Sunday, November 3rd, 2013
A couple weeks ago the Economist ran a leader and an article on the plight of smaller post-industrial cities, noting that these days the worst urban decay is found not in big cities but in small ones. They observe:
Partly, this reflects the extraordinary success of London and continuing deindustrialisation in the north of England. Areas such as Teesside have been struggling, on and off, since the first world war. But whereas over the past two decades England’s big cities have developed strong service-sector economies, its smaller industrial towns have continued their relative decline. Hartlepool is typical of Britain’s rust belt in that it has grown far more slowly than the region it is in. So too is Wolverhampton, a small city west of Birmingham, and Hull, a city in east Yorkshire.
And even with growth, the most ambitious and best-educated people will still tend to leave places like Hull. Their size, location and demographics means that they will never offer the sorts of restaurants or shops that the middle classes like.
Their editorial forthrightly embraces a policy of triage, saying “The fate of these once-confident places is sad. That so many well-intentioned people are trying so hard to save them suggests how much affection they still claim. The coalition is trying to help in its own way, by setting up ‘enterprise zones’ where taxes are low and broadband fast. But these kindly efforts are misguided. Governments should not try to rescue failing towns. Instead, they should support the people who live in them.”
This same dynamic is clearly evident in the United States as well. Bigger cities have tended to weather industrial decline far better than smaller ones. There seems to be some threshold size below which it is difficult to support the infrastructure, the amenities, and the thick labor markets that attract the people and businesses in 21st century growth industries. My “Urbanophile Conjecture” heuristic suggests that you need to be a state capital with a population greater than 500,000 to be thriving. But even larger places that aren’t capitals and conventionally viewed as failures like Detroit retain powerful metro area economies and large concentrations of educated workers, especially in the suburbs. Conversely, smaller places like Youngstown, Ohio and Flint, Michigan face much bleaker circumstances.
There are exceptions to the rule, including many delightful college towns or the occasional oddball like Columbus, Indiana, but for the most part smaller post-industrial cities have really struggled to reinvent themselves.
In part this is because a rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats, only some of them. As economist Michael Hicks noted, “Almost all our local economic policies target business investment, and masquerade as job creation efforts. We abate taxes, apply TIF’s and woo businesses all over the state, but then the employees who receive middle class wages (say $18 an hour or more) choose the nicest place to live within a 40-mile radius. So, we bring a nice factory to Muncie, and the employees all commute from Noblesville.”
In short, growth actually fuels divergence because a) the growth disproportionately accrues to the places that are doing well in the first place and b) even when struggling cities can attract jobs, people earning middle class wages frequently live elsewhere. Doug Masson likened this to Jesus’ statement that “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.” I think there’s a lot of evidence that for bigger cities a lot of activity is exhibiting a convergent or flattening effect. That’s why so many places today have decent startup scenes, quality food, agglomerations of talent, etc. But for smaller cities my observation is that it’s still a divergent world.
You see this on full display in central Illinois, where the town of Danville (population 33,000) and Champaign-Urbana (combined population 124,000) are only about half an hour’s drive apart on I-74. Danville is one of the bleakest towns I’ve ever visited in the Rust Belt. When your Main Street is a STROAD, you know you’re in trouble. Champaign-Urbana by contrast, is a fairly healthy community. It’s home to the main campus of the University of Illinois, seems to be reasonably thriving, has many high quality residential streets, a direct rail connection to Chicago, etc. As a college town, it’s one of those “exception” smaller places.
Anyone within reasonable driving distance with a choice would almost undoubtedly choose to live in Champaign over Danville, unless they had a family or personal connection to the latter. It’s an easy slam dunk decision. In effect, proximity to Champaign acts as kryptonite to Danville’s revitalization. Again, a rising tide only fuels this divergence.
