Sunday, February 24, 2013


Internet lists are a dime a dozen these days and in this economy I think even that may be overvalued. Last year I wrote about a list of the twenty most romantic places in America compiled by a dating service for wealthy men seeking attractive women of limited means, (and no I'm not making that up). I'm not privy to the ins and outs of the making of these lists, but considering the random nature of their results, my guess is they're made this way: a list's creator comes up with a limited set of criteria, in this case, destinations for "romantic getaways", the data is gathered, and then it's ranked by a computer. There's nothing sophisticated about it and usually the sampling is too small to be meaningful. The above mentioned dating service for example may have drawn their sample from a list of say 200 clients, meaning any destination that had more than one vote may have made the list. Now don't get me wrong, they're all fine cities, but that might explain why Cleveland, Dallas and Houston all made the list of the most romantic places in America. Chicago by the way was number five on that particular list.

Since these lists are so common, I get several of them a day via e-mail spam, it's easy to ignore them. But here's one list, from a fairly significant source that is too outrageous to be ignored. It's the "America's Most Miserable Cities" list, published annually by Forbes Magazine. The major criterion for the list, not surprising given the source, is the economy as measured by things such as housing values, foreclosure and unemployment rates, and the exodus of people from a particular place. The list also takes into account violent crime and "quality of life" issues such as the weather and commute times.

Obviously this list is more complicated than the list mentioned at the top, as the "misery factor" as defined by its editors at Forbes, has multiple criteria that need to be evaluated, and weighed against each other.

Many of the cites that had the dubious honor of making the list are the usual suspects; unfortunately it should come as no surprise that Detroit was lited at the top. Violent crime, which is actually down there since 2011 and a 35% drop in home values in the last three years were cited by the editors. Flint, MI and Rockford, IL come next. Now to me, for a list like this to be meaningful, I believe it should only compare comparable cities. Despite losing a huge chunk of its population over the past several years, Detroit is still a top tier American city as it has been for two hundred years while Flint and Rockford with populations of just over 100,000, barely rank as big cities. It's like comparing the success or lack thereof, of major and minor league baseball teams.

Number four on the list is Chicago. Here's their comment on the Windy City:
Chicago has passionate supporters, but residents must endure the misery of long commutes, plummeting home prices, brutal winters and high foreclosure rates. The migration rate out of Chicago is the sixth worst among the 200 largest metros.
I have no argument with any of that. Frankly it comes as little surprise (or relief) to myself and my fellow residents of our fair city that we're just a little less miserable than our brothers and sisters in Detroit, Flint and Rockford. But before we pack our bags and move to a far less miserable place such as Gary, Indiana, (number 19), it might be helpful to look at this survey a little closer.

Here I'll use another baseball analogy. The book I've been pouring over lately, as spring is after all just around the corner, has been The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. In case you don't know, Bill James is the foremost contemporary expert on the statistical analysis of the game and its players. His methodology to evaluate players was at first dismissed by traditional baseball men (yes they're still mostly men), but now has been adapted by most major league teams. James himself, long a renegade in baseball circles is now part of the establishment. The term he coined to describe his work is "sabermetrics", which he defines simply as "the search for objective knowledge about baseball."

From that description you might assume that Bill James is simply a "numbers guy", someone who sits in front of a computer day in and day out, entering stats into a spreadsheet and crunching the numbers. On the contrary, he's a brilliant thinker and an excellent writer who has a true passion for the game and a profound understanding of the way it works.

Baseball people since day one have been obsessed with stats; you can't read a story about a ballplayer that doesn't somewhere reference statistics such as batting average or earned run average in the case of pitchers.  Bill James and other like minded folks, understand that while these are useful numbers, they only tell a small part of the story, for example: Babe Ruth struck out a lot, Pete Rose holds the Major League record for the worst career stolen base percentage, and Lou Brock was a lousy fielder. Yet none of those facts prevented James from ranking those three players at or near the top of of their respective positions.

In other words, Bill James's methodology only takes into account the big picture. Faults may be overshadowed by much greater attributes. Of course, the reverse may be true as well but in the end only one thing matters, how a player's overall performance contributes to his team's success.

