By Wen Huang
Photo by Robert Kozloff

... the reality of Chicago’s ‘two cities’ has changed over the last few generations.”
—Daniel Kay Hertz
Chicago Harris graduate student

Two years ago, Daniel Kay Hertz, a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, started City Notes, a blog devoted to urban policy.

“It was the time when I was considering pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at Harris,” he recalls. “The blog was initially meant as a way to document my observations and take some notes for myself so I could use them later in my writing.”

More important, he was hoping to use the blog as a forum to network with other bloggers who care deeply about cities, as he does.

A Chicago native, Hertz has developed an obsession with cities since childhood. “I love trains, buildings, and streets,” he says. He attributes his strong interest in urban policies to the influence of his parents, who constantly discussed social justice and segregation issues at home. “I believe that crime, low-performing schools, and racial and economic segregation put a huge damper on the ability of people to do what they want with their lives.”  

Like many policy students, Hertz was drawn to Chicago Harris as one of the nation’s preeminent destinations for urban policy studies, rigorously preparing students to analyze evidence and innovate to find solutions to cities’ most pressing needs.

Hertz’s blog has been an outlet for his evolving ideas on a broad range of urban issues. On the site, he presents his research findings and views on subjects ranging from crime, housing prices, and zoning ordinances to education and racial segregation.

A startling realization

Initially he did not expect that anyone would read his blog, but the situation changed in August 2013, when Hertz came across a large cache of statistics on the Internet documenting Chicago’s homicide rates by police districts from the 1960s to the present. After analyzing the data carefully, he discovered a startling fact—the inequality of violence in Chicago has grown over the past two decades while the city’s overall murder rate has plummeted nearly 50 percent.

For example, in the 1990s, Hertz pointed out that the most dangerous third of the city had about six times more murders than the safest third. By 2011, the gap had widened dramatically.

“The city’s North Side and much of the Northwest Side had murder rates of 3.3 per 100,000 people between 2008 and 2011, but the annual murder rates on the South Side were 40 per 100,000,” he says.  

To illustrate his findings, Hertz converted the murder statistics into a set of color-coded maps and charts. The areas in darkest green saw the greatest decline in murder rates, and those in red experienced dramatic increases. 

“Maps are easily shared and easily digested in just a few moments, and then they can get people to read the accompanying article for more depth,” he said. “I didn't think just writing up a post without that kind of illustration would be nearly as compelling.”

Building an audience

In fact, Hertz’s map-aided analyses were so compelling that they quickly caught the attention of Chicago media such as the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and local ABC and CBS affiliates.

“Two friends separately referred the link to me, and for good reason,” said reporter Greg Hinz, who wrote about Hertz’s blog piece on Chicago’s murder inequality in Crain’s Chicago Business. “It illustrates as well as anything I’ve seen how Chicago truly has become two cities on that most basic of issues: public safety, and particularly the homicide rate.” 

Meanwhile, the Chicagoist website called Hertz’s maps “a striking visual document.”

Encouraged by the media buzz, Hertz researched and made another set of maps to illuminate a separate and yet related topic. In March 2014, Hertz posted an article under the title, “Watch Chicago’s middle class vanish before your very eyes.”

Using data from professors Sean Reardon at Stanford University and Kendra Bischoff at Cornell University, Hertz called attention to Chicago’s rising income inequality, which he said is a microcosm of the wealth gap facing the United States as a whole. 

In his maps, the areas highlighted in grey represent the middle class—median family income is 75 to 125 percent of the metropolitan area median income. In the 1970s, the grey areas dominated the most of the city’s neighborhoods, but by 2012, they had shrunk dramatically—the poor, represented by the orange and red colors, exploded across the map. 

Hertz’s research on income disparity, along with his maps, has been referenced by Bloomberg, The Daily Beast, New York Business Journal, Huffington Post, Citylab, and Urbanophile.

He said the goal of his research “is not merely to depress you, but to suggest just how dramatically the reality of Chicago’s ‘two cities’ has changed over the last few generations, how non-eternal its present state is, and that a happier alternate reality isn’t just possible, but actually existed relatively recently.”

Chicago Harris training

Hertz says his program at Chicago Harris has been “a big help” in building his statistical analysis skills and has empowered him to do things that he “definitely wouldn’t have been able to do before.”  

He specifically credited a class on Geographic Information Systems, which, among other techniques, teaches students how to perform spatial analyses and communicate their results through cartography. “I’ve gotten much more sophisticated at map-making, thanks both to the Harris class and people I’ve met in my graduate program,” Hertz says. His next step is to make the maps interactive.

Despite his busy schedule at Harris, Hertz continues with his blog, which has blossomed into a vibrant and popular platform for urban enthusiasts. This summer he is interning at the Communications Office of the Chicago Transit Authority which, he says, will enable him to learn about Chicago public transit first hand.

“Urban policy, for good and for bad, is at the heart of the most pressing social issues of our time,” he says.’