This sort of divide between communities mirrors the divide in society as well. The question is, what approach should be taken to address these disparities? One approach is to focus on the people, and leave the places to rot. Jim Russell has noted that “people develop, not places” thus most place based economic strategies are destined to fail. This approach has also been advocated by economist Ed Glaeser, who in an article title, “Can Buffalo Ever Come Back?” answered his own question by saying, “probably not—and government should stop bribing people to stay there.”
This is obviously unpalatable to policy makers of either the left or the right, as no one has yet embraced it openly. How then have the left and right responded? The response of the left seems to be what Walter Russell Mead has labeled the “blue model” solution. His basic view is that the post-war economy was based around a policy consensus he labeled the blue social model (and which Urbanophile contributor Robert Munson has simply labeled the New Deal). This involved large corporations, powerful unions, extensive industrial regulation, and an expanding safety net. Those who wish to retain the model suggest allowing divergence to continue, but raising taxes on the wealthy and successful in order to redistribute them to sustain those at the bottom of the ladder (via an expanded welfare state), who are in effect seen as lost causes in the modern global knowledge economy, though few of them will openly say it. So the idea is to invest in success, and redistribute the harvest aggressively. That’s why you see lots of left advocacy in favor of tax increases on higher income earners and against food stamp and other benefit cuts, but a paucity of ideas for how to provide the left behinds with jobs and opportunity.
Mead suggests there’s no such thing as the red social model, and perhaps he’s right in that there’s never been a national policy consensus we could label as such, but there’s certainly a red model response to current conditions and it’s called the Tea Party, or what Mead has labeled a “Red Dawn” in many places like Kansas, North Carolina, and New Mexico. This is a type of single factor determinism model. In these kinds of models, a single factor like education, transportation infrastructure, climate, etc is treated as overwhelmingly determinant in driving the economic structure and outcomes. The factor posited by the Red Dawn model is government, therefore the red model response is to slash and burn government (with the potential exception of highway spending) to lower costs, taxes, and regulatory barriers that are perceived to be holding the economy back. In other words, government is the base, and the economy and everything else is the superstructure. Fix the base and the superstructure will correct itself. That’s the theory.
Broadly speaking, these are the paths that Illinois and Indiana have followed. Chicago’s size enables it and its values to political dominate the state in the modern era. With only a rump of a Republican Party, the Democrats are free to do what they like. Conversely, in Southern influenced Indiana it is the outstate areas that are numerically superior to the successful urban regions, thus the state follows their policy preference, and Republicans overwhelmingly dominate the state so there’s little real opposition to red model policies.
What have the results been? Most obviously, Illinois is nearly bankrupt while Indiana is sitting on a AAA credit rating and a $2 billion surplus in the bank. (It has a pension deficit, but it’s manageable and there’s a funding strategy in place). Clearly Indiana has a more functional political system than Illinois, which somehow manages to remain gridlocked despite a “four horseman” style legislative system and overwhelming Democratic dominance. So score two for Indiana.
Finances aside, what have the results been? Illinois has poured massive quantities of cash into building on success, with items like the O’Hare Modernization Program and Millennium Park. The successful side of the economy, epitomized by the global city portion of Chicago, has soared to incredible heights. This is a city that earned at seat at the table of the global elite. On the other hand, the overlooked areas like much of the south and west sides of Chicago and places like Danville, are in horrific shape. The goal of allowing divergence clearly worked. However, with the state’s finances in abysmal shape, the redistribution portion did not happen. Indeed, the social safety net and basic services depended on by the rest of Illinois are being shredded. Even if you believe that it’s viable to simply support a large lumpenproletariat in perpetuity on welfare – which is doubtful – financial extremis means Illinois isn’t even able to try.
Meanwhile in Indiana, pretty much the entire state policy has been reoriented towards making the left behind areas attractive to lower wage businesses. Policies that would cater to higher end businesses in successful urban areas have been less popular. That’s not to say there’s been nothing. Gov. Pence recently agreed to subsidize a non-stop flight between Indianapolis and San Francisco to help the local tech industry, for example. And he’s supported efforts to boost the life sciences sector. But I think think it’s fair to say low costs and low taxes are the watchword, with right to work, light touch environmental regulation, mass transit skepticism, etc.
