Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Teardowns Are Transforming the American Post-War Suburban Landscape by Suzanne Lanyi Charles

[ The London School of Economics has an American themed blog called USA Policy and Politics. This piece on teardowns originally appeared there and I’m grateful for their permission to repost it – Aaron.

Suzanne Charles 80x108In many older American suburbs single-family housing is being demolished and replaced with new, larger single-family housing. “Teardowns” are dramatically transforming suburban neighborhoods. Using the inner-ring suburbs as a case study, Suzanne Lanyi Charles finds that teardowns occur in a variety of places ranging from modest middle-income neighborhoods to very highly affluent neighborhoods that often share a common proximity to well regarded schools. Teardowns began in areas with high property values, and as house prices rose rapidly through the first half of the 2000s, they expanded into adjacent, less affluent neighborhoods, contracting again at the end of the decade.

As older suburbs have aged, some have begun to experience declining populations, investment, and incomes, increasing crime, and shrinking tax bases. However, at the same time, others are receiving a significant amount of reinvestment. In some inner-ring suburbs the single family housing stock is being transformed through “teardowns”—the process when an older single-family housing is demolished and larger single-family housing is built in its place. An oft-cited teardown scenario is one in which an older, often architecturally significant house in a leafy, very affluent suburb is demolished and replaced. However, a more nuanced redevelopment process has been occurring in inner-ring suburbs. Teardowns occur in a variety of neighborhoods and manifest differently in different places, presenting varying implications for inner-ring suburban neighborhoods.

Though not ubiquitous, teardowns have had a substantial impact on many suburban neighborhoods. Rates of teardowns in the inner-ring suburbs of Chicago range up to 17 percent per census block group and are primarily confined to areas north, northwest, and southwest of the city of Chicago. (See Figure 1) In 99 census block groups, over 4 percent of single-family housing was redeveloped, and twenty census block groups experienced redevelopment of over 8 percent of single-family housing. However, over 60 percent of the census block groups (which include 56 percent of the housing stock) did not have any single-family residential redevelopment whatsoever between 2000 and 2010.

Figure 1 – Housing redevelopment rates in suburban Chicago

Charles Fig 1

Suburban teardowns are often discussed as primarily occurring in historically wealthy neighborhoods. In neighborhoods with high property values, a prime teardown candidate is often the smallest, oldest, and least expensive house on the block. The house is demolished and replaced with a house in keeping with the rest of the neighborhood in terms of size and quality. But during the past decade, high rates of teardowns have occurred in a group of inner-ring neighborhoods that are more diverse in terms of property values, household incomes, and housing type. Figure 2 illustrates a teardown in a modest, middle-income suburb in which the rebuilt house is substantially larger and more expensive than its neighbors.

Figure 2 – Results of a teardown in middle income suburb in Chicago

Charles Fig 2

Teardowns often occur in the wealthiest suburban municipalities, but they also occur at equally high rates in more modest neighborhoods in terms of household incomes and house prices. One thing that these neighborhoods have in common is that they are primarily located in very highly regarded school districts. Teardowns occur in neighborhoods spanning a wide range of middle-class neighborhoods; however they are not racially and ethnically diverse. These neighborhoods include residents employed in high-income, white-collar occupations as well as in middle-income, blue-collar occupations, but they are predominately white and non-Hispanic.

In many areas, a contagion-like effect takes hold, leading to the clustering of teardowns. Several identifiable clusters of teardowns occurred throughout the inner-ring suburbs of Chicago. (See Figure 3) (See here for methodological details as to how these clusters were identified). In general, these clusters of teardowns first appeared in places with the highest incomes and house values and the most highly ranked school districts. As house prices rose rapidly during the first half of the 2000-10 decade, teardowns continued apace and even accelerated in many affluent neighborhoods, while simultaneously expanding into less affluent neighborhoods.

Figure 3 – Clusters of teardowns in inner ring suburbs of Chicago

Charles Fig 3

Teardowns were not observed in neighborhoods where previous disinvestment had occurred, unlike examples of redevelopment and gentrification in central cities. In fact, according to local real estate developers and municipal planners, teardowns occurred in neighborhoods in which original property values were stable or increased prior to the appearance of teardown clusters. Thus, suburban teardowns reveal a redevelopment process that is quite different from that which has been observed in early examples of central city redevelopment and gentrification.

According to local real estate developers and municipal planners, several of the first properties to be redeveloped in moderate-income neighborhoods were not speculative, developer-driven ventures—demolished, rebuilt, and later offered for sale—but were built for particular clients. Having accumulated wealth or perhaps gained easier access to financing, but not wanting to move to another area, these homeowners chose to rebuild a larger house for themselves in the neighborhood where they already lived. These teardowns set a precedent for developers to build much larger, new speculative housing in several of the more modest neighborhoods.

Developers also revealed that they preferred to undertake teardowns in areas where ones had already taken place, leading to the spatial clustering or contagion effect. They cite the increased profitability of these latter projects, as well as the decreased financial risk once the local real estate market demonstrated that it would accept the more expensive redeveloped properties as motivating factors. In some cases, developers created their own clusters of redevelopment by undertaking several teardowns in one neighborhood. Many undertook these projects in the neighborhoods in which they lived, bolstering their reputations as real estate developers by demonstrating their own investment in the neighborhood.

Teardowns have had very different physical impacts in different types of neighborhoods. Teardowns with the lowest ratio of new to original house floor area are located primarily in very affluent suburbs. The highest ratios—where the redeveloped house is over 3.5 times larger than the original house—occur in many places with moderate property values and household incomes. (See Figure 4) In neighborhoods of originally homogeneous postwar housing, the new housing was priced significantly higher than the original houses, and higher than the original residents of the neighborhood could likely afford. The price of a redeveloped house is typically at least three times that of the original house. In originally middle-income neighborhoods with moderately priced housing, teardown clusters have resulted in significant overall changes in the physical form of the built environment.

Figure 4 –Floor ratios for new vs. original houses in suburban Chicago

Charles Fig 4

Teardowns occur in a range of suburban neighborhoods and manifest differently in different places, presenting varying implications for inner-ring suburban neighborhoods. They are often controversial, resulting in the replacement of older housing with that which is more in keeping with currently popular trends in house size, features, and style, attracting new higher income households, raising property values, and creating additional municipal revenue through increased property tax assessments. And they change in the physical character of neighborhoods and reduce the stock of smaller, affordable (or mid-priced) housing. Local policy makers and residents have an interest in better understanding teardowns occurring in older inner-ring suburbs in order to equip themselves to address it proactively.

This article is based on the paper, “The spatio-temporal pattern of housing redevelopment in suburban Chicago, 2000-2010” in Urban Studies.

Featured image credit: Bill Rosenfeld (Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

Shortened URL for this post: http://bit.ly/1rfjsTk

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About the author

Suzanne Lanyi Charles is an Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Charles’s scholarly interests include residential redevelopment and neighborhood change with a particular interest in the changing suburban landscape. Her current research examines physical, social, and economic changes in postwar suburban neighborhoods. Her research has received research grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Real Estate Academic Initiative at Harvard University.

