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Big cities around the country are finally seeing the bottom for their dropping house prices, according to Zillow, Inc. The only problem is that it isn’t happening in two of our big cities –

Home prices are still dropping in Chicago/photo by Frank Gruber

Chicago and Cleveland.

Zillow, a real estate forecaster, says it doesn’t expect home prices in either of those two places to bottom out in 2012. That’s even though home prices nationally rose 0.5 percent, according to the Zillow Home Value Index.

Nationally, Zillow says home prices remain 25 percent below their levels in 2007. It doesn’t  expect much of an increase in prices nationally this year. You can read a Bloomberg story about the Zillow forecast here. 

Chicago and Cleveland are among 11 cities that are still seeing home prices fall. Others are San Francisco, Charlotte, Seattle and Atlanta. Places where home prices are rising include Phoenix and Miami, according to Zillow.

Home values are one of the things that are prompting people to adjust their expectations about the future. Read our Changing Gears Tumblr on Changing Expectations.

Tune in Today at 3 p.m. ET/2p.m CT, Changing Gears is hosting a live call in show on “Hidden Assets” of the Midwest economy. Michigan governor Rick Snyder will be joining us for the show, and we’ll have a live chat here at

Rahm in charge Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel won approval from City Council yesterday to move ahead with his $7.2 billion infrastructure plan. The vote wasn’t even close, which prompted the Chicago Tribune to say the mayor is “firmly in control.”

Mo’ money, mo’ physics Officials at Michigan State University are getting some good news. The state’s Senate delegation says MSU’s planned Facility for Rare Isotope Beams will get an extra $8 million in federal funds. The facility is expected to be a leader in the study of particle physics. The extra $8 million still puts the facility $25 million below what MSU leaders had hoped for from the government.

Real steel The New York Times reports on $1.5 billion worth of investment in Ohio’s steel industry. After a painful recession, the Times says Ohio’s still industry is bouncing back, thanks to the state’s booming natural gas market and increased demand for new vehicles.

Former Detroiter Alex Ozark on the Hyundai-Kia proving grounds in California / Credit: Charla Bear

Many of us have friends or family members that have moved away from the Midwest.

In the Changing Gears special “Where Did Everybody Go?” we’re talking with some of those people who have moved out of the region – asking them why they left, what they found, and if they’ll ever come back.

We also take a look at what their departure means for the region.

You can listen to some of those stories here.

Part I: What’s So Great About Austin? Plenty, According To Former Midwesterners

Part II: The Appeal Of Portland

Part III: Detroit Coney Dogs On The Sunset Strip

Part IV: A Generation Moves Off The Farm

You can listen to the hour long Changing Gears special “Where Did Everybody Go” Sunday, 9 pm ET, on Michigan Radio; Monday, 10 am CT, on WBEZ Chicago; or Tuesday, 8 pm, on ideastream Cleveland.

Carla Danley / Credit: Chris Lehman

If you wanted to start life over in a new place, would you choose somewhere with a chronically high unemployment rate and struggling schools, or one that’s known as a haven for slackers? The latter is one way to describe Portland, Oregon.

It seems like everyone is talking about Portland these days. Part of that has to do with the success of Portlandia, a sketch comedy show that pokes fun at Portland’s young hipster crowd. As one character explains, “Portland is a city where young people go to retire.”

But not everyone who moves to Portland is a twenty-something slacker. The city still draws out-of-state transplants, including highly educated professionals.

More than half of all Oregon residents were born somewhere else. As part of our Changing Gears project, reporter Chris Lehman introduces us to two families who moved to Portland from the Midwest.

Lehman met up with Marie Montalbano and Ted Layman. Layman is a social worker and Montalbano teaches special education students in the Portland Public School district.

Before they were married, Layman was living in small town Athens, Ohio. Montalbano was living in Chicago. Montalbano thought Athens was too small. For Layman, Chicago was, “A great place to visit and enjoy, but the noise, the congestion of people,” was too overwhelming.

“So we knew we would have to find a place that was a good compromise and a good fit,” says Montalbano.

