The Happenstance Solution

49 thoughts on “The Happenstance Solution”

  1. You can certainly feel this driving across our countries (I’m Canadian, but close to the border) but this is very well articulated. Especially the cycle. I wonder how it’ll change with better tech. Give me autonomous cars, drone delivery, remote work and VR meetups and suddenly the option of where I can live changes a lot. Which could actually make this problem worse!

    1. Technology solves one set of problems, but creates others. We’ll soon be phasing out human delivery drivers and retail clerks. So what does society do with all the redundant people? Or more likely, what do all the redundant people do with society? Perhaps our recent election is a hint of things to come.

      Have you noticed that when people have the ability to live anywhere they want, they tend to live in exactly the same places as everyone else? I liken this to high school fashion. Everyone somehow decides to express their individuality in exactly the same way. Pick a decade. Bell bottom trousers, Peter Pan collars, and paisley patterns. All black goth attire, heavy eye liner, pink and green hair. Tribal tattoos, body piercings, and a beard. “I want to be unique just like everyone else!”

  2. After growing up in Canton Ohio, I can say I have seen the same dynamics there. I didn’t like it enough to move to Cincinnati, and once there began working in the community there to bring more life into the urban core. We have made considerable progress, but there much more distance to go.

  3. This scenario can be replicated in most major cities across the country. It is obvious as one drives the various areas of the urban core as it expands outward. Where does the urban core expansion stop and the cycle repeats? Some trends appear to indicate Millennials are choosing to live and work in the urban core so maybe the cycle is starting to change. According to Wikipedia, the Pew Research Center found that Millennials surpassed Baby Boomers to become the largest living generation in the U.S. I say let’s start thinking of recycling the urban core and bring to life the structures that have endured the ages, just waiting for new life. I believe Millennials will make it happen. Then, of course, what happens with the supurbs that will eventually fade with the sunset. I suppose the cycle will continue to repeat itself to some degree.

  4. I am not very familiar with Rockford but have worked in urban planning and development for many years. The current demographics indicate that older Americans are moving to smaller and suburban areas while younger people are relocating to more urban areas. If this holds true in the future then larger cities should grow and suburbs continue to decline or at least transition. This may result in a reversal of the urban-suburban conflict of the last 60 plus years.

    1. History is never linear so extrapolating out in a straight line is a mistake. History is always cyclical, although the cycles are often very long.

      At the moment Millennials are young and mostly childless so they tend to live downtown where jobs, opportunity, culture, and potential mates are abundant. (Many are also broke and in student loan debt and are living in mom and dad’s basement.) But they’ll be settling down, having kids, and looking for a house with a patch of garden eventually. The real question is, where will those homes be? My guess is Millennials will opt for the smaller house in a walkable neighborhood closer to town rather than the isolated McMansion with an hour commute to civilization.

      The average Baby Boomer is currently 65 and lives in a large suburban home far from town – and “town” is usually a cluster of big box stores on the side of an interstate. In twenty years the typical Boomer female will be 85 and the Boomer males will be… dead. Who’s going to buy those homes if Millennials are broke and don’t want to live way out in the sticks? Immigration will almost certainly be choked off so we can’t expect newcomers to fill the gap in market demand.

      I predict that the current craze for inner city property will level off, demand for inner ring “Main Street” walkable suburbs will rise, and the far flung exurbs will crash. I also expect the value of formerly depopulated second and third tier cities – particularly in the Rust Belt – to rise as people discover that Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati have most of the same qualities as Brooklyn or San Francisco at 1/10th the price.

