Prairie Shores at 31st Street
In the mid-1990s, Ross Miller, author of Here’s the Deal, thought he might be witnessing the extinction of the office high-rise and of the city, at least “the city as it has been celebrated for most of human history.” In hindsight, it seems what he witnessed was a last battle of the old growth machine - that coalition of politicians and business leaders who saw their common cause in the struggle against strong forces of urban blight.
Here’s the Deal is an account of the first 20 odd years of missteps and failed plans in the redevelopment of Block 37 in Chicago’s Loop. The first Mayor Daley told one of his commissioners he wanted that block of buildings to come down back in 1967. He had earned national praise for clearing city blocks to build the Daley Center and a trio of federal buildings a few blocks away.
Miller says the humble structures of Block 37 were old but occupied, bustling with business. If the Mayor saw blight there, he suggests it might have been because shoppers who once frequented the stores of Black Metropolis came downtown to shop now that urban renewal had laid so much of their neighborhood flat.
In 1996, when Miller published his book, Block 37 was a big vacant lot with no obvious prospects. In the early years of the 1990s, Chicago’s Loop had been swept by a frenzy of high-rise development that had doubled the nation’s stock of commercial office space in a period of 10 years. Now the Loop was swamped with it, as much as 26% of it vacant, Miller found it hard to imagine how the surplus could ever be absorbed.
He thought Block 37 was symbolic of a crisis that might end in towering board ups, an abandoned downtown, of neighborhoods filled with a dispossessed underclass as “the achieving side of the bell curve” urbanized the suburbs and drove to work at office parks in the new edge-cities.
He wasn’t alone in his concerns. Just a few years later in 2000, the dot-com bubble had not burst yet, the nation was enjoying full employment, there were even developers venturing new office projects in the Loop. In October, Business Week ran a cover story asking if Chicago had failed to seize the moment.
“Other great cities can claim dynamic sectors that drive them,” like entertainment for Los Angeles or securities for New York. Chicago was losing out in the contest to keep corporate headquarters. The city’s financial sector, even its commodities exchanges, once undisputed leaders in an industry they invented, were losing market share.
Mayor Daley, son of the first Mayor Daley, told the magazine Chicago’s future lay in the diversity of its business base. “Chicago isn’t dependent on any one industry, that’s it’s strength.” He was correct, it turns out. At the time, Business Week wasn’t convinced. “Chicago is a great, livable city, but it’s fading as a business and financial capital.”
Chicago Bee Building - a Chicago Public Library
Ross Miller and Business Week were not wrong about the trends they saw, they just weren’t fully aware of countervailing currents that were gathering force. Urban scholars were still working out the terms to describe them. Saskia Sassen wrote her book The Global City in 1991 – then reissued it again in 2001 with data from the 1990s that reinforced all her points.
She found that geographic dispersal of manufacturing works to make some big cities more important, even as their old industrial base moves overseas. Management of global networks is complex. As central management functions turn trickier, corporations tend to outsource them to specialists – firms providing legal counsel, accounting, marketing, consulting, all the sophisticated services that global companies consume.
These purveyors of specialized services are the real drivers of a new class of global cities. And place still matters to them. They tend to cluster geographically, because being near to one another allows for “unplanned mixes of information, expertise, and talent.” All crucial for adapting their services to needs that are often highly particular, and rapidly changing.
Global cities like Chicago thrive because they can provide dense information loops that “as of now” Sassen wrote in 2001 “still cannot be replicated fully in electronic space.”
It’s true, corporate headquarters can locate anywhere, they’re a lot lighter since they outsource more of their management functions. But then, they aren’t as important as drivers of employment anymore.
Townhouses in The Gap
The logic of the global city flipped the equation of urban development. The old growth coalition assumed business interests are the primary driver, that if you build cities that are attractive to business the people who live there will benefit from jobs and all the spill-over effects of corporate spending.
The networks of service firms that drive the global city are highly dependent on a new class of workers, like the new class or clerical workers that helped change relations between business and labor in the 1920s, except they are more highly skilled, and much better paid. In fact, the skills of the new class of workers are so important, the firms will locate where the talent is. So you build the city where the people who could live anywhere will choose to live.
Global cities also generate a lot of jobs on the opposite end of the scale. Many of them perform the routine tasks at professional service firms, many of them staff the restaurants and shops that high wage workers patronize. They work as maids, do the dry-cleaning, deliver groceries – all the business of life the high wage workers can easily pay for, but just don’t have time to do.