This post originally appeared on October 7, 2014 in the London School of Economics USAPP blog.

Friday, October 10th, 2014

More On the Midwest vs. the South

My post on Sunday about SEC vs. Big 10 football produced quite a stir. There are 165 comments and counting, and it even prompted posts by Richard Longworth and Crain’s Cleveland Business.

Not everyone was critical but the ones that were basically say that it’s ludicrous to say that football proves anything. I don’t think that it does. But I will make three points:

1. The differing fortunes of the two conference is yet another in an extremely long series of data points and episodes that demonstrate a shift in demographic, economic, and cultural vitality to the South.
2. Sports is one of the many areas in which Midwestern states have clung to traditional approaches, even though those approaches haven’t been producing results.
3. Demographic and economic changes have consequences. It’s not realistic to expect that the Midwest’s excellent institutions will necessarily be able to retain excellence when supported by hollowed out economies.

I’d like to throw up a couple of charts to illustrate the longer term trends at work. The first is a comparison of per capita personal income as a percent of the US average for Illinois vs. Georgia since 1950:

il-vs-ga

Here’s the same chart of Ohio vs. North Carolina:

oh-vs-nc

If I put up the population or job numbers, the same charts would show the South mutilating the Midwest. (Indiana, Georgia, and North Carolina were all about the same population in 1980, but the latter two have skyrocketed ahead since then for example). What’s more, the South’s major metros score better on diversity and attracting immigrants than the Midwest’s major metros as a general rule.

These charts show the convergence in incomes over time. The decline in relative income of the Midwest is possibly in part to increases elsewhere, not internal dynamics. But think about what the Midwest looked like in 1950, 60, or 70 vs the South, then think about it today and it’s night and day. The Midwest may still be endowed with better educational and cultural institutions than the South, but we can see where the trends are going. Keep in mind that those things are lagging indicators. Chicago didn’t get classy until after it got rich, for example.

Now we see that Southern income performance hasn’t been great since the mid to late 90s. This is a problem for them. As is their dependence on growth itself in their communities. I won’t claim that the South is trouble free or will necessarily thrive over the long haul. But they seem to have a clearer sense of identity, where they want to go, and what their deficiencies are than most Midwestern places.

Longworth seems to buy the decline theory but has a different explanation of the source, namely that Chicago has sucked the life out of other Midwestern states:

In the global economy, sheer size is a great big magnet, drawing in the resources and people from the surrounding region. We see this in the exploding cities of China, India and South America. We see it in Europe, where London booms while the rest of England slowly rots.

And we see it in the Midwest where, as the urbanologist Richard Florida has written, Chicago has simply sucked the life – the finance, the business services, the investment, especially the best young people – out of the rest of the Midwest.

To any young person in Nashville or Charlotte, the home town offers plenty of opportunities for work and a good life. To any young person stuck in post-industrial Cleveland or Detroit, it’s only logical to decamp to Chicago, rather than to stay home and try to build something in the wreckage of a vanished economy.

This seems to be a common view (see another example), even in the places that would be on the victim side of the equation. But I’ve never seen strong data that suggests this is actually the case. Are college grads and young people getting sucked out of the rest of the Midwest into Chicago?

Thanks to the Census Bureau, we now have a view, albeit limited, into this. The American Community Survey releases county to county migration patterns off of their five year surveys sliced by attribute. There seems to be some statistical noise in these, and for various reasons I can’t track state to metro migrations, but thanks to my Telestrian tool, I was able to aggregate this to at least get metro to metro migration. So here is a map of migration of adults with college degrees for the Chicago metro area from the 2007-2011 ACS:

degree-migration
Net migration of adults 25+ with a bachelors degree or higher with the Chicago metropolitan area. Source: 2007-2011 ACS county to county migration data with aggregation and mapping by Telestrian

This looks like a mixed bag to me, not a hoover operation. What about the “young and restless”? Here’s a similar map of people aged 18-34:

ya-migration
Net migration of 18-34yos with the Chicago metropolitan area. Source: 2006-2010 ACS county to county migration data with aggregation and mapping by Telestrian

This is an absolute blowout, with a massive amount of red on the map showing areas to which Chicago is actually losing young adults. Honestly, this only makes sense given the well known headline negative domestic migration numbers for Chicago.

I do find it interesting that there’s a strong draw from Michigan. Clearly Michigan has taken a decade plus long beating. There’s been strong net out-migration from Michigan to many other Midwestern cities during that time frame, and its the same in Cleveland, which also took an economic beating in the last decade. This is just an impression so I don’t want to overstate, but it seems to me that a disproportionate number of the stories about brain drain to Chicago give examples from Michigan. Longworth uses the examples of Detroit and Cleveland. These would appear to be the places where the argument has been truly legitimate, but that doesn’t mean you can extrapolate generally from there.

What’s more, even if a young person with a college degree does move to Chicago from somewhere else, will they stay there long term? They may circulate out back to where they came from or somewhere else after absorbing skills and experience. It’s the same with New York, DC, SF, etc. I’ve said these places should be viewed as human capital refineries, much like universities. That’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s a big plus for everybody all around. Chicago is doing fine there. But it’s a more complex talent dynamic than is generally presented, a presentation that does not seem to be backed up by the data in any case.

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

How Segregated Is New York City? by Daniel Hertz

[ I don’t know how he comes up with this stuff, but Daniel Hertz has continued to turn out tons of interesting maps and findings on segregation and inequality. In this piece from last April, he looked at the matter of segregation in New York City. For more, check out his web site – Aaron. ]

Update to Original Post: I wrote this in the comments, but several people have asked about it and not everyone makes it down there: this post focuses on white-black segregation because that, for various social and historical reasons, has been by far the most significant geographic separation in American cities, certainly in the Midwest and Northeast. But by far the second most significant separation – white-Latino segregation – is also very extreme in New York. The same Census analysis that found NYC was the second-most-segregated metro area in terms of white and black people found that it was the third-most-segregated metro area in terms of white and Latino people. That’s obviously not the end of the story either, though. If you know about or are curious about some other aspect of segregation, leave a comment.

***

The online reaction to the recent reports on racial segregation in New York state’s public schools reminded me, yet again, that most people think of New York as an integrated city, and are surprised or incredulous when that impression is contradicted.

This is somewhat jarring, since virtually every attempt to actually measure racial segregation suggests that New York is one of the most segregated cities in the country. This University of Michigan analysis of 2010 Census data, for example, suggests that New York is the second-most-segregated metropolitan area in the U.S., exceeded only by Milwaukee, and that about 78% of white and black people would have to move in order to achieve perfect integration. (Chicago’s corresponding number is just over 76%, good enough for third place.)

Why is this so surprising? One obvious reason, I think, is that most people’s conception of New York is limited to about 1/2 of Manhattan and maybe 1/6 of Brooklyn, areas that are among the largest job and tourist centers in the world. As a result, they attract people of all different ethnic backgrounds, especially during the day, even if the people who actually live in those areas tend to be monochromatic. Imagine, in other words, trying to judge racial segregation in Chicago by walking around the Loop and adjacent areas: you would probably conclude that you were in a pretty integrated city.

