As published in the Chicago Contrarian January 4, 2022
What is a Neighborhood?
What is a City?
What is a Village?
What is a District?
What is a Metropolis?
Did you say Charter City?
With all the chatter encouraging Charter Schools, one would think leadership in Chicago would be pushing Charter Cities as Chicago’s future paradigm: abandon governing and hire private corporations to run the city. It is not a new idea, and there are plenty of consultants selling such services as the recent essay Prospectus On Próspera, the charter city taking shape in Honduras points out.
Given Chicago's challenging circumstances, any and all ideas to bring the Windy City back to life should be seriously considered. After all, we are redecorating O’Hare International Airport, but the prospect of losing centralized control is obviously the one self-interested reason why Chicago’s governing apparatus is not alerting citizens to the ideas and possible benefits of charter cities.
Chicago made neighborhoods famous, from Chinatown to Boys Town. Nevertheless, such character was not the result of a 1920s Zoning Ordinance. Neighborhoods emerged through social phenomena that reflected people's living processes. Neighborhoods are not zones on a map, nor are they determined by City constructed gates on endlessly gridded streets. Neighborhoods can be lovely or ferocious because they are dynamic living organisms, growing, decaying, and co-evolving with other neighborhoods.
Chicago centralized the naming of neighborhoods in 1993 when there was confusion about the city’s future. The resulting effort to centralize control attempts to restore a static vision from the past, so the current code specifies:
These kinds of laws are pedantic and overbearing, reflecting the dysfunction of Chicago’s Governance. They are against the entire lived and loved history of Chicago. Neighborhoods emerged as people lived with shifting boundaries, interactions, and dynamics.
Is Streeterville a neighborhood? It is not like Avalon Park. Just like people use the word city to mean places with populations between 100,000 people or 100 million people, “neighborhood” also has an ambiguous sensibility, regardless of how much Chicago’s ordinance pretends to control our lives.
Lakeview alone has 97,804 people, making it more populous than nearly 20 U.S. capital cities. With many high-rises and 33,224 people, Streeterville is accurately and commonly thought of as a District, whereas The Villa with 126 homes is a "Village." Chicago’s authorized neighborhoods average a population of 14,000 people per neighborhood. Frequently many strong, and smaller communities are nested inside these neighborhoods.
Centralizing the naming of neighborhoods is one example of the misallocation of Chicago’s Governing responsibilities. In one sense, it is the abdication and dilution of the City’s responsibilities to the whole. In another sense, it is a usurpation of responsibilities that belong at a lower level of organization: neighborhoods know what they need and should have the responsibilities to manage themselves. Straightforward enough, yet the difficulty is that no good understanding of what constitutes a neighborhood exists. Sure the ordinance specifies Neighborhood Names, yet without attributing responsibilities, geography, or specifications, it is a pretty hollow gesture. Further, the names are inflexible to real living and so wildly disproportionate, Chicago's neighborhoods are ineffectual as a management tool. Beyond official names, creating better places where people want to live will require a better understanding of what constitutes a healthy neighborhood.
The KidCities mechanism recognizes Neighborhoods as places roughly accommodating 10,000 people, plus or minus 4000. What's more, Neighborhoods aggregate into Districts with up to a hundred thousand people. It is the size and scale of place that necessitate specific governance responsibilities. At the smallest scale, Urban Villages formed of hundreds of people have much more informal governance procedures.
Repealing the Zoning Ordinance is one step to allow these naturally occurring social groups to form nested governance structures into the larger healthy City governance.