However, most of Indiana’s left behind type places have not recovered. Overall the state has retained a stubbornly high unemployment rate significantly above the US average, and, even more worrying, incomes have been declining relative to the US. Metropolitan Indianapolis, Lafayette, Bloomington, and Columbus have done reasonably well. Much of the rest of the state has continued to struggle, particularly in adding jobs with middle class wages. As the recent commentary by Brian Howey, Michael Hicks, and Doug Masson shows, Indiana retains its “Noblesville-Muncie” divides mirroring Illinois’ “Champaign-Danville” ones.
In short, the blue and the red model produced some success, albeit in different modes (think San Francisco vs. Houston, Chicago vs. Indianapolis), for the “haves” side of the equation but haven’t yet proven equal to the “have nots.” The Economist makes it clear the totaly different policy configurations of the UK haven’t made a dent in it either. Post-industrial blight in much of Europe tells a similar tale. This suggests that there are powerful macro forces at work that are extremely difficult if not impossible to overcome. It’s no surprise then that the Economist suggests giving up.
Again, that’s not likely, so what should we do? I won’t pretend to have all the answers to a very difficult question. However, I’ll suggest a few possibilities:
- Seek to stop the civic death spiral. This means getting ahead of the decline curve by seeking to halt the cycle of people and businesses leaving, leading to revenue declines and degraded quality of place, leading in turn to to service cuts and tax increases and disinvestment, which leads to more people and businesses leaving. This involves getting ahead of decline and restructuring government to a place where you can hold a defensible position on services and taxes from which you can seek to rebuild.
- Integrate with metropolitan economies. Rather than Muncie trying to hold Noblesville/Metro Indy at bay, or Danville the same to Champaign, closer connectivity is the key. I’ve written on this before regarding Indiana. In the short term losing the highly paid employees to a nearby municipality is a good thing. Without those living options for the managers, etc. you’d never be in play for the plant in the first place. That connection expands your labor pool, provides trade opportunities, etc. Just the property taxes from the plant is valuable, and can be used in rebuilding. Fostering these connections would require decisions that seem counter-intuitive on the short run. For example, Ball State University in Muncie should clearly expand its downtown Indianapolis presence. That isn’t necessarily taking away from Muncie. It’s building new connections and opportunities for Muncie where they don’t exist today.
- Find a claim to fame around which to rebuild. Carl Wohlt says that every commercial district needs to be known for at least one sure thing. Similarly, what’s Danville’s sure thing? Some towns like Warsaw or Elkhart already have it and need to build on it. Others need to find one. That’s not to say one thing is the only thing you’ll ever need or that you aren’t opportunistic around potentials deals that come your way. But you have to start somewhere. Where do you put your limited available civic funds?
I’m not so naive as to think this it the complete answer. But if there’s to be a genuine attempt to rescue places, then new thinking is needed and a turnaround will take a long time. In the meantime in parallel, clearly people-centric solutions also need to be pursued, to give people the best opportunity to realize their potential and dreams in life, where ever that may take them. No city is a failure that does this for its citizens.
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 10th, 2013
The Indianapolis Star ran a major article on Sunday that provides a view of the new suburban reality facing many place in America. Called “Amenities reflect Indianapolis suburbs’ new goals” it describes the efforts of various suburbs around Indy to move away from purely a schools/rooftops/retail model of the suburb to one that offers other amenities such as first class parks, New Urbanist town centers, arts venues, etc. Incidentally, the five or so featured are all completely run by Republicans, showing again that local level Republicans today are increasingly more open to quality of life investments than their national or state brethren.
The article highlights the thinking behind some of these, such as moving from an economic model based on smokestack chasing to one based on talent attraction and smaller, entrepreneurial firms. But unfortunately the article focused on whether the attractions would support a traditional ROI equation, instead of the actual underlying strategic rationale: long term survival.
