Chicago’s Great Financial Fire


My latest piece is online in City Journal and is called “Chicago’s Financial Fire.” It’s a look at the ongoing financial crisis in that city, which has all of a sudden gotten very real thanks to a downgrade of the city’s credit rating to junk by Moody’s. Here’s an excerpt:  read more »

Global Cities in the 21st Century: a Chicago Model?


As America’s “third” city, Chicago competes for international attention against the usual rivals: New York and Los Angeles. Even San Francisco, next to Silicon Valley, claims prominence for its cutting-edge industries and progressive culture. Ultimately, though, Chicago’s domestic peers have global status through definitive leadership in industries with visibility and impact (New York in finance, Los Angeles in entertainment, Houston in energy, and San Francisco in technology and innovation). Chicago has dim prospects of replicating such undisputable competitive advantages, but it may not need to.  read more »

The New, Improved? Rust Belt

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There is no longer a Rust Belt. It melted into air. The decline of manufacturing, the vacancy of the immense, industrial structures that once defined the productive capacities and vibrant lives of so many pockmarked towns, the dwindling of social capital—all the prognosticators writing the obituaries for these dead geographies were right.

How long were rust belt cities going to be able to, as author Robert Putnam would phrase it, “bowl alone?" It turns out not very long.  read more »

Roadmap to Surprises of the Rustbelt

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Back in New York, no one quite believed my accounts of urban renewal across the Midwest, through a piece of the Rustbelt, and then back — that St. Louis is the Brooklyn of the heartland, or that even downtown Buffalo has charms. I tended to be on safer ground when I described Targeted small towns in Ohio, or drive-by shootings in Chicago.  read more »

Divergent Demographic and Economic Trends in Chicago


The fortunes of the city of Chicago have become clouded in recent years as concerns over its weakening finances and heavy debt obligations have grown. The tally for the unfunded public employee debt obligations of Chicago’s overlapping units of local governments (including those for public schools, parks, and county services) is now approaching $30 billion. Moreover, the city government has been criticized for its practices of funding current public services with proceeds from the issuance of long-term debt and the long-term leases of public assets (such as its parking meter system).  read more »

Two Chicagos, Defined

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Years ago, when I first started working as a planner for the City of Chicago, my primary responsibility was working with community organizations that received Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding for commercial revitalization activities.  This being CDBG funding, our work was constrained to areas of the city where 51% or more of households earned less than the median household income for the Chicago metro area.  read more »

Battle of the Upstarts: Houston vs. San Francisco Bay


“Human happiness,” the Greek historian Herodotus once observed, “does not abide long in one place.” In its 240 years or so of existence, the United States has experienced similar ebbs and flows, with Boston replaced as the nation’s commercial capital first by Philadelphia and then by New York. The 19th century saw the rise of frontier settlements—Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and finally Chicago—that also sought out the post position. In the mid 20th century, formerly obscure Los Angeles emerged as New York’s most potent rival.  read more »

The Rise of Urban Riverfronts

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I recently moved from Cincinnati to Providence, Rhode Island, although I still think of the Detroit area as my hometown. All of these cities are based on their access to water. Providence, despite its location at the mouth of an Atlantic bay, is still a river-town at heart. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has plans for a new and improved riverwalk, too. What can these cities learn from each other?  read more »

Chicago's Planning Strategy: Hot or Not?

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The City of Broad Shoulders may have two faces, but how will it age?

This was the essence of the question that the Chicago Tribune was asking in October of 2013 when it urged readers to re-envision the city’s original 1909 plan in a modern context. In the 115 years since, and especially recently, Chicago has become a glitzy glass and steel mecca for Midwest yuppies. It's also become an unfortunate poster child for corruption, financial struggles, urban violence, and poor schools. It’s a city whose two reputations could hardly be more different.  read more »

New York, Legacy Cities Dominate Transit Urban Core Gains


Much attention has been given the increase in transit use in America. In context, the gains have been small, and very concentrated (see: No Fundamental Shift to Transit, Not Even a Shift). Much of the gain has been in the urban cores, which house only 14 percent of metropolitan area population.  read more »