mm340: Decline and fall: America’s midlife crisis

MUDGE’s Musings

Cleveland. Philadelphia. New York City. Chicago. Most egregiously, Detroit.

For more than 30 years, the overwhelming impression has taken hold that the old, big cities, the engines of the industrial might of this country for more than 150 years, are hollowed out shells.

Their manufacturing jobs fled first, to the suburbs and exurbs, then the non-union South and West (before fleeing totally offshore). Their office jobs disappeared as the bureaucracy supporting those factories inevitably shifted: first to the suburbs, then the exurbs, then South and West (soon, Mumbai and Bengaluru?).

So, accepted wisdom: big Eastern and Midwestern cities: in steep decline.

Now, Michael Gecan is here to alert us that, as far as he can see, the suburbs and exurbs that became the refuge of those who could flee their declining city homes, are built on sand and are about to experience their own fall.

Found this thoughtful piece, as happens so often, through the good offices of Arts & Letters Daily.

 bostonreview

On Borrowed Time

Urban decline moves to the suburbs

Michael Gecan | Boston Review | March/April 2008

A few months ago, about 125 leaders from religious institutions, civic organizations, and social service groups met … in the town of Lombard, in DuPage County, to wrestle with a new reality: a budget crisis. Budget crises are not supposed to happen in places like west suburban DuPage. It is home to nearly one million souls and more than 600,000 private sector jobs. It boasts a median income of $70,000, one of the highest in the nation. And yet the county, strapped for cash, was threatening to cut convalescent services, veterans’ services, housing assistance, breast cancer screening, and many other essential public functions.

Until recently DuPage County had been one of the big winners during the forty-year decline and imminent collapse of Cook County. Major corporations fled Chicago’s failing downtown and moved to DuPage’s open spaces and tax-friendly towns. Working class homeowners on the west and southwest sides of the city sold their bungalows and bought ranch houses, Cape Cods, and new town homes in Wheaton and Naperville and Downers Grove. Families troubled by the city’s public schools happily sent their children into shining new facilities and well-equipped classrooms. County government prided itself on its lean budgets and effective service-delivery.

Gecan’s focus is Chicago. DuPage County is due west of the city, and has been one of its fastest growing regions (and, indeed, pockets of DuPage have often made the national lists of fast growing areas.

The Chicago area, as faithful reader might recall, is yr (justifiably) humble svt‘s lifelong home, although my residence since age 10 is in one of the older, north of Chicago Cook County suburbs. For this reason, Gecan’s essay has more than academic interest, although DuPage County is some distance away.

His argument: suburban areas like DuPage are experiencing constant change that its residents are ill-prepared and ill-equipped to confront. The influx of immigrants, who in the case of Chicago, have found that its relentless gentrification leaves them without affordable, if low quality, housing, puts additional pressure on institutions, such as school districts and public safety. Funding, never subject to other than a patchwork approach, is drying up due to the ending of 50 years of unending growth. The county’s developers have no more soybean fields to redevelop. There are no new sources of taxable property. The result: soaring property taxes, always the go-to source for public funding in Illinois.

In that pleasant synagogue meeting space, with the last of the new McMansions going up across the street, with 60,000 more workers commuting in to DuPage each day than commuting out, with the local football teams on the rise and the SAT and ACT scores still high, I suggested that perhaps the county had hit its own high-water mark and that without clear-eyed re-evaluation, it was poised, as Chicago had been in the mid-1950s, for decline.

DuPage is not alone, of course. … [I]n almost every mature suburb in the northeast and Midwest and mid south, families face these same conditions. A Roman Catholic pastor I met in Nassau County described it as suburbia’s midlife crisis. It may be part of America’s midlife crisis as well.

Gecan compares Chicago the city to New York the city, which, nearly bankrupt 30 years ago, has pulled itself up by its bootstraps in many substantive ways, it is Gecan’s assertion, after local community activism, often religion-based, was ultimately backed by sensible public participation.

No such grass-roots activity has taken hold in Chicago, where developers are paramount (thus the aforementioned relentless gentrification), and Mayor Daley II seems hell-bent on placing wrought iron fencing (procured from grateful vendors) everywhere, a cosmetic face on a city that can’t hide its barely functional public school, public transit and policing administrations.

The lengthy article will, as we often say, reward your attention, as will the insightful comments section. A spirited debate, indeed.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Boston Review — gecan.php

This is the conclusion that leapt out at this reader:

A fourth conclusion is that new kinds of money, from new sources, used in creative ways, will be required if cities, counties and regions are to revive. A relatively modest fund of $8 million, raised from religious sources by East Brooklyn Congregations in 1982, fundamentally changed the way its proposal to build affordable, single-family homes was received. The group of pastors and lay people from a part of the city that had been designated by the elites for “planned shrinkage” had somehow amassed a sum of money that impressed the mayor, his commissioners, newspaper editors, and developers. …  Local governments will need to reject the low-tax or anti-tax theology of the post-Reagan era. Higher taxes in support of carefully targeted social and economic strategies will be key to the rebuilding of older American cities and maturing suburbs. During the most productive years of its housing revival, New York City spent more than the next fifty American cities combined on housing creation and rehabilitation. It shows. The return on this investment is incalculable.

“… reject the low-tax or anti-tax theology of the post-Reagan era.” I’m afraid that I don’t see that happening, especially in the overwhelmingly Republican DuPage. Its changing demographics may dilute, but won’t materially affect, that historic legacy.

Coupled together with Illinois’ feeble property tax basis for the support of education, an unpleasant outcome is easy to forecast.

Interestingly, as in New York City, Chicago itself may actually have a basis for a more than cosmetic rebirth. At least, unlike most of its suburbs, MUDGE’s Evanston being a shining exception, there’s a public transit system. Woefully ignored during the age of the automobile and thus under-funded and in desperate need of modernization (not least to its management), public transit in Chicago could be resuscitated: New York’s remarkable transit renewal shows that, with funding and will, it’s possible.

The suburbs, of course, and especially the new exurbs, where the smell of former cornfield is never far away, have no public transit to speak of. Indeed, public transit is totally antithetical to the classic (Republican?) suburban spirit.

Many post-World War II suburbs and all exurbs were born and have flourished due to the automobile, and will perish as personal petroleum based transportation reverts to its original status when first developed a century ago, as luxury goods. No Prius or E85 is going to long deter this outcome.

In Gecan’s paradigm, local activism, spurring private seed funding, and ultimately official backing, may be the only path to suburban salvation, if New York’s experience can be replicated.

Think DuPage’s (or Bergen’s or Montgomery’s) soccer moms, or their Evangelical super-churches, are up to the challenge?

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


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