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Where everybody went
Jan. 12, 2012 — part 1 of 3 parts. Click here for part 2 and part 3 

By Ed Zotti

I meant to write this piece six months ago, when I suppose it might have been a little timelier. I didn't. Sue me. The subject is the future of Chicago, which I venture to say has its points of interest even now. 

Specifically, I want to explore the 2010 census results — looking not just at the dull numbers but at maps cobbled together from the data using various miracles of modern technology. I'm not the first to publish Chicago census maps, but as far as I know these are the first to give a comprehensive picture of what happened during a tumultuous decade. Fair warning: you have to be a serious data geek to get into this sort of thing. But for those with the patience for it, the maps tell a fascinating story, about a town that simultaneously revived and collapsed. More important, they give a glimpse at what will happen next.

Let's review where we are.  

I was as surprised as anyone last February when the census bureau reported that Chicago's population had fallen by more than 200,000 over the preceding decade, and as skeptical of the initial theories about why.  A sizable fraction of the black community had bailed, that was clear, but to say this was "part of the great reverse migration to the South," as one think-tank demographer was quoted as saying — get out. I'd heard nothing at that point about any such migration; surely a simpler explanation, I thought, was the razing of the city's high-rise public housing projects. In any case, early reports indicated the drastic population loss had been confined to a single ethnic group, making it possible to believe the rest of the city had been more or less stable. 

Followup stories suggested that was wishful thinking. Although downtown had grown, the Tribune reported, "vast swaths" of the city had not — in fact, 57 of Chicago's 77 neighborhoods had lost people.  (A later article upped that to 60 of 77.) The increase in Hispanics, which had been the driving force behind the city's growth during the 1990s, had dropped to an anemic 3 percent. Neighborhoods such as Englewood were emptying out.

Here was troubling news. Chicago had been congratulating itself on having avoided the fate of cities like Cleveland and Detroit. What with the housing boom, downtown especially, plus projects like Millennium Park, the town gave the appearance of having turned the corner. The census report called that into question. Had the apparent prosperity been an illusion, masking a long-term decline? More pointedly, given the sputtering economy and occasional frightening crime reports, was the bottom about to fall out? I decided to find out. 

I got some free mapmaking software, base maps from the census bureau, and a half-century's worth of census data from a venture called Social Explorer, which had done the same for the New York Times. Getting all this stuff to work together took some doing. Then I started sifting the data and making some maps, the more revealing of which are shown here. The tale took a while to emerge and is unavoidably complicated and at times depressing. But bear with me. There's some good news, too. 

We pick up the story where the media left it last year: the revelation that much of the city, not just the poorest neighborhoods, lost population between 2000 and 2010. The map at the top of the page vividly illustrates this (red/yellow = loss, blue = gain).

The only parts of the city that gained significant numbers of people (darkest blue) were the central area and scattered outlying districts. These were greatly outnumbered by the parts that lost lots of people (darkest red). What's more, the big losers were spread throughout the city and included north and northwest side neighborhoods that to all appearances were thriving. What was up with that?

One obvious explanation was that, as communities become more affluent, large working-class families are replaced by smaller middle-class ones. Other things being equal, falling population in such neighborhoods doesn't mean decline;  just the opposite.  The more relevant statistic isn't the trend in population but rather in households. Changing some parameters, I generated two more maps: 

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The map on the left shows population loss in percentage terms. The map on the right shows the percentage change in households. 

This latter map puts matters in a different light. Red is much less prominent, blue more so. We see that much of the population loss throughout the city is the result of smaller households, a long-term, nationwide trend not reflective of the city's fortunes. What's more, household growth has been strong throughout the urban core — not just downtown and on the north side, but to a surprising extent on the west and south sides as well.  

I'll get back to that. First, though, we need to look at the neighborhoods that lost population and households, and why. 