By contrast, most of the criteria used to calculate the Forbes misery list is taken out of context from the big picture. Beyond that. the specifics can be interpreted any number of ways:
  • Yes it's true that the bursting of the housing bubble is painful to those of us who have owned property for years. On the other hand, lower property values can present an extraordinary opportunity for new investment in a city. 
  • Unemployment rates alone are difficult to evaluate, especially when you compare big and small cities. One has to ask the question, does the city have the potential to recoup the jobs that have been lost in a bad economy, even if that means moving in a different direction, or is the city moving in a constant downward spiral? There are examples of both cases in the Forbes list and you simply can't compare the two situations by raw data alone. 
  • Exodus rates need to be evaluated to determine who is leaving a city and why, and also what kind of people, if any, are moving back into the city.
  • Violent crime of course cannot be spun in the same way, there is no silver lining there. Still, violent crime has always been with us, it's society's problem, not just the problem of specific communities.
  • Libraries, schools and other fundamental civic necessities are funded by property taxes. High property taxes are often, admittedly not always, tied to good schools and other things that citizens not only want but expect. Simply put, you get what you pay for.
  • No one wants to be stuck in traffic. The fact is, crowded places are the places most people want to (or have to) be. Those are the places with the most opportunity. The places with the least opportunities for their citizens have few traffic jams. It's a tradeoff. 
  • As for bad weather, well I'm in the minority but personally I like the change of seasons and would not want to live in a place where the temperature never dips below 50F and you have to be indoors in air conditioning half of the year.
Here's the Forbes 2013 Misery list and the reasons cited by the editors:
  1. Detroit - crime, shrinking property values, exodus
  2. Flint, MI - shrinking economic base (and everything else), exodus, crime 
  3. Rockford, IL - shrinking economic base, unemployment, high property taxes
  4. Chicago - shrinking property values, foreclosures, exodus, traffic, weather
  5. Modesto, CA - bankruptcy rates, foreclosures, unemployment
  6. Vallejo, CA - ditto
  7. Warren, MI - shrinking property values
  8. Stockton, CA - see Modesto and Vallejo
  9. Lake County, IL - shrinking property values, traffic, weather
  10. New York City - high property taxes, traffic
  11. Toledo, OH - lack of job growth, unemployment, exodus
  12. St. Louis - you name it (see below)
  13. Camden, NJ - poverty
  14. Milwaukee - weather, high property taxes
  15. Atlantic City - shrinking economic base, unemployment 
  16. Atlanta - shrinking property values, foreclosures, traffic
  17. Cleveland - exodus
  18. Poughkeepsie, NY - weather, traffic
  19. Gary, IN - crime (although in decline), foreclosures, exodus
  20. Youngstown, OH - shrinking economic base- exodus
A few more thoughts: 
  • Notice the distribution of the misery: Michigan, Illinois,  Ohio, and California all have three miserable cities and New York (State) and New Jersey each have two. With the exception of Atlanta which seems to be the only miserable place in the South, the remaining three, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Gary are clustered together geographically in the same region as Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. The three California cities are all clustered around the same region of the north-central part of the state, and combined their population is around 600,000, right around the size of Milwaukee. Can most of American misery really be focused on the Midwest, a small part of the Mid-Atlantic region and a very small part of California?
  • How did Lake County, Illinois, a collection of municipalities containing some of the richest and some of the poorest communities in the United States, get counted as a city?
  • There's misery and then there's misery. I'm not sure how the misery categories were weighted but to me anyway, one cannot possibly evaluate the misery of poverty in the same breath as the misery of traffic jams or bad weather.  While long commute times and long winters were mentioned in several of the causes for misery in cities, out and out poverty was mentioned only once.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words, well actually more like 973, and the images chosen to illustrate each city's misery were interesting. The picture used to illustrate St. Louis's blues is an image of a SWAT team in action. Together with this comment: "St. Louis and Detroit are the only two metros to rank in the bottom 50% in each of the nine metrics of misery we considered..." Forbes paints the picture that St. Louis must truly be hell on earth. It's not nearly that bad if you asked me, St. Louis is a terrific place that has a lot going for it, with of course some problems too. Most of the other pictures in the article of boarded up buildings, foreclosure signs, bad traffic, and a house in Cleveland being demolished, all paint a bleak picture. The image illustrating Milwaukee is of a babushka clad old woman walking through a snowstorm. Some folks might say: "goodness me, look at the plight of the elderly in a dismal snow-belt city", while others like me would say that picture speaks to the toughness and resilience of the people of that fine city. New York is illustrated by a group of people in amusing costumes protesting high tax rates, looking anything but miserable, while Chicago's is a shot of a tightly grouped pack of pedestrians. That shot was made with a long, telephoto lens which exaggerates the density of the group; none of the people in the picture necessarily look happy, but don't they don't look miserable either. What is very apparent in the photo to me, is the group is made up of a mixed bag of races and ethnicities, which contrary to the editors' intention, very much illustrates the character of a diverse and exhilarating city. 
  • Speaking of which, in the preface to the list it was mentioned that two sets of criteria used in the past, were not taken into account this year. They were political corruption and quality of the sports teams. Which brings up the question: if Chicago placed number four on the list without those two considerations, imagine where it would place WITH them? Could Chicago actually be more miserable than Detroit?
I suppose it's foolish to spend so much time commenting on a list that was generated for entertainment rather than scholarly purposes. My guess is I've already spent more time writing this piece today than the editors at Forbes put into it. The problem is, some folks take these lists seriously. Some people who actually read Forbes, have the means to invest or encourage the investment in, and have the means to positively contribute to the future of these places. No city anywhere deserves to be discounted like the morning trash, especially based upon flawed methodology. I believe it's a disservice for a national publication like Forbes to be printing such drivel.

