First of all, I should start out by saying that I’ve only ever been to Chicago once, and I really don’t remember anything but the inside of my aunt’s house. I remember asking them if there was good mass transit, and they said Metra is good, but the L, which is near them, is not something they’d ride. My aunt, who led the family, was a financial services executive in Chicago, but they moved to the Research Triangle in North Carolina when she went into tech/healthcare. I imagine just the people Aaron Renn has in mind when he wrote “The Second-Rate City?” for City Journal.
That anecdote aside, I think Aaron Renn is being a little too hard on Chicago. I’m sure my view of the city unduly weights its land use and transportation policies, but I do think it’s got more potential than Aaron gives it credit for.
A lot of his article is based on this grim demographic observation, which I admit, is hard to stomach:
Begin with Chicago’s population decline during the 2000s, an exodus of more than 200,000 people that wiped out the previous decade’s gains. Of the 15 largest cities in the United States in 2010, Chicago was the only one that lost population; indeed, it suffered the second-highest total loss of any city, sandwiched between first-place Detroit and third-place, hurricane-wrecked New Orleans. While New York’s and L.A.’s populations clocked in at record highs in 2010, Chicago’s dropped to a level not seen since 1910. Chicago is also being “Europeanized,” with poorer minorities leaving the center of the city and forced to its inner suburbs: 175,000 of those 200,000 lost people were black.
Poor minorities abandoning the center to wealthy whites, while it has a lot of unfortunate aspects, doesn’t seem to me to be an altogether bad thing. Aaron says “Europeanized,” but the idea that the wealthy, not the poor, poor live in the center of the city isn’t a European thing, it’s an urban thing! It happens in Tokyo and Hong Kong, Cairo and Beirut, New York and São Paulo. To say nothing of Chicago before urban decline!
Landlords walking away from properties in the South Bronx isn’t supposed to be the norm. There’s much that I think could be done to mitigate the effects of gentrification – such as letting cities grow in already-gentrified areas, where demand and prices are highest, which I’ve written about before – but short of solving the problem of racial inequity or rent controls (which are illegal in Illinois anyway), I don’t see how cities are supposed to retain minorities in close-in urban neighborhoods whose ornate buildings belie the fact that they were built for much richer people.
Aaron does, however, have a point when it comes to municipal government – at least, most parts of it. Illinois and Chicago’s pension and budget woes are legendary, as is its corruption. And while I don’t know much about small business regulation in Chicago, I’ve heard that it’s no walk in the park, either.
However, I’m not sure how much I agree with his criticism of Chicago’s land use regime:
It also hurts small businesses that Chicago operates under a system called “aldermanic privilege.” Matters handled administratively in many cities require a special ordinance in Chicago, and ordinances affecting a specific council district—called a “ward” in Chicago—can’t be passed unless the city council member for that ward, its “alderman,” signs off. One downside of the system is that, as the Chicago Reader reported, over 95 percent of city council legislation is consumed by “ward housekeeping” tasks. More important is that it hands the 50 aldermen nearly dictatorial control over what happens in their wards, from zoning changes to sidewalk café permits. This dumps political risk onto the shoulders of every would-be entrepreneur, who knows that he must stay on the alderman’s good side to be in business. It’s also a recipe for sleaze: 31 aldermen have been convicted of corruption since 1970.
I’ve heard this criticism many times before, but how do you square that with the fact that Chicago is also the most (urban) developer-friendly big city in America?
A totally as-of-right regime under a reasonably liberal code would probably be preferable to Chicago’s aldermanic privilege system, but the aldermen’s choices seem to be manifestly better than those made by planners and citywide politics in every other large city in America. Chicago has been going through an apartment boom for at least a year now, and the commercial property market is showing surprising signs of life – the 45-story City Point office tower will be the first delivered on spec in downtown Chicago since 1998, and tight class-A vacancies mean another large tower is likely coming soon, as well.
Other than ubiquitous parking podiums that the city’s not-so-progressive minimum parking requirements foist on developers and architects, Chicago’s quite tolerant of density and growth. At least so far, supply has been allowed to keep up enough that housing is shockingly cheap to this East Coaster.
Chicago may be hemorrhaging population everywhere else, but the ring of wealth around the Loop is getting bigger and bigger. It’ll be a long time before it’s large enough that its growth will compensate for the post-crash exodus from the exurbs and slow trickle from the suburbs. But if Chicago post-urban decline is anything like Chicago pre-urban decline, the city’s got a ways to go, whereas its ‘burbs can only fall so far.
Speaking of which, being the unofficial capital of the Midwest ain’t half bad. With 65 million people, it’s about as large as France or the United Kingdom, and there isn’t a city in the region that even comes close to matching Chicago’s cultural and economic opportunities. If indeed there is going to be a massive migration from the exurbs and suburbs on the scale of immigration around the turn of the last century, Chicago’s in a pretty good position to pick up a lot of refugees from America’s vast, auto-bound interior.
And hey, with the Onion coming to town, maybe Chicago will soon be able to add comedy to the list of things it’s the center of, along with derivatives, supertalls, and corn-fed folk?