Paul Graham famously suggested that pretty much all startups are destined to fail, saying:
Death is the default for startups, and most towns don’t save them. Instead of thinking of most places as being sprayed with startupicide, it’s more accurate to think of startups as all being poisoned, and a few places being sprayed with the antidote. Startups in other places are just doing what startups naturally do: fail.
Similarly, all suburbs more or less start out as if they were sprayed with “suburbicide.” Most of them follow a fairly predictable cycle of growth, maturity, and decline. Decay is their natural destination. This is a straightforward lifecycle effect, as I’ve explained before. (It can be different in places with significant supply constraints, like California, but these come with their own set of problems such as severe unaffordability).
All the town council members at one of today’s many Indy boomburgs need to do is take a drive around Marion County see where this leads, say down West 38th St. or South Madison Ave. I think we’ve all seen these types of formerly booming suburban districts now fallen on hard times. For those who haven’t, Eric McAfee posted a chilling, if extreme, example of the genre in Kansas City. Pretty much all of Marion County’s township areas are struggling except for a narrow band of very upscale areas on the far North Side, and some remaining greenfield development areas in places like Franklin Township.
The people who built those first generation of auto-oriented suburbs can perhaps be forgiven for not realizing that what they were building would not stand the test of time. Today’s leaders in emerging suburbs have no such excuse. They should know that from the minute their town takes off the growth curve, it’s already infected with suburbicide, and they’ve only got about three decades to administer a cure. And if they fail, they know the fate that awaits them.
I believe that ultimately these attempts at creating more amenity-rich suburbs are as much an attempt to create places that will still have a draw when they are full and hit middle age as they are attractors in the here and now. That’s the real question that should have been asked. What is the best cure for suburbicide? As Westfield Mayor Andy Cook put it, “do nothing” is the easy option in the now, but ultimately a foolish one.
It may be that these projects are not all the right ones. The sports complex in Westfield and the water park in Greenwood both seem on the dubious side to me, for example. On the other hand, central parks, trails, and more urban style town centers make more sense. There’s never a sure bet out there and there definitely needs to be a debate.
But too often that debate taxes place without being embedded in any larger context. It was particularly interesting, for example, to see Columbus resident Thomas Heller quoted as an opponent of amenity style investment. In a state whose communities have largely not weathered the storms of the last few decades very well, Columbus stands out as a strong economic and demographic performer – and one that took a contrarian amenity-rich path to boot. Why might that be, I wonder?
Again, it’s easy to cede the argument to opponents, who only have to say “it costs too much” as their perennial refrain. Rare is the item I’m purchased that I didn’t wish were cheaper. The real debate needs to be this: our town is infected with a fatal disease. Given that no-treatment produces death in about 80% of cases, what’s the best proposed cure?
Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013
Someone recently asked me for my take on what it really means to have a “critical mass” of downtown residents. That’s a good question, as the term is often bandied about. So I thought I’d throw out a few ideas, then ask for yours.
Critical mass generally is the minimum amount of something you need to create a self-perpetuating chain-reaction (e.g., a nuclear reaction). I believe in nuclear circles it refers to a stable reaction, but popularly it would imply something that ultimately generates an explosion.
Apply that to downtown residential population, and I see three ways to think about it:
1. Minimum required scale to support an amenity (or to support it cost efficiently vs. what’s typical). For example, you need a certain number of consumers in order to support a downtown grocery store.
2. Following on from that, we might think generally of having enough people so that particular amenities (particularly restaurant and retail) in downtown can be supported by local, as opposed to commuter consumption. In most downtowns today, the customer base of shops and such seems to be mostly from the suburbs.
3. The chain reaction. There’s sufficient population to attract businesses/amenities, which in turn attract more people in a positive feedback cycle that operates self-sustainably. That is, without public subsidies for residential or commercial development.
What do you think?
