The creation of vacant land in Chicago neighborhoods

This is really just a “hm” post, combined with a request for information. One of the things that’s never totally be clear to me is how the substantial number of Chicago neighborhoods with large amounts of vacant land—land that was at some point built up, but had its structures demolished and not replaced—got that way. It’s a weird thing to be shrouded in mystery, since it’s something that becomes a defining, and stigmatizing, visual feature of the neighborhood for both local residents and outsiders.

I also wonder because it’s not completely obvious to me why some neighborhoods are riddled with empty lots while others are physically intact. For example, here’s a section of Garfield Park near Kostner and Adams that’s mostly intact:


And here’s an area of North Lawndale near Central Park and 16th that’s much more pockmarked with vacant lots:


Both of these are very high-poverty tracts—50 percent or higher—which is relevant because the usual explanation of this issue is a sort of generic “decline” and abandonment story. They’ve also both in community areas that have experienced extreme population loss: 72 percent in the case of North Lawndale, and 62 percent in Garfield Park.

Another common explanation is that “they never recovered from the riots,” but I am broadly skeptical of riot-based explanations for things. In general, they seem to be a questionable and exculpatory-to-white-people explanatory tool, and usually more of an effect than a cause in the real world. (For example: While many stories of Detroit’s white flight begin with the 1967 riots, in fact the city had already lost 25 percent of its white population between 1950 and 1960.)

Anyway, the other night I went on Historic Aerials to see if I could see anything about the timeline of abandonment. Forgive the watermarks, but here are two high-vacancy areas—the first in Englewood, along 63rd just west of the Dan Ryan—the dates are highlighted on the left side of each image.

And here’s a patch of North Lawndale.

As you can see, the vast majority of empty land in both cases appears between 1972 and 1988, with relatively few additions since then. That suggests to me that there’s something going on here beyond a generic sort of “decline,” either demographic or economic. Otherwise, we’d expect that vacant land would continue to increase substantially in the 90s and 2000s, as both of these areas continued to lose population and income.

So what was it? On Twitter there were a few suggestions, but maybe the most interesting was arson (the urban renewal explanation certainly holds for some places where large blocks were cleared, but generally can’t explain the sort of pockmarking I’m talking about here):

The New York situation is written up here, via Stephen Smith. Googling around also reveals this Congressional report from 1979, whose introduction says:


A later section says:


And more on the financial motivations for committing arson:


The reasons here that involve subsequent reinvestment—modernization, gentrification—don’t seem plausible, given the trajectory of these neighborhoods at the time. But many of the others do. Blockbusting and stop loss seem particularly relevant given the rapid racial and economic transitions happening in the 1970s.

Not only is there a national report, it turns out that Illinois commissioned a report just a few years before the Congressional one came out. Here are numbers from Chicago:



Notably, those totals at the top are probably understating things, as later the report includes “suspicious” and other fires:


And here is a map, though it includes many neighborhoods—Chatham, South Shore—that don’t have an especially bad vacant land problem:


Anyway: Who else has things I can read about this?

UPDATE: Fiverthiryeight talked to an author of a book about the Bronx fires—though he blames NYC-specific policies.

UPDATE 2: Tom Plagge flags this Tribune story from 1980 about arson in Uptown. On just two streets—Winthrop and Kenmore—there were about 130 fires in 1979 alone between Irving Park and Devon. It also includes this graphic:


12 thoughts on “The creation of vacant land in Chicago neighborhoods

  1. I think a related question to ask is how did the City of Chicago come into possession of 12,000 properties, a majority of which are vacant land.

    Some of the Property Index Numbers (PINs) I’ve researched were acquired by the city through water liens (unpaid water bills). A building is more expensive for the city than empty land so these buildings were demolished.

  2. I see it in Update #1, but I would certainly recommend the book referenced in that 538 discussion: The Fires:

    It’s a great discussion of the role of data in making decisions about complex systems like city fire response. There’s also a lot of stuff that may be similar in Chicago – did arson rates actually increase, or did the changes in city budgeting, combined with an increase in housing abandonment mean just a slight decrease in fire dept response times, which alone could be enough to mean fires aren’t stopped before they consume a structure.

    Even if it doesn’t answer the question, it’s a good read and I want to plug it.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I’ve read a few reviews and interviews of the author now. It sounds really interesting–though I wonder if its arguments can apply at all to Chicago. If in fact what he’s trying to explain is a nationwide phenomenon, a very localized explanation might not fit! Or at least is incomplete, which he probably acknowledges.

      1. It’s definitely a story specific to New York, but it has larger lessons for the perils of data-based management for urban planning and public services.

  3. I live next to a vacant lot in Bridgeport, and I know people in my neighborhood often refer to them as “prairies”. They get super over grown in the summer, and kids and dogs (and tons of rats) play in them. The one I live next to is clearly the site of a demolished building, and owned by the Ricobene’s. My only guess is that they are sitting on the property waiting for the value to rise higher before they sell. Gentrification is slowly but surely happening.

    Also strangely, there are tons of fires that happen in my neighborhood. I’ve been in Chicago for over 10 years, lived all over in different neighborhoods and I have never seen so many fire trucks before living down here. In summer, Bridgeport is constantly burning. Laundromats and warehouses and regular houses.

    Your post is interesting, as I think about these things all the time, but don’t do the extra step to research it. Thank you for sharing!

  4. There is a data set on the city’s portal of city-owned land, including a variable for when the city came into possession of the land. If it’s not there, it’s definitely floating around. (Of course not all vacant lots are city owned, and not all city owned lots are vacant, but still. Also, the data set is pretty dirty from what I understand)

      1. Ah, apologies. I may have been thinking about a bigger dataset that appended what’s available through the portal. I think the folks at WBC made it?

      2. Also, I recall the folks from the Large Lots program presenting at 1871, and they had data on acquisition dates of vacant parcels.

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