That place was Portland, with big city amenities and a small-town vibe. The emphasis on local food, the mild winters, and the proximity to mountains and the ocean appealed to them.

Layman says they didn’t necessarily see all that when they first visited Portland, but, “We did see a woman with her turtle on a leash walking it across the street. And that definitely had this like, oh my god, this is so Portland.”

But unconventional pet care wasn’t the deciding factor. For that, we turn to Forest. He’s Layman’s 15-year-old son and in the end, it was Forest who played a key role in getting the family to move to Portland.

Forest Spiritdancer, Ted Layman, and Marie Montalbano / Credit: Chris Lehman

Forest takes his education seriously.

“I have very strong ideals about how children and kids and students should be equally respected and given more broad aspects in like learning and being able to pursue their own interests,” he says.

He figured the local public school system back in Athens, Ohio wasn’t going to cut the mustard. So he launched a nationwide search for the perfect high school. Two of his top choices were in Portland.

He carefully crafted an application essay. It was good enough to land a spot in the exclusive Metropolitan Learning Center. It’s a public school, but Forest says in a lot of ways it doesn’t feel like one.

“It’s totally different from my old middle school,” he says.

For example, he’s on a first-name basis with his teachers. He says classes rarely follow a textbook, leaving plenty of breathing room for student creativity. Forest likes to get to school early to hang out with friends and catch up on schoolwork before classes begin. He says the Metropolitan Learning Center is turning out to be just the kind of student-oriented education he was looking for.

Detroit native Carla Danley was also looking for something new. “I think a lot of times when you think about people leaving the Midwest to go to other parts, it might be a story about job opportunities or an improved economy elsewhere,” she says. But Danley was looking for a nicer place to live.

She wouldn’t have found economic opportunity in Portland anyway. Repeated statewide budget cuts have shuttered schools. The unemployment rate has been above the national average since the mid-90′s.

But Danley already knew how bad Oregon’s economy was. She figured – correctly – that her skills as a nurse would land her a job anyway.

“I really embrace the beauty of the wilderness of Oregon. And I think that’s very different from places I’ve lived in the Midwest,” says Danley.

Danley also likes to get around without a car and she figured Portland’s bicycle-friendly reputation would suit her just fine. It did. Carla’s not here alone. She met her husband back east, and for a while they lived together in Detroit, where she grew up.

“Then I said to my husband, thank you so much for coming to Michigan and not divorcing me, because Michigan is sort of an acquired taste,” she says. “You love it if you’re from there, and not so much if you’re not.”

Her husband uses a wheelchair, and it was important for both of them to have easy access to public transportation. Their new neighborhood has light rail and frequent bus service.

But Danley says despite the good public transit, natural beauty, and abundant cultural offerings, there is something the city lacks.

“As a black person, life is a little tougher in Portland than it is east of the Mississippi. There isn’t really a sort of rich, diverse black community in a way that I’m accustomed to,” says Danley.

Just 6 percent of Portland residents are African-American, compared to 83 percent in Detroit. And Danley is not the only one to notice the homogenous nature of her adopted city.

Jack Ohman is a nationally syndicated political cartoonist with the Oregonian newspaper in Portland. He’s also a Midwest native. “Portland is still not a diverse town, unless you count different shapes of beards as diversity,” he says.

Ohman agrees with Carla Danley on this: What the city lacks in diversity it makes up for in natural beauty. Ohman remembers when he flew out to Oregon for his job interview.

“I had never seen the Pacific Ocean. And it was the most beautiful day in the history of the Pacific Northwest. And once you see that, you’re not going back. You’re not gonna go back to Detroit. You’re not gonna go back to Columbus. You’re not going back to Minneapolis,” he says.

But the mid-90′s is when something else started to happen, especially in Portland.

Ohman explains that, “all of sudden it was just this renaissance, where it was just the coolest place in the world to live. And I had not really experienced that before. Living in the Midwest, it was never the coolest place in the world to live.”