Tuesday, September 17th, 2013
[ Urbanophile reader Andrew Zimmermann sends us this tale of change in Somerville, a suburban town near Boston - Aaron. ]
Urban planners have long cast the artist and gay/lesbian communities as urban pioneers and harbingers of gentrification. We’ve heard the stories of North Halsted in Chicago, the Pearl District in Portland, the South End in Boston and Soho/Chelsea in Manhattan. But, ever since hipsters became part of the sub-culture lexicon, urban experts have blamed gentrification on them. From Williamsburg, Brooklyn to the Mission in San Francisco hipster havens have continued to demonstrate that gentrification isn’t limited to the artists or gays (although I’m not sure there is much of difference). The latest installment, not to anyone’s surprise in the Boston area, is Somerville, which was the subject of a recent piece by Beth Teitell in the Boston Globe.
Somerville’s back story is what you would expect of a turn-around tale in urban terms. Inner Ring suburb – check. Architecturally rich yet deteriorated housing stock – check. Mass transit connectivity – check. Cheap rents – check (well not anymore). Walkable, dense urban neighborhoods – check. Enter artists, gays but more overwhelmingly, hipsters, or so portends the title of the Globe article “Somerville worries it’s growing too hip”. Somerville is noteworthy however in a couple ways. First, it is the densest city in all of New England, almost exclusively achieved through low-rise residential housing types – think triple deckers, condos and townhomes. Second, local government has proved not to be a hindrance, instead turning it from a crime ridden place known as “Slummerville” to among the state’s best run municipalities. The schools however have a long way to go (we’ll discuss later).
As the story points out if gays, artists and hipsters are the first adopters, it won’t take long for the effects of gentrification to show themselves through drastic changes to the retail sector and the good ol’ barometer of choice, housing prices. Let’s take a look at both, since the retail and real estate sectors approach gentrifying neighborhoods much more systematically than do our hipster friends.
If you’ve visited Davis Square recently, you know that the retail landscape has changed drastically in the last decade. Walgreens and Starbucks are among your anchor tenants. The food and beverage offerings have gone from cheap working-class linoleum floor eateries to upscale bistros and kitchens and cantinas. Alfresco’s, a modest Italian restaurant got rebranded as M3, a “concept in southern dining” replete with catfish, chalkboard paint tables straight from a Pinterest board and plenty of canned beer you’ve never heard of. Likewise, the Painted Burro, which calls itself a “Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar”, expanded in less than a year into the space occupied by Spike’s Junkyard Dogs – a blue collar, fluorescent lit hole in the wall. It won’t be missed – and no you still can’t get a table midweek at the “burro” without a reservation. That doesn’t even begin to describe the explosion of fro-yo shops in Davis which saw its count jump from zero to three in the last year. Even if the new smell wears off, as Teitell’s article depicts, top local chefs are elbowing their way into Somerville to be part of the action.
Elsewhere in town, the loveable loser Johnny Foodmaster grocery chain has been supplanted by Stop & Shop and Whole Foods. You don’t need to be from Boston to know that when Whole Foods takes over for any grocer, things they are a changing. The fact that national behemoths like Starbucks, Chipotle, Pinkberry and Whole Foods are betting on Somerville is telling of what stage of gentrification the city is now experiencing. If retail is said to follow rooftops, then clearly retailers are paying attention to who is underneath those rooftops. Somerville’s population has largely remained static while its demographics have changed considerably. It’s now home to the second largest concentration of 24-35 year olds in the country – a Neilsen analyst’s version of shooting fish in a barrel.
Population hasn’t changed since 1980 – but WHO composes that population has.
It wasn’t long ago that “Slummerville” was a moniker real estate agents had to overcome when selling homes in Somerville. The days of getting bargains in town have largely disappeared as developers have chopped up large three story homes into condos and townhomes that routinely sell for $500/sf or more. Hipster populations in Somerville’s Davis Square have migrated within city lines to places like Union Square, Magoun Square and East Somerville. Even with a red-hot real estate market in greater Boston, Somerville remains white hot.