But it goes beyond that, I think. Segregation in New York doesn’t look like segregation in Chicago, or a lot of smaller Rust Belt cities. For one, there just aren’t very many monolithically black neighborhoods left in New York. Here, for example, I’ve highlighted every neighborhood that’s at least 90% African American:

NYB90

Were we to do this in Chicago, half the South and West Sides would be lit up. But in New York, black neighborhoods have become significantly mixed, in particular with people of Hispanic descent. This is a phenomenon Chicagoans are used to in formerly all-white communities – places like Jefferson Park or Bridgeport, which as recently as 1980 were overwhelmingly white, now have very large Latino and Asian populations – but in New York, it’s happened in both white and black neighborhoods.

That said, white folks in New York have still on the whole declined to move to black areas, except for some nibbling along the edges in Harlem and central Brooklyn. That means that instead of measuring segregation the way we might in Chicago – by looking for very high concentrations of a single ethnic group – it makes more sense to look for the absence of either white or black people.

Here, then, I’ve highlighted all the places where white people make up less than 10% of the population:

NYW10

It’s a lot. And, correspondingly, here are all the places where black people make up less than 10% of the population:

NYB10

It’s also a lot. And if we put the two maps together, we see that these two categories cover the overwhelming majority of NYC:

NY10

The same pattern holds pretty well if we lower the threshold to no more than 5% white or black:

NY5

And there are even a significant number of areas that are truly hypersegregated, with fewer than 2% of residents being either white or black:

NY2

Because I now love GIFs, here’s a summary GIF.

NYSeg

What does all this tell us? For one, it confirms graphically what the Census numbers suggested, which is that the median black New Yorker lives in a neighborhood with very few white people, and vice versa.

But it also suggests a racial landscape that looks different from that of Chicago, and lots of other American cities, in important ways. In particular, where Chicago has a relatively simple racial geography – white neighborhoods at various levels of integration with Hispanics and Asians to the north and northwest, black and Hispanic neighborhoods to the south and west, with only a few small islands like Hyde Park and Bridgeport that break the pattern – New York’s segregated neighborhoods form a more complex patchwork across the city. That means that while a North Sider in Chicago might go years without having to even pass through a black neighborhood, lots of white New Yorkers have to get through the non-white parts of Brooklyn or the Bronx to reach job and entertainment districts in Manhattan or northern Brooklyn.

I imagine that structural-geographic fact, combined with New York’s relatively high level of black-Hispanic integration, goes a long way to explaining my anecdotal experience that white New Yorkers tend to be less ignorant and scared of their city’s non-white neighborhoods than white Chicagoans are of Chicago’s. (There’s some interesting research that suggests white people tend to be more sympathetic to brown people, and their neighborhoods, than black people and theirs.) There’s also, of course, the fact that Chicago’s segregated non-white neighborhoods tend to have much higher violent crime rates, and much more modest business districts, than New York’s, although that’s likely both an effect and cause of their relative isolation.

All of this is another reason that I’m kind of excited about the growing entertainment and shopping district on 53rd St. in Hyde Park, since the more that the South Side has “neighborhood downtown” strips that draw people from across the city, the more likely North Siders and suburbanites are to travel through the black and Latino neighborhoods that surround them, observe that many of them are actually quite nice, become less committed to shunning them, and thus contribute less to the social and economic dynamics that have created the institution of the ghetto, and the poor job prospects, failing schools, and high crime rates that accompany it.

In conclusion: New York is super segregated, but the numbers aren’t everything.

Also, let me have another Talk To Me Like I’m Stupid moment: suggestions for books about the racial history of New York? What’s the equivalent of Making the Second Ghetto or Family Properties? I’ve already read Caro’s Moses book.

This post originally appeared in City Notes on April 14, 2014.

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

The Decline of the Midwest, the Rise of the South

The New York Times ran an article last week that’s nominally about football, but really gives insight into the decline of the Midwest and the rise of the South. Called “As Big Ten Declines, Homegrown Talent Flees,” this piece ties in perfectly with my recent essay on the differing social states of the Midwest and South. The NYT’s money quote says it all:

The SEC sold excellence. The Big Ten sold tradition.

Ironically, it is the formerly stigmatized “backwoods” South that has embraced excellence while the former industrial champion of the Midwest has spurned it. I don’t think that Midwesterners understand how much things have changed in the South. I hear the same stereotypical view of the South that might have had a lot of truth decades ago but have changes substantially. For example, those who think it is both a good thing and bad have quipped that Indiana is like an extension of the South into the Midwest. I don’t think so.

For example, Charlotte built a light rail system. Dallas has poured a billion dollars into a downtown arts district. Atlanta has a multi-billion infill strategy around its former Belt Line railroad. Nashville eliminated downtown parking minimums and implemented a form based code. South Carolina has its German style apprenticeship program. North Carolina built Research Triangle Park – in 1959. Southern cities like Atlanta have proudly claimed and built success around their black heritage. And Charlotte’s Chamber of Commerce CEO said, “To understand Charlotte, you have to understand our ambition. We have a serious chip on our shoulder. We don’t want to be No. 2 to anybody.” Outside of Chicago, does anybody in the Midwest talk like that?

Sure, there are bits and pieces here and there in the Midwest that speak to excellence. But they are the anomalies in a region that has retrogressed. Whereas in the South they’ve massively elevated their game in the last 40 years and are working hard to keep getting better. Sure, low costs and taxes play a role in their success. Climate and the universality of air conditioning as well. But they aren’t content to rest on just that. They want to get better. Meanwhile the Midwest is regressing towards what the South used to be such as, for example, by turning paved roads back to gravel because they can’t afford the maintenance.

The NYT piece brings up an interesting factor driving the rise of the SEC vs. the Big Ten, namely the shift in underlying population ratios over time: “An instructive comparison is Michigan and Georgia. In 1960, Michigan had twice Georgia’s population; in 1990, it was nearly one and a half times as big; today, their populations are roughly equivalent.”

The decline in Midwest population and economic heft brings with it a price that has to be paid. It’s showing up in the football world today. But it’s sure to hit the academic prowess of the Midwest’s major state schools as well. How long can these places maintain their relative rankings of excellence without the financial firepower to play in the big leagues? There’s more inertia on the academic side, but don’t think it won’t eventually happen here as well. The same is true in many other aspects of civic life. Even mighty Chicago has nearly bankrupted itself in its efforts to keep up with other global cities.

The Big Ten obviously saw the writing on the wall and decided to expand outside the region. I dislike this for reasons of, naturally, tradition. But it’s a rational response to a declining marketplace. Similarly, the Cleveland Orchestra established a Miami residency in the pursuit of cash to keep its artistic excellence intact. Might some of these institutions at some point become Midwest in name only? Time will tell.

Monday, September 29th, 2014

Thoughts On My Neighborhood Post-Ferguson

Some folks asked me to comment on Ferguson, MO. I don’t have anything to add to the massive amount that has already been written, but it did get me thinking about my own neighborhood and the racial dynamics that exist in America.

