Sometimes things are nice

Very  briefly, before a trip to China (yay!):

1. December 2014 was the first month of year-over-year ridership growth for CTA buses since November 2012. (Zero point one percent growth, but you know, it’s the trend that counts.) January 2015 was the second. (5.6% – though from a very low baseline of Polar Vortex-ified January 2014. Still down from January 2013.) Eagerly awaiting later numbers to see if this is a turnaround that will stick.

2. Pace, Chicago’s suburban bus service, has launched the website for Pulse, its rapid bus network initiative. Eventually, Pace plans 24 routes throughout the six-county area – though mostly serving suburban Cook. The first two lines to be implemented will be along Milwaukee Avenue, going northwest from the Jefferson Park Blue Line station, and Dempster Street, from Evanston to O’Hare.

The lines will have stops roughly every half mile, raised stations with real-time arrival information and heating, and limited transit-signal technology to give the buses priority through traffic lights. (Though only when it doesn’t affect car traffic, which is a pretty big “only.”)

The most important thing, though, might be the frequency, which is planned for every 10 minutes during peak periods and 15 minutes the rest of the day. Fifteen minutes is the outer edge of acceptable, but for a suburban bus network, it’s pretty exciting. Kudos to Pace.

Rendering of a Pulse station.

Rendering of a Pulse station.

Unnecessary population loss on the North Side is a problem for the whole city

Here’s one way to put Chicago’s demographic problem: Since 1950, the city has lost more people than currently live in all of San Francisco, Boston, or D.C. After finally increasing its population in the 1990s, the 2010 Census found that Chicago – unique among the large, relatively prosperous cities we consider our peers – had declined by 7%, or around 200,000 residents.

Indeed, just a couple miles from the heart of the Loop lies a neighborhood that, despite a rich history, beautiful architecture, and quick access to the second-largest business district in America, has lost 40% of its population since the middle of the last century. An area that once held 102,000 people is now home to barely 64,000.

That area is called Lincoln Park.

For a long time, most accounts of Chicago’s lagging population have focused on parts of the South and West Sides where many residents, largely African-American, have decided to decamp for the suburbs or the South in search of better schools, less crime, and more jobs.

But the under-appreciated flip side of population loss in those parts of the city is that places that ought to be growing like gangbusters are stagnant, often sitting 25% to 50% below their peak populations. Lakeview, for example, was once home to 124,000 people; its population is now 94,000. North Center is down from nearly 49,000 to under 32,000. West Town, which includes Wicker Park and Bucktown, has fallen from 187,000 to 81,000.



Seg12aCompare the maps: many of Chicago’s wealthiest neighborhoods are dramatically below their peak populations.

Even more startling, these areas aren’t necessarily gaining back those people. Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and North Center all actually lost population in the 2000s. Logan Square, whose rapid ascent as a “hot” neighborhood picked up steam during that decade, was home to 11% fewer people in 2010 compared to ten years earlier.10

The problem, obviously, is not that people don’t want to live in these neighborhoods. Home prices and rents have skyrocketed over the last ten to twenty years; average incomes have climbed with them, as more and more of the well-to-do decide Chicago’s North Side is a place they’d like to call home.

So what’s going on? And why should we care?

One reason is that over the last few generations, Americans all over the country have spread out a bit: apartments that used to hold a family of five or six now contain a family of three or four – or maybe a childless couple who have turned a bedroom into an office. Or maybe just one person, living alone. This is especially true in wealthier areas, where people can afford to buy themselves more space. As a result, if a neighborhood has roughly the same number of housing units it had fifty years ago, it probably has a significantly lower population.

But that doesn’t explain why these neighborhoods, which have become so popular, haven’t seen the construction of more housing units. For most of Chicago’s history, when a neighborhood became more popular, builders created more housing, turning houses into three-flats, and three-flats into courtyard buildings. In a few really high-demand areas, like right along the lakefront or near downtown, they might even have built highrises.

Note that outside of the central area, high rates of housing construction exist mainly along the river - along the western border of Lincoln Park and North Center. Many of those areas were formerly non-residential. Small amounts of new construction translated to high percentage growth.

Note that outside of the central area, high rates of housing construction exist mainly along the river – along the western border of Lincoln Park and North Center. Many of those areas were formerly non-residential. Small amounts of new construction translated to high percentage growth.

But for the last several decades, increasingly strict zoning laws have outlawed this kind of gradual build-up. Instead, Chicago’s laws allow a massive boom in parts of downtown – mostly where there weren’t enough white-collar residents to complain – while putting a tight lid on the neighborhoods.

