.

The poor showing of the city of Indianapolis is something that should definitely be worrying. It would be interesting to do a similar analysis for other metros, but alas that’s all for today.

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Race Matters in Milwaukee – Part 2: The Causes of Milwaukee’s Segregation by Nathaniel Holton

[ This week we continue with our Race Matters in Milwaukee series by Nathaniel Holton. Please keep in mind when viewing that they do not have a zero origin – Aaron. ]

Racial segregation is a phenomenon with complex historical roots. The legacy of slavery, discriminatory housing policies, redlining, employment discrimination, tax inequity, racist covenants, and a wide variety of other practices swirled together to create a segregated Milwaukee. For an exhaustive documentation of Milwaukee’s history of segregation, I highly recommend “A Report on Past Discrimination Against African-Americans in Milwaukee, 1835-1999,” by Ruth Zubrensky (available in most Milwaukee Public Libraries). We won’t know where to go until we understand how we got here, and Zubrensky does a wonderful job of tracing that path.

While Milwaukee’s history is unique, social forces and government policies created and fortified residential segregation throughout the country. So why is it worse in Milwaukee than most anywhere else?

Income Disparity and Housing Disparity

On average, housing in the area’s suburbs is considerably more expensive than housing within the City of Milwaukee. In looking at the ten biggest municipalities in metro Milwaukee, the recent median selling price of housing in the City of Milwaukee was well below every other municipality.

That suburban housing is more expensive than city housing isn’t unique. What distinguishes metro Milwaukee from other areas is the incredible racial disparity in median household incomes in metro Milwaukee, which prevents many minorities from being able to afford suburban housing. According to the most recent American Community Survey, metro Milwaukee has the 2nd worst black/white household income ratio amongst the country’s 50 largest metro areas. The median white household earns $79,145 while the median black household earns $33,273. This amounts to black households earning 42 cents on the white dollar.

Riverside, CA had the best ratio at 85 cents on the dollar, twice as good as Milwaukee. The bottom of the chart was dominated by Midwest cities, who tend to have relatively similar socioeconomic issues. However, even amongst this less competitive group, Milwaukee is still underperforming.

The income disparity reveals Milwaukee’s unique racial issues. One explanation for it is the education disparity. Just in the city alone, blacks are about twice as likely as whites to not have a high school diploma, and are almost three times less likely to have a college degree.

Worse yet, metro Milwaukee has the largest disparity between black and white unemployment in the country! This disparity can be partly explained by the spatial mismatch between black residents and jobs (which, in a circularity, is largely a result of racial segregation). Literally all of the net job growth in metro Milwaukee over the last several decades has taken place outside the City of Milwaukee. Meanwhile, black residents are concentrated in the city’s northside and are far less likely to own a car. This is especially important because public transportation in metro Milwaukee is sorely lacking. It’s hard to have a job when you can’t get to it.

(from Milwaukee Urban Atlas)

Yet another reason for the racial income disparity is brain drain. Many of black Milwaukee’s brightest young minds leave the city to pursue an education and never come back, resulting in the cream being continuously skimmed off the crop. Oftentimes, they wind up in the south, where racial income disparities are less extreme and where educated blacks can feel at home in many cities. Many educated blacks look at Milwaukee as a city in decline, a city with awful race relations, and a city where educated blacks have few peers and fewer opportunities for career advancement (I know folks in this boat, and I was formerly in this camp as well). In yet another circularity, segregation is bred by income disparity which is bred by black brain drain which is bred by a negative racial climate which is bred by segregation.

Just this cursory look hints at the complexity of Milwaukee’s racial income disparity. Each of the mentioned elements, along with others unmentioned, cause and affect each other and perpetuate segregation. But even this web of income disparity-linked socioeconomic issues cannot fully explain the extreme degree of Milwaukee’s segregation. Higher incomes for minorities do not protect against segregation, as segregation nationally among blacks with incomes over $60,000 is almost as large as the overall racial segregation that persists.

Personal Preference

Much of the area’s segregation is the result of personal preference. The Public Policy Forum conducted a local survey on housing preferences in 2004. Significant majorities of whites, blacks, and Latinos agreed that “most people” take racial characteristics of the community into account when deciding where to live. When speaking for themselves, the survey revealed that the racial or ethnic makeup of a neighborhood was of great importance to 32% of blacks, 25% of Latinos, and 12% of whites.

A majority of whites who gave an answer said that, in their ideal neighborhood, nearby black families would be less than half of the population, only a few in number, or nonexistent. A majority of blacks who gave an answer said the same thing about nearby white families.

A separate 2006 survey found that a majority of whites and 60% of blacks believe it is common sense for whites to avoid non-white neighborhoods. On the flip side, over 40% of both blacks and whites believed it was common sense for blacks to avoid white neighborhoods.

Just as with the income disparity, personal preference is a cause and an effect of segregation. It shouldn’t be a surprise that people who grow up surrounded by people who all look like them end up preferring to live amongst people who look like them.

Milwaukee Residency Requirement

Both the City of Milwaukee and MPS require their employees to reside in the City of Milwaukee. While metro Milwaukee is only about 16% black, the city and MPS workforce are each around one-quarter black. The residency requirement disproportionately impacts black residents.