Red Fin reports a 103% sale to list ratio with a median home price of $470,000 and an average of 28% down in the second quarter of 2013. Clearly its not 24-35 year old hipsters putting down an average of $131,000 to claim of piece of Somerville as their own. White Collar professionals and families are among the early late majority that are betting on Somerville just as much as Starbucks and Whole Foods are. The loss of affordable housing and diversity would be lamentable if it weren’t so inevitably predictable. It’s not as if riders of fixed gear bikes wearing skinny jeans have disappeared, they just have to dodge baby strollers on the sidewalks and VWs, Mini Coppers and Audis in the streets.
Davis Square and Inman Square are no bargain any more.
Lastly, all the kids in strollers will need a place to attend school someday. If only Somerville were that place. SchoolDigger.com recently rated the city 299th out 325 school systems state wide. For all the progress Mayor Joe Curtatone has made, he’s clearly focused on the early adopters and the hipness of the city, with the schools as a longer term project. It might be sensible, but he and the city are running out of time. The Wellesleys, Newtons and Miltons might lack hipsters or artists or gays but they have a leg up on schools, an advantage suburbia has always had over the urban core. Undoubtedly its schools will have to do better and they will as gentrification will lead to higher standards, be they in the retail, real estate or city services sectors.
Somerville finds itself (by definition a suburb, yet still a city) in an interesting position as the effects of hipness and gentrification point to seemingly distinct paths. One is like other hipster havens in Brooklyn or Wicker Park – places that have retained a shade of the counterculture tendencies that define hipster identity. Two is like mature urban inner ring suburbs, Brookline and Cambridge being two local examples. The latter can claim to be cool but lack the authenticity of Somerville’s creative culture. The former over deliver on cool and trendiness and priceyness but because they are neighborhoods within New York and Chicago (or any large city) respectively, under deliver on the city services that suburbs provide. Whatever happens, the hipsters likely won’t be a permanent part of Somerville history as it’s usually the politicians or the wealthy elite of any given place that decide its fate. For now the trendy capital of Metro Boston can pat itself on its plaid-clad back, and keep its beanie cap-covered-head high. See you at Chipotle.
Andrew Zimmermann is an architect and urban designer with NBBJ, a global architecture firm with a presence in Boston. He lives in Somerville’s Davis Square with his wife and occasionally writes about design, real estate or anything that he finds interesting on www.zimmswhim.com.
Tuesday, August 27th, 2013
Cincinnati, like most older cities, has experienced a long period of population and economic decline, especially relative to its overall region (i.e., sprawl). Looking at recent trends in the city, I’ve been prompted to ask whether or not it has hit an inflection point where decline has been halted and a new growth cycle of sorts is underway.
Cincinnati was once something like the 5th largest city in the US and was the dominant city of the interior West during the first half of the 19th century, much like Chicago today. A failure to embrace railroads and structural factors it never could have overcome (just to cite one example, an inability to quarry Wisconsin ice fields during the winter) led to the center of gravity shifting to the Windy City. Cincinnati entered a long period of relative and decline and stagnation, though regional economic employment and population grew on an absolute basis. As with many places, a basically land-locked core city saw population peak 1950, followed by decline. A particular recent low point in the city was the 2001 race riots in Over the Rhine, which may be the most recent major racial disturbance in a major American city.
Whether triggered by this or some other factor, Cincinnati in (mostly) the post-2000 embarked on a number of changes that did quite a transforming work in downtown. This included lowering a highway that cut downtown off from the riverfront, building two new stadiums, major redevelopment in Over the Rhine, etc. Notable here was completion the first phases of the Banks, a mixed use riverfront development that had been a poster-child for many of a city that could never get anything done. Similarly, a street car system seems on track thanks to Herculean efforts in the face of stunning obstacles. There has been new major office construction and also (more dubiously) a casino. Outside of downtown Cincinnati is replete with many high quality neighborhood business districts that have seen significant improvements. The University of Cincinnati embarked on a major starchitect oriented building spree, etc, etc.
