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Feb. 2, 2012 — part 3 of 3 parts. Click here for part 1 and part 2 

By Ed Zotti

Up till this point I've mostly been looking at how Chicago has changed over the past few decades. I want to conclude by talking about what may happen from here on out. Before I can do that, though, I need to focus on what's happening now — or more precisely, what was happening as of the 2010 census. 

Here's a map showing how the number of dwellings in different parts of the city today compares to 40 years earlier:

The maps shows pretty much what you'd expect — big housing gains in the city's central area, big losses on the west and south sides. The south side does have some bright spots, including Kenwood on the lake south of 47th Street and Armour Square and Bridgeport along the river west of State Street, all of which have more housing today than they did 40 years ago.

Next, a pair of maps comparing racial and ethnic integration in 2000 vs. 2010: 

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Chicago is often said to be the most segregated city in the country. But census statistics show, and these maps demonstrate, that that's not so in the broad sense — much of the city is richly integrated, as indicated by the dark colors. The exceptions are African-American neighborhoods on the south and west sides, the great majority of which are more than 95 percent black. 

At first glance that doesn't seem to have changed much between 2000 and 2010. But take a closer look. The Austin community on the far west side is noticeably more integrated, mostly due to an influx of Hispanics north of Lake Street. The change is even more striking on the south side. Almost the entire south side lakefront has become more ethnically diverse, a phenomenon that can be seen as far west as Ashland Avenue. One may say this merely means people of other ethnicities are moving into places vacated by black people. But I think there's something more going on.

Here are four maps we've seen before, set side by side for comparison:


These maps show population change among the city's four major ethnic groups. Two developments are worth noting. The first is the extent to which people of all ethnicities are moving into the central part of the city — including black people, whose numbers elsewhere are in sharp decline. Downtown neighborhoods are affluent and diverse, the South Loop and near south side especially. Money, clearly, is a great equalizer — no surprise, I suppose, but nonetheless a relatively new phenomenon in Chicago.

The second notable feature is the degree to which different ethnic groups are dispersing throughout the city. This is most conspicuous among Hispanics but also evident to varying degrees among blacks, Asians, and whites. Large areas of concentration remain, of course, but it's not difficult to find neighborhoods seeing an influx of people from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds. For example, while my impression is that most of the people moving into the lakefront community south of Pershing Road (3900S) are black professionals, the area has also seen an increase in whites. I'm not about to proclaim the dawning of an age of ethnic harmony, but Chicagoans are mixing more than they used to.

What does all this portend? One last map gives an idea:


This map is a refinement of one I showed in the last installment. It shows three things: (1) neighborhoods where household income exceeds the Cook County median; or, if not, (2) where home values exceed the median; or, if neither of these things is true, (3) where the number of households increased between 2000 and 2010, which I take to be a fair indicator of community health. To put it another way, blue means neighborhoods that are middle class, yellow indicates neighborhoods on their way up, and red shows where things are starting to stir. 

Clearly there's a lot going on. The west side from Ashland to as far as Cicero (4800W), much of which has been desperately poor for at least 50 years, is in a state of flux — the area is still far from wealthy, but home values in many sections are strong and people are moving in.  The same can be said of the near southwest and mid-south sides. Parts of the Kenwood and Oakland communities, particularly along the lake from Pershing to 47th, have seen a significant amount of high-end residential construction; in several census tracts the median home price is more than $400,000. 

None of these developments is surprising in itself. The west and south sides were affluent in their day and still boast an impressive array of parks and boulevards, good transit, and other amenities. What's perhaps unexpected is the broad participation by the city's major ethnic groups in neighborhood revival. Other than continued white flight on the northwest, southwest, and southeast sides, there's not much evidence of wholesale displacement of one group by another. Different parts of Pilsen, for example, are seeing modest increases in all ethnic groups — blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians. One may argue that gentrification is pushing minorities out of Humboldt Park, but a more plausible explanation is that Hispanics are simply moving up and out, as immigrant communities have always done. For the most part, the redeveloped and redeveloping areas in the city are remarkably diverse, at least for now.

The more serious concern, I think, is that revitalization of the south and west sides will sputter out. They have more poverty and crime and have lost more of their housing stock; some neighborhoods are essentially empty. Concerted effort will be needed to bring these areas back. In the next year or two, to cite one obvious example, I expect we'll hear about plans to redevelop the old Michael Reese Hospital site between 26th and 31st Streets west of Lake Shore Drive. The south lakefront is a grossly underutilized asset; to the extent Chicago has any prospects for recovering its population losses, here is where they chiefly lie.  

We won't see another housing boom in our lifetimes on the scale of the one just past, but the real estate market is already starting to improve. The abrupt retreat of the black community has come as a shock to the rest of the city and must be addressed. But close analysis of the 2010 census indicates that in other respects, contrary to what earlier reports suggested, the city is progressing steadily along the path it has followed for more than 30 years.

— Ed Zotti