More to the point, black city and MPS employees represent a sizable share of black residents with enough income to afford to live outside of the city. According to the American Community Survey, there are approximately 16,000 black households with an income over $50,000 in metro Milwaukee, a range that will capture most public employee households. According to the above sources, the City of Milwaukee and MPS collectively employ somewhere around 3,500 black residents. If one assumes that some of these employees are married to each other, such that 3,500 employees make up 3,200 households, this means that 20% of metro Milwaukee’s mobile black households are forced by their employer to live in the City of Milwaukee.

These are “back of the envelope” calculations, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to find that Milwaukee’s residency requirement is a contributing factor to segregation in metro Milwaukee.

Racial Discrimination

Of course, direct discrimination still has a negative impact on segregation. Exclusionary zoning, predatory lending, and discrimination in homeowners insurance are all causes of Milwaukee’s segregation.

Employment discrimination persists. People with “white-sounding” names on their resume are 50% more likely to get a call back from an employer than those with “black-sounding” names on an otherwise identical resume. A study done in Milwaukee showed that white felons were more likely to get a call back from a potential employer than black applicants who have clean records. Those that blame black people exclusively for Milwaukee’s income disparity should mind these examples of overt and explainable-only-by-racism discrimination that persist in our society. That said, focusing too much on discrimination makes it acceptable to avoid personal responsibility in the black community. Things won’t improve until personal responsibility is broadly embraced.


The above list of segregation causes is not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative, but it’s enough to provide a framework for further discussion. Feel free to add in other causes and elements of Milwaukee’s segregation in the comments section.

This article originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum on February 1, 2010.

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Topics: Demographic Analysis
Cities: Milwaukee

Friday, September 16th, 2011

New York Stands High

Crain’s New York Business recently released its 2011 City Facts compilation and chose to title it, “New York Stands High” as they found much to celebrate in the numbers. Among them:

  • The most incredible stat to me is that NYC jobs in 2011 fell only 56K short of their all time peak in 1969. If the economy ever gets back on track, this seems likely to only go up.
  • Despite its roots in a financial crisis, Crain’s labels the recent recession as “The Great Recession That Wasn’t”, describing it as “one of the mildest since WWII” in terms of NYC job losses. This will no doubt infuriate bailout skeptics.
  • The number of companies operating in downtown Manhattan now surpasses its pre-9/11 total. Rents have been stagnant, however and vacancies are projected to climb.
  • The tech sector finally surpassed its dotcom/Silicon Alley level peak in 2000, and NYC is on the verge of overtaking Boston as the #2 destination for tech venture capital investment.
  • Though some claim many people were missed, the 2010 census showed an increase in NYC population and the city is now at an all time population high.
  • The population is increasingly diverse, with, for example, Asians now accounting for over one million city residents.
  • The population of downtown Manhattan grew by 150% between 2000 and 2011. Downtown apartment prices have more than doubled since 9/11.
  • Between 2007 and 2011, national home prices dropped by 19.1% from peak, while Manhattan apartments actually went up 9.1% in price.

The numbers aren’t uniformly good for the city, but it has performed very well comparatively. I think this illustrates more than anything the emerging two-track economy of which we’ve read so much, which is fueling an ever widening income gap, etc. What’s good for NYC isn’t necessarily good for America, and the model of success represented by the city (as well as other outliers like Washington, DC) simply can’t be replicated elsewhere. Thus these places don’t really represent a model of success for others to emulate, and they have only a limited amount to say on what urban policy should be elsewhere. Nevertheless, in a global economy, America does need places like NYC and Silicon Valley to be as competitive and prosperous as they can be. The challenge is how to bring about a more broad based prosperity that provides jobs and upward mobility to average Americans.

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

Race Matters In Milwaukee – Part 1B: How Segregated Is Milwaukee? (con’t) by Nathaniel Holton

[ You can read Part 1A of this series here. ]

It turns out that Milwaukee is not the most segregated metro area after all.


Racial Map of Milwaukee



Racial Map of Detroit


(Both graphics by Eric Fisher)


The landmark report on segregation by the U.S Census Bureau published five measure of segregation. As previously discussed, this report ranked metro areas with a sufficiently large black population on how racially segregated they were. Then, the U.S Census Bureau averaged these rankings, and used that average to conclude that Milwaukee was the most segregated metro area in the country.

After all of the sophisticated statistical analysis that went into the production of the five segregation measures, it is surprising that the U.S Census Bureau would produce an overall segregation rank by averaging the segregation measure ranks, and not the measures themselves. As the following example shows, this distorts things.

Imagine three people whose wealth is measured in three different ways. You want to rank them in overall wealth by averaging their wealth from each measurement. In parenthesis below is the rank of how wealthy each person is compared to the other two people.

If you’re just averaging the money in each measurement, Aaron is the wealthiest person and would rank number one. But if you average the rankings, Brett’s average ranking (the average of 1, 1, and 2) is better than Aaron’s average ranking (the average of 1, 2, and 2).

Detroit is like Aaron. It has the worst segregation measures, but not the worst average ranking. Milwaukee is like Brett. We do not have the worst segregation measures, but we do have the worst average ranking.

When the segregation measures are standardized and averaged, Detroit comes out as the most segregated metro area in the country. Milwaukee comes out at number two. Here are the top five segregated metro areas using this way to measure:

The U.S Census Bureau may have had a good reason for going with their method. And, none of this changes the fact that Milwaukee is highly segregated, and that this remains a central challenge to our future. There’s little excitement in knowing that Milwaukee is “second only to Detroit” in yet another measure of socioeconomic health. At the same time, the stigma of being the most segregated place in the country is a damaging one. As it turns out, it’s not necessarily legitimate.

Sometime next year, the 2010 Census should be completed and we will be able to see how Milwaukee stacks up in segregation and many other areas. In the meantime, it is still important to look at the impact that segregation has on our health and our future.

This article originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum.

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Topics: Demographic Analysis
Cities: Detroit, Milwaukee

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Remembering 9/11

The Falling Man by Richard Drew, image via Wikipedia. You can read Tom Junod’s essay on this photo at Esquire.

On 9/11 I was at O’Hare airport, waiting to board a United Airlines flight to Denver. In fact, the plane was boarding, and right as I handed my boarding pass to the agent, I was told that there would be a delay in anyone else getting on the plane. Milling around the gate, I saw a group of people gathered around the CNN Airport monitor so I took a look at saw President Bush walking away from a podium. I asked someone what was up and they told me a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center.

At this point the TV was shut off. I wandered around to various gates trying to find a monitor that was working, but every TV in the public areas of the airport was shut off. So I walked down to a bar, hoping they’d have their own TV, and sure enough there was CNN with the mind boggling pictures of the WTC engulfed in flames and smoke. I remember thinking to myself, “I can only see one tower. Where’s the other one?” I couldn’t believe a building like that could just be gone. A few minutes later the second tower collapsed live in front of me, and I could believe it then.

At this point I decided that I’d better get the heck out of the airport before the whole thing was put on lockdown and I wasn’t allowed to leave. So I went back to the garage and drove home to Evanston and spent the rest of the day like most Americans – glued to the TV set.

There’s not much I can add to what has already been said about this event, but on the one day of the year in which we generally allow ourselves to look back at the pictures and video of the reality of what happened on that day, I too will post a few photos as a reminder. Yes, these are graphic, but so was what happened then. I’ll only post handful. They are enough.

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Indy: Help Keep the Historic “Georgia St.” Name

The city of Indianapolis has a fantastic project under way downtown to take several lanes of Georgia St. away from cars and give them to people between the convention center and Conseco Fieldhouse. I hope to profile this prominently when complete because I think it’s another great leading edge public space example from the city – one that would be getting a lot more airplay if it were in a city that were more on the urbanist radar.

But there’s one aspect of this that’s not so great – a plan to rename Georgia St. Oddly, the backers of this don’t actually have a name in mind. They just want to chuck the existing one and are doing a design by committee on a new name. The one suggestion I’ve seen floated publicly, Hospitality Way, it utterly cringe-worthy and shows that while improving on a solid, historic name like Georgia St. would be difficult, picking something far worse will be depressingly easy. It would be a shame to have such a fantastic multi-million dollar public space project marred by having the city become a laughingstock to the nation by picking a goofy name.

You can help, however. There’s a survey out you can take in which you can give your opinion. I strongly encourage you to visit this survey and say that Georgia St. should stay. Here’s a link: Georgia St. Renaming Survey. Of course, if you don’t legitimately believe this, I would tell you to say what you really think. But it doesn’t take much to imagine how this renaming might go very badly.

There is also a Facebook page to “Keep Historic Georgia St.” you can join. They have news and additional suggestions for how you can take action. Lest you wonder, this is indeed a historic name, dating back to the original Ralston Plan plat of the city. And back in July the Indianapolis Business Journal ran a story on this planned change in which Yours Truly was quoted.

Of course, not all is lost from this renaming. It has spawned plenty of interesting suggestions. My favorite so far was someone who said, “They could call it Peyton Manning Way, then shut it down for construction the rest of the season….”

Friday, September 9th, 2011

LA Light

Here’s another pretty cool city time lapse, this one of Los Angeles. But before we get there, a reader recently sent me a link to a Vimeo channel called “Cities in Minutes” which has almost 80 more time lapses and such. I can’t claim to have watched them all, but it looks like there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there.

If the video below doesn’t display, click here.

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Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Los Angeles

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Race Matters In Milwaukee – Part 1A: How Segregated Is Milwaukee? by Nathaniel Holton

[ Over the next few weeks I’m going to be presenting an important series called “Race Matters in Milwaukee.” Written by Nathaniel Holton, this series originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum. Here is the first installment, which examines the question of how segregated Milwaukee actually is – Aaron. ]


9/27/2010 update: When properly standardizing and averaging the U.S Census Bureau’s five published segregation measures, Milwaukee goes from being the most segregated metro area to the second most segregated metro area, behind Detroit. Read more.

Milwaukee is a wonderfully diverse city full of unique cultures and a broad array of worldviews and life experiences. But like many cities, these cultures and worldviews are too often walled off from one another due to the effects of segregation. Such segregation, and the racial climate that is part and parcel to it, create challenges and inertia that reach every significant issue that the city ever faces. Issues of citizen empowerment, education, economic development, poverty, public service levels, and countless others are all intimately impacted by the state of Milwaukee’s racial climate. The poor racial climate makes collective action difficult and sometimes impossible, burdens business attraction, fosters brain drain, and reduces quality of life in the entire region. If it doesn’t improve, the city’s potential will forever be constrained. While there’s commendable activity taking place at the individual and grassroots level to improve racial climate, civic leadership in this fundamentally important area tends to be absent.

