Segregation, integration, gentrification

I have a column at the Washington Post:

The kind of cognitive dissonance that allows someone to decry segregation while they wish to “reverse” the process of integration makes it impossible to articulate a real vision for what a just city might look like….

When we talk about racial change in Brooklyn or Washington, D.C., without acknowledging the larger context – the fact that for every black or Hispanic neighborhood seeing an influx of whites, there are 10 more that are just as segregated as they were 30 years ago – we’re missing what remains the fundamental inequality of American cities. What to do about the power and resource inequalities that both created and are sustained by segregation remains the fundamental challenge.

NB: Headlines are the bane of my existence.

A matter of scale

This is what you find when you Google "bus train."

This is what you find when you Google “bus train.”

One of the weirder recurring intra-urbanist fights is about whether buses or trains are better. This seems like a deeply silly argument to me, akin to angrily taking sides about whether people should eat cereal or spaghetti. That is to say: surely that depends on the time of day, and surely the “best” transportation technology depends on context.

I thought of this again when I read an old post Simon Vallée linked to this morning. (Simon has a great Montreal- and Japan-focused blog that you should read.) Generally, I’m not super interested in wading into these sorts of debates, but I thought his post was particularly useful both inasmuch as it emphasizes the importance of context, and then completely ignores the importance of context in order to draw the conclusion that, obviously, rail is better and anyone who disagrees is wrong wrong wrong.

The crux of Simon’s argument, as I understand it, is that rail doesn’t just provide a superior qualitative experience: in the long run, it actually beats bus rapid transit at its own game. BRT is promoted as a low-cost rapid transit alternative, but because you can fit more people on a train than a bus, you can run fewer vehicles, pay fewer drivers, and actually save money.

Simon provides charts to show how this is true, at least above a certain level of ridership. He doesn’t provide any sources for his cost estimates, so I wouldn’t actually take this as gospel, but he seems to know what he’s talking about, so for the sake of argument let’s assume all these numbers are right. (Actually, looking at them again, they seem to understate US rail costs compared to Alon Levy’s list, and overstate BRT costs, at least compared to Chicago’s projects. But whatever.) In that case, light rail is cheaper than bus rapid transit in the long run for any line with more than about 50,000 daily riders.

BRTLRTHRT1

So, Simon concludes:

Personally, I find LRTs more promising for the developed world…. The future of full-fledged BRTs in North America isn’t promising, at low riderships where they are cheaper than LRTs, the low riderships don’t actually justify the investments in BRTs, limited buses with bus lanes could achieve more or less the same quality of service. When ridership increases to the point where investing in BRT would be really better than just limited bus services or BRT-lite (like the SBS in New York), you’d probably be better off investing in LRT anyway, at least in the long-term.

This may be true. The problem, however, is that in practice, the vast majority of US light rail lines are below Simon’s ridership threshold. Of the three dozen cities or so that either have light rail systems, are building one, or are planning one, exactly five have single lines that carry (or are projected to carry) over 50,000 people per weekday. (Those are San Francisco, Boston, Portland, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.)

That means that in roughly 80-85% of US bus/rail arguments that are about an actual or potential piece of infrastructure, Simon’s own analysis suggests that he should be in the anti-rail camp. Or, you know, that this whole thing is more complicated than he’s letting on.

Ashland.

* I would point out, also, that Simon’s cost savings come from having “three to six times” fewer vehicles running with light rail than BRT. That saves a bunch of money, sure, but it also means that vehicles come three to six times less often – meaning that a BRT line with buses every 5 minutes becomes a light rail system with trains every 15-30 minutes. And, in fact, many light rail systems in the US run on exactly those kinds of headways. At that point, light rail becomes hugely more of a hassle, since you have to build an extra 10-20 minutes into every trip to make sure you’ll be on time if you have a long wait for a train. Light rail can come more frequently, of course – but then it loses its labor cost savings over BRT.