I live in a mixed race neighborhood on the North Side of Indianapolis called various names, including South of Broad Ripple (SoBro) and Keystone-Monon. It’s a racially diverse area, mostly featuring wood frame 2-3br/1-ba worker cottages built around wartime. It’s likely always been working class or starter home housing as the smallness of the homes limits their value in a city where there are near infinite tracts of similar building stock.

If asked to guess at the racial mix, I would have said 70% white/30% black. Clicking into the NYT census viewer, I discovered that my census tract is actually 49% black/42% white. Here’s a screen shot (click to enlarge):

As you can see, my tract lies along a diagonal transition area from predominantly white to predominantly black areas. The tract immediately north of me is 82% white. The one immediately south is 62% black, and south of that black population percentage runs upwards of the 90s. It’s easy to see how difficult it can be to eyeball the makeup of the area.

Just to the west is Meridian-Kessler, one of the city’s most desirable residential neighborhoods. About a mile and a half north is the core of Broad Ripple, a commercial district known for its nightlife aimed at the 20s set.

One might think this area is primed for gentrification, but that’s not the case. As it happens, those more desirable neighborhoods I mentioned themselves have had a lot of challenges such as abandoned homes and commercial vacancies. There’s virtually nothing that could be considered gentrification in Indianapolis generally, and certainly not at extensive scale.

Because of its city location proximate to desirable commercial nodes, the area has seen an influx of young families, often in their 20s with one young child. Some savvy rehabbers have also purchased. But the backbone of the neighborhood remains the black and white working class, often homeowners.

Because there’s longstanding integration and little gentrification pressure – and because unlike Ferguson this area is embedded inside of a large and diverse municipality, I haven’t sense much in the way of racial tensions. People seem quite friendly to each other to the most part. Personally I think it’s a great neighborhood and love living there. So does everyone else I’ve talked to.

On the surface, this would appear to be a successful integrated neighborhood, by American standards especially. But everything is not as it seems.

I’ve only lived here about eight months, but what I observed is similar to what I previously saw in Fountain Square, a type of parallel societies. In Fountain Square I called this “Artists and Appalachians.” In that case both groups are white. They share the same neighborhood geography, and even patronize some of the same establishments such as Peppy’s Grill and the Liquor Cabinet, but there was little social interaction between them apart from surface pleasantries.

I see the same here, only with a racial dimension. Blacks and whites get along, and even patronize some of the same stores, but there does not appear to be much in the way of real social capital that has developed between the two groups. This leaves the neighborhood extremely vulnerable to racial divisiveness if anything goes wrong.

This was illustrated to me by our local neighborhood group on the Next Door platform. This app is very popular in my neighborhood. However, judging from the avatar photos, it appears to be overwhelmingly white people who use it. Here’s an application that is building social capital in the neighborhood – I used to it meet my neighbors at the corner when I needed to borrow an extension ladder – but which has developed along racial boundaries. It seems to be spreading by word of mouth, and since existing social networks seem to be predominantly intra-race, it’s no surprise the online manifestations of them are as well.

There have been some property crimes in the area recently. This is sadly ubiquitous in all urban neighborhoods these days. My building (especially the garages) in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood was burglarized many times and we had to spend a lot of money to install high security doors and locks to try to stop it. My aunt and uncle just had their car stolen in the heart of Lincoln Park and even before that happened they told me theft was out of control there. These are two of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Chicago. Even in my rural hometown theft is a common occurrence.

In short, I have no reason to believe the activity in my area is that unusual, either compared to other neighborhoods, or maybe even compared to the neighborhood’s own past. But thanks to apps like Next Door, we now know about every single incident of anything that occurs, whereas before that we would all have just gone about our business blissfully unaware of a lawnmower theft a couple blocks over unless it was we ourselves or someone we knew personally that got hit. (A neighborhood old timer posted a thread on Next Door to this very effect, saying that this ebb and flow of theft has been happening since he moved in during the 1970s)

As it happens, various neighbors believe believe they identified the culprit behind many similar incidents. As it happens, he’s an 18 year old black man from the neighborhood. I don’t know if he’s guilty or not, but apparently there’s a warrant out for him and he posted pictures of himself on Facebook pointing a pistol at the camera and such.

While people were zeroing in on their culprit, I noticed some started viewing any young black guy pausing too long in front of their house as suspicious. This was only a brief blip until such time as the specific person of interest was identified. However, this adds an instant racial dimension to matters, like it or not.

This wasn’t motivated by racial animus, but rather fear of being burglarized in a place where such burglaries were in fact occurring and where there was evidence that a particular black male was committing it. People in Lincoln Park and Lakeview can afford to take a philosophical view of theft. They are wealthy enough that having say a bicycle stolen is more annoyance than threat.

By contrast, in my working class area, not everyone can just whip out their debit card every time something goes wrong. In a response to an NYT piece extolling the virtues of minimalism, Tumblr writer Vruba suggested that living with minimal possessions is luxury for the well off:

Wealth is…having options and the ability to take on risk. If you see someone on the street dressed like a middle-class person (say, in clean jeans and a striped shirt), how do you know whether they’re lower middle class or upper middle class? I think one of the best indicators is how much they’re carrying….If I were rich, I would carry a MacBook Air, an iPad mini as a reader, and my wallet. My wallet would serve as everything else that’s in my backpack now. Go out on the street and look, and I bet you’ll see that the richer people are carrying less.

In a neighborhood where some people are only a few rungs up on the ladder that provides stability in life, vigilance over your stuff is important, because it’s not easily replaced. Only half of American households could come up with $400 in an emergency. Replacing a lawn mower probably means going into credit card debt (or more credit card debt) for them.

Nevertheless, what this illustrates to me is the potential racial powder keg that lies under the surface of even seemingly placid and well-integrated communities. Race is simply an inescapable subtext to any interaction that crosses the color line, no matter how much we try to avoid it, and it adds contingent risk to social stability.

Why do I say this? Because I believe there’s little to no interracial social capital in these places that can withstand a hit to neighborhood cohesion. There’s no genuine solidarity that comes from genuinely living life together in a way that goes deeper than everyday pleasantries. Thus the risk that racial tensions can end up erupting in some way is ever present.

This is not unique at all to my neighborhood, which, as I said and want to stress again, is a great place full of great people. For example, a couple weeks ago I had drinks with someone in Cincinnati whose neighborhood had nearly identical demographics and dynamics, right down to the use of Next Door. We have tried to solve racial problems in America through institutional solutions. As important as many of those are, they are not a substitute for the human connections that allow us to weather the vagaries of life together.

How do we create interracial social capital? It’s not easy. Earlier this year I had dinner with a resident of Over the Rhine in Cincinnati who wanted to create a personal connection to his black neighbors, but wasn’t sure how. Frankly none of us at dinner had any great ideas. I suggested perhaps joining a local black church, but that only works if attending church is something you do.

As the Next Door case shows, the path of least resistance doesn’t work here. Our default pathways for building social networks follow the color lines. And heck, books have been written about the decline in social capital within white America itself. Crossing the color line is even more difficult and requires a high degree of intentionality.