Since replacing a couple two-flats with a courtyard building is now illegal, developers make money by tearing down an old two-flat and building a luxury two-flat in its place. Or they build a mansion, and the neighborhood actually loses a housing unit. As a result, as a neighborhood becomes more attractive, the city encourages fewer people to live there.

And that’s how we arrived at the bizarro-world reality that Lincoln Park actually lost roughly the same number of housing units as Englewood between 2000 and 2012.

You can see how dramatic the effect is by looking at population growth around the borders of downtown: where relatively loose downtown zoning holds sway, the number of residents boomed. But instead of gradually tapering off as you get further away, there are sharp drop-offs all around the central area. Often, a few blocks where the population grew by 50% or more are right next to a few blocks where population actually declined. In most cases, zoning plays a crucial role in those disparities.

But so what? Why does any of this matter?

For one, it matters because if the number of housing units in a neighborhood is capped, as that neighborhood becomes more desirable, affluent new arrivals will outbid existing residents and people of moderate income, pushing up housing prices and creating newly segregated enclaves. If we want regular people to be able to live in some of our safest, most transit-accessible neighborhoods, allowing the supply of housing to grow with demand is a crucial part of that affordability.

Second, as places like Lincoln Park become forbiddingly expensive, some people decide their next best option is, say, Wicker Park or Logan Square. When they arrive, they open coffee shops and hipster bars, attracting people with more money, who then bid up housing prices there, expanding the parts of the city where the working class simply can’t afford to live.

But most potential residents will just decide to move to the suburbs. And, once there, they won’t be supporting neighborhood businesses. They won’t be contributing to the city’s tax base. In other words, by pushing people to the suburbs, we’re giving up neighborhood jobs and money the city desperately needs to provide services in every neighborhood in the city, including – especially - the ones that are actually struggling, far from Lincoln Park.

The fact that Chicago’s affluent North Side communities have lost so many people, and aren’t gaining them back, is a huge problem for many local businesses, current residents of moderate means, and anyone who would like to move there but can’t afford to.

But even if none of that describes you, it’s also a problem for those of us who’d like to see City Hall have more resources to invest in other parts of the city, from policing, to schools, to transit, to road repair. It’s a problem for those of us who’d like to see more jobs created within commuting distance of Chicago communities where unemployment is endemic. It’s a problem, in other words, for all of us.

Two pieces of context re: bus ridership declines

The news from the CTA last week was that a longtime trend of convergence between bus and rail ridership is, if anything, picking up speed:

It’s hard to overstate how big a transformation of Chicago’s transportation landscape this is. As recently as the 1990s, there were well over two bus riders for every rail rider; the city’s transit was as much about a crosstown streetcar-era bus grid as it was about a downtown-focused heavy rail network.

But rail ridership has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, and bus ridership – which stabilized in the early 1990s after a long period of precipitous decline – has begun to fall again in the last few years.

The reasons for that aren’t entirely clear. Ridership began a notable dip right after the 2008 economic crash, which makes sense – fewer employed people means fewer commutes. But the more recent decline, which seems to have started in 2012, is harder to explain. Precisely because it’s hard to explain, I suspect, many of the theories offered are quite vague: many of them are of the “people just don’t like buses” variety.

"Revenue miles" is just a measure of service. If there's one bus route that's 10 miles long, and it's served by one bus that travels from the beginning to the end and then back again, that's 20 revenue miles.

“Revenue miles” is just a measure of service. If there’s one bus route that’s 10 miles long, and it’s served by one bus that travels from the beginning to the end and then back again, that’s 20 revenue miles. Source: National Transit Database

But I think any discussion of bus ridership in Chicago needs to include this chart, and take two things away from it.

1. First of all, declining bus ridership is not actually a “long-term” trend, though it’s often framed that way. (Or, to be more specific: decline is typical of the last 50 years, but not the last 10 or 20.) In fact, as recently as the mid-2000s, ridership was growing. And other than the deep recession years of 2009-2010, 2013-2014 represents the first multiyear ridership decline since the mid-1990s. This isn’t meant to wave the problem away: it actually makes it worse, since it suggests that far from experiencing a long, slow decline driven by structural factors, something specific has changed recently that’s made buses less attractive.

2. Secondly, service matters. I think it is probably not a coincidence that ridership growth in the 2000s came at a time when the CTA was adding service: reducing wait times between buses, expanding their hours, and introducing express routes. (Between 2002 and 2006, the CTA created ten “X” routes, which mostly followed existing bus lines, but stopped every half mile instead of every eighth. Almost all of them were discontinued in 2010 because of a budget shortfall.)

