In the 1920s, Henry Ford philosophized about mass production of the automobile and concluded the American city was “doomed.” He was looking on the bright side, actually.
Ford imagined that cheap, personal transportation would free people from having to congregate in tenements. They could disperse across the broad landscape, driving to towns to work or to socialize while raising crops on a farmette, a half-agrarian, half-industrialized existence he equated with virtue.
It didn’t work out that way, of course, as car ownership and highway construction became agents of urban sprawl.
But his thinking was typical of what comes up in American life. Some quarters have an anti-urban attitude that treats cities as sinful, filthy and, worst of all, liberal places of creeping socialism.
It showed up in different forms with Prohibition and with Donald Trump and the MAGA crowd. You could hear its sour tones in the early commentary during the pandemic when some rooted for cities to be obsolete because everybody introduced to remote work would switch to small-town living.
All the vital signs point to cities being on the mend, even as the COVID-19 threat continues. Here in Chicago, after a surge in city-based homebuyers looking at suburban and far-flung locales, things have settled down. High-rise apartments are filling again, and landlords plot rent increases. Hotels are livening up, and downtown workplaces are now almost 40% in use, with many employers ready to adopt hybrid schedules. We made each other sick, but on some level, we still want togetherness.
It’s because cities, as gatherings of people and businesses, make sense. But can Chicago make itself work better in its comeback? MarySue Barrett, outgoing president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, likes its chances.
“The pandemic has been a game-changer across the board,” she said, affecting housing, transit, business development, safety, you name it. “But cities have always been the epicenter of reinvention,” Barrett said. “Chicago has a litany of concerns but so many opportunities.”
Barrett, who is moving on to a role with the Brookings Institution, starts with Chicago’s “locational advantage” and said it can be employed as companies rethink their supply chains. Chicago can add manufacturers and build on its strengths in transportation, logistics and food production.
“We can’t just assume that these problems with the supply chain are blips,” she said.
Chicago has a lot of vacant land in neglected neighborhoods. It can be a millstone or an asset. Barrett suggested a “radical rethinking” of the traditional street grid and the 25-foot residential lot, redeveloping areas to bring in employers and community services while improving open space.
Teresa Cordova, director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois Chicago, also spoke of a manufacturing revival that could nurture entrepreneurship and create jobs that support families.
“One thing we learned in this pandemic is the importance of essential workers. They deserve our respect and livable pay,” she said.
Cordova, who also chairs the Chicago Plan Commission, spoke of how developers are captives of a boom-and-bust cycle, which often means too much gets built. Everybody needs to slow down and think about community benefits in large-scale projects and to make sure there’s enough affordable housing, she said.
A colleague of hers at the Great Cities Institute, economic development planner Matt Wilson, said Chicago could take the cars off some commercial streets and turn them into pedestrian-centered lanes or plazas. It would build on a city-sponsored experiment in some neighborhoods the past two summers that people, craving socialization with fresh air, seemed to like.
Local stores and restaurants still suffer, though, for a mash-up of reasons that include the pandemic, crime and digital commerce. Mari Gallagher, a market researcher, said the survivors will be those who best deal with supply chain disruptions and adapt to online ordering.
The South Side, in particular, has a glut of abandoned, unattractive storefronts that need to be redeveloped or to draw some other use, such as a day care center, Gallagher said. She said such investments aren’t a fool’s errand.
“Neighborhoods often have more spending power than we think,” Gallagher said.
That power would be easier to access if Chicago could collar its crime problem. That’s uppermost on the minds of most Chicagoans, but answers are elusive. Next to the human cost, crime is an economic issue that chases away jobs and leaves large parts of the city off-limits as a market for safe and affordable housing. The tragedy is that for so many communities, it’s also an old problem.
Years from now, historians might look back and wonder whether the coronavirus was really our worst public health crisis.