Residential segregation is a worthwhile starting point when examining Milwaukee racial climate and what can be done to improve it. The following is the first in a multi-part series that will take a look at the prevalence and impact of segregation in the Milwaukee area. The meaning of segregation, its causes and effects, how it can be addressed, and how it impacts racial climate are all issues that will be examined in this series.

It’s commonly accepted that Milwaukee is very segregated, but how segregated is it really? First, most information on this involves not the City of Milwaukee itself, but rather the Milwaukee Metropolitan Statistical Area (“metro Milwaukee”), a region that includes the entire counties of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington. Second, there are lots of ways to measure segregation, and it’s not easy to tell which measures are better than others. Third, the mainstream measures of segregation can only handle two races at a time. The publicized segregation claims tend to involve only white and black populations, excluding Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans entirely.

So when it is said that “Milwaukee is the X most segregated city in the country,” what is really meant is that “the area comprised of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties is the X most segregated area in the country when it comes to black and white residential patterns based on some measurement of uncertain quality.”

Maybe the most respected measures of segregation are drawn out in a study done by the U.S Census Bureau. This study focused on five measures of segregation: dissimilarity, isolation, delta, absolute centralization, and spatial proximity (for descriptions of these measures, see U.S Census study, pages 8-10).

The study analyzed data from the 2000 census, compared metro areas that had a large enough minority population to analyze, and then ranked these metro areas in terms of segregation, with a ranking of 1 being the most segregated. The following table displays metro Milwaukee’s segregation rankings in terms of black/white segregation and Hispanic/white segregation. It also shows metro Detroit’s black/white segregation rankings for context. Metro Milwaukee did not have a large enough Asian-American or Native-American population for analysis, so there aren’t rankings for those populations.

Metro Milwaukee Metro Detroit
black/white Hispanic/white black/white
Dissimilarity 2 8 1
Isolation 8 21 2
Delta 1 15 12
Absolute Centralization 10 22 13
Spatial Proximity 6 8 1
AVERAGE 1 12 2

There is a user-friendly website that focuses on the dissimilarity index. This website ranks metro Milwaukee 3rd, behind Detroit and Gary, IN in the black/white category.

In response to the U.S Census rankings, researchers from UWM created their own ranking system based on the number of blocks in an area that had populations that were both at least 20% black and 20% white. They created their rankings “not as a competitive model for ranking cities and metro areas, but to expose the biases and limitations of the segregation indexes” (which they describe in their report). Metro Milwaukee ranks 43rd in this ranking system, substantially better than its rank in any of the Census’ measures.

The publication of the UWM report created an impassioned debate, with various individuals and groups coming out in support of or in opposition to UWM’s rankings. Marc Levine, a highly respected UWM social scientist, slammed the UWM report as “a blend of shoddy research and specious analysis” in an op-ed that systematically critiqued the report. John Gurda, Milwaukee’s foremost historian, wrote that the UWM report confirmed his firmly held impression that Milwaukee was “somewhere in the middle of the pack” when it comes to integration.

When the UWM report questioned the severity of metro Milwaukee’s segregation, some politicians and business leaders took this as an opportunity to gloss over the area’s racial issues for the purposes of improving the city’s image, an image that consistently makes business and talent attraction difficult. Some black leaders expressed outrage at the UWM report and responded by citing racial disparities and using those disparities to reaffirm the victimization of the black community in Milwaukee. If the UWM report placed segregation into question, the response to the report left no question that the city’s racial climate is poor.

This spring, the 2010 census process will begin. The result will be an updated view of Milwaukee’s demographic and socioeconomic standing. This sharing of new information and insight will provide Milwaukee the perfect opportunity to reassess its level of segregation, what it means for us, and what can be done about it.

Confronting metro segregation is critical, as Milwaukee’s economy spans across municipal and county borders. Action here involves heavy cooperation between the City of Milwaukee, its suburbs, surrounding counties, and the State of Wisconsin. Historically, such cooperation has been difficult to sustain (to say the least).

Almost as importantly, Milwaukee must examine the level of segregation that exists in the city itself. Such segregation works to frustrate cooperation and unity of purpose amongst the city’s population. As a result, the city often is not able to put up a united front when seeking action and cooperation with surrounding suburbs and the state. Before the City of Milwaukee can secure this cooperation, it first needs to get its own house in order.

This post originally appeared in The Milwaukee Drum on January 24, 2010.

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Replay: Chicago – A Declaration of Independence

[ It’s Labor Day weekend in the United States. I hope everyone enjoys. I’ll be back next week, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with this early 2009 piece I used to kick off my year at looking at the centennial of the Burnham Plan of Chicago. While two and a half years later it certainly needs updating and I would make changes if writing it today, I think on the whole it holds up well and so am presenting it basically as was. I hope you enjoy – Aaron. ]

One might fear the degree to which the city had declared its independence from nature, but at the same time one could hardly help feeling wonder at its audacity.

Other cities soon had railroads and elevators and refrigerator cars as well, but it was Chicago that first revealed the importance of such things to the West.

- William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis

As promised, I commence my year of looking back at the Burnham Plan of Chicago on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. To set the stage, let us first take a look at Chicago – its present, past and future. And the fundamental challenge it faces that no one is talking about.