Sassen observed the gap between these two classes of workers, both necessary to the new system, was growing, and a clear cause for concern. It builds a contradiction into the system, as high wage workers change neighborhoods around them and price the low wage workers out. And it is sure to reverberate through politics.
But it was the new class of highly paid wage earners who really captured the imagination of urban observers in the 2000s.
Sassen described them soberly as engaged in a kind of self-exploitation – working hard for very long hours, they are paid well, but at a fraction of the profits they produce. And when they were laid off in large numbers during the stock market crisis of 1987, their lack of ownership was shown to matter.
Sassen thought the fascinations of their urban lifestyles helped compensate, that the lifestyle serves “an ideological function” to secure their allegiance to the system that has no particular allegiance to them.
The spending power of these high wage workers pays for a new vision of the good life – one shaped by the city as a marketplace of infinite variety. Because the members of this new class are generally unimpressed by the house in the suburbs furnished with mass-produced consumer goods.
They cultivate tastes for the intentional, the curated, but also the serendipitous, the purchase that displays the discernment of the person who found it. “Hence the importance not just of food but of cuisine,” Sassen writes “not just of clothes but of designer labels, not just of decoration but of authentic objets d’art.”
A new genre of consumer studies arises to parse out their tastes. These are not the conspicuous consumers, showing off their spending power that Thorstein Veblen observed in the 1920s, they are engaged in more subtle deployments of cultural capital, a term that translates any lifestyle choice into a slightly ridiculous display.
In fact, lifestyle transforms the urban streetscape, populates it with a profusion of restaurants, galleries, it appreciates authentic street culture. Business Week thought Chicago’s quality of life was nice, but not so important. Now urban observers compete to describe what kinds of amenities should be built or fostered to draw the talent in.
Richard Florida calls them the creative class – he means not just artists and designers, but the whole range of professionals employed for their ingenuity in applying a complex set of skills. He says it is their creative capital that drives growth, and it’s not just amenities, but diversity itself that draws them. He says they find diversity stimulating, and it signals an environment open to difference, one that will allow them to find their own particular course, and express who they want to be.
As a social scientist Florida experiments with different measures of diversity to see if they correlate with economic growth. His Melting Pot Index measures proportions of the foreign born, a traditional engine of American self-starting power, his Bohemian Index measures proportions of artists and performers, his Gay Index is designed to show tolerance for difference. His Composite Diversity Index incorporates all of them, and he finds each of them matter to some measure of urban growth -- be it population, jobs in general, or jobs in high tech or innovative sectors.
The “gaping hole” he admits, is that his measures of the diversity that matters do not track with portions of African Americans or non-whites. There is another gaping hole, they do not address income diversity, or affordability as a factor that supports it. These things do matter to the model -- the low wage workers are essential to the system, so is the newcomer, income poor but alert to opportunity and driven to try. The model does not accommodate them by itself.
"Jesse Owens" - a tile on the Bronzeville Walk of Fame
In 2001, scholars weren’t sure if Chicago ranked among the top global cities. In 2004, Sassen told GlobalChicago it certainly did.
When the results from the 2000 Census came in, they showed Chicago’s population had grown for the first time in 40 years. The city’s median income was up 10%.
The Chicago Rehab Network, an affordable housing advocate, mapped the changes into neighborhood clusters. A Booming Cluster spread out from the north lakefront, the high incomes there had kept growing, it saw only modest gains in population -- it had a lot fewer low-income households than when the decade started -- but most new construction permits were focused there, its rental housing stock was converting to homeownership.
Population grew fastest in a Bursting Cluster that spread in corridors through the northwest and southwest sides. They saw large increases in low income households, over-crowded housing units, and high rates of housing cost burden – a measure of the portion of a household’s income spent to pay mortgage or rent.
Bridgeport fell in this Bursting Cluster. An affordable neighborhood, more low-income households moved here, its population had been falling for decades, but it saw a surge in rates of overcrowding, maybe as households doubled up to pay rent.
Alongside all this activity a Thinning Cluster spreading through some of the black neighborhoods on the south and west sides, where population was dropping, and vacancy rates were still remarkably high. Douglas fell in this Thinning Cluster.
Supreme Life Insurance Building
In 1993, the Mid South Planning Group, a 77 member body of community organizers, planners and neighbors, published a 30-year plan to restore Bronzeville. The area they called Mid-South bundled Douglas together with Grand Boulevard and Washington Park.
They proposed to redevelop historic buildings built by prominent black businessmen, to add cultural gateways to the district’s boulevards so people would recognize it as they entered, and a hotel to link to all the convention and tourism activity at McCormick Place.