** In my last nit-pick, I would also point out that Simon doesn’t do any discounting for future costs, which is not how any cost-benefit analysis has ever worked. That is, money in the future counts less than money in the present, not least because money in the present can be invested in things that produce value now. The lower initial costs of BRT are a bigger deal than he allows, I think.

*** Finally, to ruin my opening metaphor, spaghetti is obviously better than cereal, even for breakfast.

Height can be deceptive: when 15 = 4

One of the foremost complaints about the proposed 15- and 11-story towers around the California Blue Line stop – a proposal that I briefly mentioned in an earlier post – is that they’re too dense for the neighborhood. What people mean by this, and sometimes what they just come out and say, is that they’re much denser than existing buildings.

logansquaredualtowers

The proposed towers in question.

For the record, I don’t think that “denser than existing buildings” and “too dense” are the same thing, but let’s put that aside for the moment. Are these towers actually much denser than existing buildings in Logan Square? In one sense – a visual sense – the answer is obviously yes. People associate density with height, and these buildings would be much taller than anything else around them. (As I mentioned in the previous post, the tallest building currently in Logan Square is a seven-story residential building a few blocks away; otherwise, the vast majority of the neighborhood is built at between two and four floors.)

But although visuals absolutely matter, I think people generally believe that visual density is a decent proxy for actual density, which we usually measure in people or housing units per a given amount of space. At the public meeting for this proposal, both kinds of density were brought up many times: the aesthetic density of the streetscape, as well as the number of people who would be “crammed” into a relatively small area.

The problem with this is that visual density is not actually a great proxy for actual density. This concept has been covered elsewhere by smart people in a general way, but it’s also important in ways that are specific to Chicago. Part of the issue is that, because Chicago’s buildings heights tend to be so uniform everywhere outside of downtown and the lakefront, we are extremely sensitive to anything that falls outside that range – again, typically two to four stories – but we fail to perceive the massive differences in density among different kinds of three-story buildings.

Let’s take three (and a half) examples.

1.

3flat

Here is a typical three-flat. It has three housing units, or probably between five and eight people, on one standard 25′ by 125′ lot.

2.

corner3

Here’s a three-story corner building. (I made up the word “corner building” because they tend to be on corners, like this one, and also because I’m not aware of any other commonly used word for them.) It’s three floors, on the same standard 25′ by 125′ lot, but now it has at least six units, housing between 10 and 15 people or so. In other words, it’s literally twice as dense as the three-flat, despite being the same number of stories.

Now, to be fair, this particular corner building has a sort of basement half-story. So maybe it’s three and a half floors. But just to drive the point home, let’s take a building that’s unambiguously shorter than our three-flat:

2 1/2.

corner2

Here’s a two-story (or, if we’re being generous, two-and-a-half) corner building on the same standard lot with four units, or between six and eight-ish people. This scans to the average person as less dense - because less tall – than the three-flat we began with, but is actually 33% denser in terms of how many housing units it has, and how many people are likely to live in it.

3. 

courtyard

I’m cheating slightly here, but in a way that actually helps my case. This is, obviously, pretty much a four-story building – 3.75 stories, at the least – but I wanted to keep all of my examples in Logan Square, and it turns out that there aren’t very many courtyard buildings below four stories there.

But let’s compensate by just hacking off a floor’s worth of density. In reality, this building has about 32 units, but if it only had three floors, it would have 24. The building takes up just about three standard lots, meaning that it adds about 10.7 units per standard lot – or, in its imaginary three-story version, eight units. In other words, a three-story courtyard building has nearly three times the density of a three-flat of exactly the same height.

There’s a lot more to say about this, and its implications for planning and zoning in Chicago – incidentally, while we’ve allowed buildings to continue to be built up to three (or even four) floors in much of the city, we have outlawed corner building and courtyard building density virtually everywhere, meaning that the only way for us to get practical density is by adding lots more visual density than we’re used to.

But in this case, I want to address the particular case of the California/Milwaukee towers. For the sake of simplicity, I like turning everything into the number of units allowed per standard city lot; that way, we can directly compare new buildings to three-flats, corner buildings, courtyard buildings, and so on. The California/Milwaukee proposal contains 254 units on about 70,000 square feet of lot space. That lot space represents about 22.4 standard lots of 3,125 square feet (or 25 times 125). Doing the math, that means that there are about 11.3 units per standard lot.

