Dear journalists/community groups/alderman: please report the demographics of your public meetings. Thank you!

A while ago, the Metropolitan Planning Council held a series of public meetings to get input on how a big parking lot next to the Logan Square Blue Line station should be redeveloped. There were a lot of interesting things about these meetings – MPC has a pretty cool process, which I don’t understand well enough to expound upon, for showing participants the tradeoffs for various kinds of redevelopment – but I want to zero in on this:

Before leaving last week’s meeting, 90 residents participated in a short survey about the Logan Square train station and the adjacent parking lot…. The poll also revealed a demographic mismatch between people who came to the meeting and the overall population of Logan Square. Two-thirds of attendees were white, a larger share than the neighborhood as a whole, which is more than 45 percent Hispanic.

Now, one way to respond to this is to make whatever noises you make when you come across yet another example of white people’s disproportionate political power. (In case it needs to be said: yes, of course Latinos and other non-whites were allowed, even encouraged, to attend these meetings, but there are a million structural reasons – from work schedules to language barriers to the social networks through which news of these events moves to participatory confidence to whatever else – that white people, wealthier people, and so on, will almost always be overrepresented in these kinds of events.)

But as quickly as possible, we should transition to thanking MPC for a) caring enough about the issue of representation to actually measure how close they’re getting, and b) being open enough to actually release those numbers to the media. Those numbers partially have, of course, the effect of reducing the legitimacy of the results of meetings that MPC worked very hard on. But they also warn the media, the public, and elected officials that there is a gap, and that that gap should be taken into account in the final decision-making. In that way, MPC is actually moving closer to what I assume is their real goal, which is development that does reflect the actual preferences of the entire community, not just people who have the time and inclination to show up for three weeknight meetings about a parking lot.

The method they used to do this – a quick survey that includes demographic information – is both shockingly simple and shockingly effective at conveying crucial information that is absent from, I think, literally every other public meeting I have ever read about in my life. Every alderman and community group should adopt it immediately. And if they don’t, reporters should do a quick, rough count – age, gender, and race would all be pretty simple to get a sense of. And then they should include it in the ensuing articles. When there’s a public meeting at which actual policies are decided – what kind of housing will be allowed, what kind of businesses – who is it that’s making those decisions? Anyone reading an article about that policy process should get that information.

This does’t solve the problem entirely, of course. I think there are largely three problems of misrepresentation at these sorts of public meetings.

First, there’s the issue of demographics discussed here.

Second, there’s the problem of ideology, which in this context I’m just using to mean “how are you disposed to feel about the issue at hand.” Other people have written about this extensively, but it basically boils down to this: 90% of normal people feel only one of two ways about local development and transportation issues. (I suspect the dynamics around, say, schools, are different, though not necessarily more representative.) Either they hate it, or they don’t have very strong feelings one way or the other. Since a disproportionately high percentage of people who have strong feelings are going to be anti-whatever is under discussion, public meetings are going to skew very negative. I’ve heard from people who have worked in aldermanic offices that many elected officials build this into their expectations: if an audience breaks evenly, say, on a given topic, they assume that a solid majority of people in their district are in favor of it.

Finally, there’s the issue of geography, or a mismatch between the people who are affected by a decision and the people who are enfranchised to have a say in making the decision. In the housing context, which is obviously where I spend the most time thinking about this, that means that a decision to, say, shut down residential development in Lincoln Park – thus affecting the mobility options for people in the entire region – is made by the Lincoln Park alderman, who only cares about the opinions of the people who live in his or her ward. Many hundreds of thousands of people who might have a vested interest in the decision are legally disenfranchised from participating because they don’t live in the correct geographic unit.

Releasing demographic data from these meetings obviously only addresses the first of these. Still, that seems to be low-hanging fruit, and is certainly an improvement over pretending that the people who show up to these things are representative of “the community.” They’re not! And everyone involved in this process should follow MPC’s lead and stop pretending that they are.

Buses: they don’t have to suck

Very often when I say the word “bus” out loud, someone will volunteer that they hate buses. The conversation might go like this:

ME: Bus ridership is down. It’s not clear why.

FRIEND: Have you considered the possibility that buses just suck?

I find these conversations frustrating, because the people I’m talking to are wrong, but I can’t actually get into why that is in a casual setting without being pedantic and annoying.