I spent some time in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, NC last week. Walltown is a historically black neighborhood adjacent to Duke University. While gentrification and university encroachment are issues, again the housing stock type limits upside on pricing. There has been some influx of white resident as well as Latinos, but a strong black presence is still there.

I visited with people from a black church there as part of a tour led by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgove, a white resident who co-founded Rutba House, a Christian intentional community (their term is “new monasticism”). Half of their spaces are allocated for those in need of transitional housing (the homeless, ex-offenders, etc), mostly people of color. I’d guess Jonathan is to the left of your average Boulder resident. He named Rutba House after a town in Iraq he was at during a private 2003 peace tour of the country during the war, which should give you an idea.

A big part of what the various faith groups there are doing is trying to do is figure out a way for blacks and whites to actually exist together in real community in Walltown, not just live in the same geography. I think he’d be the first to tell you that they’ve had at best partial success. This shows the difficulty, even with lots of people of various races committing to make it work.

What’s the answer? I don’t know, but I do believe a big part of the problem is lack of social capital at ground level. Again, this isn’t necessarily solely a matter of race, as the Fountain Square example illustrates, but in multi-racial neighborhoods the racial dimension is always present to some extent and certainly amplifies things. So it shouldn’t surprise us that even in places where everyone does appear to get along, it doesn’t necessarily take much to set things off. I think most Midwest cities could easily have social unrest with the right triggering incident. While there are some unique aspects to Ferguson such as the political geography of St. Louis metro, no city should feel superior just because it didn’t happen there.

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I think we ought to spend some time thinking about the ways technology can actually make things worse. Not only does social media fan the flames of every debate – Twitter and Facebook may be great for many things, but substantive discourse isn’t one of them – but apps like Next Door that are designed to create social capital may actually have the unintended side effect of deepening racial divisions. This despite the fact that the one person I know who works for Next Door is passionate about creating the kind of interracial social capital I’m describing.

This perhaps should be a cautionary tale when it comes to technology-centric views of solving urban problems. There’s no app for solving America’s persistent racial gaps.

PS: I will be aggressively moderating comments or disabling commenting on this post if necessary.

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

Neighborhood Poverty Dynamics

Carol Coletta is now with the Knight Foundation, where she’s started up a podcast series called “Knight Cities.”

Her most recent episode is an interview with economist Joe Cortright about a study he did about the evolution of poor neighborhoods in America. This is an important, if depressing, study in which he looked at how poverty changed in city neighborhoods at the census tract level from 1970 to 2000.

I’ll use the cover art embed so you can put the face to the voice. If the embed doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

By the way, Cortright also posted a rebuttal to the NYT Magazine piece on Portland.

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Midsize Midwest Cities — Where Do They Go Now? by Pete Saunders

[ Here’s another piece of analytical insight from Pete Saunders, who originally posted it over at his site Corner Side Yard – Aaron. ]

There are some things I posted in the early days of this blog that probably enjoyed very little attention and received little followup on my part.  This piece on midsize Midwestern cities definitely fits that bill.  Since I started this blog nearly two years ago, the attention given to the Rust Belt seems to have grown exponentially — Detroit’s bankruptcy, Chicago’s crime, and Pittsburgh’s revitalization have occupied center stage at various times.  Unconventional ideas are emerging on how to turn around major Rust Belt cities, but smaller ones seem to escape inclusion.  So rather than repost my original post without further comment, I’ve decided to revisit and do some followup commentary.

First, the research.  Looking at 2010 U.S. Census data, I found there are 74 cities in the Midwest as I’ve described it with a population between 50,000 and 300,000.  I eliminated primary cities that fit the population threshold but were part of metro areas that had more than one million people (i.e., St. Paul, MN; Cincinnati, OH; Buffalo, NY), leaving me with 71 midsize Midwest cities.  The largest is Toledo, OH (287,208 residents) and the smallest is Elkhart, IN (50,949).  In between are cities that have become the icons of American Heartland – see the table below.


Midsize Midwest Cities 2010 City Population 2010 Metro Area Population
Toledo, OH 287,208 651,429
Lincoln, NE 258,379 302,157
Ft. Wayne, IN 253,691 416,257
Madison, WI 233,209 568,593
Des Moines, IA 203,433 569,633
Akron, OH 199,110 703,200
Aurora, IL 197,899 9,461,105
Grand Rapids, MI 188,040 774,160
Sioux Falls, SD 153,888 228,261
Rockford, IL 152,871 349,431
Joliet, IL 147,433 9,461,105
Kansas City, KS 145,786 2,035,334
Dayton, OH 141,527 841,502
Topeka, KS 127,473 233,870
Cedar Rapids, IA 126,326 257,940
Evansville, IN 117,429 358,676
Independence, MO 116,830 2,035,334
Springfield, IL 116,250 210,170
Peoria, IL 115,007 379,186
Lansing, MI 114,297 464,036
Ann Arbor, MI 113,934 344,791
Elgin, IL 108,188 9,461,105
Rochester, MN 160,769 186,011
Fargo, ND 105,549 208,777
Green Bay, WI 104,057 306,241
Flint, MI 102,434 425,790
Erie, PA 101,786 280,566
South Bend, IN 101,168 319,224
Davenport, IA 99,685 379,690
Kenosha, WI 99,218 9,461,105
Waukegan, IL 89,078 9,461,105
Lawrence, KS 87,643 110,826
Duluth, MN 86,265 279,771
Sioux City, IA 82,684 143,577
Champaign, IL 81,055 231,891
Bloomington, IN 80,405 192,714
Gary, IN 80,294 9,461,105
Racine, WI 78,860 195,408
Appleton, WI 78,086 225,666
St. Joseph, MO 76,780 127,379
Bloomington, IL 76,610 169,572
Decatur, IL 76,122 110,768
Kalamazoo, MI 74,262 326,589
Canton, OH 73,007 404,422
Muncie, IN 70,085 117,671
Waterloo, IA 68,426 167,819
Iowa City, IA 67,862 152,586
Lafayette, IN 67,140 201,789
Youngstown, OH 66,982 565,773
Oshkosh, WI 66,083 166,994
Eau Claire, WI 65,883 161,151
St. Cloud, MN 65,842 189,093
Lorain, OH 64,097 2,077,240
Janesville, WI 62,948 160,331
Hamilton, OH 62,477 2,130,151
Council Bluffs, IA 62,230 865,350
Bismarck, ND 61,272 108,779
Terre Haute, IN 60,785 172,425
Springfield, OH 60,608 138,333
Pontiac, MI 59,515 4,296,250
Ames, IA 58,965 89,542
Dubuque, IA 57,637 93,653
Owensboro, KY 57,265 114,752
Anderson, IN 56,129 131,636
Grand Forks, ND 52,838 98,461
Normal, IL 52,497 169,572
LaCrosse, WI 52,485 133,665
Manhattan, KS 52,281 127,081
Battle Creek, MI 52,347 136,146
Saginaw, MI 51,508 200,169
Elkhart, IN 50,949 197,559


I listed them all in a spreadsheet that included their 2010 city population and their 2010 metro area population, and started to make some early observations.  For example, metro area population is likely a better indicator of the relative “imprint” of a city, rather than primary city population.  Saginaw, MI, with a population of 51,000 but a metro area of 200,000, seems bigger than Muncie, IN, with a city population of 70,000 but a metro area population of just 118,000. And of course, cities that were relatively close to large metro areas (having a population greater than one million) seem to share more characteristics with their bigger neighbors than their smaller ones, economically and socially.