Change and Success in Chicago

Chicago is arguably America’s greatest modern day success story. From the troubled remains of a faded Rust Belt colossus, Chicago reinvented itself as a global city. Within just the last 15 years, the transformation of the city has been incredible to behold. Over 100 new skyscrapers pierce the skyline dating from the last decade. I visited Chicago as a kid in the 1970’s and took a picture from the Sears Skydeck to the northeast with my Instamatic. Looking at that photo today, it’s like the city is missing. The incredible growth in that period is undeniable.

The quantity of quality on display and available for consumption in the Chicago has blossomed beyond belief. There’s a stunning array of sophisticated and inventive restaurants, a far cry from even the mid-90’s when Chicago magazine proudly proclaimed Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba one of the city’s ten best. The city’s cultural institutions are top notch and innumerable galleries dot the urban core. The world’s design leaders have planted their flag in the city, with almost any high end furniture brand in the world readily available. Cutting edge fashion isn’t just available for purchase in Chicago – it’s being made there. Strips of decayed industrial areas have been reclaimed as shiny new shopping districts. A thriving in-city Home Depot does business where not too long ago hookers walked the streets in broad daylight – one of many major retail developments. A condo boom of epic proportions, probably the greatest of any city in America, turned vast tracts of the city into upscale playgrounds. The extent of this last matter simply cannot be understated. When I moved to Lincoln Park in 1992, people would look at you funny if you lived west of Racine. Today, condos sprout almost throughout the city, from the South Loop to Humboldt Park to Albany Park. Thousands upon thousands of units selling for hundreds of thousands each have been added to the city’s inventory each year. The Chicago of today is a far cry of the Chicago of 1992, when, upon occasion of a job interview, the company bragged about how Chicago was now an outpost of that uber-hip coffee shop chain Starbucks.

Global Chicago

How did this happen? Globalization happened. Globalization transformed Chicago. Just as the fall of the industrial age felled the Chicago of yesterday, the rise of globalization created the Chicago of today, the global city of Chicago. There are many theories of global cities, but the best known is probably Saskia Sassen’s. The Cliff Notes version goes something like this. As businesses became more globalized and more virtualized, this created demand for new types of financial products and producer services – notably in the law, accounting, consultancy, and marketing areas – to help businesses service and control these far flung networks. These financial and producer services are subject to clustering economics, and end up concentrated in a relatively small number of cities around the world. These global cities serve as control nodes for various global networks and key production sites for these services.

Chicago is one of these cities. Its legacy as a financial hub and business services center left it perfectly positioned. Thus it has made the transition to the global economy in a way that no other Midwestern city can claim, rising as high as #8 on some lists of top global cities. Where once Chicago was the king of the Midwest, ruling its agro-industrial hinterland from its lordly domain, today it turns its back to a Midwest increasingly failing or at best falling behind. In effect, Chicago has declared independence from the Midwest, and from its own past, betting that its future is better served articulating itself with the global economy and the league of global cities than in trying to hold on to a past or a region that seems increasingly obsolete.

A Tale of Two Cities

The way globalization has disconnected cities from their traditional hinterlands has been well-commented upon. Richard Longworth noted it in his recent book. Sassen speaks of how cities have become un-moored from their own city regions. Indeed, globalization is ripping cities themselves asunder, as the spate of articles in the last year talking about the Europeanization of American cities or a “great inversion” gives evidence – that is, a booming, prosperous core surrounded by an impoverished periphery.

Chicago has seen this too. There are increasingly two Chicago’s. One is the global city of Chicago, consisting of its urban core and selected upscale and business suburbs. This is where globalization’s winners live, work, and play. This is the land of the shiny skyscrapers and smart shops. This is the place where the nation’s highest sales tax, the nation’s highest real estate transfer tax and an ever greater array of fees designed to part residents from their money are complained about, but are more annoyance than threat. This is the Chicago tourists, conventioneers, and business travelers see.

Then there’s the other Chicago, made up of the impoverished minority neighborhoods, the traditional white ethnic enclaves, many inner ring burbs and outer exurbs. While some of them are populated with new immigrants who bubble with entrepreneurial zeal, others are home to the middle and working classes who are ever more squeezed in a Chicago that no longer seems to have a home for them. Even many locals of the other Chicago rarely see these places, except as glimpses caught from the freeway or a Metra train.

Put these two Chicago’s together and you get a metro area that, despite its impressive core, has rather unimpressive aggregate statistics. Last year the Chicago MSA grew by only 0.7% in population, less than the national average. While some central cities are seeing strong central city growth – much maligned Atlanta is up almost 17% since the last official Census, and it’s a local topic of conversation as to whether the city might flip from majority black to majority white – Chicago has flatlined. The Census Bureau estimates that the city’s population has actually declined since 2000 to the tune of 62,700 people. More ominously, Chicago is suffering out migration. While it remains in immigrant magnet, the influx of new international arrivals is more than offset by the departure of domestic migrants. Last year alone, the Chicago MSA had net domestic out-migration of 57,000 – about the same raw number of people as left Detroit. This is a pace of almost 600,000 people per decade choosing to leave Chicago. Chicago even has a problem with its Midwestern balance of trade in people. Between 2000 and 2005, it lost a net of about 7,000 to Indianapolis. The creative class is flocking, but it looks more and more like everyone else is leaving. This is where the argument about Chicago as success story starts to break down. Success for whom?