The loss of households in affluent neighborhoods on the north lakefront is a little puzzling at first. I couldn't think of a good way to get at a definitive answer using census data, but I think the explanation in part is consolidation of small apartments into larger ones. I know of at least one large building where this happened, and in Ravenswood where I live I know of a fair number of two-flats that were converted into single family homes. This bespeaks prosperity, not decline.

That explanation won't fly in other parts of the city. Initial news accounts indicated the big population losses were in the black community, and if we look at the city totals, we see that was certainly true — the steep drop in the number of African-Americans accounted for more than 90 percent of the city's total decrease:

Chicago Population Change, 2000-2010

Category 2000 2010 Change % Chg.
Black 1,053,803 872,286 –181,587 –17%
White 907,056 854,717 –52,339 –6%
Hispanic 753,643 778,862 25,219 3%
Asian 124,431 144,903 20,472 16%
All others 57,032 44,830 –12,202 –21%
TOTAL 2,895,965 2,695,598 –200,367 –7%
Black = non-Hispanic black, white = non-Hispanic white, etc. Source: U.S. Census, table QT-P6

Many large U.S. cities lost black people between 2000 and 2010, but Chicago was conspicuous in this respect — it lost more black people than anywhere except Detroit:


City 2010 2000 Change % Change
New York 1,861,295 1,962,154 –100,859 –5%
Chicago 872,286 1,053,803 –181,587 –17%
Philadelphia 644,287 646,123 –1,836 0%
Detroit 586,573 771,966 –185,393 –24%
Houston 485,956 487,851 –1,895 0%
Memphis 408,075 397,732 10,343 3%
Baltimore 392,938 417,009 –24,071 –6%
Los Angeles 347,380 401,986 –54,606 –14%
Washington, D.C. 301,053 340,088 –39,035 –11%
Dallas 294,159 304,824 –10,665 –3%
Black = non-Hispanic black. Source: U.S. Census, table QT-P6

Why so many? At first I had the naive thought it was because of high-rise public housing demolition. I generated a map showing the change in black population throughout the city, thinking it might show hot spots at former CHA sites. For comparison, I also created a map showing black population change in the 1990s:

No hot spots were apparent in the 2010 map. On the contrary, black people had pulled out of enormous tracts on the west and south sides. What's more, unlike in the past, losses in one section of town hadn't been offset to any great extent by gains elsewhere in the city. During the 1990s, as the map on the left shows, the black population of neighborhoods such as Rogers Park, South Chicago, and Chicago Lawn had increased substantially. That was less true this time around. Many black Chicagoans had simply left town. 

Where had they gone — to the suburbs? No doubt some did, but judging from the census numbers, most didn't. The overall U.S. black population increased 11 percent between 2000 and 2010; if black people in metropolitan Chicago increased at the same rate but simply moved from the city to the suburbs, there should have been 1.7 million of them in the metropolitan area as of 2010.

There weren't. The number of black people in metro Chicago actually decreased. In fact, when you went through the numbers for all of Illinois, you were obliged to conclude that 227,000 black people had left the state altogether. Aaron Renn, a Chicago urban affairs writer who blogs at, tells me the largest net recipient of outmigration from Cook County was Fulton County, Georgia, where Atlanta is located. That's not to say everybody headed south, as the headlines would have you believe; in a recent post, Renn points out that smaller northern cities such as Indianapolis, Columbus, and Minneapolis-St. Paul all saw significant increases in black population. It was the big cities like Chicago, New York, Detroit, and, interestingly, Los Angeles that saw the largest drops.

Wherever black Chicagoans may have gone, the impact on the city they left behind is all too evident. The two maps below compare Chicago's population density in 1980 and 2010:

Here's as stark a contrast as you'll find in any major city in the United States. The south and west sides have been drained of people. The north side, on the other hand, doesn't look dramatically different, and downtown has flourished. The old idea that Chicago is two cities, a rich one and a poor one, has never been truer than now. We'll take a look at closer look at both in the next installment.

(Read part two and part three.)