The city's late 20th century rebirth explained
An ambitious piece, which I thought well of at the time. Subsequent demographic and development trends proved me an idiot. Like Satchel Paige (I think) used to say, "Don't look back. Someone might be laughing at you."
In 1953, would-be reformers Arthur Hillman and Robert Casey wrote a book they titled Tomorrow's Chicago, in which (as reformers tend to do) they predicted the doom that would befall the city if their advice were ignored. "Chicago can, of course, be made into a pleasant, comfortable town," they asserted. "Or . . . it can die."
In fact, Chicago has died many times since 1953. Chicago the meat-packing town is dead. Chicago the union town is dead. Chicago the City that Works is dead. What isn't dead is the hope that Chicago can, in spite of the evidence, again be made into a pleasant, comfortable town.
Doing that, however, will test the resolve of even a Chicago reformer. Illinois's largest city (we speak now of the corporate city of Chicago, not the eponymous urban agglomeration it spawned) stands today shriveled and fearful, its corporate cloutmeisters distracted or indifferent, its own voters disenfranchised by political changes at the statehouse. Its white people are too old, its minorities too young and too poor, its jobs too few.
Throughout the 1980s the city suffered a net annual loss of 18,000 whites. White flight from Chicago has been well noted. Socially, the loss of 8,000 mainly middle-class blacks each year hurts just as much; combined with structural economic changes that have shriveled the black working class, the out-migration has left several neighborhoods bereft of any social infrastructure apart from gangs and welfare.
It is not that Chicago is corrupt, or declassé. In the opinion of our urban seers, its fate is a function of its form. The wealth of the next century will not be produced, they say, in the cities of the last one. One doesn't need a crystal ball to predict Chicago's future, only a calculator. Naperville was the 10th fastest-growing city in the country between 1990 and 1994 (population up 17.9 percent, to 101,163) while Chicago's population dropped 1.9 percent during the same period, to 2,731,743—just about exactly 25 percent fewer people than in 1950. At present rates of population loss, in fact, Mayor Daley VI will be able to vote himself into office.
But even as it shrinks in size and influence, Chicago seems to expand in horror. Chicago's social pathologies connect synergistically; in the sweltering summer of 1995, hundreds of mainly old people died, locked in un-air-conditioned rooms because they were too afraid to open the door or even a window for fear of being robbed.
What should we do with a city like that? James "Pate" Philip, the Senate president from suburban Wood Dale, represents a parochial point of view; the Pate-ian school of urban-ism would leave the city to rot. This is satisfying as sport, but unimaginative as policy. The thing to do is not look at Chicago in the light of old enmities, but of new possibilities. After all, as critic Witold Rybczynski recalls in his new book, City Life, that toddlin' town was the place where 20th-century urbanism got its start. The skyscraper and the commercial downtown, to mention just two innovations, were invented or perfected in Chicago. Arguably the suburban mall sprang from the seed of the White City of the World Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Alas, it's been a long time since urbanists looked to Chicago for what's new. Corporate downsizing and the rise of suburban "edge cities" threaten to render the skyscraper and the centralized commercial downtown as outmoded as the stockyards. Daley the Younger gets quoted a lot on city administration, but the only thing interesting about what Daley is saying about city management is that it is a Daley saying it; his paeans to privatization and efficiency make him sound more like a Wheaton city manager than the scion of a liberal Democrat big-city mayor. Chicago's status as an urban laboratory may be divined from the decision of the reformist Civic Federation to hire William Hudnut as its president, in the hope that the man who used to be mayor of Indianapolis would have something to teach Chicago.
Since the 1940s, moving up and out in Chicago meant moving out of the city proper. Depopulation and the abandonment of the city by industry has left Chicago much too small for its britches. In a recent Atlantic essay, Rybczynski argues that our 19th-century big cities ought to undertake a deliberate downsizing. Chicago's once-bulging borders now encompass thousands of acres of vacant land, abandoned, burnt-out, or cleared for stillborn urban renewal projects. Reclassifying these derelict districts as "zero occupancy" zones, Rybczynski writes, would allow City Hall to move people out of socially and economically dysfunctional neighborhoods and consolidate their population in more viable districts, eliminating the former and invigorating the latter. Once emptied, whole chunks of the city would simply be closed down, the way a frugal homeowner might close down the upstairs to save on utility bills when the kids have grown up and moved away.
Rybczynski's point is polemical, meant to illustrate the still-strange notion that the problem with our older cities is that they don't have enough people in them. Chicago is already suburban in density if not in form. It ranks 70th in population density (measured in people per square mile) among the world's 75 most populous cities; even Paris has 2.5 times more people per mile than Chicago does. In fact, when it comes to paying for expensive services like the CTA, Chicago isn't nearly crowded enough.
Alas, a City Hall that can't figure out how to recycle newspapers is not likely to get it right when it tries to recycle neighborhoods. This sort of thing has been tried before in Chicago, beginning with slum clearance in the 1930s and continuing with urban renewal in the 1950s and '60s, with depressing results. True, conventional urban renewal failed in part because it tore down the wrong neighborhoods on the silly assumption that mere poverty rendered a neighborhood unlivable as well as unlovely. And yes, Chicago's most derelict districts these days are not merely poor—socially, physically and economically, they scarcely exist. But it isn't as easy to throw poor people out of their houses as it used to be.
Let us assume nonetheless that large tracts of once-built land could be assembled for redevelopment. Rather than attempt another version of urban renewal, which is known to not work, why not try a little urban re-engineering? Why not turn Chicago not only into a post-industrial city, but a post-urban city? Instead of social divisions, why not subdivisions? Why not put the "lawn" back in North Lawndale?
