University of Illinois at Chicago

Essays on the Persistence of Urban Form

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posted on 2018-07-27, 00:00 authored by Carlos R Villarreal
While traveling in a city you may pass through a variety of neighborhoods: poor, rich, old, new, dilapidated, or even delightful. How long have these neighborhoods been rich, or poor, or delightful? When and why did that character start? How long does that character persist? This thesis addresses these central questions in urban economics by compiling new data and developing new methods to link neighborhood-level conditions throughout history back to the time of settlement to explore the origins and persistence of variation in neighborhood character. Among the greatest challenges to exploring these questions is a lack of digitized information on neighborhood conditions over time. I overcome this obstacle by compiling the most comprehensive available geospatially reconstructed body of maps and archival documents available, detailing population, housing, and environmental characteristics within New York City and Boston beginning in the early 19th century. This allows the first opportunity to observe environmental conditions within neighborhoods since the formative years of settlement and assess the extent to which those historical conditions explain neighborhood character over time. The central finding is that the environmental desirability at the time of settlement continues to explain contemporary variation in income and housing prices in New York City and Boston; areas that were less desirable at the time of settlement remain relatively less desirable today. I examine several potential mechanisms underlying the persistence of neighborhood character including the entrenchment of ethnic enclaves, polluting manufactures, housing price controls, and even redevelopment patters, but none explain the observed persistence. Only neighborhoods near employment epicenters can break from their historical legacy. The first two chapters examine persistence of neighborhood character in New York City and Boston. The third chapter details the records I helped uncover, collect, and the methods I helped develop to geospatially compile into the Historical Urban Ecological (HUE) Data Set. HUE includes thousands of newly digitized municipal data sets from Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and New York City (starting with Manhattan Island, through the incorporation of each borough), from the earliest time the cities reported data through 1930. The tabular data primarily capture ward-level health and population characteristics, but also include the block-level sequence of water, sewer, and public transit infrastructure deployment where those data exist. The data also include geographic information system (GIS) ward boundary histories in each city for easy linkage of the tabular ward-level data to the correct geography for a given year. Finally, the HUE street centerline GIS data detail the early street paths within cities and allow accurate reconstruction and geolocation of historical data, including the residential and environmental exposure histories of the Union Army Veterans sample for which the data were designed. Beyond the new findings and data, this work additionally contributes a framework to approach related future research. The data sections explain how to efficiently build an accurate, versatile GIS foundation to link data from a variety of unrelated sources over time. I also explain how to use that geographic foundation to extract and assess information from historical maps and documents. Finally, my results demonstrate how to use the new geographically-linked data in a research framework. It is my hope that this thesis provides a guide for researchers to expand on this work.



Persky, Joseph


Persky, Joseph



Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Committee Member

Costa, Dora Bleakley, C. Hoyt Kaestner, Robert Casey, Marcus

Submitted date

May 2018

Issue date


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