Fortunately, I have this blog, where the cost of being pedantic and annoying is much lower. So here we go: buses don’t suck. They suck because we make them suck.

Let’s take, for example, the boarding situation on the Fullerton bus at the Red/Brown/Purple L station heading west. This is a stop I board at a lot, because it’s the main way to get to Logan Square from the north lakefront neighborhoods. I am not the only person with this idea, though, so there are frequently ten to twenty, or more, people waiting by the time a bus arrives. Each of these people must tap their Ventra card (or, God forbid, pay with cash) before the bus can move on. If each person takes, on average, two seconds, that’s easily 30-45 seconds spent waiting for people to board. If someone has a problem with their Ventra card, or is fumbling for cash, it can take an extra 15-30 seconds.

The Fullerton bus.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s pretty excruciating to wait through. If you drive, imagine sitting in traffic – not at a red light, but just waiting for no good reason – for 45 seconds. Set a timer, imagine yourself staring at a bumper, and just let the time wash over you.

Moreover, it can cause the bus to miss a green light, which can easily add another 20-30 seconds after everyone has actually tapped their cards.

Multiply this by every busy stop a bus makes – in Chicago, especially any time around rush hour, this is a lot of them – and you go a long way to explaining why buses are so slow. Or why, in the words of my friends, they suck.

But this is not a problem we have to live with. It is simply a result of having decided that everyone has to pay for the bus when it arrives, at one card reader at the front door. Although most people don’t realize it, this is not the only choice. But it’s important: imagine how much more trains would suck – trains, those things that everyone loves – if everybody riding them had to tap their card at one reader when they arrived at your station. It would take forever.

Anyway, one other choice would be to have two card readers: one by the front door, and one by the back. This is called “all-door boarding,” and San Francisco, among other places, does it. As you have no doubt already calculated, this reduces the time required to have everyone get on the bus. Over the course of a ride over a few miles when 50 people or so board, that can make a difference.


Another, even more exciting choice would be to have people pay before the bus arrives. That way, there’s no tapping at all! Just get on and go.

Chicago will actually begin using that system at exactly one bus stop in the entire city once the Central Loop BRT project is complete: one of the rail-style bus stations will have rail-style turnstiles that you’ll have to tap your card on to get through. That way, when the bus arrives, you just get on, like with trains now. Ashland BRT, if and when it happens, will probably also use that system. That’s one reason they’ll be so much faster than other buses.

A rendering of a station for the Loop BRT project, due next year.

But you can actually get the same benefit without all the cost of building a station and adding turnstiles. You can do what the MTA does in New York with a few of their bus lines: you can put little kiosks at major stations where people can tap and get a little paper receipt saying that they paid. Then, when the bus comes, they just walk on. No waiting for tapping at all! The downside is that you then need a small security detail to spot-check people’s receipts to make sure they’ve paid, but that turns out to actually not be a very big deal.

This is a pre-pay bus kiosk in New York.

This is a pre-pay bus kiosk in New York.

Either of those – all-door boarding, or pre-payment before the bus arrives – can make buses suck much less. But this post was really inspired by Sandy Johnston’s response to WBEZ’s story on bus bunching:

What was really disappointing about the Curious City piece is that everyone interviewed–from bus riders to academics to CTA drivers and officials–seemed to take the the fatalistic attitude that bus bunching is completely inevitable and very little can be done to prevent it…. But…[t]here is, in fact, one policy lever that can help the CTA (and other agencies) avoid bus bunching, but it is politically unpalatable to most actors, especially the city’s auto-oriented elite: dedicating lanes to public transit.

Yes: another way to make buses suck much less is to make the most basic gesture at believing that people who ride buses should be able to get places in less than twice as much time as it takes to drive there, and give them their own lane. When buses and cars share lanes, not only do buses get stuck in traffic not of their own making – sixty people or more regularly squeeze onto a single bus just fine, but that many people in cars could back up a road for blocks – but they have to negotiate pulling out of and into traffic every time there’s a stop, which in Chicago is frequently every block. That also wastes a lot of time.

Sometimes people object to bus lanes on grounds of fairness. On Ashland, say, people on buses make up about 20% of all travelers, I believe. Why, then, should they get a third of the road? (There are six lanes, recall: two currently used for moving cars (with buses mixed in), and two for parked cars.)

