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The Commonspace

Aug 2001 / elsewhere :: email this story to a friend

Net Activism
By Otis White

(From the Editors of The Commonspace: As evidenced by our own site's existence, the Internet is increasingly used as a tool to build social capital and enhance people's civic engagement in their own communities. The Civic Strategies E-Letter, part of a fascinating site at www.civic-strategies.com, is one of a growing number of resources for civic leaders that encourage the sharing of ideas across the country. Below is a sampling of the twice-monthly newsletter — these items of note from the most recent edition — that goes out to subscribers.)


Think Big
think BIG Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is such a smart politician, you'd swear it was genetic. For over a year, he has been involved in a power struggle with Gov. George Ryan over how to expand the region's airports. As the two men bickered, congestion at O'Hare Airport, one of the nation's busiest, grew so bad that Congress threatened to step in and take the decision away from both of them. Upshot: Daley got his way, which was a free hand to expand O'Hare. Recently, Daley announced his plans for O'Hare, and they are breathtaking, including two new runways and a reconfiguring of the existing runways. If completed over the next 15 years, the expansion would nearly double the airport's capacity. The governor hasn't announced his position on the Daley plans and nearby suburbs are certain to protest, but momentum seems to have shifted Daley's way.

Black Meccas
Which city is most attractive to African-Americans looking to relocate? Atlanta, followed by New York. In the 1990s, Atlanta's black population grew by nearly 460,000, a 62 percent increase. New York gained 451,000, a 14 percent increase. Other major gainers: Washington-Baltimore (359,000 gain, up 21 percent), Miami (241,492, up 43 percent) and Chicago (181,000, up 12 percent). Atlanta is now the sixth largest U.S. city for blacks. The appeal of Atlanta, says the Atlanta Constitution, is its six primarily black colleges, black-owned businesses, prominent African-American political leaders and a number of black celebrities.

Big Brother Comes to Chicago
In the history of oddball ideas for promoting a building to tenants, this may be the oddest. A building owner in Chicago's Wicker Park area wants to set up a giant TV monitor outside his building so passersby can watch the tenants inside walking around. The hook: These are mostly artists, and the owner says he thinks some of them might want to set up their easels in the hallways so outsiders can see them at work. The area's chamber of commerce thinks it's a great idea. "It would create excitement in promoting Wicker Park's eclectic arts community," said one chamber official, but some of the tenants think it's creepy. "There are many artists who live in their studios who don't want to be filmed walking back and forth from the showers," said one.

Where Public Works Doesn't Work
Houston's giant Department of Public Works and Engineering is under fire as a grossly mismanaged bureaucracy. The Houston Chronicle reports the department is so demoralized "some employees, unhappy with the rules imposed on them or how promotions are doled out, admit to doing little to no work in retaliation." Result: The department is doing less work for more money since Mayor Lee Brown took over in 1998. Exactly how much less work isn't known, since public works employees were discovered inflating reports of the numbers of potholes filled. Some crews were dumping truckloads of asphalt and reporting they had completed their work. Another sign: 19 percent of Houston's water was "lost and unaccounted for" last year. Most experts think any city that loses more than 10 percent of its water isn't managing itself well. Part of the problem is that Brown's background is in law enforcement, and he seems uninterested in the grimy world of sewers and roads.

Double Major: Geography and Finance
School teachers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh will no longer be required to live in their cities in order to teach there. The Pennsylvania Legislature has repealed a law allowing those school districts to require professionals to live inside the city limits. Reason: Philadelphia, in particular, was finding it hard to hire teachers. "With such a teacher shortage throughout the country, most districts are trying everything they can to attract teachers rather than create barriers," said an official of the American Federation of Teachers. But if the residency requirement was a barrier to teacher recruitment, it was an easily scalable one. About half of Pittsburgh's teachers already live outside the city. How? Some were grandfathered in when the residency requirements were imposed in 1981, but most had acquired waivers. And how did they get waivers to live outside the city? They paid for them. The Pittsburgh School District receives $140,000 a year from teachers buying permission to live elsewhere.
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Putting the Mayor in Charge
New York may be the next big city to turn over the running of its schools to the mayor. As Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani prepares to leave office, Democrats are much more interested in the idea of shifting control to Gracie Mansion. If so, New York will join Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and Detroit in giving the mayor all or most of the power to appoint school boards and superintendents. What's behind the trend? Biggest factor: Mayors are willing to do it. In years past, the last thing a mayor wanted was responsibility for public education. But today many see reforming the schools as the only way to bring middle-class families back to the city. And state legislatures, impatient with the slow pace of big-city education reform, are willing to give the mayors a chance. The results so far: Chicago's schools have improved under the mayor's control, but not dramatically. For the rest, it's too early to say.

