What the Tribune 's Zoning Series Missed

Short answer: Half the story.

Longer answer: The Chicago Tribune's zoning series missed the half of the story that corresponds to the half of the city known as the South Side.

To understand how this is so, all you have to do is to compare two photographs from different sections of the same newspaper, the Chicago Tribune.

The first photo, below, is taken from the last in a 5-piece investigation by the Tribune into zoning, development, and corruption, "Neighborhoods for Sale", which ran from January to August of 2008.

2008-09-15-BernardStoneDevelopmentMeetingPhotobyAlexGarcia.jpg
Berny Stone: If You Don't Like My Plan The Guy to My Right Will Sit on You
(Source: Chicago Tribune. Photo by Alex Garcia)

Here we see Alderman Bernard Stone (50th) defending the proposed development of a retirement home in his community at a testy meeting with constituents who, according to interviews given to the Trib, largely oppose the plan. Why? Because an old-folks home, full of people in wheelchairs who don't drive to work, will supposedly cause traffic congestion.

Compare this snapshot of an alderman at work in the illustration below, from an article that ran in the Tribune's business section last week (September 12, 2008).

2008-09-15-PatDowellWashingtonParkPhotobyTerrenceAntonioJames.jpg
Pat Dowell's Buffalo Park: There's Just More Room on the Sidewalks Down Here
(Source: Chicago Tribune. Photo by Terrence Antonio James)

Here we see a handsome photo of 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell posing before a vacant commercial building. If you didn't already know the story, you could be forgiven for thinking that maybe this person hopes to be the next Jerry Kleiner, that the article is from the Food section, and that the dump behind her is on its way to becoming the next Red Light.

Not so. Dowell has no plans other than glamor photo shoots for the fire hazard behind her. Someone else does, however, and this makes her mad. She wants to protect her ward's inventory of empty buildings from people who might tear them down and build something that would attract tenants, customers, and tax revenue.

These pictures represent two different realities. Neither of them alone does justice to the equally insane but distinctly different dynamics of neighborhood development in Chicago. This diversity is clear to readers who leaf through the various sections of the Tribune , but it's a point that is lost in the tight muckraking focus of the "Neighborhoods for Sale" series.

The argument of "Neighborhoods for Sale" is not surprising. It's such a familiar story, in fact, that I feel like it could have been written before any of the research was done. Chicago aldermen, the argument goes, are in the pockets of real estate developers, who run rampant over the city's meaningless zoning code and run circles around the ineffectual wonks in its Department of Planning. In no other American city do planning and development work like this.

The results, which we are all familiar with, are the conspicuously over-sized, architecturally out-of-context, and often poorly constructed residential monstrosities that have come to symbolize the go-go years of the 1990s on the city's North Side. Plus fat-cat developers and corrupt aldermen.

All very well.

But if you think this series will help you understand how things work on the Near South Side, you're wrong. Or maybe it will, if you turn it upside down and hold it in a mirror. Community groups in the Near South Side shoo away developers, and aldermen run scared of community groups that have spent 40 years perfecting the techniques of obstruction. When they're not posing proudly in front of empty buildings.

Take the situation in Hyde Park, Barack Obama's home, and my neighborhood.

Community groups -- the kind that the "Neighborhoods For Sale" authors argue are typically kept out of ward-level decision-making -- killed a painfully negotiated compromise plan for Federally-funded renovation of the shoreline around Promontory Point in 2005. They spooked Alderman Leslie Hairston (5th) into blocking demolition of an empty hospital to make way for a Marriott in 2007, and are prepared to vote the precinct dry to block it again in 2008.

A handful of neighbors scared a developer away from replacing a derelict church that has been empty and falling apart since at least 1999; and yet another small group of people leaned into Alderman Toni Preckwinkle when she made it known that she favored a mixed-use residential project on a stretch of 53rd Street, presently home to a vacant lot and a car wash.

And Alderman Pat Dowell is offended that a private party, the University of Chicago, wants to horn in on her hoard of vacant lots and empty buildings.

2008-09-16-3rdWard.JPG
Dowell's 3rd Ward: Forever Open, Clear, and Free (of Buildings and People)

The "Neighborhoods for Sale" series performed a useful service in detailing the abuses to which the current development process is prone in the city of Chicago. It did not issue an authoritative diagnosis of the problem. That would have required looking at those large portions of the city where the issue is not too much development, but too little, and where community input is less the solution, and more of the problem.

[This post also appears at Hyde Park Progress]