In case you disagree with my assessment of the misery list all I can say is this: I'll take the piece seriously when I see the good folks over at Forbes relocating from their offices in Manhattan to the less miserable Camden, NJ.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

From this morning's commute...

When you hop aboard an otherwise crowded rush hour train and there is a group of empty seats clustered in a specific part of the car, you can assume there is a reason for it. However my anxiety this morning to place my freezing cold bum down on a seat made me throw all caution to the wind and I made a beeline for the empty seat. It turned out in that part of the car there were about seven or eight extremely boisterous people holding court, engaged in animated but jovial conversation. This is unusual at least on the train I take, where most people are content to keep to themselves with a book or more and more common these days, an electronic device to keep them company.

But these folks, the kind of interesting mix of ethnicities and races you only find in a big city, were hootin' it up and hollerin', laughing and screaming at decibel levels typical for groups of teenagers. However these were not teens; they were all about my age (50 somethings) or older. The loudest of them, who happened to be the person sitting the closest to me was this white guy with a very distinct Chicago accent, and an obnoxious guffaw. What he was talking about I can't really tell you, it was more of a stream of consciousness monologue than part of a conversation. At one point the guy kept referring to some sort of scam he had worked out. Then out of nowhere, he mentioned a church we were passing: "Yeah dat's St. Gertrudes over by dere. It's Gotic ain'it? D'ja see dat program on Channel 11 (the local PBS station) about Gotic architecture the udder day? It was priddy good."

That got my attention. Then back to his ramblings about working so hard he didn't have any time to spend his money and so on. The other folks seemed to have their own stream of consciousness conversations as well, all of them talking at each other as if they were in parallel universes.

Half way to work, most of the group including Chicago guy got off. The parting comment from one of the women in the group was: "Bye, don't call us, we'll call you" which resulted in one last guffaw. There was a sigh of relief from the rest of us left on the train. It was quiet and I could get back to my book.

