The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The Duality of Chicago

Blight in Chicago’s Englewood community.  Source: Chicago Tribune.
When I started as a planner in Chicago, my first project was a neighborhood plan in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side.  I’ve referred to it here before, but there was a fair amount of skepticism from residents about the nature and goals of the plan.  Twenty years ago, Bronzeville was made up of equal parts upwardly mobile new homeowners, long-time homeowners who stayed through the worst, and nearly immobile public housing residents.  They were skeptical because they feared displacement, even though they craved change.  Many believed that the city was simply looking for the next fertile ground for gentrification, close to the lakefront and the Loop.  I would counter their skepticism by saying, “the city is redeveloping itself from the inside out.  You can either be part of the process or get rolled over by it.”
What I didn’t know then was how slow, uneven and painful that process could be.
The New York Times has a wonderful long-form article in the NYT Magazine about Chicago that explores the duality of Chicago.  Chicago is indeed a city of rapid growth among the affluent in the Loop.  However, it is also a city with extensive pockets that wish for only a small portion of the growth the Loop has seen:
“We’re not like Detroit, cordoning off sections of the city,” Benet Haller, Chicago’s principal adviser for planning and design, told me. “But we are like London or Jakarta, with a hyperdense core — a zone of affluence — and something else beyond.” What the housing crisis has revealed, in stark relief, is a Chicago that already looks increasingly like this vision of a ring city, with the moneyed elite residing within the glow of that jewel-like core and the largely ethnic poor and working-class relegated to the peripheries, the banlieues.

Over the last few years,(community activist and Anti-Eviction Campaign founder) J. R. has been inside more than a hundred abandoned properties, each one a variation on the same theme of despair. He has stumbled upon drugs and whatever paraphernalia people needed to use or make them, along with the gathered sheets and worn-down mattresses of so-called trick houses. He has seen the carcasses of dogs and cats and rats and possums and raccoons. And yet J. R. proves surprisingly upbeat when talking about the efforts of the Anti-Eviction Campaign. At a Y.M.C.A. in Bronzeville, on the South Side, as people crowded into the basement for a screening of “Inside Job” — the 2010 documentary that essentially detailed the depressing back story of their own foreclosure plight — J .R. told them that he had seen the film 19 times and hoped to see it 150 more. It inspired him. “The government failed us. The market failed us. Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago failed us. Our government — the government — doesn’t belong to us. Forget them; they forgot us. We need to solve our problems ourselves.”

I’ve personally witnessed the transition here and developed some thoughts on Chicago’s fitful transition from industrial to global:
·         Chicago’s “zone of affluence”, centered on the north lakefront, west Loop and south Loop, will likely stop moving outward from the city center when it reaches the city’s boulevards system.  Just a hunch on my part, but I think that workingmen’s cottages in Austin or Grand Crossing will not receive the same loving attention as three-flats in Wicker Park.
·         The “zone of affluence” is not strong enough economically to lift all parts of the city, let alone the entire region.  Unlike finance in New York, government in DC or tech in the Bay Area, Chicago’s diverse economy is not likely to benefit a majority of its population.
·         Where “zones of affluence” are constricted by geography (i.e., the island of Manhattan, the peninsulas of Boston or San Francisco, the isthmus of Seattle, the river valley of Portland), it’s easy to overestimate the strength of the global economy on the entire region.  Chicago comes up short in this regard, and so does almost every other Midwestern shrinking city.  Even when large parts of the city are doing well, it will always be easy to see the sore spots if you seek them. 

Creating a zone of affluence can help cities to some degree, but if it can’t transform a city like Chicago any more than it has, with the advantages it has, how can this approach transform other shrinking Rust Belt cities?

2 Responses to “The Duality of Chicago”

  1. Anonymous

    Pete, I appreciate your insights on the duality of Chicago and thought I'd push back a little. I think the zone of influence can indeed extend beyond the Boulevard system, and already has in pockets, particularly on the north and northwest sides but also on the south side in Beverly. In the future, I think that we'll see zones of affluence along L stations in neighborhoods that have not been obliterated by decay or brownfields. Which means that I think certain parts of Austin and Garfield Park have strong bones to potentially build off of. You are probably correct in that Chicago does not have one particular industry to lift all boats. I think the key is to build on our economic strengths like transportation/logistics, professional services, etc. while working on our weaknesses – high structural unemployment, schools and others. Just my two cents.Ryan Richter


  2. Pete Saunders

    Thanks for your comments, Ryan. Glad to know you're checking out the blog. When I'm referring to the zone of affluence I'm referring to contiguous areas of gentrification, for lack of a better word. There are certainly affluent neighborhoods that extend beyond the boulevards to the north, west and south, but they were initially developed as such and weren't gentrified. Beverly is a good example; it sits more as an island of affluence than as part of a zone. I'd agree that transportation logistics and professional services are two strengths our region has over others, and a building blocks for economic improvement. Honestly, I think Chicago could develop into the transportation logistics expert for the world, but we must first improve our freight infrastructure here to put an end to our famous bottlenecks. Projects like CREATE are working toward that.



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