Public Policy Favors Global Chicago

In a manner counter-intuitive to common perception for a city and state controlled by Democrats, Chicago’s public policy actually favors the successful Chicago over the failing one. It has pursued a high tax, high service strategy to provide ever increasing public amenities to its upscale residents. The city built Millennium Park, de-converted State St. from a busway, spent hundreds of millions on a revamped Wacker Drive, has implemented many miles of streetscape improvements, with median planters, new streetlights, etc., has installed miles and miles of bike lanes and bike racks, and much more. The CTA is frequently derided (though I think the CTA is getting much better), but is an anomalous blip. Even where the city was not directly involved, we’ve seen an immense investment in public infrastructure, cultural facilities, etc.

The intellectual edifice for this is provided by people like Richard Florida and his Creative Class theory. Starting with the well known fact that any business needs a qualified labor force, his analysis suggests that cities are in a war for talent, trying to lure that fickle and demanding group of workers who constitute the essential labor force of the new economy. I’ve expressed sympathy to this notion in the past, noting the problems that smaller Midwestern cities have had in luring the educated to want to live in them. Yet I’m troubled as well. As applied by local leaders around the country, Florida’s theories are in practice like a left wing version of trickle down economics. But instead of supply side stimulus to business, the idea is to provide financial favors to artists, designers, and other members of the favored quarter of the intelligentsia in the belief that this will fuel the economic fires of a city in the globalized economy. The working classes, the non-creatives, form a sort of lumpen-proletariat in this worldview. They’re a hopeless case that it is nevertheless the duty of the creative class to figure out how to help. Even a more descriptive reporter like Richard Longworth notes that globalization needs lots of highly skilled workers, and lots of high school drop out type labor, but not much in between. This means that the middle class dream that Chicago once offered the immigrants who came to its shores will end up out of reach for many. They can be globalization’s coolie class, but not much more.

Clearly I am troubled by policies that cater only to the most privileged in society. But in a sense, what choice did Chicago have? It is easy to point at places like Kansas City or Charlotte or Atlanta and talk about their low cost of living, low taxes, booming job market, etc. But could Chicago have adopted policies to implement a similar environment? Clearly it could not. Its geography, history, and culture conspire to ensure it never could. Chicago will always have relatively bad traffic congestion, tax levels, housing prices, etc. Its selling point has always been that among cities that have those things, it was the big city that was more liveable in terms of them. Just as smaller cities sell the “big city amenities at with low costs and a great quality of life”, Chicago sold the same product at a higher level in the urban order (“almost as good as New York but so liveable and cheap”). While Chicago likes to act like it is a notch above those smaller cities, I’m always amazed how similar it is in a way. For example, just this month in CS, a luxury shopping and lifestyle magazine for the city, someone starts out an article with “When I mentioned Chicago to people on the coasts, their eyes widened with horror at everything they’d heard about the winters. Or they expressed disbelief that one cannot, in fact, see the other side of the lake. Or they tried to mask boredom as I explained that yes, the city is at times quite windy, but the nickname actually refers to a long history of bloviating politicians.” The details are different, but this article could have been written in Columbus, Ohio or almost any other Midwestern city. The narrative arc is identical. The desperation to seem like a member of the club is palpable, often in direct proportion to how much the author studiously avoids trying to act like it.

With cities like New York, London, etc. pouring huge amounts of money into civic upgrades, Chicago would have had to respond, if nothing else to retain its relative standing. And take a look around. Other than success on the dirt cheap, which again Chicago could never offer, it is difficult to find a successful model of a Midwestern city for Chicago to emulate. The global city approach, while certainly having its downsides, is as at least a model one can point to as having some success. Most others don’t even preserve the urban core, except as a regional civic gathering place sustained on enormous quantities of tax subsidies.

Beyond this, Chicago has always been a gambler’s city, one that wasn’t afraid to dream big, bet big, and double down when the pressure got tough. That’s one tradition the city has stuck to. And I believe Chicago has decided to make a very big bet indeed. Namely, that it is now growing beyond that Mini-Me version of New York into an elite global city in its own right. One where business feels compelled to plant its flag, one where people will pay any price, bear any burden for the privilege of living there, playing there, doing business there, etc. By raising sales taxes to 10.25% in the face of a declining economy, quadrupling parking meter rates in the teeth of a recession, Chicago is sending a powerful message about where it thinks it is. Time will tell if the city is right, but let it never be said that the city hasn’t put down the marker.

Chicago’s Challenges

But the critique of Chicago as an increasingly two-tier city and as a city whose taxes are too high is old hat. Many have made it. And the leadership of the city has clearly examined the issues in depth and made their decisions.

No, I’m not here just to recapitulate the standard critique of the global city. Rather, I intend to talk about two other ares where Chicago has also declared independence from its past. Two areas where Chicago faces a more subtle but more serious challenge.

Chicago is Out of Ideas

First is that, as I’ve noted before, Chicago is out of ideas. The second is Chicago’s declaration of independence from its own essential character in favor of an international homogenized global city goo.