Their plan would rebuild commercial nodes that had been missing for decades, it would add homeownership opportunities to a neighborhood dominated by rental housing, with architecture following the visual cues of those historic homes still standing in The Gap.
The new housing would be aimed toward existing, “indigenous” residents first, and then it would attract new residents – tens of thousands of them. It would restore the area’s population by 50% to 100,000 people.
At the time the plan sounded wildly ambitious. The striking thing about it nearly 30 years later is that much of it has been achieved. There are new commercial nodes, large and small, where the plan suggested they ought to be. Those landmark buildings once occupied by the Overton Hygienic Company, the Chicago Bee newspaper, Supreme Life Insurance are fully renovated and occupied. The South Loop Hotel stands on 26th Street, and new homes are being built in The Gap in the $580,000 to $800,000 range.
The exception is that the area’s population kept shrinking. In 2000, the population of Douglas was about 26,000 people. By 2010 it had dropped to 18,000, a long fall from the 79,000 people counted there in 1950.
That was partly because the CHA’s Plan for Transformation was demolishing thousands of high-rise public housing units to replace them with less dense, mixed income housing. In Douglas, the Dearborn Homes, the first and best built of CHA’s high-rises, was renovated. But Stateway Gardens was demolished and replaced with Park Boulevard, that mixed use collection with the Starbucks at 35th and State.
In fact, the private urban renewal projects built in Douglas in the 1960s and 1970s were designed to balance market rate and affordable housing. Many of them still house a mix of professionals and low-income residents today. Ferdinand Kramer, whose firm Draper and Kramer built Prairie Shores, moved in after it was built and lived there for years.
So far, the redevelopment in Douglas has maintained a place for low income residents to keep stable housing. A community snapshot assembled by the CMAP shows the median income in Douglas is lower than Bridgeport’s ($32,000 to Bridgeport’s $51,000); and the rate of workforce participation among the 20-64 year-old set is lower too (66% in Douglas, 79%. In Bridgeport). On the other hand, Douglas outpaces Bridgeport in educational attainment. In Douglas, 50% of adults over the age of 25 have an Associate’s Degree or higher, it's 37% in Bridgeport. If the Douglas median income is lower partly because of students at IIT that is not a bad thing.
In the early 2000s, as Chicago took off on its career as a global city, Bridgeport struggled to keep up. By 2010, its median income was not so close to the city’s median – it was about 10% less -- its mix of occupations did not mirror the city’s so well.
In 2010, about 42% percent of the city’s workers were employed in occupations related to management and business, science and the arts -- the census had combined a set of occupation categories that closely capture Florida’s creative class. Bridgeport reported about 31% of its workers occupied in that category, it still had larger portions of people employed manufacturing and hauling things, and preparing food.
But then, by 2018, 42% of Bridgeport’s workers were employed in that creative class category, and even though the city’s portion had risen to 45%, the neighborhood appears to be catching up.
Both Douglas and Bridgeport have changed demographically. The majority of people in Douglas are still black, but a quarter of them are white or Asian. Bridgeport isn’t primarily white ethnic anymore. Asians are the largest demographic category – Bridgeport is 39% Asian and 33% white, 23% Hispanic. It’s still just 2.6% black. But in a population of 34,000, that’s approaching a thousand people, more than twice as many black people as there were living in Bridgeport in 2000, and an exponential improvement from the 23 Negroes the census counted in 1950.
If you believe that the low-income worker, the newcomer, still has a place in this city, even as it gets richer, Bridgeport has retained a potential advantage. The gap between the households with the highest incomes and the lowest ones is not so great here. If you divide households into income quintiles, the incomes in the lowest quintile are a little higher in Bridgeport than for the city as a whole, the incomes in the highest quintile are a little lower. A narrower gap could mean less pressure on rents threatening to push low income workers out.
Who knows if that gap will stay narrow, or if Bridgeport will catch up in inequality too. Maybe those high wage workers in the global service firms have found they really can fully replicate their dense information networks in electronic space, now that COVID-19 has forced them to work from home. Probably some portion of them will try moving to other places, cute small towns, or places with better weather. That could take some of the steam out of rents.
If it doesn’t take the steam out though, and you like the area but find you can’t afford it, you might take a shot at high rise living in Douglas. Prairie Shores and Lake Meadows are affordable, they are historically significant, and the views can be spectacular.
This is the last of 5 parts on Bridgeport and Douglas and the image of Chicago.