Rahm Emanuel may be the only Chicago mayor to have been raised in the suburbs.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. But it made me think about what might be Mayor-elect Emanuel's most lasting and profound problem -- the growing suburban dominance of the Chicago metropolitan area.
Almost symbolically, as Chicago voters were giving Emanuel a resounding endorsement, the new, 2010 census figures arrived. It showed that some 200,000 Chicagoans -- almost 7 percent of the population -- fled the city in the last decade. It's as if the entire population of Aurora, the state's second-largest city, had suddenly disappeared. What is this, Detroit?
Not that retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley hasn't left Emanuel with enough troubles: deficits, debts, pensions, schools, crime, the CTA. Chalk those problems up to bad decisions, human fallibility, greed and corruption. The new mayor and City Council, depending on their competence and integrity, can start fixing that.
But just as the recession is a nationwide affliction, Chicago's new mayor and City Council are caught in the new reality of the American metropolis: suburban dominance. It is the result of understandable human cravings for a better life, and no amount of cajoling or 20-year plans can stop it. Suburban dominance has become so entrenched that old cities must actively adjust to the new reality. Here, for example, the majority of the region's residents and jobs now are in the suburbs, and such boneheaded efforts as, say, trying to bar Walmart stores from the city, can be fatal.
Yet, ending or even reversing that flight has been the unfulfilled dream of urban planners, civic groups and others in the grip of a romantic and nostalgic vision. It's as if they saw urban salvation in a return to the intensely dense form that gave birth to many American cities a century or more ago. They have hung on to that vision with remarkable tenacity, and when they saw a slight blip in the urban population of young, middle-class singles and retired empty nesters they heralded a "return-to-the city" movement.
Joel Kotkin, a best-selling author and urban futurist, noted in newgeography.com the "constant media drumbeat about the 'return to the cities.' " Urban real estate interests, environmentalists and planners have widely promoted this idea, and it has been central to the ideology of the Obama administration, the most big-city dominated in at least a half century. "We've reached the limits of suburban development," Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan opined last year, "People are beginning to vote with their feet and come back to the central cities."
Actually, the feet continue to head in the other direction; America's suburbanization, as the latest census confirms, continues unabated. Notably, one of the largest groups of emigrants from Chicago is African-Americans, joining new Hispanic immigrants who never bothered to live in the city. The lure of Chicago's superlative entertainment, sports and cultural attractions aren't enough to keep them in the city when their kids are getting shot up and forced into substandard schools.
But Emanuel faces the deeper economic and political challenges of increasing suburban dominance. Chicago will become a smaller player on a bigger stage. The suburbs, including vast new landscapes in McHenry, Kendall and Will counties, will compete with Chicago and consume increasing amounts of the region's and state's resources. Political power inevitably will flow outward with the fleeing population. Legislative reapportionment at the expense of the suburbs will become increasingly difficult. Mutually assured destruction or coexistence will be Chicago's ultimate choice in the city/suburban "cold war."
A real "back-to-the-city" movement would require Emanuel -- and city planners -- to examine what city emigrants seek in the suburbs. Not just better schools and safety, items that top Emanuel's priority list. There's more: space, freshness, local libraries, neighborhood schools. A government that's closer to the governed. And don't laugh at the mundane, such as parking places and excrement-free sidewalks. All the things that thousands of city workers want if they were allowed to live outside of the city. All the things that Emanuel enjoyed growing up in Wilmette.
The market is telling Emanuel something, and he should listen
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