That is one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that Chicago has roughly 2,800 miles of traffic lanes on arterial (main) streets, and at the moment 4 miles of (part-time) bus lanes. (They’re on the J14 line.) That is 0.1% of all arterial lanes. By contrast, 27.9% of Chicago households don’t even have a car, and 26.7% take transit to work, meaning – doing some quick math – roughly 15% of Chicagoans take the bus to work.

Here is that idea in a graph:

Clearly, adding more bus lanes would be horribly unfair.

Clearly, adding more bus lanes would be horribly unfair.

Meanwhile, car trips do, in fact, tend to be about twice as fast as bus trips – not including wait time – and rail trips are in that ballpark, too. This, despite the fact that between a quarter and a third of our households don’t even have cars, and that the vast majority of households are not located close enough to a train station to walk there. Buses are, in fact, the only viable transit choice for the vast majority of Chicagoans. Too often, they do suck, but they suck because of some combination of: a) we don’t know that they can be better, and b) we don’t care to make them better. But I think there are a lot of people in the city who would be interested in a bus system that we could be proud of, as opposed to felt burdened by. Why don’t we get one?

Maybe one day Chicago will not waste its billions of dollars of transportation infrastructure, but until then, have this Next City article

This is the winter of my Metra-related discontent.

This is the winter of my Metra-related discontent. Credit: Eric Rogers

Service innovations like increased frequency don’t yet appear anywhere in the strategic plan, and a Metra spokesperson confirmed that the agency has no plans to move in that direction. In August, Streetsblog Chicago reported that one board member flatly rejected that kind of service expansion, claiming that running a single extra train during rush hour would cost over $30 million. (Aikins, however, reports that GO Transit spent just $7.7 annually to adopt half-hourly frequencies on its two biggest lines.)

Read it!

Why do we care about mode share, ctd.

A while ago, I pretty much lost a debate in the comments with transit writer extraordinaire Alon Levy. At issue was whether mode share – the percentage of commuters who use transit, cars, biking, etc., to get to work – was the best way to measure the effectiveness of a city’s public transportation. The debate was provoked by yet another ranking of cities by transit mode share, and my discomfort with the triumphant reaction from some quarters.

The argument in favor of mode share is basically that people will do whatever is easiest and most convenient; if very few people are using transit, that’s a pretty good indication that it isn’t easy or convenient for the vast majority of people.

My counter-argument was that mode share measures relative ease and convenience: if 10% of people take public transit, that tells you that transit is more convenient than driving for roughly 10% of commuters, but it doesn’t tell you if, for the other 90%, transit service is perfectly acceptable, but driving is just easier; or if transit service is actually terrible.

I think, though, that the new report on jobs accessibility from the University of Minnesota should reopen the debate for at least as long as it takes for Alon to convince me again that I’m wrong. In particular, Jacob Anbinder’s interpretation of the study at Real Clear Politics, which looks at the percentage of regional jobs accessible by public transit within an hour (the original report focused on raw numbers). And, when you do that, it becomes clear that the massive, older regions with very high transit commute share – New York, Chicago, DC, etc. – have a problem: namely, that getting to jobs outside their dense cores is very, very difficult. At the same time, smaller regions with little to no reputation for public transit – Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Denver – look much, much better.

Transit access in Chicago: great in the center, not so much elsewhere.

Transit access in Chicago: great in the center, not so much elsewhere. Click for interactive map.


There are a number of things at work here, I think, which all boil down again to the fact that mode share measures relative convenience, not absolute. In the dense centers of America’s largest, older cities, transit is relatively convenient, and driving is relatively inconvenient for reasons of traffic, parking, etc. But as you leave the center, transit becomes dramatically less convenient – especially if you’re not going to the center, which is often served by commuter rail lines – and driving becomes dramatically more so. What that means is that for a relatively large number of people who live in the core, transit is the better option, leading to high mode shares; but outside the core, transit service isn’t just less convenient than driving, it’s actually pretty bad.

In some smaller metropolitan areas, though, transit may be so-so over a much larger percentage of the region, while driving is basically always convenient. These cities lack the cores that give places like Boston a high mode share, but provide decent enough transit service over a large enough portion of the region that if you really want to use transit – because you want to save money, or you’re too old/young, or you just don’t like driving – it’s not a disaster.