  5. Quite interesting, indeed. As Spaniard, I never fully understood American suburbial system. Perhaps, the suburbs would have experienced a decline if it was not for the First Migration of low class workers and “coloured” people (as they used to call them) making the favoured classes wanting to “escape” the downtown decline. There’s a kind of beauty in those suburbial zones, but anyway, it always seemed not very practical for me (at least, we’ll all agree that not for all towns). I’m willing to see how Trump will deal with these problematic aereas, you certainly have an issue there. I hope that the people in cities like Rockford find a better tomorrow…

  6. Fascinating post! I’ve seen change happen in Indianapolis. It was dark and dingy many years ago. Then a mayor stepped in determined to clean it up. He also enlisted developers and other movers and shakers who he heard complaining about the state of the city. He asked them to pledge their time, money, and energies. He believed that “Action Speaks Louder Than Words,” and with his strong faith in God and community in hand made Indy “no place” beam with spit and polish. Older neighborhoods were cleaned up by offering properties for a $1. The new owners were given a limited time to make the property look presentable again; especially in what were considered historic neighborhoods. Other incentives were offered to small business prospects. Now there are fewer eye sores, even in areas known for this. I remember going into the Air Force, coming home, and getting lost. What were ramshackle barns and untended farmland suddenly became Fishers and Noblesville. It was obvious to me at least, a steel-focused, well-designed plan worked in the inner-city, and apparently caught on farther out!

  7. Design has always played such a vital role in community development. With the advent of technology such as Tesla is developing, these gaps will only be more glaring in the future. Winners will have lots of cool stuff for free, and losers will have necessities at a high-cost. Think Wi-fi as a utility and communities built with solar power baked into their overall design.

  8. I wonder if anybody’s tried any kind of tax breaks or something to get companies in the abandoned strip centers, or if the homes that’re in the older but not historical part would have tax breaks. I hate how sprawl is (and I’m from Houston, it’s in every friggin’ corner of this metro area). A big part of me blames Wal-mart for this, at least in my neck of the woods.

    When a new one was built a few blocks from the old, non-supercenter one, I watched over a couple of months how all those other businesses folded up or had to move to get near the re-arranged flow of traffic. And the properties left behind have nothing in them, and they were perfectly serviceable. Haven’t been by there in a while, but I wonder what they’ve done (and Wal-mart’s habit of hanging onto the lease of the original building for about a decade ensures that building can’t be used for anything else in any reasonable amount of time).

    Because of age, some buildings in small towns in the downtown area could probably use an inspection and foundation bolstering (goes with the territory), but I have to admit, it’s awful to see perfectly good buildings going to waste. If i had a ton of money, I’d buy up what property I could and try to get some new business in there, like cafes or boutiques or bookstores…something that doesn’t require thousands of square feet to turn a profit. If i was a millionaire, I’d want to do that, even in my too-many-gas-stations, rinky-dink town.

  9. I live in Palestine it’s grim here. I grew up in Robinson just a few miles to the west. I remember as a kid the stores on main street being full, labor day weekend every inch of this town was filled with some sort of activity. Now…. main street is only half full (we actually rented a large building for $200 a month) labor day weekend activity is very week.

    Robinson has now closed all activity for the kids (bowling alley, skate rink, bounce houses, game stores, etc) but in the last 2 years more banks and shopping centers.

    Home prices are extremely under what they are worth or grossly inflated not much of an in between. Landlords are buying up nearly condemned homes for $600-$1500 at tax auction slapping on a coat of paint and wanting $600 a month rent for a 1 bedroom. That’s not even close to affordable in this area for most and these homes are pure shitholes.

    The roads are atrocious. We have 2 schools talking co-op with another school almost 25 miles away.

    I have never lived out of Rural IL so I can’t say how bad it is compared to anywhere else but I hate watching everything I loved about my community die.

  10. What a great story and very well written. The photos really hit it home. My husband and I love traveling through old towns. It can be sad or it can be exciting to see how the community has come together to preserve the history.

  11. fascinating read. thanks very much. I am fascinated by social and urban history so I really enjoyed this. Its endemic, I guess, sadly. IN my small town here in UK we make or try to make a thing about shopping locally and keeping the heart in the town. Although look at places around Detroit. You could cry…

  12. So how is it paid for? Do the taxes go up/housing values go down until the houses cost more in taxes than they’re worth in rent and then the site is abandoned? Then the municipality goes bankrupt, the debt is wiped off and, if there is any hope of life, new people move in?

    1. The short answer is that things won’t be paid for. Not everywhere. Not in most places. If you want a sneak preview of what many fair-to-middling suburban neighborhoods are going to look like in a generation or two wander around the older parts of Detroit, Buffalo, and Youngstown. There’s nothing new about this trajectory.