Interestingly enough, I happened have with me a wonderful anthology of writings about Chicago called appropriately enough, This is Chicago. After my friends got off the train and I was able to concentrate, I began to re-read the forward by the editor of the volume, Albert Halper. It is one of the best short essays about Chicago that I've ever read. In it, Halper raves about the literary talent in this city (it was published in 1952), and laments the failure of writers from the east coast establishment to adequately capture the essence of this city. Here is an excerpt:
     One feels these visiting reporters always carry their encrusted opinions with them, like patients traveling with hardened arteries. They have never probed Chicago's interior, never walked the grasses of Chicago's parks, never gone into the outlying homes, groceries and playgrounds of Chicago's neighborhoods, never stood on street corners watching workers stream from the factories at dusk, never mingled with youthful crowds jamming the great ballrooms, never sat in the big, air-conditioned bowling alleys listening to the crack of the pins as teams of men and and girls. wearing sweaters with the names of their leagues stitched to their backs, send the heavy balls rolling along the smooth smooth floors.
     Sticking to their Loop hotels, or making the customary rounds of the city's newspaper morgues for dead "facts", the writers were never drawn to stand on the lake point at Fifty-fifth Street to watch the long ore-boats passing far out on the horizon, never walked up Plymouth Court listening to the symphony of the giant printing presses inside the flanking buildings, never went out to Pullman to stare at the red glow of the mills agains the prairie sky, never thought it worthwhile to walk along the lake north of the Drake where long gray rollers crash in the spray upon the city as if in a dream.
     No, these journalists never had the time, it seemed. In all their writings one never comes across descriptions of the city's haunting autumns, of its springs, or of a winter scene in Garfield or Humboldt Park, where on a Sunday afternoon, thousands of skaters can be seen circling or mingling on the ice; one fails to read in their articles anything about the youth, or the scholarship, of the city, or about any of the municipal virtue the city may possess. Chicago is a city of crime, a desert... True. It is a crime-ridden, as Sahara-like as any other great American city. It admits it. Its inhabitants are the first to admit it. But no city can function if all its citizens traffic in crime. No metropolis can exist whose foundations are sunk in sand.*
After reading those words, it dawned on me... I sort of missed those noisy folks after they got off the train.

*From the Forward to This is Chicago: An Anthology, Edited by Albert Halper, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1952

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Good guys with guns

The new rallying cry of the gun crowd is this: "The only way to solve the problem of bad guys with guns, is to have good guys with guns." I know the feeling. Having been robbed more than once, the idea of: "if I only had a gun", crossed my mind many times. I'd whip it out of my belt, point it at the perp and say Dirty Harry style: "Go ahead punk, make my day." Then I think about it a little and realize that's just a bunch of crap.

The point is, anyone who intends to do harm to you always has the element of surprise on his side. There is no contest, by the time you know what's going on, any criminal with half a brain already has a plan to do whatever he (or she) intends to do, while you are only beginning to process the information. Unless you're suspicious of everyone and walk around with a gun in you're hand, you simply can't  react in time to do anything about it.

Well, the argument goes, if there are other "law abiding" private citizens carrying guns on the street, they could come to your rescue. Frankly I'm not sure I want some guy on the street with a gun coming to my rescue, especially if my attacker has a gun. Personally I'd rather give a robber the twenty bucks in my wallet than be caught in crossfire.

There are certainly instances when "good guys with guns" use them to minimize crimes. Occasionally you read about the grandma who holds burglars at bay until the police arrive, or a guy carrying a piece who successfully intervenes in an assault. But these stories are the exception not the rule. More often you read about children who shoot themselves or their siblings with their parents' guns, or tempers flaring between friends and family and an otherwise "law abiding citizen" in the heat of passion, shoots his loved one.

Someone I work with just lost his best friend. This friend saw a guy trying to steal his car parked in the driveway. He got his gun, went outside and got into an altercation with the thief. The police were called. The two men struggled and eventually my colleague's friend shot the would be thief in the leg. Just then the police arrived. They drew their guns and demanded the shooter put down his gun. When my colleague's best friend didn't put the gun down immediately, the police shot him dead.

There is no end to news stories about good guys with guns either killing themselves or their loved ones. Just last week, South African athlete Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend because he apparently thought she was a burglar.

I could go on and on. The point is, guns are here to stay and there is nothing we can do about it. What truly bothers me is the absurd argument that guns keep us safe. The law of averages says that if you or I carried a gun, we'd be more likely having it taken and used against us than we would using it to protect ourselves.