Dressing Up the Bungalow Belt
Most big cities have a problem with their oldest suburbs, places that boomed just after World War II but whose housing looks dowdy today. Cleveland is dealing with the problem through a 12-city "First Suburbs Consortium" that is looking for ways of halting and maybe reversing the decline. First project: a $300,000 initiative, funded by grants, to show prospective residents how to renovate the county's 100,000 bungalows built before 1965. Example: Show couples how to turn a 60-year-old duplex into a fashionable house by turning tiny bedrooms into great rooms and using the other unit for a home business. Some builders are skeptical, though. They think the aging suburbs would be smarter to help developers buy tracts, tear down the bungalows and put up condos and cluster homes. "People like to have something new," said one.

Putting Little Boxes in a Big Box
What do you do with an abandoned "big box" retail store? A lot of suburbs around the country are asking that question, as the Lechmeres, Home Depots and Media Plays walk away from the sprawling retail they once occupied. Because of their layouts — and grim exteriors — these sites are not easily adapted to other uses. The readaption problems are so serious, planners have come up with a new term for them, "grayfields," because of the dull color of their vast parking lots. Some places are experimenting with putting affordable housing in big boxes or turning them into mini-malls, but most are simply trying to lure other big box retailers to them. Some would love to turn the grayfields into greenfields, but that's not likely, said a planner in suburban Boston. "The farm that was once there is gone, the vegetation is gone, and the open space is gone forever."


From Civic Strategies Online Documents Section

Melting Pot Suburbs: A Census 2000 Study of Suburban Diversity, by William H. Frey, Bookings Institute Center on Urban & Metropolitan Policy, June 2001. Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan, studied 102 metro areas' suburbs, looking at racial and ethnic patterns in the 2000 census. His findings: Minorities now make up more than a quarter of suburban populations, up from 19 percent in 1990, and in some areas they accounted for the majority of suburban population gains in the 1990s. The gains were particularly great in what Frey calls the "melting pot metros" of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Houston. In some of these metro areas, white suburban populations actually declined in the 1990s while minority populations soared. Other findings: Asians are most likely to live in the suburbs, then Hispanics (almost half are suburban residents), then African Americans (39 percent).
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Headquarters Wanted: Principals Only Need Apply, by Thomas Klier and William Testa, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, July 2001. Chicago and the state of Illinois spent a reported $60 million to lure Boeing's corporate headquarters to town. Clearly, large corporate headquarters are valuable to a local economy. But how are the biggest cities really doing in the competition for headquarters? The top two cities for HQs in 1990 are still tops in 2000, the Chicago Fed reports. New York has 239 big-company HQs (defined as companies with 2,500 or more employees), a gain of 19 since 1990, and Chicago has 107, up 11. But others among the top 20 metro areas have seen considerable movement in the rankings. Biggest winners: San Francisco (now No. 3, with 91 HQs, a gain of 39), Houston (No. 7, 70 HQs, up 29) and Atlanta (No. 10, 53 HQs, up 25). Biggest losers: Cleveland (No. 13, 35 HQs, a loss of 11), Seattle (No. 19, 19, a loss of one), and Boston (No. 9, 66 HQs, a gain of 11, but that was enough to move it down four places in the relative rankings). What causes cities to attract corporate headquarters? Some of it is simply the population growth of the cities — those that attracted the most new residents also tended to attract more new HQs, researchers found. But the industry mix also played a major role. The Northeast and Midwest don't "grow" companies as fast as high-tech areas in the West and South, the Chicago Fed reports.
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Who Sprawls Most? How Growth Patterns Differ Across the U.S., by William Fulton, Rolf Pendall, Mai Nguyen and Alicia Harrison, The Brookings Institution Center on Urban & Metropolitan Policy, July 2001. In the first study to compare land consumption to population change in U.S. metropolitan areas, the authors make some surprising discoveries. Most surprising: Metro areas in the Northeast and Midwest are the primary offenders when it comes to sprawl, with some eating up an acre for every new resident. By contrast, the West, long associated with wide-open spaces, has some of the nation's most densely settled cities with an average 3.59 residents per newly developed acre. In many cases, natural barriers like mountain ranges reign in western growth. Being surrounded by water helps too: Honolulu squeezes in 12.36 people per acre.
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