May 6, 2014

Uncommon Interview: Blogger Daniel Hertz

Blogger and Harris School student Daniel Kay Hertz has seen his work referenced by major media outlets such as the Huffington Post and New York Business Journal in the past few months. He is currently working towards a master’s degree in public policyat the Harris School of Public Policy and plans to graduate in 2015. Hertz sat down with the Maroon for a conversation about his acclaimed blog, City Notes, which documents his thoughts on Chicago’s urban policy and other urban issues.

Chicago Maroon: What’s the goal for your blog?

Daniel Kay Hertz: I started it over two years ago, with no intentions of anybody actually ever reading it. It was around the time I was getting serious about urban issues and working eventually in the field of urban policy, and I was trying to find a way to catch myself up to the field, and I wanted a way to track what I was thinking and play around with the different ideas I’ve been working with. And since then I guess the goals have change—there are certain things I would like to get more on the radar screen of the people in the city who care about that kind of stuff, everything from public transit issues, to housing prices and how zoning is related to housing prices, but also things about Chicago history that I think people don’t know very much—everybody knows Chicago is segregated, [but] why is it so segregated, what happened? I’m still figuring it out.

CM: Has your blog allowed you to get in touch and interact with other individuals who are involved in the same work as you are doing?

DKH: Yeah, it’s amazing. Really in the last couple months. I’ve been trying to reach out to people for the last two years, but the pace at which you can meet people has just picked up tremendously. Sometimes maybe they’ll reach out to you, but other times you’ll reach out and be like, “Hey I’m this guy, maybe you’ve seen this map [made by him in August about the homicide rates] floating around.” It’s been super, super helpful for meeting new people.

CM: When you consider Chicago’s urban policy, what do you think are the biggest issues we should be talking about?

DKH: I think mostly people got it: crime, the schools, racial and economic segregation, that sort of puts a huge hamper on the ability of people to do with their lives what they would like. The one thing that I would like to be more broadly understood is the interplay between zoning and housing prices and segregation. There’s a really overwhelming amount of evidence that right now the city makes it illegal to build anything other than single family homes in the vast majority of the city, let alone the suburbs. As a result you have neighborhoods like Lincoln Park—which is incredible, lots of people would love to live in Lincoln Park—but it’s too expensive, because it has lost housing units since 2000 and probably since before that. Basic laws of supply and demand are going on in a bunch of North Side neighborhoods, and it’s largely because we don’t allow people to build more housing where people like to live.

CM: How would that issue potentially be resolved—would that involve changing the zoning laws?

DKH: Ideally, you would change the zoning laws, you would make it more flexible. More realistically in the short to medium term, aldermen have the ability to waive zoning restrictions in their wards, but right now they almost never do because if an apartment building is proposed, maybe it’s just ten people, maybe its 20, maybe it’s less than that, show up to a public meeting about it, get really upset about it for a variety of reasons and they say this quite openly—in [some] cases they are quite explicit about not wanting an apartment building because they think it will attract lower income people and the alderman [goes] along with it, because he’s scared, people are upset about it, he doesn’t want people to be upset at him or her. So I think in the shorter term, [this can be resolved by]creating some sort of awareness--that there’s a tradeoff there, if you don’t allow this to be built, prices are just going to go up, and eventually you might be the one that is price dialed.

CM: What do you think is the best way for one to educate him or herself on these kinds of urban issues?

DKH: If you’re really interested in this stuff and you want to go into it, I have…a book roll of the books I found most influential and illuminating about how cities work. If you’re less interested, there aren’t that many places where a regular, reasonably intelligent person who does not want to make urban issues their thing but would like to be reasonably well educated on it could go. I guess I would hope that one of the places would be my blog. And I try to make it accessible to people who aren’t self-consciously urbanists or anything like that.

CM: What kind of relationship do you have with your readers?

DKH: I’ve been fortunate to meet some of them in person at various events in Chicago which is really really cool and also just, you’re never quite sure when you write if anybody is reading it, or if they’re rolling their eyes into the back of their heads when they’re reading it. And it’s really fun to meet actually physical human beings who have read your stuff and been like yeah this is cool. And recently I have gone onto Twitter to interact with people. And I have to say I did not use Twitter at all before, really I got pulled in because of blogging because there’s this community of people who were interested at some level or another in these issues and read these blogs and have debates about them over twitter and I’ve tried to engage in that as much as possible, and I’ve found it really really fun.

CM: I’ve read that you’ve traveled to the Yucatan, you were a freelancer writer in Mexico City, and you did mention that your favorite food is mole, I was curious what’s your relationship like with Mexico?

DKH: Aspirational? I mean I really really love Mexico. I’ve been there three times. In 2009 I was lucky enough to get a job as a writer for a travel guidebook that covered Southern Mexico and I spent eight weeks, literally every day was a different town and it was an incredible experience and I loved it. And then after that I went to Mexico City for a little bit, and then a couple years later I went back to Mexico City again for a summer to live there and to try and do some writing. It’s just a gorgeous country. Mexico City is one of my favorite countries[sic], the food is unbelievable.

CM: You’ve taught in Memphis, went to school in Boston, you’re in Chicago now – do you have plans about where you’re going to settle down? Is it going to be an urban city? Mexico?

DKH: For a little bit my dream was to be, if being a teacher worked out, I could be a teacher wherever I was, ideally Chicago, and then spend every summer in Mexico, but that’s not going to happen. I’d like to be in Chicago, I’m from Chicago, I love this city, it’s under my skin, I can’t really imagine being anywhere else, that said, if somehow I had the opportunity to spend a month of every year in Mexico City, I would jump at the opportunity.