The gun lobby has nothing to fear. If anything, it has made tremendous gains in the past thirty plus years. I remember the seventies well. The murder rate back then was worse than today and there was a huge outcry to ban handguns. Some municipalities including Chicago and Washington passed laws forbidding the sale of handguns within their city limits. Those laws were recently overturned by the Supreme Court. Laws prohibiting or limiting the manufacture and sale of assault weapons, (like the one used against dozens of children and teachers in Newtown, CT), that were once on the books, have been allowed to expire. Most states now have, or are about to pass laws permitting the carrying of concealed weapons in public, something that was inconceivable thirty years ago. Today instead of trying to ban handguns, we're trying to limit assault weapons. At this rate, in thirty years we'll be desperately trying to control the sale of submachine guns and surface-to-air missiles.

And still the gun crowd cries foul whenever a voice of reason says we need to find a way to limit the availability of these killing machines. I'm afraid it's going to take a lot more innocent women, men, and children to needlessly die before we come to our senses.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

During the commute...

There was a story on the network news the other day about the amount of time commuters spend in their cars. In one year the reporter said, if you took the cumulative time an average driver spent in the car stopped in traffic, it would equal the amount of time if would take to play nine 18 hole rounds of golf. It turns out Washington DC has the worst traffic in the United States. There a drive that would take one half hour with no traffic, typically takes about three hours.

Humph I thought self righteously, why don't those folks just take public transportation?

I got my answer yesterday, twice.

On the way to work a young man was listening to music through his ear buds. The difference between him and the twenty other people on the train listening to their music was that his music was so loud it could be heard throughout the train. You couldn't hear all his music however, just the percussion part which was the driving beat of some kind of dance music that carried on at the same cadence and tempo for at least fifteen minutes non-stop. It wasn't ear piercing loud mind you, just incessant, akin to Chinese water torture. It didn't help that the train was delayed for about five minutes on the bridge over the river. The thought of opening a door and jumping into the frigid water thirty feet below did cross my mind.

I have several transportation options to get home and choosing the best one can be a bit of a crap shoot. Last night the subway seemed to be the best option as it quickly gets me half way home where I have the option of hopping aboard an express train. There's now a message board at that half-way station which posts the arrival time of next train. It turned out there wouldn't be another express for at least ten minutes, so I hopped back aboard the original train which would probably beat that extra ten minutes.

It was the wrong choice. About three stations from home my train stopped. The driver got on the intercom to say there was a train ahead of us which should be moving shortly. It didn't. After about ten minutes (it seemed longer) the canned voice of the CTA told us that we were experiencing a delay. Pardon the expression but, no shit Sherlock. Just then, the express train passed us on unobstructed tracks. To make matters worse, the woman sitting next to me began a phone conversation with her estranged partner, telling her and the rest of the train that she couldn't live with her anymore because she the partner, was sick and in desperate need of psychological help. Turns out the partner had a penchant of throwing furniture at my seat-mate. "Yes I know I do bad things too but at least I don't throw furniture at you" she said.

I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. All I can say to those people who complain about sitting in their cars in stop and go traffic wishing they were out on the links is this:

"See what you're missing?"

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Fire and Ice

All of us who care about Chicago's architectural legacy owe Robert Powers a tremendous debt of gratitude for his tireless pursuit of documenting this city's less heralded buildings. Through his blog A Chicago Sojourn, I have leaned to appreciate some previously overlooked and in some instances in my case anyway, despised building styles, now seeing them in a new light.

Not a minor fringe benefit of his labors are the occasions when we suddenly lose a wonderful building. That was the case this past week when a tremendous fire consumed the Pullman Couch Company Warehouse, which was part of the historic Central Manufacturing District on the south side at 37th and Ashland. Firefighters battled the stubborn blaze for days as it rekindled many times over several days in the bitterly cold weather. In the end a spectacular shroud of ice covered the ruins of 1912 building.

Of course Robert Powers photographed the building a while a ago in happier days. Here is his post on yet another loss of one of our great but lesser known buildings.

Lynn Becker also photographed the warehouse building before the fire. Here is his post with historical context from his blog Architecture Chicago PLUS.