Other cities can tell similar tales, but what made me specifically consider Cincinnati was a couple factors. First is just the huge difference in feel and palpable physical change between visits I made in 2008 and in 2010. I was not the only one who noticed as even firebrand conservative talk radio host (and pretty rabid anti-city guy) Bill Cunningham changed his tune on Over the Rhine, singing its praises.
Also, there’s been a political shift as well. Previously many Cincinnati initiatives had been derailed by a very active Tea Party style group called COAST – “Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes” (which actually predated the Tea Party) They were a pretty fearsome force to be reckoned with for a period of time. However, after failing to defeat the proposed streetcar in a referendum, their power appears to have wanted considerably in the city. The locus of opposition to city initiatives now comes from the statehouse, and also from collar county politicians like Rep. Steve Chabot, who was gerrymandered into a district where he represents downtown Cincinnati while being supported by a Warren County voter base. This isn’t to say that COAST is always wrong. Cincinnati and Hamilton County have cut some astoundingly bad deals that have inflicted taxpayer torment (such as the aforementioned stadiums). But their loss of influence is suggestive of demographic change in the city. Had more urban-oriented residents been attracted to the city?
To test this, I took a look at some base data. Here’s a look at total population in the region since 1950:
Here’s a look at percentage change by Census year. The change is over the preceding decade. So 1990 represents the change between 1980 and 1990:
Lastly, here’s a look at population share within the region:
As of 2010, none of these show a material change in the sprawl paradigm. I was hoping to see especially that Cincinnati had reversed its share loss within Hamilton County and/or that its percentage loss had decreased, but this was not the case. The 1980-1990 decade was actually the best for the city, and the population percentage losses have increased in the two decades since. Similarly, share loss even within Hamilton County has continued to grow.
However, I find the numbers interesting. Suburban Hamilton County was the growth juggernaut in the 50s and 60s, but it basically flatlined in 1970. I know geography complicates things in the area, but from my drives about town, there appears to be land left that could be developed but hasn’t been. Suburban Hamilton County itself actually lost population during the 2000s. This is in line with general inner suburban declines around America. I suspect this has had an impact in bridging the city-suburb divide within Hamilton County because now almost the entire county can related to being the “inner city” if you will. Many of these areas are in pretty much the same boat as the city, and thus could find alignment of interests.
Also, the loss of population in the city suggests a possible alternative narrative for why the Tea Party lost influence. Namely that its political supporters in some Cincinnati neighborhoods gave up and left, leaving a pro-downtown type majority coalition. Whatever the case, it provides an opportunity to achieve civic momentum because there’s more policy consensus, though state level Republicans can continue making things difficult. (Again, this says nothing of the merits of various policies themselves, merely consensus for action). The core population growth was real in the past decade, but concentrated in downtown and though the percentages were pretty high (around 30%) it was on a pretty small base so the total gains were only about 1,350 people. Good, but not good enough. Here’s the NYT Census map:
Looking at jobs, the core zip code of downtown, 45202, lost 19,500 private sector jobs between 2000 and 2011, a drop of 23%. (Zip code 45219, which includes the University of Cincinnati, had a slight job gain, but on a comparatively smaller base of only 14,400). This suggests that there hasn’t been an economic inflection point either.
To date the data would not appear to have confirmed the notion of a center city inflection point in Cincinnati. However, the change in the feel of the city is, as I said, palpable. Last time I was there I just generally got the feeling that the wind was back in the city’s sails. Time will tell if this is the start of a real trend or whether it is just a bump created by unsustainable public investment and a change in national trends. Given the high quality “bones” of the city, Cincinnati is one of the place I’d be watching to see if post-industrial cities can really pull off a turnaround.
If you’re interested in the raw data and charts I created for this post, here’s the Excel file.