I think it is also probably not a coincidence that the CTA has had a difficult time recouping its bus ridership losses from the recession, given that its dramatic recession-era service cuts have mostly remained in place.

To be clear, this isn’t at all a slam on the CTA, which can’t raise significant revenue without raising fares. Moreover, it has launched some bus service improvements in the last few years – the Jeffery Jump, the “Loop Link” busway, and the proposed Ashland BRT – that make a good template for expansions into the rest of the system.

In constant 2013 dollars. Source: National Transit Database

In constant 2013 dollars. Source: National Transit Database

But the money for more broad-based, bread-and-butter improvements to service just hasn’t been there. And unlike rail customers – who are generally downtown commuters, and have to think about paying downtown parking rates if they want to ditch public transit – bus riders who already have a car face no such massive disincentive to using it. To be competitive, buses need to run frequently and reliably, and make decent time along their routes. They are absolutely capable of doing that, given relatively modest investments in operations funds, technology, and space. But we’re not making nearly enough of those investments.

In the Sun-Times

Some maps of mine are in the print edition of the Sun-Times, accompanying an op-ed by the Metropolitan Planning Council‘s Marisa Novara. The piece is called “Poverty, not gentrification, is Chicago neighborhood scourge,” and it argues…well, you know. But it’s worth reading the whole thing!

(I’d also point out that the headline, as ever, is slightly unfair to the actual argument, which acknowledges that in some places, gentrification and displacement are actually problems.)

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The maps themselves are simplified, grayscale versions of these. But since the Sun-Times didn’t include them in the online version of the article, I thought I’d post them here, in case anyone was curious.


What is neoliberalism? Three possibilities

On Twitter the other day, I asked a question:

If you spend much time in left-leaning precincts of the urban policy world, “neoliberal” and “neoliberalism” are words you hear an awful lot. Notably, they are only ever used by people who do not believe that the word applies to them: “neoliberal” always refers to someone else, and is almost always a term of accusation. Sometimes, but rarely, there is a definition attached. The rest of the time, the reader is assumed to already understand what “neoliberal” means. But the word is applied in so many situations, and so broadly, that I’ve heard more than a few jokes along these lines:

But I think it merits taking slightly more seriously than that. (Not that I’m picking on Ted here, since he followed up on his joke by offering a real attempt at a definition.) So I asked Twitter for help.

Mostly, I didn’t get a huge number of replies – maybe ten, several of which were communicated to me privately through email or direct messages. From that, I take some combination of: a) I don’t actually have that many followers; b) most people aren’t that interested in defining abstract terms; c) people aren’t really sure what “neoliberal” means.

But still, I’m going to take a stab at a few possibilities. I don’t mean this at all to be comprehensive or definitive; I’m thinking of it mainly as another way to attract some feedback.

1. Laissez-faire economics

In one sense, this is the most obvious definition. Most sources that speak to the origins of the term seem to agree that the “liberal” in “neoliberal” refers to classical liberal economics. (Though even some of these acknowledge that pinning down an exact meaning is difficult.)


Hayek: Neoliberal?

On the other hand, it’s hard to square this definition with the actual use of the term in urban contexts. I think it’s fair to say, for example, that mayors Rahm Emanuel in Chicago and Michael Bloomberg in New York have become poster children for neoliberalism in American local government. But while both of them have pursued some policies that would fit the free-market bill – privatization of public services, an emphasis on business-friendly deregulation – they’ve also embraced aggressive, and expensive, intervention in the private market. In Chicago, which I’m more familiar with, spending hundreds of millions of TIF dollars on building subsidies, infrastructure investments, and business incentives basically is Mayor Emanuel’s economic development program.

It isn’t necessary to judge the merits of those policies to see that they’re quite far from a Friedmanite, don’t-pick-winners approach to government. If neoliberalism is all about free markets, then either Emanuel isn’t a neoliberal, or he’s a very selective one.

2. A theory of politics

In poking around the Internet on this question, I came across this piece by Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber. Farrell has an interpretation of neoliberalism that I haven’t seen explicitly espoused elsewhere, but which I think hits some important notes. For Farrell, neoliberalism isn’t about free markets – it isn’t even really about any principles or policy commitments that are different from standard left liberalism. It’s about a theory of politics:

A theory of politics is a necessary condition for thinking about the relationship between policy measures and politics. A proposed policy measure that seems desirable in principle (because e.g. it is cheaper than another alternative) may not be so desirable if it has malign political consequences (it materially strengthens interest groups who have malign long term objectives)….