To recap:

  • Three-flat: 3 units per standard lot
  • Three-story corner building: 6 units per standard lot
  • Three-story courtyard building: 8 units per standard lot
  • Four-story courtyard building: 10.7 units per standard lot
  • 15- and 11-story towers: 11.3 units per standard lot

In other words, this project would be denser than almost everything in Logan Square, but not by much. Less than a unit per lot separates it from four-story courtyard buildings, which are found all over the neighborhood, especially near Milwaukee Avenue. Rather than being four times denser than any common neighborhood building – which is a figure I’ve heard people use based on its height – it’s actually less than 10% denser.

And note, please, that I said “denser than almost everything.” Because there is, in fact, a much denser building that’s been around since early in the last century.

50

That seven-story building on the Square has, according to a well-placed source who opposes the California/Milwaukee towers, about 50 units. It’s on a slightly larger than normal double lot, with about 7,500 square feet. That works out to more than 20 units per standard lot – or nearly twice as dense as the proposed towers.

To be clear, none of this means that the California/Milwaukee proposal has to go through as is. It does mean, however, that we need to be clear about what kinds of precedent these towers would actually break if allowed: not a precedent of density in terms of people or housing units, but rather a precedent of density in terms of appearance. They would, in fact, be much taller than anything else in the area. Would it be possible to bring them more in line with the neighborhood’s look – if, as seems to be the case, that’s what neighbors want – without actually reducing the density of units? I don’t know what kind of engineering or economics problems that might create for the developer, but it’s worth asking.

Chicago Urbanist Calendar

So during an otherwise lazy weekend, I’ve finally launched a minor project I’ve been thinking about for months: the Chicago urbanist calendar. (There’s also a link to it up at the top of the page.) Basically, I am in a near-constant state of agitation as a result of missing events I’d like to go to because I only hear about them after they happen. To avoid that – and as a gracious public service – I’m now collecting all potentially interesting urbanist-related Chicago events in a public Google calendar, and hosted on this blog. The events range from governmental meetings that are open to the public, to civic hack nights, to architectural tours, to university panels on housing and gentrification; I’m trying to err on the side of including too much, rather than too little. To that end, if you or anyone you know is involved with any events coming up soon or in the more distant future – or know of an organization that regularly or occasionally puts on events that should be on this calendar – let me know! You can either email me (danielkayhertz [at] gmail), or leave a comment on the calendar page. (I won’t publish the comment, but I will add it to the calendar.)

Alternatively, if you have any ideas for how to make the calendar better or more useful, let me know! Hopefully this is something that will get refined over the next few months.

 

I get to vote, you don’t

I have to go to bed, so this will be quick. But this is such a perfect example of geographic bias in “public input” that I can’t let it go unremarked upon:

LAKEVIEW — Voters in the 44th Ward said “no” on Tuesday to the CTA’s proposed Belmont Bypass project.

The $320 million project would add another track to the Belmont “L” station, which connects Red, Brown and Purple lines and require the city to buy 16 buildings, partial air rights and several parking lots — a move some locals say could devastate the surrounding area.

[snip]

The question only appeared in those precincts closest to the Belmont “L” station: 20, 36 and 38. Local activists said the limited scope was due to time constraints.

What that means – as the article’s author, to her credit, points out – is that the 1,900 voters who would be most negatively affected by the Belmont Bypass got an officially-sanctioned megaphone for their views, while virtually all of the 200,000 people who ride the Red, Brown, and Purple Lines, and who would most directly benefit from this project, did not.

The offending bypass. Credit: Curbed Chicago

The offending bypass. Credit: Curbed Chicago

Several caveats: 1. I do not actually have a strongly held opinion about whether the Belmont Bypass is actually a good idea; 2. Certainly the people who own, reside, or run businesses in one of the 16 buildings to be taken and demolished have more at stake than everyone else, and I don’t want to minimize that; 3. This is a nonbinding resolution, and so doesn’t actually directly cause any action to be taken or not taken.