Suburbs in the city? It's been done. Amid the burnt-out hulks of apartment blocks in New York's South Bronx stand more than 2,500 new houses, with 2,000 more under construction—most of them suburban-style ranches complete with picket fences. Hundreds of one-, two- and three-family houses also have been built on blocks once dotted by vacant lots in the South Jamaica neighborhood of Queens.
No suburban amenity (save schools where raising her hand at the wrong moment gets a kid chided by her teacher, not shot by her gang rivals) is more prized than a single-family house with a yard. The housing forms familiar from the city—the row house, the tenement, the two- and three-flat—were creations of speculative land economics, not consumer choice. Once the car and the FHA gave them a choice, the taxpaying, child-rearing middle class chose a split-level ranch with a two-car garage every time, even if it meant exile in Park Ridge.
The present Daley Administration is well aware that decent affordable housing is the key to the economic revival of the city. (Hey, he moved to a better neighborhood himself, a kind of suburb-in-a-box called Central Station.) In September officials proposed making more than $75 million available in mortgage and down-payment assistance to middle-class home owners willing to build in impoverished areas on the South and West sides. And jobs will eventually follow people, just as they did to the suburbs.
Market forces are transforming Chicago into another Carol Stream anyway. The suburbs have replaced the city as society's model for the good life, just as the city took over from the small town as the locus of American life in the last century. The intrusion of suburban-style strip malls into Chicago neighborhoods like Lake view may offend the city lover's sense of aesthetic coherence and human scale, but they're making money. In New York, City Hall wants to open that city's underused manufacturing areas to suburban-style discount retailers and warehouse stores.
Yes, you can get whatever you want at Wal-Mart for cheap—even an urban renewal strategy.
It will be replied that Chicago's crisis is not physical or even economic, but social. The city can move the underclass to a new address, but they will still be there, menacing both themselves and any hope of enticing a skittish middle class to make Chicago its home. If reinventing the city won't ease Chicago's extremes of wealth and poverty, maybe reinventing government can. Respected national city doctors like Anthony Downs or Myron Orfield argue for various forms of regional government as the solution to inequities in taxable wealth and municipal services across Chicagoland's patchwork of municipalities. The different things that governments do are done best at a different appropriate scale, and sensible people will organize complex urban areas accordingly. In his Good City Form, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's master urbanist Kevin Lynch foresaw the day when sensible people would want to strengthen regional government and small self-governing towns while gradually dissolving the big city that lies between them in scale.
A system of tax-sharing across borders administered by some new regional entity set up for the purpose might satisfy the demands of both fiscal equity and self-determination. Go-getting towns like Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio, do that in different ways; local models already exist from suburban pollution control or traffic planning.
The re-engineering of Chicago may make sense to planners, but then planners don't have to run for office. Lynch himself noted that U.S. political and administrative systems have no effective control at the level of the metropolitan region, in part because people feel no sense of community that might give political legitimacy to such a system.
Besides, the failures of both efficiency and equity in Chicagoland are less often failures of structure than of political will. Decades ago several million Illinoisans, organized in separate civic entities of disparate wealth and demographic traits, joined together to assess property and distribute tax revenues in the form of services on a regional basis. Yes, you guessed it—the city of Chicago, most of whose neighborhoods such as Ravenswood and Hyde Park were independent towns and villages before they were annexed.
Mothballing neighborhoods, suburbanizing the ghetto and regionalizing City Hall—useful reforms in their way, but lacking a certain boldness. The City of Chicago has more city than it has money to run it, and many of its citizens have less power than they have opinions about running it. Why stop then at making Chicago neighborhoods suburban? Why not make them suburbs, by reconstituting existing Chicago neighborhoods as freestanding municipalities?
The essence of suburban life is not architecture, after all; it is control. Democracy in the United States means the freedom to settle with people pretty much like ourselves and form governments whose main purpose is excluding people who aren't. Survey after survey has suggested that most Americans prefer to live in a political community small enough that residents feel they can influence—ideally, a small town of between 20,000 to 40,000. Affluence and the car have given a majority of Americans the chance to live that dream in the postwar suburb.
Most of the radical new reforms in social service provision in big cities aim to give city people the political control over education, public safety, taxes and public investment that suburbanites already cherish. In Chicago, steps were taken long ago to disassemble the clanky apparatus of centralized political and administrative control by, for example, allowing the local election of public school councils. The feds have sniffed the new trend in the air too; policies for the Clintonite "empowerment zone" on the West Side are to be set by neighborhoods, not bureaucrats.
The Chicago neighborhood of fond memory shares many traits with the suburban enclave. Not least of these is scale; the average population of Chicago's 77 official "neighborhoods" is 35,000, nicely within the range of our ideal political community. They also are largely self-contained in terms of class. They even have a tradition of self-defensive exclusionary local control; most of the energy expended in self-government in Chicago these days seems to go toward persuading those in power to keep their scattered-site housing or group homes or landfills out of our neighborhood. In America, suburbanites are born, not made. The neighborhoods even have a political infrastructure in place with the existing ward system, including in most wards an alderman who wants to be a mayor.
What the poets of city form describe as "extensive multi-nucleate cities of low density" seems the natural form of the postwar U.S. megalopolis. Creating one out of a struggling compact nucleated high-density 19th-century city would allow Chicago to join the former Soviet Union, the Balkans and Quebec in the march toward a proudly self-determined 21st century.
The first Chicago made itself up as it went along in response to new technologies and new industries, surprising the world not just as a new city but as a new kind of city. Is it loony to think it might do it again, by taking a battered 19th-century American industrial city and reinventing it as a 21st century one? No loonier perhaps than trying to turn Chicago into Paris, the way Daniel Burnham did with his Plan of Chicago in the 1900s. Or trying to simultaneously govern the Gold Coast and Woodlawn through the agency of Chicago aldermen. ●