Lefties have a clearly discernible theory of politics, which has to do with collective action, and the building and sustenance of mobilizing organizations…. But neo-liberals – not so much, apart from a historical belief in the power of technocratic discussion to reshape politics. This not only means that they are less effective than they should be, but that they may push for policies that do long term political damage.

I’m not quite sure how to evaluate the accuracy of this argument, but it certainly resonates with some of the criticisms of neoliberal politicians and writers that you hear even from people who clearly do have major differences with what they perceive as neoliberal principles and policies. In particular, the accusation that neoliberals are somehow out of touch with real people – with communities – in a way that goes beyond policy disagreements. To go back to Ted Whalen for a second:

For me, the “market economics toolbox” implies a lot more than an inclination towards laissez-faire. It implies an approach to human behavior ruled by rational choice theory, and a policy approach that tends to treat people as free-floating individuals who desire to satisfy any number of preferences with regards to schools, public safety, and jobs, but aren’t super picky about how those preferences get satisfied. In other words, it suggests an inability to understand community, identity, respect, justice, or other values that often get short shrift in rational choice models. It suggests policymakers who may not realize, for example, how upsetting the loss of community resulting from a neighborhood school closure might be – even if your kid ends up going to a somewhat better school as a result.

In this reading, then, the leftist critique of neoliberalism is about a failure to understand the nature of power, and, as a result, the need for people- and community-centered organizing, rather than technocratic tinkering. This failure, moreover, may not be accidental, or simple naivete, but the result of a analytic “toolbox” that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to understanding power struggles in that way.

Or not.

This seems, I think, like an important piece of the puzzle. But it suggests nothing about the motivations or interests of “neoliberals.” Which brings me to…

3. The growth coalition

This, to be honest, has been my fuzzy interpretation of the term for a while. The people and policies identified as neoliberal seem to reflect less any ideological commitment to markets, or naivete over how politics works, than the priorities of the good old-fashioned urban civic and business elites who have been ruling cities like Chicago and New York for decades. If you’re new to the terms “growth coalition” or “growth machine,” this is a very brief overview, and this is a somewhat longer one. But the basic idea is that the urban governing coalitions are driven mainly by a desire to grow the value of their property by, among other things, improving infrastructure and intensifying land use.

This explains both (laissez-faire-seeming) disinvestment in social services and aggressively interventionist economic development policy. On the other hand, if neoliberalism is just growth machine politics, then what, exactly, is new about it? Most leftist writers, after all, seem to take the position that this neoliberalism is a relatively new, or at least newly influential, force in American local politics. Is that really the case? Or is there something that differentiates the growth coalition of, for example, Rahm Emanuel from that of Richard J. Daley?

Daley: neoliberal?

Daley: Neoliberal?

When has housing supply ever kept rents down?

Credit: Bill Dickinson on Flickr

Credit: Bill Dickinson on Flickr

A short Friday post. Mostly, I am eager to no longer have the word “Zirin” in my most recent headline here.

Anyway, something that people frequently ask when I (or others) talk about the beneficial effects of building more homes for housing affordability is: When has that ever worked?

This is sometimes an earnest question, and sometimes not, because the person assumes that if no examples immediately come to their mind, then it has never happened.

For a long time, I thought that maybe the best way to respond was to point to rigorous quantitative studies – by both market-friendly people like Ed Glaeser and people mainly known as academic warriors against racial and economic inequality – that are even better than a single example: they show that, nationwide, less building, and stricter zoning, is associated with higher housing prices and more segregation!

But people keep asking for examples.

So: okay! Here are a few.

1. Rich white landlord says he’s happy he owns buildings on the North Side of Chicago, where nothing’s being built, rather than downtown, where lots is being built, because he has “freedom to raise rents.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 6.44.21 PM

2. In Washington, a glut of apartments has led to zero or negative rent growth.

From the Washington Post

From the Washington Post

An unprecedented number of new apartment units (about 24,000) have arrived in the area in the past two years, increasing the total apartment inventory by roughly 5 percent.

That new supply wave cut rents for four- and five-star apartments even further, even as rents at three-start apartments continued to outperform. But the narrowing may be slowing as the wave of supply takes its toll on three-star rents as well, working in renters’ favor.