That said. That said, this is a shining example of the way that the procedures of local democracy often disenfranchise many of the people – frequently, the vast majority – who are affected by a given decision. Though the referendum is nonbinding, it certainly sends a message to the local alderman about what his constituents – that is, the people on whom his employment depends – want him to do; and, in the world of Chicago politics, local alderman have an awful lot of power to influence what happens in their ward. (That’s a separate discussion, though the fact that these sorts of decisions are made by such hyper-local officials is just another way in which the vast majority of those 200,000 daily riders lack recourse: their aldermen don’t have any say in the situation.)

I can imagine an objection. Daniel, says the objector, the reason these 1,900 people got to vote on this referendum – the reason they have a megaphone – is that they organized and collected petitions to get the question on their ballots. Had those other people organized, they would also have had a megaphone.

True. But two points:

1. The sorts of resources and skills required to collect signatures for a ballot referendum – knowledge of some of the more arcane election laws, probably access to at least one lawyer, language skills, enough free time to actually walk around with a pen and clipboard, and so on – are not equally distributed across the population. They are not equally distributed between, say, Lakeview and Washington Park. Setting some threshold for proving that a given issue is important enough to put on the ballot seems reasonable enough; requiring each and every precinct to do so separately – or forgo the chance to take a public stance on an issue that other people get to vote on – does not.

2. Even if the aforementioned resources and skills were equally distributed, this sort of public input – where, as with most public meetings, a sizable investment of time and effort is required just to have the chance to register your feelings – privileges small minorities with strongly-held opinions over large majorities with weaker opinions. In most cases, that means projects are shot down, whether it’s a piece of transit infrastructure that will speed the commutes of 200,000 people at the expense of 1,000, or new housing that will improve the accessibility of a desirable neighborhood at the inconvenience of its nearby neighbors. That’s not to say that these projects are always worth it, or even that every person’s opinion should be considered equally: clearly it’s a bigger deal to lose your home, even if you’re compensated for it, than it is to save five minutes on your commute each way.

But at the moment, we have a system of public input that, all too often, pretends the members of the vocal minority are the only people with a stake in the decision. And that seems to me like something less than democracy.

Height restrictions: hmm

I should say, to begin with, that I’m not totally unsympathetic to Charles Marohn’s call for flexible height restrictions. If there were a referendum tomorrow as to whether we should replace all the density restrictions in Chicago’s zoning code with his proposed rule – you get 1.5 times the average height of surrounding buildings – I would probably vote yes. (Although I’d be more likely to vote yes if there were another clause that gave you the option of building, say, 1.5 – 2 times the width of the street your building would face, which would allow much more density on major streets like Western and Irving Park.)

But still, I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical mostly because I think Marohn doesn’t fully grapple with the trade-offs the “incremental” approach requires, at least in mature, built-up city and inner suburban neighborhoods – and because I think those tradeoffs have really serious implications both for politics, and for the sort of urban fabric/soul-of-the-city questions that he seems to care a lot about.

Let’s take, for example, the two high-rise apartment buildings that have been proposed next to an L stop in my neighborhood. At 11 and 15 stories, the taller one would be roughly twice as tall as anything in the neighborhood (there’s an eight-story building a few blocks away), and roughly four times taller than the standard three-to-four-story building canopy in the area. This is exactly the kind of non-incrementalism that Marohn opposes, and I’ve heard more than a few people express the feeling that they’d rather see all those units come to the area in the form of more traditional three-flats than a big and flashy new tower.

logansquaredualtowers

But what would that actually look like? The towers are supposed to have roughly 250 apartments. That’s 84 three-flats, or roughly four full block faces. But if each of those three-flats is replacing a single family home or two-flat, then you’re not getting three new units in each building – you’re getting one or two. To get 250 new units, you would have to tear down 100 two-flats and 75 single family homes and redevelop them as three-flats: 175 old buildings, or roughly nine block faces. If we want to concentrate this density near the same L station, that basically means that every adjacent block would be entirely demolished and rebuilt with modern three-flats. Even if we discount the units that could be built on the empty lot where the towers are proposed – something that exists in very few places in Logan Square, or in most other neighborhoods in the city where development is occurring – we’re still talking about the wholesale destruction of at least a hundred historic buildings.