Here is this idea in graph form:


That’s how you arrive at the fact that the average commuter can get to 25% of jobs in metropolitan Salt Lake City within an hour, but only 15% of New York’s.

Now, there are a number of caveats to this. In particular, using total commute time as a cutoff (jobs accessible in an hour) inherently disadvantages geographically large metropolitan areas like New York or Chicago. First, obviously, because the larger the area, the longer it takes to get places, all else equal. But also, as a region expands, the challenge of making any given point-to-point trip doable on transit requires much, much larger investments in infrastructure: while a smaller region might be able to get away with a well-organized bus system, and a medium-sized region with buses and a few radial rail or BRT lines, a region the size of Chicago or LA needs an extensive bus system, radial rail routes, and some kind of cross-town rapid transit service.

More significantly, as a good leftist, I believe that inequality matters. It may be that in Salt Lake City, a 60 minute commute on public transit would take only 20 minutes by car, while in New York, a 60 minute transit commute would be 45 minutes by car. In a region where the expectation is that commutes will be relatively short, transit accessibility that requires dramatically longer trips will probably relegate transit to a sort of welfare service, patronized only by those who absolutely, absolutely have to. That kind of stigma is a problem for all sorts of reasons: to begin with, I’m against stigmatizing people; but also, from a political perspective, it probably makes it harder to lobby for improvements to public transit if it has the reputation as a service exclusively for poor people.

Still, I think this report adds some strength to the idea that mode share is a very incomplete look at a region’s transit effectiveness. Also, happily, the widespread attention it’s received is a pushback against the kind of urbanist lifestyle fetishism that frequently accompanies rankings based on mode share. (See, for example, the story I quote at the beginning of my earlier post.) A functional transit system ought to be about making day-to-day life easier for regular people, and focusing on job access highlights that. Yay.

“Don’t let anyone else in.”

While I work on a few other pieces, my friend Steven Vance of Streetsblog and Chicago Cityscape fame (I assume everyone reading this knows about Streetsblog; but if you’re at all interested in development, preservation, or exclusionary zoning issues, you should be following Cityscape too) pointed me to this Tribune article from 1986. The article covers the campaign to change Lincoln Park’s zoning to prevent the construction of new, relatively high-density residential buildings.

It’s notable both from a historical perspective, in that it’s a primary document from one of the most consequential eras for housing policy in the last few generations – the decision to close off the north lakefront to further development and repopulation – but also because it contributes to my collection of people being refreshingly honest about their interests in zoning fights. (Previously in this ongoing series: people who don’t care about density, but want their neighbors to be of the homeowning class, not the renting class; and people who want their neighbors to be people who can afford to pay expensive rents.)

Anyway, this time, the honesty takes this form:

“I never thought I`d say: `This is enough. Don`t let anyone else in.` But it`s become almost impossible to drive,“ said 21-year resident Marjorie- Lee Perrine at a recent public hearing on the plan.

So here we go: residents campaigned to essentially cap the population of the city’s most desirable neighborhood – ensuring, by the way, that housing prices would skyrocket, and that it would become the ghetto of the privileged that it is today – so that they could drive more comfortably.

Now, I don’t want to reject out of hand that decent driving conditions are a reasonable goal for city policy. All things being equal, I think that’s probably right: people have a perfectly legitimate interest in mobility, and they are absolutely within their rights to lobby their government to protect those interests.

The question, though, is whether it is in the interest of the city as a whole to set a legal ceiling to the population of a neighborhood that on many scales – access to jobs, good neighborhood schools, safety, access to public transit – is one of the most advantageous in the region. Is it worth protecting the ease of driving for a few tens of thousands of people – people who are among the richest in the city – if the tradeoff is a) restricting the residential mobility of nearly everyone else and b) reducing property and sales tax revenue for the city that might be used to provide amenities for all voters?

And if those are the tradeoffs – if this local decision affects nearly everyone in the metropolitan area, especially when replicated across nearly the entire North Side – why should the only people who have a say be the ones privileged enough to already live in Lincoln Park West? Why should their elected representative be the one deciding?

