Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Chicago: if not back to the city there, then where?

The ASSA meetings were in Chicago this year.  Even though the meetings take place in January, I always look forward to their return there, because I enjoy visiting Chicago more than any other American city.  It helps that my daughter goes to school there, but I also find Chicago's urban landscape to be uniquely appealing.  It is somehow dense without feeling overcrowded, the art and restaurant scenes are remarkable, and the architecture is world renowned.  Few things for me are as life-affirming as a walk down Wacker Drive.

Chicago also has decent transit and, for a beautiful large city, is inexpensive.  The median price of a house in Chicago is around $200,000, and even at the peak, prices remained more or less sane. 

Yet between 2000 and 2010, Chicago shed seven percent of its population.  This was not just because the region in which it sits grew slowly; Cook County outside of Chicago gained slightly, and Lake and Kane Counties grew smartly.  Employment in Cook County has fallen more than 10 percent over the past ten years.

I like cities and I root for them.  Yet even in an era when sprawl has become a pejorative, more people leave some of our most appealing cities than move into them.  I suspect a lot of the problem is school quality, and I give Congress for New Urbanism president John Norquist a lot of credit for recognizing this fact.  But many people like living in detached houses on spacious lots.  In the absence of policy interventions such as higher gasoline prices, I don't see this changing anytime soon.