Chicago Is Dying - Pacific Standard

Chicago Is Dying

For quality demographics, Chicago is world class. For quantity demographics, Chicago is dying. Which one matters more?
Publish date:
Social count:
Chicago Half Marathon on Lake Shore Drive next to Harold Washington Park on the South Side. (PHOTO: TONYTHETIGER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Chicago Half Marathon on Lake Shore Drive next to Harold Washington Park on the South Side. (PHOTO: TONYTHETIGER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Pick a city, any city. Parts of that city are dying. Other parts are thriving. Rust Belt Chicago:

Chicago had 33,902 vacant homes at midyear, up 22 percent from the end of 2010, according to DePaul University's Institute for Housing Studies. In some census tracts in South Side neighborhoods such as Englewood and Back of the Yards, 1 in 6 homes is vacant.

Many people blame the foreclosure crisis, but that recent calamity has merely aggravated a depopulation trend on the city's South and West sides that has been going on for decades. Englewood, for instance, has lost two-thirds of its residents since 1950.

And it's not just a city problem: Vacancies in suburban Cook County have jumped 79 percent since the end of 2010, to 21,479 homes at midyear. In one census tract in Harvey, the vacancy rate is 17 percent, while it topped 16 percent in a tract that includes parts of Chicago Heights, Steger, Ford Heights and Sauk Village.

Declining population? Yep, Chicago has that. Abandoned homes? Chicago looks like Detroit. The demographic death blow:

The 2000 census results were cause for much rejoicing. Chicago grew! So did most big cities in the booming 1990s, of course. But hopes were high that a turnaround was at hand. By 2010, though, the bleeding had resumed. It was a hard decade everywhere, but worse here. Of the nation's top 10 cities, Chicago was the only one to lose population. The city shed 200,000 residents.

The big story was the decline — roughly 180,000 — in the black population. Many African-Americans left the area altogether, likely joining in a swelling reverse migration to the South. (In 2010, Atlanta took over Chicago's claim to the second-largest black population in the country.) Still, the Cook County and collar suburbs gained 109,000 black residents.

Also remarkable was the 20 percent drop in the number of children under age 10 living in Chicago. Some of that is because people had fewer babies, typical during a recession. But much of it was families with means getting as far from the city as they could. From 2000 to 2010, the outer suburbs — led by Will and Kendall counties — grew by 14 percent.

For large U.S. cities, Chicago moves to the head of the class for basket cases. By conventional measures, the situation looks dire. Sabermetric Chicago:

Chicago demographer Rob Paral points out that the 25- to 34-year-olds counted from 2007 to 2011 are even better educated than those in 2000. The Census Bureau's American Community Survey found 46 percent of the residents in that age bracket had a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 36 percent in 2000. Among America's top 10 cities, Chicago recorded the highest percentage of young college grads and the largest increase since 2000.

Emphasis added. For quality demographics, Chicago is world class. For quantity demographics, Chicago is dying. Will the real Chicago please stand up? To tell the truth:

“Not so long ago Chicagoans were convinced that their city would soon be the greatest and most famous on Earth, outranking New York, London, and Paris, the centre of a new world, the boss city of the universe,” writes Jan Morris, our most astute observer of place, in a midcentury essay on the capital of the midwest. But now, “the blindest lover of Chicago would not claim for the place the status of a universal metropolis. Too much of the old grand assertiveness has been lost. Nobody pretends Chicago has overtaken New York; instead there is a provincial acceptance of inferiority, a resignation, coupled with a mild regret for the old days of brag and beef. For one reason or another, the stream of events generally passes Chicago by.”

Chicago has lost its mojo. Between two coasts, Chicago will eventually take a backseat to Houston. (If it hasn't already.) Taking a cue from New York, Houston anchors the Texas Triangle. In proximity to Chicago, you won't find a Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. You'll find a Minneapolis, Madison, and Milwaukee. Throw in Indianapolis, if you like. Chicago is the default world city because someplace in the Upper Midwest had to be one.