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Chicago Fri Feb 18 2011

Stratification and Silver Linings: Chicago's Population Drop

On the face of it, no good can be squeezed out of the official 2010 census numbers that came out earlier this week. Chicago proper saw its population drop about 200,000 from 2,896,016 in 2000 to just 2,695,598. The 6.9% fall seems the topper on a series of pitfalls -- think parking meter privatization fiasco and the lost bid for the Olympics -- that certainly mar the way Mayor Daley had wished to go out. Dig a little deeper into the numbers though and a peculiar portrait of the city emerges, and not necessarily a bad one.

The immediate issue to address when confronted with such unflattering statistics is the problem of perception. Long used as the basic measure of civic health, a shrinking city portends death. Shrinking cities, the thinking goes, are Rust Belt Relics. For Chicago to now hold as many people as it did in 1920, after having grown up as the Chongqing of its day, signals an aura of decline. No city, but especially a city that has worked as long and as hard as to rehab itself into the world's sixth most important center, according to Foreign Policy magazine (and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs), wants to be associated with any form of decay. Decay just doesn't look good.

Yet, looks can be deceiving. America has long associated growth, in all forms, as the common denominator of success. The recession, if it hasn't fully done so already, is teaching us lessons about the fallacy constructed within that reasoning. A whole new school of thought, based upon efficiency, output, and potential, is arising. For many places, the concept of growth (economic) without growth (population) is becoming reality.

As the economist Ed Glaeser recently pointed out in the New York Times, over the past 20 years, the per capita income in Chicago has gone from 10.5% below the national average to above the national average today. Despite the recession that clobbered real estate activity in the city, the past decade has seen Chicago revitalize scores of neighborhoods that flank its center, and dramatically expand and rebuild its core, and not just for ritzy empty-nesters either. Working in tandem with universities and colleges like Roosevelt, DePaul, Loyola, Northwestern, the School of the Art Institute and a multitude of others, Chicago has created perhaps the densest concentration of college students found anywhere outside of Boston. The city is a cultural and gastronomic destination. Further, the overall growth of the metropolitan area shows that Chicagoland carries weight as an economic magnet. Chicago is the engine that powers the region, and the exodus of residents the city suffered seems more of a structural deficiency to maintain and create a diverse set of neighborhoods, than it is of economic degeneration.

Chicago lost nearly 17% of its black population over the course of the decade. The emptying of certain neighborhoods on the South and West Side represent not just a loss of numerical population, but also the customer base of now shuttered institutions like Edna's, Army & Lou's, and Izola's. As people leave these neighborhoods and their vibrant cultural life, the vacancy left behind only intensifies the scourge of abandoned properties and foreclosures. If the trends from the 2010 census continue, these communities will likely become even more isolated. This stratification doesn't fortell good things for the residents of these neighborhoods, nor for the cost it will take to continue extending services to them without additional tax revenue being generated.

Chicago is a strange animal. The population drop makes for good alarmist headlines, but the numbers distort the true story being told here. Chicago is truly what Aaron Renn has called "two cities in one - a thriving global city core and a larger lumpen-city that more fits the Rust Belt model." Over the course of the past decade, it's been a place that has torn down enormous swaths of densely-packed housing projects faster than it could accommodate its residents. At the same time, it has erected numerous upscale high-rises for recent retirees and young professionals. A city that's seen its income grow, its college attainment level boom, its cultural prominence rise, and a President thrown from its lakeshore.

Chicago has struggles. Some, like its budget, are monumental. Others, like the thinning out of its neighborhoods, can be remedied through good governance, development and support. And although the raw numbers of perhaps an outdated measurement of health are waning, Chicago, for all its woes, is not a struggling city. Parts of the city certainly are, and the next mayor would be wise to creatively initiate measures to remedy this. Chicago, as it stands now, is very much America writ large: much success being had by a relative few.

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Aaron M. Renn / February 18, 2011 7:54 AM

I find it interesting to see how many liberal champions of cities have embraced the growth without growth concept, especially as it is anti-egalitarian. It's pretty easy to boost your metrics when you simply slice off the bottom of the pyramid.

With regards to Glaeser, he picked a 20 year span, which is perhaps fair to cover Daley's tenure. But it also combines the rock and roll 90's with the much less performant 2000's. From 2000 to 2008 (the most recent data available), Chicago's per capital personal income fell from 117% of the US average to 113%. That was a worse performance than the state as a whole.

Windy city / February 18, 2011 2:51 PM

So many poor Blacks left Chicago for the suburbs and other states. I find it interesting that many conservative champions of suburbs are doing a victory dance when this demographic is settling into their communities.

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Parents Still Steaming, but About More Than Just Boilers

By Phil Huckelberry / 2 Comments

It's now been 11 days since the carbon monoxide leak which sent over 80 Prussing Elementary School students and staff to the hospital. While officials from Chicago Public Schools have partially answered some questions, and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has informed that he will be visiting the school to field more questions on Nov. 16, many parents remain irate at the CPS response to date. More...


Substance, Not Style, the Source of Rahm's Woes

By Ramsin Canon / 2 Comments

It's not surprising that some of Mayor Emanuel's sympathizers and supporters are confusing people's substantive disputes with the mayor as the effect of poor marketing on his part. It's exactly this insular worldview that has gotten the mayor in hot... More...

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