Ohman says it’s around that time that Portland started to feel like Portlandia.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the political culture here has established this kind of ‘Amsterdam without drugs’ vibe to Portland,” he says.

Ohman says that Portlanders bear little resemblance to the characters in the television series. You know…the ones who ask to see the pedigree of the chicken they’re ordering for dinner.

But most Portlanders have embraced their city’s namesake television series. It’s one of the many things that helps set their city apart. And after decades of embracing quirkiness and livability, Portland continues to be a magnet for people looking to make a change.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. If you want to learn how to be a part of our network, click here.

You can read more stories about the Midwest Migration at

Chicago has been notorious in the education community for one thing: its short school day. Elementary school students spend only five hours and 45 minutes a day in class, the shortest of any major city, while high schoolers spend only seven. Now, that’s about to change.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

City officials announced today that the elementary school day will be seven hours this fall, while the high school day will rise to seven and a half hours.

That’s something long sought by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who has faced obstacles in lengthening the city’s school day. First, he tried unsuccessfully to cajole individual schools into voluntarily adopting a longer day. Then, he proposed an even longer day for elementary school students.

But after meetings with parents upset by the plan, the city announced a calendar that includes these features.

  • All elementary students will move to a seven hour school day, and high school students will have a 7 1/2-hour school day, with a 75-minute early release one day a week. (In other words, they’ll have a normal school day four days a week, and get out early once a week.)
  • The annual school day gains 10 additional days of instruction, moving Chicago from the shortest school year in the country to a 180-day year that is on par with the national average.
  • A student entering kindergarten next year will receive nearly 2.5 additional years of instructional time by the time they graduate high school.
  • Elementary school students will have a daily recess, which parents insisted upon.

Emanuel, who was elected last year to succeed Richard Daley, insisted throughout his campaign that the city needed a longer school day so Chicago children could compete on a global level.

“The time is not the goal. The time is an opportunity to be maximized,” he said at the announcement today. “That’s how you prepare for the future. That’s how you prepare kids that don’t get a do-over.”




Loop repairs The Loop’s elevated rail in Chicago will get $39 million worth of repairs starting in April. The Chicago Tribune reports about half of the total track on The Loop will be replaced.

Property tax problem A cap on property taxes in Indiana is leaving some schools strapped for cash, even in well off communities. The AP reports towns that managed to attract business and industry are doing well.

Fracking lobbyists The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that the state’s booming oil and gas industry is turning into a lobbying powerhouse in Columbus.

Fairgrounds for sale Partner station Michigan Radio reports Governor Rick Snyder is expected to sign legislation today that would allow the sale of the Michigan State Fairgrounds. The state fair ended its annual run in 2009 because of a lack of funds.

How to turn around a neighborhood Partner station WBEZ reports Chicago has received $169 million to help neighborhoods struggling with foreclosures, but turning those neighborhoods around has been more difficult than expected.

Detroit looking for accountants Detroit has a deal to avoid state takeover. Now, the Detroit Free Press reports leaders have to pick the members of the new panel that will oversee the city’s finances.

Whoopsie An error by the state of Indiana shortchanged county governments by $206 billion over the last year, according to the Indianapolis Star. The paper says it’s the second budget error announced by the state in the last four months. The two mistakes amount to half a billion dollars in accounting miscalculations.

Poised to strike Partner station WBEZ reports teachers at more than 150 Chicago schools are ready to go on strike, if contract negotiations with the Mayor’s office fail. Mayor Emanuel is pushing for a longer school day, a new calender and new teacher evaluations.

Appealing to tourists The city of Chicago will open new tourism offices in Brazil, Germany and Japan this year, according to the Chicago Tribune. Last year, the city launched tourism offices in London, Toronto and Mexico City.

It can happen anywhere WKSU found new oil and gas drilling happening in some unexpected places in Ohio. One of the sites for a new “fracking” operation in the state is right under a school.

Detroit’s deal Last night, the Detroit City Council voted to approve a consent agreement with the state to avoid takeover by an emergency manager. That means, as long as the governor signs the deal as expected and the courts don’t strike the deal down, Detroit finally has the first step in a plan to avoid bankruptcy. Partner station Michigan Radio reports on what it all means.

