Back to the Future, and On the Outside Looking In

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For fun, I often check out the wealth of historical maps available through the University of Chicago Library’s extensive Chicago map collection.  The collection includes maps that predate the Chicago Fire in 1871, and documents industry, transportation, real estate and socio-demographic characteristics dating back to the end of the 19th century.  I check out the maps because they tell me how the city was organized at that time, and, perhaps more importantly, the thoughts behind the existing structure.

I also check them out because I’m geeky that way.

A recent foray into the collection led to a map that I believe has meaning for our future.  A map entitled Talbot’s Industry and Railroad Map from 1904 shows the outlines of a city with about 1.7 million people, within a county that had 1.8 million people.  Those numbers today are about 2.7 million and 5.2 million, respectively. Look closely at the map, and you’ll see how the urban form, at least in Chicago, was organized at that time — a dense urban center, linked to prosperous outlying commercial nodes by an extensive rail network, with acres of farmland in-between.  Chicago’s growth was notable for extending far outward along its rail network, and only moving away from rail as street networks improved and highways were built.  What was one farmland became suburban subdivisions.

What, exactly, does this have to do with our future?  Well, along the lines of Mark Twain’s quote that “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” I think our metro areas are in the midst of reorganizing themselves in a similar fashion to what we see in this map, writ large.

In 1904 Chicago, the city’s dense center was the land of opportunity.  And if it wasn’t yet the place of most people’s idea of prosperity, it would soon become so.  There certainly were a large number of poor people living in deplorable conditions, but manufacturing jobs provided accelerated economic mobility to those who desired it.  The outlying farmlands, however, were a different story.  They were disconnected from the manufacturing economy.  They were often not linked to the railroads that connected Chicago to the rest of the country.  If there were areas of more entrenched poverty, with little mobility, these areas were it.

Future growth changed all that.  Today we barely know of how immigrant subsistence farmers made it.

Fast forward to today.  Many people who grew up in the homes that were built on the former farmlands of 110 years ago are now moving back into the dense urban center.  As the people move, so will the jobs.  But as they return to a place and space that they once spurned, people already living in the dense center are accelerating their move outward to the former farmlands.  They’ll get to the edges of the metropolitan area and find that the physical, political, social, economic and institutional infrastructure that once supported it have decamped for the city, too.  And those new suburban residents will be just as isolated as the subsistence farmers of a century before.

I hope they know what they’re doing.


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