Tale of Two Suburbs: Legacy, And What We Do With It

Scene from downtown Joliet, crossing the Jefferson Street bridge.  Source: nlfan.com

There is a totally undervalued consideration when looking at the past, present and future of cities.  We can’t discount the importance of legacy — the quality of past decisions, what’s been given to us, and what we do with it.  Here, I’m going to take a look at two Chicago suburbs, Naperville and Joliet.  One city thought it lacked a legacy, until it found one that enabled it to take its growth to the next level; the other allowed much of its legacy to fritter away and its residents chose to flee from it.  Legacy continues to shape opinions about the cities today.

Full disclosure here.  I may write mostly about, and most passionately about, the core of Rust Belt cities.  But the truth is, I live in Naperville, about 30 miles west of Chicago.  I’ve been in the community for the last four years.  I don’t think I have any regrets about living here, but I guess if I have to wonder, then I probably do.  However, I do love the community.  I love the diversity, the amenities, the city’s connectivity, downtown.  It’s not walkable everywhere, but walkable areas are very nice.

Prior to Naperville I spent three years living in Joliet.  There I worked as a planner during the late stages of a high growth phase for the city.  Starting in the ’90s, Joliet latched on to the fast suburban growth pattern, and sought to emulate what it saw as the suburban success of Naperville.  In retrospect, Joliet misunderstood what fueled Naperville’s growth, and didn’t see the shift Naperville made that allowed it to remain competitive.

To understand this, it’s instructive to know where both cities were as the suburban development era started after World War II.  In 1950, Joliet was a small industrial city of 52.000 people, flush with jobs from the city’s two primary industries — steel and the state prison.  Low-skilled but high wage positions were common, and created a viable middle class in the city.  Although Joliet had an extensive freight and passenger rail network and connections to Chicago, Joliet remained relatively independent of Chicago.  I used to joke that Joliet was the point in Illinois where Downstate met Chicago.  There’s some truth to that, since without Chicago, Joliet would likely be more similar economically and socially to Rockford or Kankakee.

By contrast, in 1950 Naperville was a small farming community of 7,000, still some distance from the edge of the Chicago metropolis but immediately east of a city much like Joliet, Aurora, IL.  Naperville was also served by freight and passenger rail service, and was similarly independent of Chicago.

Over the next 40 years, though, only Naperville was able to grow, using the suburban development growth model.  Why?  Because Naperville was unburdened with legacy.  Naperville was surrounded by farmlands that were suitable for new single family home construction.  The extension of the interstate highway network allowed Naperville to make highway access an attractive amenity to potential residents, and allowed the development of office complexes on the city’s northern fringes.   For those who still worked in the Loop, commuter rail service became standardized and more frequent after the reorganization of the Regional Transportation Authority in 1983.

Naperville hit the suburban trifecta — greenfields for residential development, highways and commuter rail access to move people, and office parks to employ workers.

Meanwhile, Joliet struggled over the same period.  The city lost steel jobs and other manufacturing jobs, as did the rest of the Rust Belt.  Joliet’s periphery was also full of farmland, but the city’s tenuous connection to Chicago meant that it wasn’t often considered as a suburban expansion destination.

But two things happened in the ’90s that shifted fortunes for both cities.  In Naperville, planners began their focus on the city’s downtown, building on legacies that had previously been neglected.  In Joliet, the pursuit of casinos, including one anchored in downtown Joliet, were critical in trying to change the image of the city.

Naperville in 1950 was small, but it was also blessed with a charming downtown with two strong anchors — Edward Hospital and North Central College.  The hospital was just south of downtown, and the college was just to the east.  At the north edge sits Naperville’s Metra commuter rail station.  Running through the middle of this is the DuPage River.  Naperville began to build on these assets to create a strong suburban town center, centered on “eds and meds”.  It took advantage of the growth in jobs in each industry, sought out retail and commerce that would serve both, and even invested in turning the banks of the DuPage River into an attractive downtown riverwalk.  Naperville has even taken this further by introducing multifamily residential development downtown, promoting live/work space on the downtown edges, and building up events like the annual Naperville Ribfest that spread the message of Downtown Naperville as the city’s heart.  Early on, it appears that Naperville planners realized there was a limit to the suburban development era, and they began the city’s transition into its next phase.

Joliet moved in the other direction.  The city tried to revitalize its downtown by attracting the Harrah’s Casino and hotel, the renovation of the Rialto Theater, the construction of the minor league ballpark Silver Cross Field and a Route 66 Museum, but soon found that downtown Joliet was a collection of unrelated attractions.  As the seat of Will County, the downtown Courthouse and County offices were always a destination for workers and residents, but little remained to keep the daytime population happy.

Joliet also happened to be blessed with “eds and meds” downtown assets in its history.  St. Joseph Hospital was once located just across the Des Plaines River, west of downtown Joliet.  Very close to the hospital was the University of St. Francis, which still exists today about a mile from the center of downtown.  The hospital moved in 1964 to its current location further west in the city.  What if the hospital had stayed at its previous near-downtown location, and partnered with the university on development in the area?  It’s possible that Joliet could have developed an expanded downtown that would have had a county and city administrative focus on one side of the river, and an “eds and meds” focus on the other.  It could have led to a different economic and social profile for the city.

Joliet moved in another interesting direction as well.  As office park development spread along the I-88 Corridor in the ’90s in DuPage County, including Naperville, suburbs began competing with each other to develop more affordable homes for the office worker market.  Joliet, just 20 miles directly south of Naperville and the office jobs on I-88, decided it would become a player in that game.  The city elected to pursue an aggressive annexation policy that would lead to thousands more single family homes and more than triple the physical size of the city.

Joliet doubled down on the suburban development era at the same time Naperville began moving away from it.

I’ve recently begun to caution against using population figures to draw conclusions about cities, but in this case I’ll make an exception.  Witness this chart to see figures for the cities between 1950 and 2013:

It’s clear Joliet reached a peak in 1970 and hit a plateau for 20 years before shifting course.  Naperville has been on an accelerated upward climb sine 1950, but that pace has slowed since 1990.  The year 1990 clearly represents a divergence of policy decisions by both cities.

There is further evidence of this divergence when you look at the most recent growth rates, after the housing crisis that ravaged so much of our nation’s residential landscape.  Between 2010 and 2013, Naperville has grown 2.1%, while Joliet has grown just 0.3%.  I see this as evidence that Naperville has decided to trade the exceptional growth rates of its recent past for more gradual development, and has become focused more on infill development.  Naperville is now building off the legacy of decisions made 25 years ago.  Meanwhile, I see this as evidence that Joliet still has abundant undeveloped land next to its recently built subdivisions, and is waiting for the housing market to return to pre-crisis levels.  Joliet is also building off the legacy of decisions made 25 years ago.

Only one view of the future is likely to be right.

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