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The Inner-Ring Suburbs Are Withering. Why Not Just Merge Them with Chicago?

A modest proposal.

Golf Mill Shopping Center in Niles   Photo: Jonathan Bullington/Chicago Tribune

Let’s talk about Niles!

There’s not a lot to say, really. Clinging to the Northwest Side of Chicago, the suburb appears to have been constructed over a three-week period in 1962 and not touched since. Its dominant institution is Golf Mill, a shopping mall that was the place to drive your Ford Falcon during the Kennedy presidency. (The shopping center is now anchored by a Sears and a J.C. Penney, the 1970s’ favorite department stores.) Today, Niles is probably best known as the home of the Leaning Tower YMCA, which features a replica of the original in Pisa.  

Like most of Chicago’s inner-ring suburbs, Niles occupies an uncomfortable niche between city living and modern suburbia. As a first generation suburb, it was an attractive destination for young Chicago families fleeing their two-flats after World War II. But today, Niles’s combination of dated housing stock and sparse public transportation (it doesn’t have an L or Metra stop) makes it feel like a town that time forgot. It lacks an identity distinct from the cities it borders. Driving west on Touhy Avenue, it’s difficult to tell when you’ve passed from Niles into Edison Park.           

Chicago’s inner-ring suburbs have outlived their original purpose as alternatives to city living. And today, they’re suffering problems indistinguishable from — and in some cases worse than — those of Chicago itself. According to the Census Bureau, Chicago lost population in 2017. So did every suburb that borders on Chicago, with the sole exception of Oak Park, which is still far below the historic peak it reached in 1940. While the Chicago Loop and far-flung suburbs such as Naperville and Plainfield are attracting new residents, the caught-in-the-middle, neither-here-nor-there suburbs are withering.

Trying to maintain services with shrinking populations is putting some suburbs in financial death spirals. In Riverdale, which sits across the Calumet River from a Chicago neighborhood with the same name, 30 percent of the residents live in poverty; the village is so starved for revenue that it levies a property tax rate of 29.7 percent — more than four times the 6.9 percent rate paid by Chicagoans, whose taxes are offset by valuable commercial and industrial property. That tax, in turn, chases away businesses who might hire locals.        

Aaron M. Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has a solution for struggling inner-ring suburbs: join the city. In a 2017 study titled “Mergers May Rescue Declining Suburbs," he wrote:         

[T]he so-called inner-ring or first-tier suburbs next to central cities, are in trouble. As one study noted, ‘older suburbs, particularly those built in the 1950s and 1960s, no longer attract new development or new residents’ and ‘exhibit the very symptoms of decline that US cities experienced some three decades ago.’ As inner-ring suburbs become progressively poorer, they are less able to finance public services without tax increases, which drives away people and business, which further reduces the tax base. If these fiscal conditions are paired with poor governance and corruption, a turnaround can be especially difficult.

Virtually all options for addressing inner-ring suburb challenges—neglect, state subsidies, state intervention—come with major drawbacks. However, one option has not received the attention it deserves: merger with the adjacent central city.

As an example, Renn cites the south suburb of Dolton, which was listed by The Bond Buyer as “one of five candidates for municipal bankruptcy in Illinois.” Dolton has absorbed residents leaving violent pockets on the South Side of Chicago, but “[u]nlike those urban neighborhoods … separate municipalities like Dolton have no access to the tax base of the thriving Chicago Loop and North Side. Consolidation of Dolton, Calumet City, and other similar communities with Chicago would correct this. True, Chicago has severe fiscal problems of its own, but the city is much better resourced economically to respond to them than most of its struggling suburbs.”

If any state needs fewer suburbs, it’s Illinois. We have 1,298 municipalities, far more than any other state. With all due respect to the good people of Merrionette Park, in a region of 8 million people, do we really need to designate a separate municipality for a population of just 1,882? What’s the reasoning behind these residents getting their own village president, police chief, fire chief, and website, unlike their neighbors in Mount Greenwood and Morgan Park?

By joining Chicago, suburbs would not only lower their property tax rates; they’d no longer have to support separate police departments, fire departments, and city halls. Municipal consolidation would mean lower taxes and less government. Who doesn’t want that?         

As Renn notes, joining Chicago would bring resources and attention to the struggles of people in anonymous suburbs: 

“A central city is more typically the focus of national attention than most suburbs. The murder crisis in Chicago is global news. The problems in suburban Harvey are not. Central cities are often viewed as too big or too important to fail … It is much easier for suburban communities than a central city to persist in dysfunction without attracting outside attention that would prompt corrective action.

He continues: 

[T]he central city is again also likely home to critical high economic-value assets like a major central business district, university, or medical center. A merger allows these truly regional assets to benefit a larger geography.”

In other words, Dolton’s financial problems would suddenly be the City of Chicago’s to solve. And the people of Niles would no longer live in a village whose main commercial asset is a dying mall. They’d live in a city whose main commercial asset is the Loop, and all the taxes it generates.

Let’s be real. If you’re from Schiller Park, Franklin Park, Elmwood Park, Evergreen Park, Calumet Park, or any of the other Parks hanging like barnacles off the city, you tell people you’re from Chicago anyway. Why not just join up and make it official?

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