Chicago’s debt problem The Chicago Sun-Times went looking for reasons why Chicago would turn to private partnerships to fund its new multi-billion dollar plan to rebuild infrastructure. One major reason: the city’s staggering debt. Chicago can’t take out any more bonds to pay for improvements because the city spends almost 23 percent of its annual budget paying off the $7.3 billion in debt it already has.

Illinois’ turn Illinois is getting into the fracking game. Crain’s Chicago Business says the state could see a natural gas-drilling “boomlet” as companies explore southern Illinois for possible drilling.

Bulldozing blitz Partner station WCPN Ideastream had a story on NPR’s Morning Edition today that looks at the effort to tear down vacant houses in Ohio. The state set aside $75 million from its share of the $25 billion nationwide mortgage fraud settlement to pay for demolitions.

No more coal ash The Ludington Daily News reports the city’s historic car ferry has received a grant to convert its fuel source. Without the grant, the coal powered ferry would have been forced to shut down by the EPA. The historic vessel dumps about 500 tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan every year.

#goodnewsforDetroit Twitter says it will open a new office in Detroit. Michigan Radio’s Jennifer Guerra reported the news in tweet form. You have to hear it.

Chicago is experiencing record ridership of the CTA, and it’s on a drive to spruce up 100 stations. Cleveland has high speed buses from downtown to the Medical Center. In Canada, Toronto has streetcars and every kind of transit you can imagine, including rental bikes.

Toronto rental bikes/photo by Micki Maynard

But Detroit? Well, besides the People Mover, public transportation has never been a big priority. However, mindsets may be changing, according to veteran journalist Rick Haglund.

In a column this weekend, Haglund says the environment for public transportation seems to be changing in Michigan. He cites two reasons: younger people aren’t as interested in driving or owning cars as they once were, and governments and business leaders are lending their support.

We know you’re intrigued about public transportation in Detroit, judging the response to the map we showed you with the Chicago “L” laid over the Motor City.

And, in Grand Rapids, voters recently approved a millage that will pay for upgrading the transit system.

But, would you be interested in riding a bus rapid transit system, a subway or even a streetcar if one was available? Or, is Michigan simply too wedded to cars? Let us know.

We’ve heard a lot in the past few weeks about Chicago and its place among global cities. On Thursday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel set forth his proposal for a “new Chicago” that involves a wide variety of infrastructure improvements, private funding and more debt.

Photo by Simonds via flickr

All that is supposed to put the city back among the list of the world’s best cities. But there are suggestions that Chicago actually needn’t bother.

Urbanist Richard Florida looks at why some cities lose and others win in a sweeping piece today on The Atlantic Cities. He notes that the world’s biggest cities have been dramatically reordered since 1950, when Chicago was the second biggest in the U.S. and eighth largest in the world.

Now, Chicago ranks third largest among American cities and 25th in the world. Florida suggests it probably doesn’t stand a chance to become more important, because it’s now part of the world’s tier of second and third-level cities. 

As Florida writes,

“Simulations by Robert Axtell of George Mason University show that the biggest, dominant cities can survive and thrive for a very long time. New York has been America’s largest city since its first census in 1790.  London has been the United Kingdom’s largest city for a very long time. Athens and Rome have remained influential long past their prime. 

But the competition and “churning” among smaller second- and third-tier cities is brutal. These cities rise and fall frequently. Early in the 20th century, rising industrial cities in the United States and Europe displaced once dominant mercantile centers. By the end of that century, many of those same industrial cities were being replaced by knowledge-based ones.”

 And, if Chicago is in this kind of quandary, the outlook for our traditional industrial cities, like Detroit, Milwaukee and Cleveland, might be even more dire on a global scale.
That doesn’t mean they have no role to place in the national or international economy. They just won’t be in the top ranks.
Read Florida’s story at The Atlantic Cities and tell us your reaction. Should Chicago give up?
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