This, obviously, is a problem. It’s a problem from a logistical point of view, because assembling 100 or 175 or whatever separate properties is obviously harder, and probably more expensive, than buying a single, larger property. (And though Marohn has responded to this criticism by saying that he doesn’t care about the cost efficiency of construction, anyone who cares about housing costs, and the social problems related to ones that are too high, should.) It’s a problem from a preservationist point of view, because you’re requiring the teardown of historic buildings and streetscapes at a massive scale. It’s a problem from a Jacobsian urban planning point of view, because you’re eliminating the older building stock that provides most of the cheap housing and commercial spaces that create space for diversity in neighborhoods like Logan Square. And it’s a problem from a political point of view, because people generally don’t like it when every single building on their block is torn down and replaced with something that looks completely different.

I’m not sure how much the historic preservation and Jacobsian old-building issues bother me, or if I could deal with them. I am more confident, however, that the people who don’t like having a tall new building a block or two or three away from them would not be any happier about having all, or half, or a third of all the buildings on their street torn down. I could be wrong! And if I am, okay.

But the fact is that the kind of incremental development Marohn is championing is pretty rare, at least on a scale that would come close to matching the housing growth from a handful of very dense projects like the towers above. One of the only examples I can think of are some of the inner neighborhoods of Houston, where a loosening of density restrictions in the late 90s has unleashed a wave of townhome and small apartment developments in formerly single-family-home areas.

townhomes

There used to be quaint old little homes here. Credit: cdandrews.com

But Houston is obviously an outlier in the laxity of its building regulations, at least in neighborhoods like this one. (And people there aren’t necessarily happy about it.) Otherwise, the North American successes I’ve heard of in outlying neighborhoods – especially around transit – have come from targeted, out-of-scale development right around rail stations in places like Toronto, Vancouver, and suburban DC.

These two blocks are about a quarter of a mile from each other in outlying Toronto. Dense towers, protected single family homes.

These two blocks are about a quarter of a mile from each other in outlying Toronto. Dense towers, protected single family homes.

I should also say that part of the disagreement here, I think, comes from the fact that Marohn and I live in very different places. Marohn is from a small, generally auto-oriented town without, I would imagine, a huge pent-up demand for housing, and without the same kind of historic housing stock that people in places like Chicago are attached to. (Although maybe people there are attached to their housing too: I don’t know.) In any event, the case for new, large residential projects to inject as many housing units as possible, especially near transit, is clearly much weaker in the kind of place Marohn lives than where I or many of his detractors on this issue live.

Which is to say that I’m sort of sympathetic to his argument, and I think that in some contexts, he’s probably correct. But the costs and benefits of what he’s proposing in Chicago are very different from the costs and benefits in a place like Baxter, Minnesota, and I think he ought to be a bit more up front about that.

Zoning is totally innocent and not about segregation, episode 5238

In the Philadelphia neighborhood of Mayfair, Next City reports, some people want to create a new zoning overlay for the local commercial district. What would this overlay do? Would it, say, prevent those glue factories that zoning textbooks are always concerned about? Would it preserve the existing neighborhood character? Promote, I don’t know, more pedestrian-friendly, or car-friendly, or cat-friendly development? No. Ha ha.

The Mayfair zoning overlay would ban everything from barbershops and hair and nail salons to daycare centers, laundromats, and dollar stores.

The list reflects a typical range of businesses that you might find in lower-income communities. It also represents 34 percent of the existing businesses in Mayfair according to Philadelphia’s planning commission, which declined to give the neighborhood alteration its nod of approval. If City Council approves the overlay, existing businesses would be grandfathered in, but they’d be prevented from expanding — and it would be the most restrictive overlay in the city.