Chicago is out of ideas. This concept might seem crazy, as Chicago is constantly coming up with new things to pursue, such as the Olympics in 2016. But there’s a fundamental problem. Sassen’s theory as outlined above actually makes the case. If the globalized economy needs global cities to function, then in a sense Chicago is an artifact of that economy. Its success is less a result of anything it did to get ready for the future than a matter of blind luck that it was in the right place at the right time. The best illustration of this is to look at other global cities and see if many of them share the same story arc. And they do. In Sassen’s book “The Global City” she notes the glum position of New York, London, and Tokyo in the 1970’s – similar to Chicago’s own Rust Belt malaise of the same era. Recently, those cities have all been booming much as Chicago has. Coincidence? Did all of those cities just happen to turn themselves around at the same time? Or did some outside force act on all of them in a way that caused their renaissance, perhaps in the same way outside forces destroyed the traditional Rust Belt economy? It seems more likely the latter, and that these global cities are simply an emergent property of the global economic network more than the product of any great decisions they themselves made. Much as the needs of Chicago and Detroit created the rest of the rural areas, small towns, and small industrial cities of the Midwest, the needs of globalization created Chicago. It is now no longer the actor, but acted upon. It is the artifact, not the architect.

I argue that there’s a big difference between the Chicago of today and the Chicago of yesterday. It’s not just the level of success, it’s the type of success. Chicago was successful in the agro-industrial era. It’s also successful in the globalization era. But Chicago dominated the agro-industrial area. What’s more, it was the architect of the age. Chicago wasn’t just the capital fo the Midwest, it was the orderer. To a great extent, it created the Midwest. Though Chicago had enormous natural favor and was definitely in the right place at the right time in the 19th century, it wasn’t just a passive recipient of outside forces in becoming what it was in that day. Time and time again, Chicago didn’t just see the world it faced, it understood what it meant. It understood how to position itself to take advantage of what the industrial age meant to America. And that understanding made Chicago the greatest city of its age.

Lots of cities had success in that era. But there was only one Chicago. It was Chicago to which people came to see the embodiment of that era. Again, it can often seem like Chicago was a city of destiny, but it was no such thing. When we see success or failure, it is easy to Monday morning quarterback and suggest that this was obvious all along. But at the time it was no such thing. Cincinnati was the original “hog butcher for the world”, the original Porkopolis. It was the Queen City of the Midwest, ruling its age completely in a manner that only Chicago would ever equal or exceed. St. Louis too once had its pretentions to be the principal city of the west, its Gateway Arch as much monument to those failed ambitions as anything. But only Chicago succeeded.

In Chicago’s heyday, there really was a tangible hierarchy of cities. New York was America’s fiancial capital. Chicago was its interior colossus, which ruled a vast hinterland. Today, scholars well versed in central place theory draw maps of a “dominance hierarchy” of global cities, but these seem to be descriptive only of scale, not actual power relationships. For example, one commonly cited study used branch office locations of companies headquartered in London as a measure of importance in the global economy. As the dominant city of the interior of the world’s largest economy, it makes sense that these London firms would plant their flags in Chicago. But what does that really tell us?

I guess what I’m saying is this. Chicago is a passive beneficiary of the forces of globalization. It’s a first class passenger on the ship to be sure. But it’s not the captain. We’re in the early days of globalization. By analogy to the industrial age, we’re somewhere around the 1830’s. This means the winners are yet to be chosen. In 1830 the railroad had yet to really make its mark. Who knows what globalization might bring.

But I do know this. Nobody ever became #1 by simply copying what other people are doing. But that’s exactly what Chicago is doing now. All of the ideas it has implemented were pioneered elsewhere. Now that’s not to say that the person who invents an idea is always the one to profit from it. Far from it. But simply copying what other people are already doing, and often doing it better or at larger scale, ultimately gets you nowhere. Look at what Chicago has done. Bike lanes, fashion, art, green buildings, restaurants, condos, etc. All of them have already been done as well or better in other places. All of them. There is nothing you can point to in this globalized era that one can say, “Chicago did this”.

In the agro-industrial age, if you wanted to know where to go to find out what it meant to be an industrial metropolis, you went to Chicago. Where do you go in the global era? Somewhere in Asia, the Middle East? Where ever that might be, it sure isn’t Chicago.

This is the imperative facing the city, to find out how to do for the global age what it did for the agro-industrial era. To find out how to become the epicenter. The globalization era, as with the industrial era, will one day fade and give way to something new, at which point its cities will have to reinvent themselves yet again. There’s nothing new in that. But that’s not the challenge that faces Chicago. Rather, in the global era itself, the true winners are yet to be chosen. Chicago seems to be indulging in an orgy of self-congratulation about all the accouterments of the global city it has successfully gathered to itself rather than figuring out what it needs to do to win the game.

There’s certainly reason to believe that Chicago might in fact be in longer term danger. It’s not an accident that I drew the comparison between Chicago in the global era and hinterland cities in the industrial era. Those cities were created to serve certain specialized functions. But the minute those functions were no longer needed, they were tossed overboard like yesterday’s news. Will the same happen to Chicago? No, Chicago will never become Flint, Michigan. But Chicago is in sense specializing in only what globalization demands of it, much like those earlier hinterland cities. Remember when Chicago aspired to be the “Silicon Prairie” and put its hope in Flip Flipowski? Where are those dreams now? Chicago is nowhere in high tech beyond legacy employers. Dittos for biotech and the life sciences economy. In effect, Chicago is a one industry town – finance. The smart shops, swank restaurants, ritzy condos, and fancy galleries were all, in a sense paid for with finance money. In a post-bubble era, what will become of this? We’ll see. I actually happen to think that the current crisis might strengthen Chicago’s relative position, but that doesn’t mean that Chicago has moved beyond being a shadow city of globalizaton.

