The "Tottering Chicago?" Series - Part 1


Let me clearly state this up front. I’m doing something you won’t see very often. I’m writing a review of a book review. And providing an opinion of a book I haven’t read. Given what I’ve read in the review, I do not plan to read the book.

In fact, this is the first in a series of a review of a review, of a book I did not read. But the review provoked me, the theme of what I believe the book was about provoked me, and I have intimate knowledge on what the author and reviewer discuss.

There’s a reason I’m writing a review of a review, for a book I won’t read. It’s because I love cities, write about cities, and I’m abundantly optimistic about the revitalization potential of all cities, not just a select few. But I am deeply frustrated with the tenor of urban discourse these days.

There are cities in America that have become victims of their success. Knowledge economy sectors like technology and finance have driven the rise of these cities, making them stratified and unaffordable and increasingly unlivable. Fortunately for them, the national discourse is focused mostly on solving their problems as if they’re all cities problems. There are also cities in America whose growth spurt in the latter third of the last century lead them to believe that they’ve cracked to code of urban development, and they’re quite happy to tell other cities how they did it. Yet there are cities, like Chicago, that are neither victims of their success or believe they cracked the code. There are signs that Chicago is making very real progress in its transformation, yet there are deeply rooted challenges that weigh Chicago down, and that gets discussed more than its positives. Chicago, and cities like it, continue to be dismissed nationally.

Last week, friend and urbanophile Aaron Renn shared a book review of a book entitled What’s Next, Chicago? Notes of a Pissed Off Native Son by Matt Rosenberg. Again, I haven’t read the book. But what I find from the Amazon book summary and the author’s own website promoting the book that includes blog entries that highlight some of his positions on the city, it’s clear that Rosenberg views Chicago as the 21st century American Urban Dystopia™ -- staggering crime and violence, frighteningly bad public schools, and high taxes that do more to support rampant political corruption than quality public services. For many here in the Chicago area this is a familiar refrain, yet it’s only gotten louder since the 2020 George Floyd/Breonna Taylor/Ahmaud Arbery protests that spread across the nation and world. Since then, Chicago’s been the epitome of everything that’s wrong with cities.

William Voegeli’s review, called That Tottering Town, nods in agreement with Rosenberg, and defers to Rosenberg’s understanding of the city based on his being a native who moved away and came back. They seem to agree on the prescription for Chicago – improve schools by offering more school choice, lower taxes, embrace and promote housing affordability and – above all else – confront head on the violence that plagues the city. Both also seem to highlight the Sun Belt growth model that’s fueled the transformation of cities like Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Charlotte, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and more.

Voegeli quotes a statement by Rosenberg: “If a lasting turnaround can’t take hold in Chicago, perhaps the era of big Northern cities in this nation will be over. They’ll all shrivel.”

So many questions arise as I look at Rosenberg’s and Voegeli’s problems and solutions. What does the data actually say about what’s going on in Chicago? Is population growth the best single metric to gauge city health? Can a non-Sun Belt city employ a Sun Belt growth model? Do people really believe that today’s successful coastal cities got that way because they employed a Sun Belt growth model? Did New York City emerge from its 70s/80s nadir because it “solved” violent crime and bad schools? Did Sun Belt cities rise post-World War II because of what they did, or what the federal government and global trends did? What really lies ahead for Chicago, or any non-coastal or non-Sun Belt city?

Before I kick off the series that answers these questions, allow me to offer my definition of city/metro types in America.

First, there are the knowledge economy-based cities, or global cities, or creative class cities that inhabit the coasts. Whether it’s tech, finance, media, or higher education or state/federal government, these cities have a next-level engine that drives their economies, and sets a higher foundation for growth. These cities have become the darlings of the last 30-40 years because they reversed that pattern of urban decline that preceded that period – New York, Washington, DC, Boston, San Francisco/Silicon Valley, Seattle. Today, they are more or less victims of their success and seeking solutions for the problems that plague them, like housing affordability, homelessness, gentrification and displacement, inequality and segregation.

Second, there are Sun Belt cities that spread from the Southeast Atlantic Coast to the desert Southwest. I imagine the Raleigh/Durham area as perhaps the easternmost Sun Belt metro, and Las Vegas as the westernmost (although Los Angeles could fit in either the creative class or Sun Belt bucket). They extend northward to include Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and Nashville. I’d even consider the inclusion of Indianapolis and Columbus, not because they’re particularly sunny but because they employed the same methods as Sun Belt cities – state capitals or flagship university cities (or both), a chiefly suburban Before 1950 these cities were mostly small but have since grown to challenge our nation’s historical big cities; Maricopa County, AZ, home to Phoenix, had 331,000 people in 1950. In 2020 it 4.4 million. development pattern driven by widespread annexation, and plentiful and affordable housing. I’d say since the 80s these cities have touted themselves as the “best” model or urban growth, only to be recently challenged by the rise of the coastal cities.

Third are the Rust Belt/post-industrial/legacy cities in the nation’s midsection. They were propelled into being sizable cities by America’s 20th century industrial growth, and they were decimated by later industrial loss that left first for the suburbs, later to the Sun Belt, and later still overseas. As noted in Voegeli’s review, Chicago is the largest and strongest of the type (despite the protestations of many Chicagoans who view the city as an inland outpost of coastal urban America). Pittsburgh and Buffalo sit at the eastern end of this region, St. Louis and Minneapolis on the west.

I like to call the region Rust Belt myself, but I think the most appropriate title is “legacy cities”, in the truest meaning of the phrase. These cities gained an industrial and cultural legacy in the 20th century that they are unwilling or unable to shed. They’re viewed as blue-collar, parochial cities, run by “real people” rather than the elite, defined by their spectacular rise and dramatic fall, and left to deal with the significant economic and social legacies, including deep and long-lasting issues like racial tension and the intense segregation that fomented it, that no one wants to touch. One note: there are legacy cities in the Sun Belt, cities that have not prospered like their boom-town brethren. Memphis, TN, Jackson, MS and Baton Rouge, LA come to mind.

Read the rest of this piece at Corner Side Yard Blog

Pete Saunders is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urbanism and public policy. Pete has been the editor/publisher of the Corner Side Yard, an urbanist blog, since 2012. Pete is also an urban affairs contributor to Forbes Magazine's online platform. Pete's writings have been published widely in traditional and internet media outlets, including the feature article in the December 2018 issue of Planning Magazine. Pete has more than twenty years' experience in planning, economic development, and community development, with stops in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He lives in Chicago.

Photo: courtesy Corner Side Yard Blog, residential neighborhood with Chicago skyline in the background. Source: