Thursday, December 29, 2016

What the hell, Chicago?

Source: Chicago Tribune
Eleven people were shot to death in Chicago over Christmas weekend, bringing the total number of murders in the city in 2016 to over 750 (Bosman and Smith). It has been a distressing year, to say the least, in the Midwest's largest city, and it casts doubt on the whole urbanist project.

The murder epidemic comes after a 25 year decline in violent crime in the United States, including in the State of Illinois, where the rate per 100,000 population dropped from 1039 in 1991 to 370 in 2014. Nationally, violent crime in 2014 was 51.3 percent of the 1990 rate (Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports, aggregated at As I wrote in August, there are at least 11 explanations for this decline, which is too many to be encouraging, particularly when crime comes roaring back as it has in Chicago this year. And if that's not enough to worry about, consider this: the number of people shot in Chicago in 2016 exceeds 3,500 (Bosman and Smith again). Were it not for advances in medical science the number of deaths by murder would be much higher, wouldn't it?

Confoundingly, but happily for the rest of America, Chicago's year has not been replicated across the country, and indeed most of the homicides have occurred on the South and West sides. The Times article notes that neither Los Angeles nor New York has had anything like Chicago's experience; in fact Chicago's 2016 total exceeds those of the two larger cities combined. Smaller cities, too, have had widely varying experiences. So, what is going on? And what can be done?

Arthur Lurigio of Loyola University, cited in the Times article, suggests Chicago's suffers from a combination of easily available guns, persistent poverty, and escalating gang violence exacerbated by social media. One of my students who grew up on the South Side has written feelingly of how his neighborhood became increasingly unsafe beginning around 2006, when he would have been eight; his conversations with law enforcement suggests that a mid-decade scrambling of public housing residents put members of rival gangs in close and dangerous proximity to each other. Meanwhile, the police feel hamstrung by politicians critical of police shootings of black youth.

Chicago's experience is of national interest, because when a lot of people hear "urban" the image they get is not walkable, sociable neighborhoods with opportunity for all--or the commercial meccas of Michigan Avenue and New Bohemia--but the image of crime-infested, dirty streets filled with drug addicts. Whether the issue is sidewalks or affordable housing, design form or corner stores, at the root of pushback is: Don't bring the city to my neighborhood. Because we know what cities are like! (See above.) I can relate to this, having spent an embarrassing proportion of my suburban youth scared to death of Chicago. And, frankly, if there are going to be 750 murders somewhere, I'd rather it not be in my neighborhood.

But the deadly ghettos of Chicago need urbanism; they are not examples of  it. The poor areas of America's inner cities and first-ring suburbs are the flip side of the suburban development pattern that created well-off areas on the metropolitan edge. Those left behind need urbanism as much or more than anyone else.
People struggle, and on top of that, in many instances, people have lost hope in their government. They've lost hope that something is going to change for them. And if we can't keep hope alive, then you don't have to wonder whether things are going to get better or worse: They'll get worse. --ALD. DANNY DAVIS, quoted in Bosman and Smith
Everyone needs access to economic opportunity--a difficulty even for the middle-class in these times, much less for the poor who have been cut off for decades by the suburban development pattern. That means redesigning, or undoing a lot of the design of the last several decades, in order to make our cities more inclusive. That means, in part, breaking down barriers and encouraging more spontaneous interaction. There are dangerous people out there, and they should be in jail, but even justifiable fear does not justify cutting off huge chunks of the population. And then blaming them when they don't prosper.

Investment in our cities is fine, but must be aimed at ensuring opportunity for all. Which brings us to the the interesting case of City Center DC...

...a development in downtown Washington with high-end shopping, fancy restaurants and super-luxury condominiums. Backers of the project point to the flow of tax revenue to the city from sales and rents; apparently at these prices it doesn't take many of either to generate some nice cash flow. But, as a discussion last week on WAMU's "Kojo Nnamdi Show" pointed up, the area has not seen the foot traffic you'd expect from a successful retail area. But more popular stores would not be "driving value upstairs," because condo buyers would rather live above Louis Vuitton than above McDonald's or Wal-Mart. All this proves, I guess, is that a lot of people don't want to live around a lot of other people, and some are able to pay handsomely for the privilege. I hope they're paying very handsomely, enough for Washington to upgrade its education, transportation, small business resources and social services.

But CityCenterDC is not a model for urban development. It's another example of what Michael Mehaffy (cited below) calls the "trickle-down" approach to development--"concentrating attention at the top and in the core, in the hopes that it will 'trickle down' to all"--albeit CityCenterDC was financed by a Qatari sovereign wealth fund rather than the local government itself. He calls, in the spirit of Jane Jacobs, for cities to shun quick fixes and instead
to diversify geographically and in other ways--to move into a system of polycentric complete neighborhoods, and find ways to catalyze more beneficial growth there... In addition, diversity in types, ages and conditions of buildings is also important to maintain diversity in populations and incomes.... Furthermore, while public investment is still important under this approach, it is not used as a way to "socially engineer" problems like affordability through direct expenditures, but rather, it is a catalyst for an alternative kind of pervasive growth that is more beneficial. This is an approach that treats the city as an organic whole, rather than a top-down money-making machine that can be tinkered with at will. (non-italics mine)
I'll admit to being often the pessimistic voice in the crowd, but I think, in spite of such Chicago-specific factors in this year's upsurge in homicides, that Chicago is probably just the first sign of fraying in our national fabric. President-elect Trump's bluster notwithstanding, we can't shoot our way out of this mess. Nor, the urbanists argue, can we blast our way out through big civic projects, no matter how many jobs they allegedly create. The only way out is by making great places by solving the puzzles of economic opportunity and inclusion. Maybe we could start with ice cream?


Julie Bosman and Mitch Smith, "Chicago Tallies Grim Accounts of Violent Year," New York Times, 29 December 2016, A1, A13

Michael Mehaffy, "A Tale of Two Futures," Public Square: A CNU Journal, 15 December 2016

Jonathan O'Connell, "D.C. Got Everything It Wanted Out of CityCenterDC--Except the Crowds," Washington Post Magazine, 8 December 2016

Pete Saunders, "Something Amiss in Chicago," Corner Side Yard, 1 April 2016

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