These are obviously, for me, rhetorical questions: my answer is that they shouldn’t. But for most people in Chicago, including most people in power, the answer is different. And I think they – everyone from neighborhood groups campaigning against new residential development to the aldermen who listen to them – need to explain why. I am not, of course, under the impression that local anti-development groups are going to change their minds. What I am asking, though, is that we as a city be honest about what the tradeoffs are to these kinds of policies – beginning with the fact that there are tradeoffs, and that “not letting anyone else in” has consequences far beyond the neighborhood being walled off from the rest of the region.

Teardowns and the Valley of the Small Apartment Building

A new study on teardowns in the Chicago suburbs has been making the rounds on urbanist Twitter, and provides an excuse for looking at the phenomenon of zoning-constrained redevelopment outside the city. In Chicago proper, it’s a little hard to do this precisely, because a) common zoning limits vary from single-family homes to two-, three-, and four-flat apartment buildings, and so a given permit for a three-unit building might represent densifying a lot that used to have a single-family home, or it might represent a “teardown” replacement of an older three-unit building; and b) the huge amounts of development downtown mask the very spare development of large multi-unit buildings in the neighborhoods.

But the suburbs, by having much more restrictive zoning, make this easier. First off, unlike Chicago, the overwhelming majority of existing lots are single-family homes, so a three-unit permit is much, much more likely to represent densification; and second, they’re mostly small enough that the downtown-neighborhoods dichotomy doesn’t matter nearly as much. (Which is not to say it doesn’t exist, as we’ll see with Evanston; just that when the city’s total area is only a few square miles, concentrating development in one area is much less consequential.)

Anyway, just as the city of Chicago’s zoning encourages developers to tear down older single-family homes, two-flats, and three-flats, and replace them with buildings of equal or lesser density built for wealthier customers – because they’re not legally allowed to build a larger number of potentially cheaper units – I strongly suspect that suburban teardowns are encouraged by zoning regimes that don’t allow for densification of single family home areas. In the absence of the option of building more units, it makes economic sense to just build bigger single family homes.



The chart above shows what it says – residential building permits in five suburbs from 2000 to 2013. The bottom four are all identified by the teardown study as being particular hotbeds of teardown activity. Evanston is not, but we’ll come back to what makes it interesting in a moment.

One thing that stands out is that Wilmette and Winnetka have literally not allowed a single new apartment building since the turn of the century.

But what I think is most relevant here about all five suburbs is that there is virtually no construction whatsoever of small apartment buildings of two to four units. In fact, Glenview is the only town that issued enough permits for those kinds of buildings for them to even be visible in the chart.

Fascinatingly, when these suburbs do allow new multi-unit apartment buildings, they are virtually all of the large, five-or-more unit variety – and I strongly suspect, having been to these places, that if we could set the threshold higher – say, ten or twenty or forty units – that we would see that virtually all new multi-unit projects are very, very large indeed. This reflects a peculiar dichotomy in zoning in places like Evanston and Park Ridge: neighborhoods are either zoned for single-family homes, or very large residential buildings. The large building areas in these suburbs tend to be in very high-demand areas that have historically been denser than the rest of the town – downtowns centered on an old commuter train station, say – or some out-of-the-way parcels, often separated from the rest of town by a large road or train tracks, where the town decided they could brook lower-income apartment development.

Evanston's zoning map illustrates the issue: everywhere except for the blue Downtown zones in the center - and the darkest R5 and R6 zones around it - multi-family development is either illegal or requires extremely impractical minimum lot sizes.

Evanston’s zoning map illustrates the issue: everywhere except for the blue Downtown zones in the center – and the darkest R5 and R6 zones around it – multi-family development is either illegal or requires extremely impractical minimum lot sizes.

What that means is that the sort of gradual, small-scale densification that might make sense in a residential neighborhood where rising prices are creating pressure for redevelopment – replacing a single family home with two to four units on the same lot – is ruled out. Instead, developers either have to build big within a very small geographic area, where those areas exist at all, or they have to do a single-family teardown.

Interestingly, Evanston – which, relatively speaking, has taken the build-it-big philosophy to heart, allowing more large residential construction, and thus more added density, than any other mature Chicago suburb – is also not identified as a place with a teardown epidemic, despite having real estate prices that are definitely comparable to places that are. Whether that’s because of regulations that prevent teardowns, or a release of development pressure via huge condo and apartment projects, I have no idea. But it is notable.