      1. My parents were telling me about visiting a friend somewhere near Ithica NY (I think) and the friend was paying $25,000 per year in taxes on a $250,000 house. I couldn’t believe it, mainly because the tax was what you would expect to pay on a house 10x more expensive.

        1. An old college room mate who lives in the suburbs of southern New Jersey outside of Philly recently bought a typical 1970’s era home for $240K. His taxes are just shy of $10K a year. That’s standard in many suburban neighborhoods in the Northeast. The accumulated costs of municipal workers, pensions, health care and all the infrastructure maintenance has caught up with these towns. Some people move to new subdivisions in Texas, North Carolina, or Florida because they have yet to age into the municipal insolvency trap – but they’ll eventually have their day of reckoning. But that’s a generation away so there’s no point in having that conversation right now. In the end every town will experience some version of higher taxes and/or reduced services.

  13. A bit more background from a former resident:

    In many ways, the city was set up for this from the start. The city started as two feuding settlements on either bank of the Rock River, each of which developed independently and with blatant disregard for the other side. The results of this are still apparent in the duplicate street names on either side of the river and the different angles at which the grid is laid out on either side. As a result, Rockford has effectively two downtowns and a downtown area that is much larger than similarly sized cities—which makes the revitalization process much harder, to say nothing of the infrastructure issues you bring up.

    With waves of immigrants, different business districts sprung up, further decentralizing the city. On the West Side, the Italian immigrants created a business district on Montague. 7th street, on the east side, became home to a thriving Swedish community, which created banks, cafes, factories, and hardware stores. (Now it is known for prostitution.) Still, those areas are relatively central, and in the late 1940s, when Life Magazine visited Rockford after its postwar manufacturing boom, the city was thriving.

    In the second half of the century, several things-beyond white flight and the collapse of manufacturing-led to the destabilization of the downtown:

    -The decision to build I-90 five miles east of downtown. Thus began the city’s abysmal eastward expansion, much of which you highlight here.
    -The route 20 bypass around the city. Previously, one had to travel through Rockford’s downtown, but now it is possible to cut around the city entirely. In fact, it’s cumbersome to get into the downtown, with the result that warehousing and manufacturing—what remains—has migrated away from the city center towards the bypass and sometimes to smaller towns with easier accessibility.
    -Rockford College’s move from downtown to a campus on the east side of town.
    -The construction of Cherry Valle Mall, the city’s main shopping mall, in the eastern suburb of Cherry Valley, off I-90. I’m not too clear on the construction details, but apparently Rockford didn’t want the mall. Regardless, the people—and development—continued to head East, and perhaps more importantly, the city lost an enormous source of tax revenue.

  14. No mention of the interstate corridor, crime, drugs, public school issues….
    Happenstance will not change these issues.

    1. Happenstance “is” the exact list of issues you listed. Troubles will migrate to new unexpected places and they will diminish in others in ways few people today (including me) can predict.

      1. Agreed! People don’t seem to see that the same taxonomy applies to schools and public safety as to downtowns and suburbs: the “top” (usually suburban) public schools and districts in any metro area seldom remain so for more than a couple of generations due to happenstance. Likewise the “safe” neighborhoods.

        Yes there are notable exceptions; each metro seems to have one or two “elite” suburbs or streetcar-suburban neighborhoods that remain more or less an oasis in a sea of decay. Aaron Renn calls this “the favored quarter”.

  15. You nailed it again – poor Rockford. It has so much going for it, but the big box vortex of E. State/Perryville Rd. (a nightmare to navigate by car, which of course is the only way you CAN navigate it) seems to suck the economic vitality out of the rest of the region. Except for the current 173/I 90 area, which is rapidly becoming just as bad. I covered Winnebago Co. board meetings for a regional paper in the 1990s, and let me tell you, almost every one of those board members would have traded their mother for yet another greenfield development. It was dispiriting to watch. The good news is that downtown Rockford and some of the associated urban corridors still have good enough bones left that revitalization is now more than just a pipe dream.

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