“I think if you take [away those stores], there’s nothing left. There’s really nothing besides that on the Avenue,” Angel Medina, proprietor of Hair Wizards, told me.

Efficiency! Democracy! Good Planning! Thank God for Local Control! Otherwise, it might turn out that virtually every city in the country had confiscatory, punitive laws that attempt to eliminate poor people, non-white people, and their livelihoods and accoutrements. Thank God we don’t live in that sort of dystopia.

The prophetic words of an observer of cities’ new zoning powers – in 1920:

Planners and zoning experts often appeal…that zoning…will protect them from ‘undesirable neighbors.’ In fact, …no height restriction, street width or unbuilt lot area will prevent prices from tottering in a good residential neighborhood unless it helps at the same time to keep out Negroes, Japanese, Armenians, or whatever race most jars the natives.

And so it has.

Jose Lopez and the Gentrification of Humboldt Park, Part 2

Note: This is the second half of a piece that began earlier this week.


Humboldt Park garage

Which brings us to Lopez himself. For the moment, I’ll leave aside the question of whether or not his goals are “good”; I think I pretty much summarized my feelings in the last post, and I have a piece that takes a much longer look at this sort of problem coming out some time soon.

Instead, let’s take the goals for granted and consider his methods.

His plan for fending off gentrification largely involves shoring up the community…. Lopez rattles off a list of goals that includes strengthening schools, securing loans for Puerto Rican business owners, offering job training for parents, and expanding affordable housing for low-income Latinos….

Over the years, Lopez has managed to put up considerable roadblocks to outside development. In 2004, for example, he worked with Alderman Billy Ocasio to establish the 26th Ward Affordable Housing Committee. That initiative prevented developers from building anything in the district bigger than a single-family home without the committee’s approval….

Lopez has his own ideas for the kinds of businesses Humboldt Park needs: a bicycle factory (he also wants to increase the number of bike lanes and create a bike-share program), weekly markets where residents sell their produce, Puerto Rican bars that serve Caribbean spirits, and a theater that produces the work of Latino playwrights. “Developers should be about creating a city where people can coexist,” he says.

There’s a lot here, with varying levels of plausibility. Start with “shoring up the community.”

To the extent “shoring up the community” means making the people who currently live in Humboldt Park wealthier, more educated, etc., it will certainly increase their housing options. That means rising housing prices in Humboldt Park are less likely to displace them – but it also means they have more purchasing power to move elsewhere on their own. Traub is right that ethnic neighborhoods very rarely remain magnets for people of that ethnicity as the community’s income rises; even the most enduring ethnic neighborhoods in the city – the black communities of the South and West Sides – have remained so disproportionately black not because their residents haven’t left for other places, but because white, Hispanic, and Asian people have been unwilling to replace them.

fun cakes, stars area, candy ap

To the extent “shoring up the community” means creating new businesses, bike lanes, bars,  theaters, and so on, Lopez is actually encouraging the very housing cost increases, and displacement of the poor, that he’s so opposed to. That doesn’t mean those are bad policies, or that they don’t accomplish other goals, like institutionalizing Puerto Rican culture in Humboldt Park. It just means that adding amenities to a neighborhood that has too few will make the neighborhood more desirable, which will raise housing prices almost – almost - by definition.

Creating more subsidized housing can counteract that effect somewhat; given that eastern Humboldt Park is clearly in the path of gentrification, it’s not a bad idea to build as much of it as possible while land is relatively cheap to act as a bulwark against the tide of economic stratification that is sure to come. But short of building the kinds of massive public housing projects that the city, and country, have committed themselves to tearing down, there’s no way that subsidized housing will ever account for more than a small fraction of all housing in the neighborhood. In other words, it won’t stop the vast majority of displacement.

Which is why it’s so unfortunate that Lopez also supports exactly the kind of market-rate housing policies that have allowed prices in Wicker Park, Bucktown, and now Logan Square, to skyrocket and turn those areas disproportionately white. Preventing new housing units from being built just means that, when the gentrifiers come, they will have only one choice: the homes that are currently occupied by working-class Puerto Ricans.