I should also note that this dichotomy isn’t necessarily terrible: especially if dense development is focused around transit stations, it’s a perfectly reasonable way to allow housing supply to grow, and thus help keep prices from skyrocketing, while protecting large single-family-home neighborhoods, if that’s a local priority. That, for example, is something like the Toronto model, where skyscrapers are allowed within a quarter mile or so of outlying subway stations, surrounded by a sea of relatively low-density housing. That said, of course, the scale of density that’s required in those islands for it to balance restrictions elsewhere is pretty massive, and it seems clear that even Evanston isn’t close to reaching those levels.

Which means that it’s a shame that smaller-scale densification that might be more palatable to single-family neighborhoods is off the table. There are many examples of neighborhoods throughout the metro area where single-family homes and two- to four-unit apartment buildings coexist quite peacefully; we ought to be creating more of them.

NB: I should note that the city of Chicago also has a “valley” of medium-sized development, but it’s in the sort of four- to ten-story midrise building, rather than three-flats. The basic dynamic is the same, though: zoning allows for either very little, or no, increase in density, or a massive increase in density in a very small geographic area. Gradual densification of the sort that has typified urban development for most of our history is off the table.

Dept. of That’s Not How That Works

Update: Only two people have written to object to this, but I think they have a point, so: when I wrote “Since that [neighborhood wealth] ends up being more or less the main criteria by which the city determines where subsidized housing goes…”, I was being more than a little glib. In fact, most project-based affordable housing in Chicago, as elsewhere, is built by community development corporations through the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, or LIHTC, which the city does not administer. My actual issue is that one of the main affordable housing programs that the city does administer – the inclusionary zoning ordinance – which could potentially be creating affordable units in middle-class neighborhoods, is set up in such a way that it is clearly easier for developers to pay the “in-lieu” fee instead of building the affordable units on site. That fee is then used by the city to subsidize other affordable housing, which for various reasons – mostly just the fact that you can get more units per dollar in low-income areas – are almost always built in low-income areas. I don’t think that’s a particularly radical conclusion. That said, implying that the city has a significant say on where all, or even most, of Chicago’s affordable housing goes is not correct. Just wanted to be clear about that.


So the Puerto Rican Cultural Center bought a couple vacant buildings along the Paseo Boricua and is going to turn them into a performing arts space, studios, and a piano lounge. That’s great! But then the local alderman, Roberto Maldonado, said something pretty weird:

“The acquisition of those properties is a major step in trying to commercially and culturally anchor our community as it faces the onslaught of an ever-encroaching gentrification process which seeks to erase our historical memory from the Greater Humboldt Park community,” read an announcement from Ald. Roberto Maldonado’s office.

In a way, this made me happy, because it was so interesting sociologically, and because it so clearly reflected the “taxonomy of grief” re: gentrification that I wrote up a while ago.

 The old Ashland Sausage building has been purchased with hopes of turning it into an arts center.

The property in question.

But as a statement of policy from an elected representative, it’s kind of worrying. That’s because Alderman Maldonado seems to be combining two sometimes-conflicting reasons why people oppose gentrification: a rising tide of housing prices that push out older residents (a problem that, at its margins, Humboldt Park is certainly facing), and – separately but relatedly – a loss of cultural community as a result of new types of people moving in. I say sometimes-conflicting because frequently, those two issues rise or fall together; but in this case, the solution Maldonado has found to the latter is almost certain to exacerbate the former.

That is, if I were to tell you that an arts organization had bought out a vacant warehouse in a transitioning neighborhood and was going to turn it into a piano lounge – and then told you that I expected that move to prevent gentrification - you would probably make some sort of confused face at me. With good reason! There may exist a world in which turning vacant buildings into performing arts centers doesn’t raise the surrounding neighborhood’s housing prices, but we do not live in it.

In this case, though, the fact that it’s a Puerto Rican arts organization is sort of obscuring that problem. The move is simultaneously addressing the issue of cultural community, by institutionalizing an explicitly Puerto Rican organization in the middle of the neighborhood’s main commercial street, and accelerating the rise in rents that are likely to eventually push the area’s demographics away from Puerto Ricans and towards whites and maybe Asians.