That led me to ask a few questions that could shed some light on other city characteristics:

  • Is the city a county seat or a county’s largest city, yet not the primary city of a metro area?
  • Is the city a part of or adjacent to a large metro area (with a population of more than one million)?
  • Is the city less than 60 miles from a large metro area?
  • Is the city a state capital?
  • Is the city a college town?

And that exercise led to some interesting conclusions.  Using those questions I was able to identify seven different categories of midsize Midwest cities, and the categories provide a glimpse into each city’s economic history and strengths:

  1.  Captured Satellite City: A once independent midsize city that has been pulled into the “orbit” of a larger metro area. There are eleven in this category.
  1.  Emerging Satellite City: An independent midsize city that is in the process of or on the verge of being pulled into the orbit of a larger metro area.  There are six in this group.
  1. State Capital and College Town:  A city fortunate enough to be a government center and the home of a major university.  There are just three in this category.
  1. Emerging Satellite City and College Town: A combination of points 2 and 3, they retain some measure of independence from larger metros, and benefit from having large schools.  There are only two in this group.
  1. State Capital: Self-explanatory.  There are four here.
  1. College Town: I’m defining a college town as one with a school with an enrollment greater than about 15,000 students, making the school large enough to have a significant impact on the local economy (in case you’re wondering why Notre Dame and South Bend, for example, aren’t included).  There are ten in this group.
  1.  Independent Midsize City: Ah yes, the largest group, with 35 in this category.  Too far from major metros to bask in their glory, and no state capital or university to build from.

Here’s how the cities stack up in a table:


Midsize Midwest City Categories Cities By Category
Captured Satellite City Aurora, IL; Joliet, IL; Kansas City, KS; Independence, MO; Elgin, IL; Kenosha, WI; Waukegan, IL; Gary, IN; Lorain, OH; Hamilton, OH; Pontiac, MI
Emerging Satellite City Akron, OH; Dayton, OH; Flint, MI; Racine, WI; Springfield, OH; Anderson, IN
State Capital AND College Town Lincoln, NE, Madison, WI; Lansing, MI
Emerging Satellite City AND College Town Ann Arbor, MI; Bloomington, IN
State Capital Des Moines, IA; Topeka, KS; Springfield, IL; Bismarck, ND
College Town Lawrence, KS; Champaign, IL; Bloomington, IL; Kalamazoo, MI; Muncie, IN; Iowa City, IA; Lafayette, IN; Ames, IA, Normal, IL; Manhattan, KS
Independent Midsize City Toledo, OH; Ft. Wayne, IN; Grand Rapids, MI; Sioux Falls, SD; Rockford, IL; Cedar Rapids, IA; Evansville, IN; Peoria, IL; Rochester, MN; Fargo, ND; Green Bay, WI; Erie, PA; South Bend, IN; Davenport, IA; Duluth, MN; Sioux City, IA; Appleton, WI; St. Joseph, MO; Decatur, IL; Canton, OH; Waterloo, IA; Youngstown, OH; Oshkosh, WI; Eau Claire, WI; St. Cloud, MN; Janesville, WI; Council Bluffs, IA; Terre Haute, IN; Dubuque, IA; Owensboro, KY; Grand Forks, ND; La Crosse, WI; Battle Creek, MI; Saginaw, MI; Elkhart, IN


So what do the categories suggest about each midsize city’s present and future economic prospects?

Captured Satellite City: These cities have economic fortunes that are closely tied to the economic fortunes of the much larger metro area surrounding it.  Some cities seem to recognize this and have planned accordingly; others still have memories of their earlier independence and have struggled in the face of industrial restructuring.  Perhaps their future is better served by becoming low-cost urban options in otherwise suburban areas.

Emerging Satellite City: These are cities that sit on the periphery of major metro areas, and have yet to fully benefit from being “pulled” into the larger orbit.  They, too, have memories of earlier independence, and may struggle with adjusting to a more dependent future.

State Capital and College Town: With only three in this category, Madison leads the way in terms of economic strength, with Lincoln not far behind.  Lansing, despite having the capital and college attributes, has historically relied on its industrial legacy as well, possibly diluting the government and education benefits.  If it can tap those strengths maybe it can duplicate the others’ success.

Emerging Satellite City and College Town: Ann Arbor and Bloomington are truly unique in that they are the flagship universities in their respective states and are in close proximity to each state’s largest city.  Ann Arbor seems to figure more prominently in metro Detroit’s future; Bloomington remains relatively disconnected from metro Indy.  My guess is that when these cities are fully brought into the larger metro’s orbit, they — and the entire metro — will greatly benefit.

State Capital: As long as the four cities here remain state capitals, they have a reason d’etre and economic catalyst that will support them.  They will continue to have strengths that will elude other similarly-sized cities.

College Town: In many respects the college towns are similar to the state capitals, with an existing reason d’etre and economic catalyst.  The difficulty, perhaps, lies in strengthening and reinforcing the college’s links to the rest of the city and metro.

Independent Midsize City: Here, I believe, are the midsize Midwest cities whose future is most tenuous.  When people wonder about the future of smaller post-industrial cities, these are generally the ones we think of.  What can Youngstown, OH do to forestall its decline?  What strengths does Decatur, IL have that can serve as a foundation for revitalization?  What lies ahead for Terre Haute, IN?  Wtih respect to the other midsize Midwest cities, which have more clear futures (whether or not they choose to accept them), I’ll start exploring what might happen with the independent, midsize, post-industrial Midwest city.

This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on November 9, 2013.

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Diverging Fortunes

This weekend’s New York Times Magazine had a story on Portland that featured Yours Truly. I recapitulated a few observations I’ve had over the years, including that it’s truly remarkable how a small city like Portland has captured so many people’s imagination, and also that “people move to Portland to move to Portland.”

A Portland writer named Steve Duin appears to have had an aneurysm over the piece and, among other things, criticized my statement about why people move to Portland, saying:

She quotes Aaron Renn, an urban-affairs analyst, who insists that while Los Angeles attracts starlets and New York the financiers, “People move to Portland to move to Portland,” as if the city is a space between Pacific Avenue and Park Place on the Monopoly board, not a vibrant, creative, accessible and accommodating urban scene.

Which only proves that he completely missed the point. All I’m saying is what he’s saying in different words, namely that people move to Portland for its lifestyle and amenities. This is exactly what every Portland booster claims, namely that what they’ve created is attractional. I’m simply pointing out the obvious: people move to Portland primarily for lifestyle and leisure, not career or economic reasons. People move to Portland because they want to live there.

Portland’s economy has actually picked up of late. Its unemployment fell below the national average in 2013 after having been above it for 14 straight years. But I want to highlight a disconnect between a couple measures of economic performance.