3. Austin sees growth in average rents fall almost to zero after massive building boom.

The 10,000 new units added last year in the region, which stretches from Georgetown to San Marcos, marked the largest increase Heimsath has recorded since he began tracking the numbers in 1991. The influx expands the region’s apartment inventory by 6 percent, to 180,280 units in all.

With all those new units entering the market, supply is catching up to demand. And that means apartment rents are stabilizing after rising rapidly — sometimes as much as 7 percent per year — from 2010 through 2013. The average rent in the metro area was $1,107 a month in December — an all-time high, but an increase of only $8 from the average rent for June, Heimsath said.

4. Average rents in Chicago fall, thanks in part to lots of construction.

Real estate data firm Zillow said Friday that rents have fallen 0.5 percent in the Chicago area over the past year.

“Chicago did a whole lot of overbuilding during the housing boom,” said Svenja Gudell, director of economic research at Zillow, noting that some select downtown neighborhoods in the Windy City still have prices rising at or above the national average.

Zillow said prices increased a seasonally-adjusted 3.3 percent in January compared with 12 months earlier. But some major cities are finding themselves with an excessive supply of apartments and houses, reducing price pressures for renters.

5. Rental-backed securities are losing fans because new housing supply means rents will stop rising so fast in cities around the country.

But in the last month, investors and analysts have cooled to the sector. REIT [real estate investment trusts] total returns are a negative-1.7% so far in February, with apartments stocks returning a negative-1.1%. A handful of analysts have downgraded the apartment sector on fears it is overvalued and won’t generate the growth in revenue it posted last year….

There is also talk of an oversupply of apartments in markets where there hasn’t been enough job growth to support demand. Washington, D.C., has seen a huge uptick in supply over the last three years, while in the Texas oil belt the falling price of oil has sparked fears that jobs will dry up….

Builders in the past six months have started construction on new multifamily apartments at an average pace of 357,000 units a year, 26% more than the 30-year average, according to Evercore ISI. The investment bank predicts negative demand, or a rise in vacancy rates, for apartments over the next year for Houston, Washington, Charlotte and Austin, Texas.

“Overbuilding concerns will remain a focal point for REIT investors over the next few years given the current pace of permit activity and new starts,” says Steve Sakwa, an Evercore REIT analyst.

As ever, none of this will be enough to fix the housing affordability problem on its own, for reasons that I’ve gone into before. (People don’t have enough money to afford even the cost of building maintenance; in places like Washington, or parts of Chicago, rents are so high that they’d have to do way more than stop growing to be affordable to lower-income people; etc.) We still need all the non-market housing we can get, particularly in very high-demand neighborhoods.

But the bottom line is that slow, zero, or negative cost-of-housing growth is better than fast cost-of-housing growth. (At least, that is, in high-cost neighborhoods/metropolitan areas.) The vast majority of low- and moderate-income people live, and will continue for the foreseeable future to live, in non-subsidized housing. Even in New York, which has held on to its public housing better than most other large expensive cities, it only makes up something like 7% of all units. That means that it’s exactly these kinds of market trends – consistently large rent hikes, year after year, in mid-ish market housing – that makes a neighborhood, or city, or metropolitan area, eventually unaffordable to working- and middle-class people.

And it turns out that construction booms arrest that sort of pattern, or prevent its continuation, all the time.

Dave Zirin can’t recognize a photo of JRW neighborhood, but he’s quite confident he can diagnose their problems from DC anyway

So yesterday Deadspin was nice enough to republish a (slightly different) version of my Jackie Robinson/gentrification post. Just a few hours later, Dave Zirin, who wrote the original article, which was entitled “Gentrification is the Real Scandal Surrounding Jackie Robinson West,” chimed in to scold me for having the “grotesque” audacity to accuse him of thinking that there was some gentrification around Jackie Robinson West.

I’ll take him at his word that he meant no such thing. That leaves me unclear as to what, exactly, gentrification had to do with JRW, or why it was in his headline, or what he meant when he wrote: “The fact that the adults in charge of JRW felt the need to breach this rule perhaps has something to do with the fact that today’s urban landscape supports baseball about as well as concrete makes proper soil for orchids…. This is because twenty-first-century neoliberal cities have gentrified urban baseball to death.” But life is full of mysteries.

I have a lot of feelings about the rest of his piece, which I mostly found kind of bizarre and flailing. I think it’s probably unproductive to continue this conversation any further, though, so I’ll leave them unblogged.