I said as much on Twitter yesterday, and someone asked: Does that mean low-income communities should avoid improving their neighborhoods? To which the answer is: definitely not! But it does mean that a) we need to be clear about what we mean by “gentrification,” especially when we have multiple goals (like, say, cultural community and affordable housing) that might all fall under that name; and b) we need to drop the charade that the affordable housing side of the gentrification issue can be dealt with with anything other than housing. Basic economics would suggest that any improvement to neighborhood amenities – new arts programs, or retail, or less crime, or better schools – will raise housing prices, unless you allow increased demand to turn into more housing units, and/or have non-market housing that doesn’t respond to market forces. This is especially true if, like eastern Humboldt Park, you’re right on the edge of an already-gentrified area.

Although Humboldt Park has more non-market housing units than the neighborhoods to the east, from which the current wave of gentrification is coming, they don’t make up any really significant portion of the overall housing stock; and, more ominously, I haven’t seen any indication that the area’s elected or unelected leaders are interested in allowing the total amount of housing to grow. As a result, I would expect the neighborhood’s demographics to change in the 2010s roughly as West Town’s did in the 1990s, when the total number of nonpoor families grew by over 2,000 while the number of poor families fell by over 3,000, and the total number of housing units stayed relatively flat. (By contrast, the South Loop, which saw a boom in new units beginning in the 1990s, gained several hundred nonpoor families and saw no decrease in the total number of poor families.)

Just as bad, the reason that Humboldt Park has a relatively high number of non-market housing units is that it has, up until now, been far outside the city’s wealthy zone. Since that ends up being more or less the main criteria by which the city determines where subsidized housing goes – that is, not anywhere near the growing professional-class bubble – now that the neighborhood is clearly gentrifying, it’s unlikely to see much more subsidized development. And so on both the market and non-market sides, the area is going to be increasingly squeezed, and increasingly segregated along white, professional-class lines, over the coming years.

That is, unless Alderman Maldonado and people like him give up the idea that gentrification can be shown up by affirming “our historical memory,” and decide that a crisis of affordable housing needs to be dealt with by reforming, you know, housing policy.

Comics journalism and Woodlawn cafes

1. I meant to do this a while ago, but anyone who’s interested in the kinds of things I write about here – cities, Chicago, race, humans – really ought to read “South Shore State of Mind” by The Illustrated Press, the only Chicago-based purveyor (that I know of) of comics journalism. This piece follows a man from the South Side reflecting on the changes he’s seen in that neighborhood, but you should be looking for their other stuff, too.


2. Completely unrelatedly: I’m writing this at Greenline Coffee, a new cafe that just opened at 61st and Eberhart in west Woodlawn. (For the record: it’s great. If you’re around this area – say, in Hyde Park – it’s a lovely place to sit and read or work for a few hours.)

But what’s really got me distracted from my work is this: I have ridden by this corner most days on my way to the train for the last year. In that time, I have seen exactly zero non-black people on this stretch of 61st. (This section of west Woodlawn is nearly 100% black, and has a mix of attractive, well-maintained blocks and others that are pockmarked by empty lots and abandoned buildings.)

And yet in this cafe, there are no fewer than five white people and two Latinos, along with half a dozen black people. The intersection – at least this corner of it – has suddenly been integrated by the appearance of a single retail business with appeal to a broad base of customers. (Other than this, 61st is pretty empty, retail-wise. Sixty-third has a handful of businesses around here, but mostly of the bargain clothing/drug store/hot dog stand variety.)

I know it’s not this easy, but…man. I don’t often write about this, because I don’t think I have much to say, other than ask questions, but I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the retail deserts in black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides are one of the tip-top most important issues in the city. They’re both cause and effect of so many things: health outcomes, vulnerability to crime, the fleeing of the middle class, and so on. It seems clear that one of the keys to getting people like my commenters to be happy enough to stay – and people of all races from other areas interested enough to visit – places like west Woodlawn is developing stronger retail corridors. And before you think that that’s impossible without more wealth in those neighborhoods, consider that study after study has found that Chicago’s black neighborhoods have far less retail than you would expect, even taking into account local incomes.