I’ve written many times that Portland has done very well in terms of per capita GDP. In fact, from 2001 to 2013 (the maximum range of data available from the feds), Portland was #1 out of all 52 large metros in the US in its percentage increase in real per capita GDP.

On the other hand, looking at how much of that economic value ends up in people’s pockets tells a different story. From 2001 to 2012 (I don’t think 2013 has been released yet), Portland only ranked 40th out of 52 in its percentage increase on this metric. Portland declined from a per capita income of 104.9% of the US average in 2001 to 98.6% in 2012.

I threw this divergence into a quick chart:

portland-gdp-vs-persinc

It would be interesting to dig into these numbers. I would particularly be interested in seeing where the GDP growth is coming from, as unlike say San Jose, there’s no obvious driver I see.

Update 9/23/14: I did a quick back of the envelop calculation of total GDP growth by industry. Only a few industry totals are available, but the biggest gainer was Manufacturing, up 300%. Education, Health, and Social Assistance were #2, followed by Professional and Business Services. Natural Resources, Retail. Information, and FIRE were at the bottom.

Speaking of San Jose, I see an even more remarkable divergence there. It was #2 in per capita GDP growth over the 2001-2013 time frame. Looking at the overall Bay Area total real GDP, it increased by 30.1% from 2001 to 2013. Keep in mind I’m using the inflation adjusted figured here, so there’s no inflation in that metric. But at the same time the Bay Area lost 2.4% of its jobs.

The Bay Area grew its economy by almost a third while shedding over 75,000 jobs. Pretty remarkable.

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Brooklyn Is Getting Poorer by Daniel Hertz

[ Analyst Daniel Hertz found some interesting maps of Brooklyn back in May that tell a different tale about Brooklyn than the one you’ve probably heard – Aaron. ]

I’m trying to make more of an effort, whenever I write or talk about gentrification, to point out that the real issue is larger: that gentrification is only one aspect of income segregation – specifically, the part where the borders between rich and poor neighborhoods shift – and that the real problem is that we have such sharply defined rich and poor neighborhoods to begin with.

I might also throw in that income segregation used to be much less severe.

Anyway, one problem with our obsession with gentrification as the end-all of urban equity issues is that it discourages us from talking about other important things happening in our cities. In some instances, gentrification has become such a dominating narrative that it has completely erased broader trends that we really ought to be concerned about.

Case in point: Brooklyn is getting poorer.

Does that shock you? Were you under the impression that all of Brooklyn was in the process of becoming one giant pickle boutique? That would be forgivable, given that nearly every article filed from Brooklyn for a decade or so has been about gentrification. But no.

I recently ran across a post from data-crunching blog extraordinaire Xenocrypt, which noted that from 1999 to 2011, median household income in Brooklyn fell from $42,852 to $42,752. That’s not a huge drop, obviously. The national median income fell from $56,000 to $50,000, so Brooklyn is actually catching up, sort of, to the country as a whole. But it still got poorer in absolute terms.

Moreover, if you map (as Xenocrypt did) the borough’s neighborhoods by change in median income, you get a really striking picture:


Credit: Xenocrypt.blogspot.com

…which is that, indeed, a good three-fifths or so of Brooklyn is actually getting poorer. Have you read any articles about that? No, I will wager that you have not. Neither have I. I strongly suspect that is because they don’t exist – at least not in any outlet that might be considered mainstream.

And what about housing prices?

Brooklyn Gentrification Map: Increase, Decrease in Home Values 2004 vs. 2012
Credit: http://www.citylimits.org/

So in large parts of Brooklyn, real estate prices are falling.

I have nothing particularly intelligent to say about this – these maps were news to me – except that it’s maybe the most dramatic example I’ve seen yet of just how limiting our fixation on gentrification is. I mean that both in a sort of journalistic sense, in that we’re being deprived of an accurate sense of what is actually going on in our cities, as well as from an advocate’s perspective: how can we claim to be working for fairer, more equitable, etc., cities, if we’re ignorant of their most basic economic and demographic changes?

This post originally appeared in City Notes on May 3, 2014.

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Cutting To Invest In Kokomo, Indiana

fairy-tale
A whimsical fairy tale convenience store in Kokomo, Indiana

Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution likes to talk about a paradigm called “cut to invest.” The idea is to cut spending on operations and lower priority items in order finance investments in higher priority infrastructure or other projects. Nice theory, but who is actually doing it?

One example is Kokomo, Indiana. It’s not the mythical tropical island paradise you may have heard about from the Beach Boys. Instead it’s a small industrial city of around 57,000 people about 45 miles north of Indianapolis. After I posted a piece from Eric McAfee about Kokomo’s intelligent rail trail design, someone from the city reached out and invited me to come for a visit. So that’s what I did this week.

What I discovered is that Kokomo has done a lot more than just build a trail. They’ve deconverted every one way street downtown back to two way, removed every stop light and parking meter in the core of downtown, are building a mixed use downtown parking garage with a new YMCA across the street, inaugurated transit service with a free bus circulator, have a pretty extensive program of pedestrian friendly street treatments like bumpouts, as well as landscaping and beautification, a new baseball stadium under construction, a few apartment developments in the works, and even a more urban feel to its public housing. Like Eric, however, I wasn’t just struck by the projects themselves, but they obvious attention to detail that went into their design. And especially by the fact that they’ve done it almost all by paying cash – no debt – in a city that went through an economic wringer during the recession.

A lot, though not all, of this has been pushed by Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, who’s gone from factory worker to politician during his career. He also appears to be an urban planning geek, as the stack of books behind his desk shows.

books

I sat down with the mayor and chatted about how the city pulled off this program of investment. After the jump I’ll visually walk you through a number of the projects. If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

Now let’s take a look at what’s going on. I mentioned the pedestrian bumpouts. Here’s an example of one:

Pretty much every downtown intersection has a treatment like this, including landscaping. Taking a page from other cities’ playbook, Kokomo has invested in beautification, including not only landscaping of pedestrian bumpouts, but also hanging flower planters we’ll see later. These were actually put into place by Goodnight’s predecessor and were a huge source of controversy at the time, though seem to be well-accepted by now.

Here’s another example on a street heading out of downtown.

bumpouts2

I’m actually of two minds about bumpouts. They do facilitate pedestrian crossings, but also can force bicyclists out of the curb lane into traffic. I’ve generally found them obnoxious when bicycling. The street widths through the bumpouts look ok here, but I didn’t put it to the test. A number of streets have painted bicycle lanes, where this is definitely not a problem.

Eric’s blog post was about the Industrial Heritage Trail. Here’s a shot of that through downtown:

I think this is really attractive. It reminds me of a red brick version of the Indy Cultural Trail. This section actually has a separate sidewalk from the biking trail, but that’s not the norm. Kokomo has really made a point to include some ped-bike protection wherever possible. So the landscape buffer is narrow, but effective and attractive. (It doesn’t use bioswale type green stormwater detention like the Indy Cultural Trail, though). There’s also ample street lighting and street furnishings.