Thursday, August 22nd, 2013
Urbanist economist Ryan Avent, who writes as part of the FreeExchange team at the Economist, is out with a video where he talked about growth and decline in cities. It’s definitely worth a watch. If it doesn’t display for you, click here, and note that it’s an auto-play link:
Friday, August 16th, 2013
My latest blog post is online over at New Geography. It’s called “Is the Census Bureau On Track For Another Estimating Fiasco?” and looks at the eyebrow-raising sub-county estimates released in June in the context of the strange methodology used last year and the huge miss during the 2000s. I’m not sure whether the estimates are right or not, but there’s enough disagreement between them and the actual Census results, plus various surveys like the ACS, to call all the numbers into question. Attempts to create a rigorous methodology for anything are confused by the manifest weakness of the Census Bureau in the face of political pressure. I’m not aware of any estimates challenge in the previous decade that was actually denied, for example, and the biggest misses were disproportionately in those cities that challenged estimates. This augurs poorly for theoretically superior statistical adjustment techniques given the track record of successful political manipulation demonstrated here. In any case, here’s an excerpt:
Or look at Indianapolis. In its urban core area, Center Township (township data is reported in a similar manner to municipal estimates in some areas), the population declined by almost 25,000 people during the 2000s, a steep 14.5% loss that was worse than Buffalo and St. Louis and nearly as bad as Cleveland. Center Township has lost population every decade since 1950. Yet the Census Bureau has estimated that it gained 2,300 people since the census. Though a lower total percentage due to the base, this is more physical people than was estimated to be added by all but three of Indy’s suburbs, many of which posted huge gains in the 2000s (such as Westfield, which added 20,800 during the 2000s but was only estimated to have added 1,800 since the census despite building permit issuances at all time record highs). This sort of radical turnaround in fortunes would certainly be nearly miraculous if true.
You can go right down the line and find similar effects at work in other places. It raises serious questions about these estimates. Places like San Francisco, DC, and even Pittsburgh have had economic growth that might seem to underpin more robust core population growth, it’s hard to credit many of these other places with such turnaround. Some of the analysts focused on an inability of people to move outwards because of the economy, but it’s hard to believe this alone grew the population of Atlanta by 24,000 people.
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.
Friday, July 26th, 2013
My latest post is online at New Geography and is called “Will Europe Hit a Demographic Tipping Point?.” It’s always risky to get into the doom business, as I noted earlier in the week regarding Detroit, so this should be seen more as a possibility than a prediction. But there are a number of factors converging on European demographics: low birth rates and resulting aging populations, debt, the poor economy, austerity, and a general lack of opportunity for many of the young. Crazy at it seems, we are starting to see the start of a flow back from European countries towards former colonies perceived to have more opportunity. We will see how this plays out. Here’s an excerpt:
Not only are Europe’s young facing short term pain from economic crisis, they also face the long term prospect of being a small population cohort that has to spend their entire working lives (when they eventually find jobs) paying for previous generations’ lavish retirement benefits never properly funded. Along with this, they are the ones who will likely bear the brunt of reduced pension payouts for themselves while the current and nearly retired are fully protected from cuts. This is on top of the massive official public sector debts that have been accrued, along with many years of pain from IMF and EU mandated austerity in a number of countries. Contracting demographics is like a “force multiplier” for unfunded liabilities, and this generation may never achieve the affluence – and buying power – of their parents.
Immigration has been heralded as a solution to demographic issues, but this seems unlikely to bail Europe out. Unlike the US or Canada, European nation-states are built primarily on ethnic identities that make integration difficult no matter how progressive the policies. Sclerotic economies and regulations that reward incumbents and large “national champion” firms while punishing entrepreneurs – immigrants are disproportionately entrepreneurial – don’t help. With Europe having a large percentage of unassimilated and unemployed immigrants along with high native born unemployment rates, there has been social unrest all around. Immigrants have rioted, even in unlikely locales like Stockholm, while there has been an alarming rise in far right extremist groups among the native born. Unlike immigrant-friendly North America, immigration has been as much problem as solution in Europe.