Periodically, I get emails (or comments) like this one from last night:

Subject: Just Saw Your Article on Milliken v. Bradley

So do tell: where do YOUR children go to school? And if you don’t have any, do you realistically see any future children you may have going to these “integrated” schools that you champion?

I think there are two things about these emails that are really fascinating. The first is how common the “just wait till you have children!” argument is. Now, to be fair, it is true that I don’t have any kids. I have, though, recently passed from the phase of my life in which zero of my close friends had children to one in which some of my close friends have children, so I think I’m in an okay position to appreciate how significant a shift in perspective it can bring.

But even if that doesn’t count, people like the author of this email seem to have forgotten that I was once a child. I have first-hand experience! And, as a child, the schools I attended (there were four of them) were all between 35 and 70 percent non-white. I did not always enjoy school, but I can confirm that exactly none of the reasons for that were related to excessive racial integration.

Now, it’s true that I was fortunate to attend public schools that either had special academic requirements or in which the majority of students came from solidly middle-class families. But that’s sort of the point (especially the latter): there’s no reason an “integrated” school has to be mostly poor, or have low academic standards. In fact, by far the most troubled American schools aren’t the integrated ones, but the segregated ones.

The second thing I think is fascinating about these emails is how they reveal the worldview of a particular kind of racism: that of white people who hate/fear black people so much that they can’t conceive of other white people who don’t hate/fear black people as much as they do. It’s as if attending school with non-whites was some sort of obviously absurd dare that can be neutralized by turning it around on the dare-er, who will surely reveal themselves to be unwilling to perform the ridiculous act they proposed for you.

We tried busing, and it didn’t work, they say.

I don’t know what else to say about this, except that if you are inclined to send me an email along these lines, please don’t. I have enough.

* I should note that the other issue that I get “just wait till you have children!” emails about is living in apartments. “Wait till you have kids, and see if you don’t want a single family home in the suburbs!” The problem with this, again, is that I was once a child, and as a child I had the opportunity to experience both living in an apartment in a large city and living in a single family home in the suburbs. To the extent that I had a preference, it leaned strongly towards the apartment, where I could go play with my friends without bugging my parents to drive me.

Credit where it’s due

In the continuing interest of demonstrating that reporting on public transit is not as hard as results from CBS and others might suggest, I wanted to recognize John Hilkevitch’s piece in the Tribune today, which not only covered extremely good news – on which more in a sec – but did so by simply presenting the facts of the project. Bus lanes here, restricted right turns for cars there, for this many dollars, serving this many riders. Great. And not hard! Maybe we could have some more quotes – there are no bus riders in this article either, but the only quotes are from CDOT, so it’s not that kind of piece.

Anyway: more of this, please.

As for the content of the news, it’s excellent: the most details yet about the Loop Bus Rapid Transit project, which will use bus lanes, signal priority (special green lights for buses) and enhanced stations to make the trip from Ogilvie/Union Station to Michigan Avenue, and vice versa, significantly faster. That’s a big deal mainly because it makes commuter rail stations on both ends of the Loop (and all the lines that end there) much more valuable: people whose lines end in the West Loop can now get to the eastern side much more easily, and, just as importantly, the South Side Metra Electric and South Shore lines that end at Millennium Station can make it to the western edge of the Loop – where jobs have been increasingly concentrated – without spending twenty minutes stuck in traffic to go the last mile.

It’s also just impressive policy. In a country where multi-hundred-million-dollar streetcars serving a few thousand speculative tourists are a remarkably popular genre of transit, Chicago is going to spend just $30 million – less than the cost of a single El station, or roughly 158 feet of subway* – to radically improve transportation for 25,000 riders a day.


BRT! B still my heart.

Central Loop BRT might also serve as a kind of proof-of-concept for BRT on Ashland and other streets. Buses have such a terrible reputation in Chicago, as in other American cities, that it’s hard for a lot of people to imagine them being anything other than frustratingly slow. A bus that gets to speed by traffic, that has its own rail-like stations, might change a lot of minds – or, more to the point, get them asking, “Why doesn’t my neighborhood bus do that?” It’s particularly exciting that the CTA is going to build one station with fare gates, meaning the standard CTA practice of waiting two or three light cycles for everyone to board and tap their cards at a busy stop will be completely eliminated.

More of that, too. Thanks.

* Based on $1 billion per mile.