Because the bottom line is this: there are no tools to prevent white people with money from living where they want. There are no laws, no community organizations, no cultural institutions that can turn them away. If that is your goal, you’re done before you started. (Why is that? Why can’t we just convince gentrifiers to stay out? Because the reason they’re moving to Humboldt Park is that they are being priced out of their own neighborhoods. The twentysomethings with college degrees but relatively low earnings who live in Humboldt Park now are doing so because they can no longer afford to live in Logan Square; the ones in Logan Square moved there after Wicker Park became too expensive; and the ones in Wicker Park were fleeing rising prices in Lincoln Park. The changes in Humboldt Park are just one rung on a ladder that’s being pushed further and further away from the center city, affecting everyone in its wake. There’s a sense, of course, in which the people moving into Humboldt Park have more resources, and so perhaps more agency, to make housing decisions than the people who already live there; but in a larger sense, they are also being manipulated by housing policies that create ever-escalating bidding wars in an expanding ring of neighborhoods.)

What you can try to do is make room for both those newcomers and the older residents of lesser means who might otherwise be displaced. When the gentrifiers arrive, they can either find housing by outbidding current residents for their own homes – that is, raising housing prices – or they can move into newly-built apartments and condos. If those new units are built on an empty lot, no one has been displaced; if they’re built more densely than the building that was torn down to make way – say, an eight-unit building replacing a two-unit one – then they’ve displaced far fewer people than would have been otherwise.

Humboldt Park

And that’s the best you can do: make it as easy as possible for those who would like to stay, to stay. Nothing Jose Lopez or anyone else does is going to convince those with means not to live as close to the center of the city’s wealth as is affordable for them. The dominant Puerto Rican culture of Humboldt Park is certainly going to change, although supporting Puerto Rican businesses and cultural institutions can help it maintain a presence. Subsidized housing can shelter a small minority of residents from market forces. Allowing more construction to house the newcomers can, potentially, shield many more from seeing their own apartments’ rents go up dramatically.

Public meeting tomorrow

Those of you who live in or around Logan Square: I will be speaking about the need to allow more housing to slow rising rents and displacement in the neighborhood at a public meeting tomorrow about a proposed housing development across the street from the California Blue Line stop. If you’re around, and you want to make your voice heard, please come by! It’s tomorrow, Thursday, at 6:30 at Candela restaurant, Milwaukee and Sacramento.

I will also, of course, be doing my own demographic survey of the room and reporting the results tomorrow.

PS – Part two of the Humboldt Park/Jose Lopez response will come tomorrow. Delayed by working on this.

Jose Lopez and the Gentrification of Humboldt Park, Part 1

A bike festival in Humboldt Park last year. Credit: Steven Vance

A bike festival in Humboldt Park last year. Credit: Steven Vance

A few people have asked me what I think about Elly Fishman’s well-written Chicago Magazine feature on Humboldt Park anti-gentrification activist Jose Lopez. It’s hard to say. One thing that makes it hard is that it’s tough to know what you’re responding to; something Fishman does well, I think, is represent the feelings of people whose ideas about the situation have almost nothing in common. That’s true not just with respect to their ideas about what should happen – that’s easy enough to organize a debate around – but also about what is happening, how cities work, what a neighborhood means, and so on. It’s hard to build a story, or an argument, when the most fundamental facts of the case are themselves up for debate.

There is, to begin with, the perspective of the white (or otherwise privileged) outsider. In the piece, entrepreneur Brendan Sodikoff plays that role with a malice-tinged cluelessness. “It’s the next frontier – that’s how I feel about it,” is how he’s quoted. There’s a lot packed in there: there’s the sort of facile, and inflammatory, undertone of colonialism, using – as Lopez points out – language taken from a more or less genocidal period in American history.

