Urban Renewal In Chicago

In today’s Chicago Tribune real estate section there is an “article” titled “Into High Gear – Redevelopment puts Motor Row in fast lane among city neighborhoods”. Motor Row is an area south of the loop and north of US Cellular Field. At one time the car dealers for Chicago all located their shops in this neighborhood, hence the name. Now, like most of the other areas near the loop, it is being gentrified, hence being worthy of an article in the Tribune. Per the article:

“The people we knew in the suburbs were looking at us like Martians when we told them we were moving out here” Franco Lanzi said. “It is a bet right now. A few years ago, this was NOT A PLACE WHERE ANYONE WOULD WANT TO LIVE” (capital letters are mine)

This is a jaw-droppingly politically incorrect description of urban renewal, as it is actually practiced in Chicago today. It is awe inspiring that Mr. Lanzi (or the Tribune reporter) would not, for one minute, consider that people LIVED in that area BEFORE Mr. Lanzi and the other suburbanites showed up and apparently liked it well enough, thank you.

Urban renewal / gentrification means that 1) you fix up the buildings that are architecturally unique 2) you tear down everything that isn’t worth saving. Then, you put up buildings with the amenities that suburbanites and wealthy urbanites crave including enclosed parking, granite counter-tops, stainless steel appliances, and all of the other “necessary” upgrades.

There is no per-se attempt to push out those that lived in the neighborhood prior to its renewal; however, given that the (presumably) poor residents can’t afford $250k + for a one-bedroom condo, the writing is on the wall – everyone that lived there previously has to go, and then the newcomers move into new / improved buildings in their stead. The end result, however, is the same – unless there are housing projects in the middle (which can’t be moved, although they can be torn down or constructively abandoned by the government) which can act as a bulwark against gentrification, the end result is absolutely certain, as long as money can be found for continued development – the poor and previous residents are on the way out.

Given this outcome, it always seems odd to me that many groups try to work with the EXISTING residents to halt gentrification. If they really wanted to halt gentrification, they’d go to the suburbs or other states (Iowa) where college graduates are being churned out and somehow stop them at their source from moving into the neighborhood in the first place. The existing residents are mostly renters and probably difficult renters at that; the property owners can’t wait to see them go. Those that own their homes tend to squawk as property taxes rise with home values in a gentrifying area; but they eventually sell out and the new owners know what they are getting into. In some areas NGO groups try to make the new residents uncomfortable with protests and the like, but generally this hasn’t proved to be much of a bulwark, since everyone loves a bargain (relative to an already-gentrified neighborhood, that is).

This photo was from the “People’s Law Office” in Bucktown / Wicker Park. The sign in the window says “Stronger Rent Laws Now” presumably to keep the locals that utilize this law office in the immediate vicinity. Like our lack of limitations on developers, Chicago also doesn’t have rent control and as a result urban renewal essentially ensures the deportation of all non-wealthy residents. I am in no way favoring these types of laws, I am just chuckling at the completely lost battle that this bastion of workers rights is attempting to fight. Soon this block that the building is on will be redeveloped and (comparatively) wealthy new residents will never know that someone “fought the power” from this very storefront, as they sit in their high-end kitchens and watch their flat-screen TV’s.

And to what end? What is the law office attempting to accomplish – to “fix” rental rates so that non-wealthy people can live in the neighborhood. But why was the neighborhood fixed up from its previously dumpy status in the first place – because land owners and landlords wanted to earn a profit from holding this real estate! Who is going to fix the place up if the property owners can’t make money – the government? Not likely…

There may be other ways to practice urban renewal but this is the only way we know in Chicago. The city (overall) has thrived under this model, because now people like Mr. Lanzi “want” to live here, and they will pay a premium to do so. Let’s just take 30 seconds about those that were here before and not gloat at their departure… even if it is inevitable.

Cross posted at LITGM

2 thoughts on “Urban Renewal In Chicago”

  1. I remember when “integration” and public-school deterioration came to my South Side neighborhood in the 50’s. Real-estate agents used to engage in “block-busting” that consisted of moving a black family into a lily-white neighborhood in order to capitalize on all the business resulting from the “white flight.”

    In retrospect, I consider that a smart move and quite justified, since it served to hoist all the white flighters from their own racist petards. Indeed, I would welcome a similar ruse nowadays, where real-estate agents simply put “Sex offender lives here” signs in the window of one house on a block in order to stir up business from the pedophilia-hate mongers!

  2. I have to quibble a bit. Motor Row wasn’t really a residential neighborhood. The closest real residential area is the Public Housing Project several blocks east on State Street (which really is a place someone wouldn’t choose to live in).

    I saw the article and read it with interest because I like the look of the buildings in Motor Row and the view north up Michigan from there; I drive it all the time. However, what the guy was saying just didn’t make sense, especially for a family man, until it was mentioned that his gallery was also there.

    Gentrification happens in many ways. In the near South Side there is a fairly sizable development going on on top of the dirt where a particularly ugly public housing project. The developer is required to have a certain percentage of ‘low income’ housing. Interestingly enough the [black] developer has come to the conclusion that his key buyers are white women. He feels that there aren’t enough black buyers to fill up his large community. Now his challenge is how to lure white women to the near south side.

    In my own companies development on the near South Side, the majority of our buyers are Black (particularly women), but we have seen Asian, South Asian and even one Single White Female.

    Change is inevitable, particularly in a city the size of Chicago. The South Side is a terrific example because it has gone through several iterations of changes, all the grand Synagogues/Baptists churches are testament to that. There are some very wealthy black folks between the South Loop and Hyde Park and that will continue to play an influence on the area, but it is right next to the lake. It will continue to grow as multi-ethnic as the South Loop through 2016. I see surprisingly few attempts to “fight the power.” I think this is because of two reasons. First of all, the local Aldermen try to squeeze the developers to have some ‘low income’ units, but otherwise encourage development (including retail, which is sorely needed down there). Second, and more importantly the first to gentrify the neighborhood were middle-class and wealthy blacks, buying condos in re-habbed greystones. I always have to remind myself that such a concentration is not the norm outside of places like Houston and Atlanta.

    [PS – Speaking of retail development, there will be a Wal-mart in the South Side within the next five years on S. State Street]

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