Except for one thing, because I’m not quite that virtuous. At the bottom of my post, I had included an image of a street a few blocks from Jackie Robinson Park, to illustrate the point that many of the children on the team came from relatively stable, middle-class neighborhoods, and to refer to them as “flowers growing in concrete” (as Zirin did) was to perpetuate the damaging myth that black communities on the South Side are all ravaged and destitute.

Zirin, however, didn’t recognize the photo, calling it a “suburban home,” and calling my contention that we should acknowledge the real diversity of black neighborhoods on the South Side “kind of gross.”

Having had it pointed out to him on Twitter and in the comments that the homes he called suburban were actually in the city neighborhoods he had been confidently pontificating about this entire time, he had Deadspin quietly edit the line. It now reads “suburban-looking.”

I suppose that shouldn’t be shocking, given that when I asked him if he had ever been to the places he was being paid to analyze for a national audience, he told me that he had once “lived on the South Side for a summer.” He didn’t specify when he had done that, or indicate whether his South Side neighborhood was anywhere near the JRW neighborhoods.

I guess now we know.

Edit: Uh, Deadspin‘s Albert Burneko did my job for me and wrote an actual non-snarky explanation of why Zirin’s response was so confusing/unsatisfying. Thanks, Albert.

JRW: Not a story about gentrification

I like The Nation. I like Dave Zirin! But this column by Dave Zirin in The Nation is very, very bad.

The column is entitled: “Gentrification is the Real Scandal Surrounding Jackie Robinson West.” This is a very bad title. But I’ve felt misrepresented by a good number of headline writers in my day, so I tried to withhold judgment until I actually read the piece.

But no: in this case, it turns out that the headline is pretty fair.

The fact that the adults in charge of JRW felt the need to breach this rule perhaps has something to do with the fact that today’s urban landscape supports baseball about as well as concrete makes proper soil for orchids… This is because twenty-first-century neoliberal cities have gentrified urban black baseball to death. Boys and Girls Clubs have become bistros. Baseball fields are condos and in many cities, Little League is non-existent. The public funds for the infrastructure that baseball demands simply do not exist, but the land required for diamonds are the crown jewels of urban real estate.

There are levels to this.

On a nitty-gritty level, I would be interested if Dave Zirin can think of a single example on the South Side of Chicago of a) Boys and Girls Clubs that are now bistros, or b) public baseball diamonds that are now condos. Actually, I’m not that interested, because I know the answer, which is No, because a) those things did not happen and b) Dave Zirin made them up.

One reason I know that Dave Zirin made them up is that black neighborhoods in Chicago, particularly on the South Side, almost never gentrify. I know that they don’t gentrify partly because I live in Chicago, and I pay a lot of attention to neighborhoods and neighborhood change here, and I go places, and talk to people, and I see and hear that they don’t gentrify. I also know that they don’t gentrify because literally less than six months ago there was a widely-reported study by a very well-respected urban sociologist that documented, in rigorous detail, that black neighborhoods in Chicago don’t gentrify.

I also know that if you were to ask people to list black neighborhoods on the South Side that were maybe inching towards gentrification, they would list places like Bronzeville, Kenwood, and Woodlawn. Roseland, Washington Heights, and Morgan Park – the heart of JRW territory, and several miles further south – would not be on that list.

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Which means that Dave Zirin didn’t just make up some fictional – but poignant! – events to more effectively illustrate a real phenomenon. He made up the entire phenomenon. Why did he do that? I don’t really know. I can observe, however, that this seems to be one of the more extreme examples of a different phenomenon, which is people who cannot discuss issues of urban inequality without using the lens of gentrification. Even where – as in the JRW neighborhoods – the fact that gentrification is completely and utterly nonexistent has already been made a national news story.

What’s unfortunate about all this is that there is an urban inequality story to tell here. Many stories, in fact. Zirin mentions the issue of school closure, and the demographic shift of African-Americans from the South Side into the south suburbs. That shift is certainly driven, in part, by the city’s failure to provide basic services and amenities to many of these neighborhoods. Many of them still appear to be losing population, and income, and jobs, and stores.

But that is not what “gentrification” means.

Moreover, Zirin’s column becomes episode one million of national (and local!) media deciding that a story about black boys from the South Side of Chicago must also, and straightforwardly, be a story about deprivation and poverty. But of course, as Pete Saunders and others have pointed out, many of these boys come from places – like Morgan Park – that are strongly middle class. The narrative of black South Side neighborhood pathology, though – the narrative that underlies the shunning of these places and the people who live there – demands their erasure, and writers on both the left and right are more than happy to oblige for their own ideological purposes.


JRW territory: Pretty scary, huh?