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Reflecting on a Successful Fellowship on Legacy City Revitalization at UChicago's Institute of Politics

By Lavea Brachman, GOPC Executive Director I have recently returned from a two month fellowship at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, a new nonpartisan entity designed to ignite a passion in students for politics and public service, where I taught the seminar, “Can America’s Older Industrial Cities Pull Off a Second Act?”  I drew heavily on the research and advocacy work that GOPC is doing with its many partners to drive economic prosperity in Ohio's legacy cities (or older industrial cities), where quality of life and regrowth are challenged.

The seminar raised questions such as: how to distribute scarce resources for neighborhood revitalization; what is the role of large anchor institutions, like universities and hospitals, in generating neighborhood or economic development when that is not their primary mission; how are massive transportation and sewer and water infrastructure needs going to be financed; and how do we tailor policies and practices to account for the differences between large and small legacy cities.

But the challenge – either implicit or explicit -- underlying all of these questions is that of the existing and growing economic divide in Ohio’s cities as well as other legacy cities, like Detroit, Gary, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Philadelphia, as the percentage and numbers of middle income residents continue to decline.

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This phenomenon is not limited to legacy cities in this country, but the economic contrast is particularly stark in them and has profound societal and political consequences. For instance, UChicago, situated in the thriving Hyde Park neighborhood, is also a stone's throw from other parts of Chicago’s South Side with remnants of older industrial past-- closed manufacturing plants, some still operating factories --  resembling other Midwestern legacy cities.   If you didn’t know you were in America’s third largest city – and the largest and most prosperous city in the Midwest –  then you would think you were transported to a legacy city neighborhood with high levels of economic distress.  Contrast that with Chicago's downtown and many of its adjacent neighborhoods with thriving commercial and residential districts.   Like legacy cities, Chicago, too, is experiencing increasing extremes in residential income levels and neighborhood conditions.

This trend is of deep concern not only for the residents living in these neighborhoods but also for residents in the more prosperous areas in the rest of Chicago as well as in these other cities -- and our country. As our legacy cities rebound, let's demonstrate economic regrowth practices that intentionally address this increasing economic gap, so they can be the leaders in solving and reversing this growing, pernicious national trend.