Again, the winners haven’t been chosen. The field is wide open. I believe there’s an opportunity out there for a city like Chicago to step up and grab the reins, to find out what it takes to differentiate itself, to truly understand the forces of globalization and what they mean, and to uniquely position itself for success. Unfortunately, I don’t see any evidence that Chicago is doing this. Rather, it seems to be engaging in a fairly standard game of keeping up with the Joneses. Does this mean Chicago will fail? Of course not. Heck, even 150+ years after its Porkopolis days, Cincinnati is still a solid place. But it certainly could wake up one day and ask, “Hey, how did we get passed by? Why didn’t we end up in the top ten like we thought we would?”

To avoid that, Chicago needs to take the right kind of risk. It needs to stop following the trends and start creating them. It needs to not just create them, but understand what they mean, just as it understood what the railroad, the futures exchange, the skyscraper, and yes, urban planning, meant.

That’s great, you might say, but what does it mean practically? What are the ideas? Well, since I am The Urbanophile, I have some thoughts. I won’t profess to have all the answers, but I can at least give some idea of the problem space. That is part of what I’ll explore over this series of postings.

Strengthening a Unique Sense of Place

The first I’ll cover in this one. And it’s the second of my problems with Chicago today. This one revolves around the character of a city. So many Midwest places flail around looking for a brand image or identity. Not Chicago. In fact, the identity and stories of Chicago overflow the page. They are too numerous to be written in but a mere blog posting. Yet, what is Chicago doing but declaring independence from these as well. This, I believe, is a mistake.

To me the trend of the Europeanization of the American city as in Chicago is but a facet of the overall homogenization of the global city. Global markets demand standardized commodities that can be graded and traded. This includes cities. This forces cities increasingly into a standard model of what one expects. I’ve repeatedly noted in this blog the example of the Wallpaper guides to world cities. These travel guides, ostensibly a guide for the modern, sophisticated urban traveler to the best of each locale, often seem identical except for the name on the spine. One modern boutique hotel, one swank restaurant or bar, one fashion outlet, is much the same as another in any city you visit around the world. The frosting might be different, but the cake is the same. And once you’re commoditized, you’re done.

So it is too with Chicago. I noted in my review of the city’s street lighting what appears to be a deliberate downplaying of the city’s rough-edged, masculine past in favor of a feminized, generic, even suburban motif. You see this repeated throughout. Ask yourself what more than anything epitomizes Chicago. To me, it is none other than Mayor Daley himself. Listen to him speak. Barack Obama he is not. But character he has, lots of it, and what’s more, a fanatical dedication to making Chicago the best city it can possibly be. Is there a lot of corruption in Daley’s Chicago? No dobut. Does Mayor Daley desire to have maximum power over politics in his city? Of course. But nevertheless I get the impression of a guy who every morning wakes up and asks himself, “What can we do today to make Chicago a greater city?” This is a quality of leadership all too lacking in most Midwestern cities. The character of Chicago and the character of Mayor Daley himself seem to me to have so much in common.

Ironically, under Mayor Daley, the city has pursued a policy of abandoning its past, of abandoning the image of the city as evidenced by the mayor himself. You walk down Michigan Ave., through Millenium Park, around the newly thriving neighborhoods, and you expect that city to be led by a Dr. Smooth type character, not a blunt, plainspoken man like the Mayor. But if only the Mayor saw the value in a city that presented a face like his own. A city not ashamed but proud of its rough and tumble edge, of the fact that it was where generations of ne’er-do-wells and hustlers came to wear out their shoe leather trying to make it big, a city that both Al Capone and Paddy Bauler thought not ready for reform, a city that drew generations of farm boys off to its earthly delights, a city from Bridgeport not River North. That’s Chicago. Not a genteel, refined metropolis, not a swank, sophisticated type of town, not a city on a hill. No, but a city of dreams nevertheless, where people came to get rich, to reinvent themselves, to change the course of world history. That’s Chicago.

No, Chicago will never be the Chicago of Cyrus McCormick and Philip Amour and Aaron Montgomery Ward and all the rest. You can’t live off the past. That’s nostalgia and there’s no more corrosive force known to mankind. But you can know who you are, what you stand for, what your heritage is, and how it fits into the future. Not a clinging to the past, but letting your essential character be a guidepost to the future.

The fifth Frank Gehry titantium Bilbao clone, the n-th swank restaurant or shop, the latest in Italian furniture – ultimately none of them will make Chicago Chicago. It’s going to take the real city, an expression of its own terroir and primal identity to do that.

I happen to think Chicago can do it. If it changes course and gets way from following the trends to creating its own future. If it steps up and makes sure the world knows that Chicago, and not just yet another generic world city, is in the house, ready to step up and claim its rightful place.

The real declaration of independence that needs to take place is that of Chicago from the trends of globalization. Chicago will only realize its potential for greatness if it is willing to let go of its insecurity and desire to be a member of the club, and dares once again to think of itself as it did back in the days of the Burnham Plan as a city destined to be the greatest in the world, a city proud of its unique self and not afraid to boldly chart its own course into the great unknown of the future, confident in its capacity to prove victorious and triumphant.

This post originally ran on January 17, 2009.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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