life in NYC

joshua william mason jwm7 at
Mon Jul 20 12:18:27 PDT 1998

Corrections and amplifications to a couple recent posts on Chicago.

David Maddox wrote:

> I'm pretty sure Business Improvement Districts are a common item in

> the urban planner's tool kit these days.

Actually in Chicago the big thing is not BIDs but TIFs (Tax- Increment Financing Districts). The idea is similar but TIFs offer a better deal, since instead of requiring property-owners to pay a new tax, TIFs reserve any increase (the "increment") in property taxes for local projects. By law TIFs are supposed to be reserved for "blighted" areas, where no increase in property taxes would otherwise be forthcoming, but in fact they simply act as firewalls preventing the transfer of property tax revenue from the Loop and other prosperous areas to the rest of the city. There are TIFs all over the city, but in most increases in property values have been slight or nil, so they're just lines on the map--a problem which is compounded by the city's reluctance to issue bonds back by TIF revenues for non-downtown districts. In fact, TIF spending in the three Loop-area TIFs, at about $1 billion, exceeds that in the city's other 46 TIFs put together.

Obviously this is a different concern than the one Maddox and others on this thread have been raising. I feel it's important to remember that for most urban neighborhoods disinvestment is a much bigger problem than Disneyfication (not that those should be the choices).

On the other hand, TIFs, which uniquely allow the city to condemn property in order to transfer it to private parties (the city-subsidized strip mall is basically the model for the successful neighborhood TIF) and which logically entail an increase in property values, are reasonably seen by many people as Trojan Horses for gentrification. (This suggests the Southeast Chicago Commission Maddox alluded to, which was granted the power of eminent domain in order to bulldoze much of Hyde Park in the '50s.) There's been a lot of controversy along these lines over a new TIF in Pilsen, a Latino neighborhood.

More broadly, Chicago in recent years has been enjoying at least a qualified boom--population rising, a significant influx of the middle-class, "the hottest urban real estate market in the country" according to Crain's Chicago Business--limited, however, almost entirely to areas around the Loop and the north lakefront. Has this meant gentrification? Well, yes--in the '80s, neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Lakeview were converted from working-class, largely Latino districts to vast open-air singles bars, and now the same process is underway on the Near Northwest Side (including Wicker Park, whose "scene" you read about a few years ago in the Times.) The Near Northwest Side is also home to much of the city's remaining industry--manufacturing still accounts for about 15% of Chicago's private-sector employment, but those jobs are disappearing fast, many of them pushed out by residential development.

And of course there is Disneyfication--the stupid idea, which I haven't heard much of lately, to impose uniform Spanish-style facades on buildings on main commercial streets in Pilsen, the plan to convert Bronzeville and points south into a blues- and African-themed tourist attraction (what Adolph Reed calls "black on black gentrification.") Meanwhile, one of Daley's biggest development projects is knocking down buildings in depressed neighborhoods--demolition permits run 5-10,000 a year, and I'm told that the city often goes ahead without them.

I may be wrong, but I think most neighborhood organizations and community development corporations have no clue how to deal with any of this. They oscillate between open-armed embrace of development in whatever form (most of the time) and an intransigent demand that disinvested neighborhoods be preserved as Indian reservations for the poor.

Peter Kilander wrote:

> Some Chicago public housing is in the process of being
knocked down for
> having the gall to be smack dab in the middle of yuppiedom.

This is not really correct. Out of some 33,000 family units (there are another 7,000 senior units that aren't being touched) the CHA plans to demolish at least 10,000. Of that, the only stuff you could make a case was being torn down for being located in yuppiedom is maybe 1,300 units at Cabrini-Green (which has gotten all the attention) and 400-500 at Addams. The largest number of units being torn down are in the Robert Taylor Homes (all 4,000 are likely to go) and Stateway (probably 1,000 out of 1,500). These projects, as anyone familiar with Chicago knows,

are about as far from yuppiedom as it's possible to get. Their sites

aren't going to be occupied by condos and trattorias, but by empty

lots or, if we're lucky, an industrial park. (600 units are being

demolished at the Henry Horner Homes on the Near West Side, which is getting to be condo and trattoria territory, but all of those are being replaced with equally-subsidized units.)

It's important to remember that this is being carried out by HUD, which now runs the CHA; if it were up to Daley, a lot more would probably be coming down. Furthermore, Joseph Shuldiner, who now heads the CHA, is an unreconstructed liberal. His idea is that public housing should not be housing of last resort, but real, viable communities--the way people thought about public housing in the '40s. He believes, and is not afraid to say, that public housing is not an unfortunate necessity but proof that in important areas government can do better than the market. (Among other things, he's been unwilling so far to replace 17-18,000 CHA units with vouchers, which is what the HUD viability study originally called for.) He's a fervent believer in the New Deal and the Great Society, basically. (I get all this from a series of long interviews a friend of mine did with him for a piece in the Chicago Reader, and from folks who work at the agency.) The demolitions that are taking place are supposed to be part of a process of triage--the idea is that what's left will become stable, mixed-income communities. Who knows--it might even happen.


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