As one nice touch, note the back side of the stop sign. It’s black to match the color of the other items, not just plain galvanized steel. This treatment is done throughout downtown and adds a bit of refinement.

Here’s another shot of a segment a bit south. Note the bespoke bike rack.

There aren’t people in these photos, you might have noticed. I was doing this walking tour on a Tuesday morning, and it wasn’t super-crowded but I did see multiple people out biking and walking on these trails.

On the south side of downtown, the IHT crosses and east-west path called the “Walk of Excellence.” I love the name because reminding Hoosiers that a focus on excellence is an absolute must to survive the brutal global competition. Here’s a shot:

woe3

Again, very attractive. And again, a narrow but nice buffer between the trail and the street, even though the roadway is little more than an alley or driveway. This is very consistently done, in another place even where the trail just passes through a parking lot. That’s what I mean by attention to detail. There’s a stream running to the left of the trail which adds to the pleasant effect of walking along it.

Here’s a street crossing:

woe-intersection

The trail has its own traffic control signs, as well as a street sign near bicycling eye level to tell users what street they are at. In my experience, that’s too rare in trail design. You can also see bumpouts here along with large concrete planters that add beauty and make the crosswalk and street narrowing very visible to drivers.

Here’s another crossing example, showing the different crosswalk shading as well:

woe-intersection3

Here’s a bike route sign, with the city seal on it. That’s another nice touch and one that shows a certain pride of place versus a generic sign.

bike-route-sign

Moving on, here’s a median treatment on a major street. This goes on quite a distance:

median3

Not only is this very nice, including more flowers, decorative street lights, etc, but the metal railings are especially unique. The railings were actually custom fabricated by the high school’s shop class. Not only was this great real world practice for the students, but the city paid for the railings and the students are all ending up with $1,000 scholarships to college out of it. I’m told this was the superintendent’s idea. (Kokomo’s superintendent grew up in Corydon in my county and his wife actually still works part time in Laconia, the tiny town where I grew up!)

Eric mentioned the school district’s International Baccalaureate program. But I don’t believe he mentioned that they also run an exchange student program. IIRC, students from 15 countries attend high school in Kokomo, and a number of them are actually housed in dormitories in downtown Kokomo. This injects life into downtown and creates a more international flavor in the city. I didn’t take pictures, but the school district is also renovating a 1914 vintage auditorium back to its original design that will be very cool (and also paid for without recourse to debt).

Trails and bumpouts have a fairly limited cost, but the city is also doing some bigger ticket items including two recently-constructed fire stations, a million dollar renovation of city hall, a parking garage, and a baseball stadium. Pictures of those in a moment but it’s worth ask how the city was able to pay for them without debt.

The first is that there was no legacy debt. I’m not anti-debt in all cases, but if a mature city like Kokomo is saddled with heavy debt repayments, that’s not good. By not having any legacy debt, the city’s tax base isn’t encumbered by repayments. A good part of our federal deficit these days is simply interest on our gargantuan debt load. That’s a dynamic Kokomo avoided. (The city does have some utility debt, but it’s revenue bond type stuff).

Secondly, the mayor says that he was able to reduce the city’s workforce by close to 20%, going from 521 employees just before he took office to only 415 today. That’s a significant reduction, especially given the fact that during that time the city annexed seven square miles and added 11,000 new residents (though some of them were already receiving some city services). Some of this was achieved through efficiencies. For example, the city went to single side garbage pickup, where all garbage is collected on one side of the street, eliminating the need for trucks to traverse each street twice. The mayor, council members, and department heads have also had a pay freeze during that time, with at least some time in there in which all city employees had their pay frozen during the recession. Keep in mind, the city experienced a severe revenue crunch during the auto bankruptcies, and Chrysler, the town’s largest employer, failed to pay its tax bill. This created an urgent need for cuts.

It’s possible the cuts and freezes have gone too far. I don’t know the full history of what has happened to services. But I speculate that having something like this can potentially act like a forest fire. It allows for longer term, healthier growth, whereas continuous growth in employees and compensation over time leads to serious fiscal problems.

In any case, these reductions freed up cash flow as the city recovered, letting Kokomo allocate a decent chunk of its revenues to capital investment. This is running at about 5% of the overall budget, plus an additional sizable sum (for a city of that size) from an economic development tax. This is an example of the cut to invest strategy in action. Without the cuts and tight budget management, there would be no money to invest. Indeed, some other Indiana community have found themselves asking questions like “what fire station should we close?” as they feel the sting of decline and tax caps.

Here are a few more photos, then some additional observations. Here’s that parking garage I mentioned. (This was originally debt financed, but the city paid off the bonds early when it decided to borrow for the baseball stadium).

parking-garage

This supposedly has some all day free parking, designed to attract downtown employees. There’s also going to be apartments on the top floor. It looks like there’s no ground floor retail, however, which will create a bit of a dead zone.

Here’s the YMCA construction site across the street. You can see the old Y in the background:

ymca

A painted railroad viaduct on Sycamore St. heading into downtown:

viaduct

An alley treatment:

alley

The baseball stadium under construction:

baseball-stadium

Here’s a picture of an older style public housing building. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s done in a traditional duplex style reminiscent of early suburbia.

public-housing-old

Here’s a new development in a more urban form next door:

public-housing-new

I think the fenestration is poor which gives the design a public housing look. Nevertheless, I appreciate that the city is even thinking about the design of public housing downtown as part of its strategy. After all, why shouldn’t public housing residents get to take advantage of high quality urbanism downtown like everyone else?

Overall, I think they’ve done a number of good things, and I especially appreciate the attention to detail that went into them. You clearly get the feel of them walking downtown streets. I would say the commercial and residential development lags the infrastructure, however. That’s to be expected. They do have an Irish Pub, a coffee shop, a few restaurants, and other assorted downtown type of businesses. This will be an area to watch as some of these investments mature.

When I talked to the mayor about this he took the long view, saying that Columbus, Indiana has been at its architecture program for decades, that Indy’s sports strategy is 40 years old, etc. Substantive change takes time. For example, Mayor Goodnight says it isn’t realistic to think that older workers who commute in to Kokomo will uproot themselves out of their established lives in other communities and relocate. But he’s more hopeful that as workers retire and are replaced, he’ll capture the “next generation” labor force.

That’s obviously a more realistic ambition. But will an impatient public buy it? We’ll see. Clearly Goodnight has his critics. More than one of them has dubbed him the “King of Kokomo.” A newspaper article fretted about gentrification (level of realistic concern about that: zero). I didn’t do a deep dive into the other side, so keep that in mind reading this. But the baseball stadium would appear to be the most controversial item as near as I detect.

Regardless of any controversy, when you look at the downward trajectory of most small Indiana industrial cities, the status quo is not viable option. Kokomo deserves a lot credit for trying something different. And regardless of any development payoffs, things like trails and safer and more welcoming streets are already paying a quality of life dividend to the people who live there right now. It’s an improvement anyone can experience today just by walking around.

Historic buildings on Kokomo’s courthouse square. The tenants testify to the industrial heritage of the community.
union-storefronts

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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