But I think more importantly, the “frontier” language reveals something that’s under-acknowledged about most of the city’s non-white neighborhoods, which is that they have experienced a kind of social death in the  minds of the city’s white and professional-class residents. By which I mean that, socially, they might as well not exist. It not only would never occur to any of these people to go to Humboldt Park (or South Shore, or Austin, or…); it would never occur to them that anyone they might ever interact with would go to those places either. When they meet a person from those neighborhoods, they’re not quite sure how to react; they exist beyond the bounds of what they consider “normal” society, despite the fact that they make up a majority of the city. To the extent that they come up at all, it’s in the context of reasons that you should never go there, i.e., crime. What Sodikoff is saying is that he’s bringing Humboldt Park back into existence, back from social death, for people in his world: California and Augusta is a corner that they might go to now, think of as a real place. For him, and many others, that’s an unambiguously admirable thing to do.

Fishman also makes it clear, at a few points, that the white outsider is her reader – something that, given Chicago‘s reach, is a totally fair assumption. After Lopez is quoted referring to gentrifiers as “barbarians at the gate,” she writes:

It’s a funny notion: Birkenstock-wearing, craft-beer-swigging millennials as barbarians.

But that’s only a funny notion if you have no baggage about the role that upwardly mobile white people have played in the story of neighborhood change in Chicago. And that, in turn, is only possible if you have ruthlessly forgotten most of what has happened in this city for the last century or so. If you’ve forgotten about the hundreds of thousands displaced by urban renewal, and the incredible violence that accompanied Chicago’s transition from an overwhelmingly white city to one in which whites are a minority, and so on, then sure, there is no reason to be nervous about a sudden influx of white folks with economic and political capital. For everyone else, I think a sense of alarm is pretty intuitive.

Several steps removed from this are the academics. For them, looking at the broad sweep of ethnic and racial transitions in the city, what’s happening in Humboldt Park seems pretty unexceptional, and making a fuss about it seems kind of silly.

[Humboldt Park’s] shift is typical, says Richard Taub, an urban sociologist at the University of Chicago who has spent his career studying Chicago neighborhoods. “It’s wishful thinking to want an ethnic pocket,” Taub says. “Cities are dynamic and they don’t stand still. There are very few places in Chicago that have been stable over a 20-year period. Change is hard to fight.”

Over the past decade, a large percentage of educated middle-class Latinos have left Humboldt Park for better jobs elsewhere. Call it bright flight. “As a general rule, Hispanics really are following the route of other immigrants who came into this country,” says the University of Chicago’s Taub. “Which is, they congregate in a particular area where the prices are right, and then they start to make it and become upwardly mobile, eventually moving to other places.”

To be clear, I think this sort of 40,000-foot view is actually really valuable: things that seem unique, or random, or confusing from the perspective of someone experiencing a changing neighborhood, actually turn out to be part of very regular patterns when seen in the larger context of the city. This happens to be true on both sides of the change in Humboldt Park: white-collar gentrifiers are moving there because it is simply the next neighborhood in the path of the high-rent zone of the city that has been growing out from Old Town, roughly, since the 1970s. And, on the flip side, Humboldt Park is losing Hispanics to neighborhoods further north and west, and to the suburbs, in a pattern that has been evident for decades, and which applied to “white ethnics” in the exact same locations prior to that.

Untitled drawing

 

The growth of Hispanics in Chicago and suburban Cook County. Between 1980 and 2010, many tens of thousands of middle-class Hispanics have moved from the city to the suburbs, or in some cases moved there directly from Puerto Rico or abroad.

The growth of Hispanics in Chicago and suburban Cook County. Between 1980 and 2010, many tens of thousands of middle-class Hispanics have moved from the city to the suburbs, or in some cases moved there directly from Puerto Rico or abroad.

What I think needs to be kept in mind, though, is that the fact that something is predictable or even unavoidable doesn’t make it less traumatic for the people experiencing it. As I’ve written before, it’s very far from clear that maintaining highly segregated communities is something we should, on balance, want; but it is clear that there are perfectly legitimate reasons for people like Jose Lopez to want Humboldt Park to remain mostly Puerto Rican. We’re not doing him or ourselves any favors when we dismiss those goals out of hand.

In part two: Lopez himself.