Chicago’s Growing Income Donut

Oh, the backlog of things I want to write! To work:

Other than “oy,” one of the most common reactions I got to the “vanishing middle class” maps I made several months ago was that focusing on the city proper necessarily missed the very important shifts occurring in the suburbs, where something like two-thirds of the people in the Chicago region live. In fact, it missed what was maybe one of the more important stories about the changing economic geography of the region over the last 40 years, which is a shift in the balance of economic power between the city and suburbs.

That’s true, so I’ve finally made equivalent maps for the entire Chicago metro area. (The researchers who provided my original data, Sean Riordan and Kendra Bischoff, made their own maps a little bit ago, and Whet Moser made some valuable graphs from their data. I’m going to use my own maps, though, from Brown’s Longitudinal Tract Database, so I can show the data in a way that’s most consistent with how I did the previous post.)

Here they are:







I think, on the one hand, that these regional maps show something very much like what Aaron Renn has described as a “new donut” pattern of urban wealth: a rich center, a ring of disinvestment, and then another outer ring of wealth in the outer suburbs. Importantly, though, I think these show that there’s nothing really “new” about this pattern – instead, the rings have existed since at least 1970, and have simply been moving further and further out from the center of the city.

Even in the first map, there’s a kernel of wealth around the Gold Coast, surrounded by extreme disinvestment, surrounded by middle-class neighborhoods, surrounded by relatively wealthy ones. In each succeeding decade, the general pattern is for the kernel of wealth to gentrify a bit of the surrounding disinvested neighborhoods; for middle-class areas adjacent to disinvestment to decline into disinvestment; for relatively wealthy areas adjacent to the middle-class ring to slip down a bit; and for some parts of the periphery to become more wealthy.

It’s a pattern that, if you’ve read Neil Smith on the rent gap theory of gentrification, makes a lot of sense. The idea is that waves of investment, disinvestment, and reinvestment in urban neighborhoods are driven by the semi-permanent nature of buildings themselves. In the beginning, say, someone builds a three-flat in a neighborhood near downtown. When it’s brand-new, it’s a highly desirable place to live, but over time, things deteriorate a bit, and newer construction further out steals away the high-income residents who can afford housing with better technology and more up-to-date styles. Importantly, the aging three-flat is not torn down or significantly renovated, because the difference between what the owner can actually charge, and what they could charge if it were a brand-new building, is smaller than the cost of demolishing the property and actually constructing a new property (or a gut rehab).

(That is: If you earn $10,000 from a building you own, and could make $15,000 if you rebuilt/rehabbed it, but rebuilding/rehabbing costs $10,000, you won’t do it. Because, you know, you’d lose money.)

As it ages, the building itself becomes less and less desirable, and so the people living there become poorer and poorer; if the surrounding buildings were all built around the same time, then something similar is probably happening in the neighborhood at large. But at some point, the calculation changes: the building becomes so low-rent that the extra income an owner could get if it were brand new is more than the cost of replacing it. (It might also be the case, of course, that the building’s rent hasn’t fallen that much more, but the value of a new/rehabbed building has increased a lot – if, say, the three-flat is in a neighborhood near other neighborhoods that have seen an increase in amenities and jobs.) At that point, since it’s profitable to do so, the owner will do a major rehab or reconstruction, and gentrification begins.

(That is: If, from the previous example, the $10,000 you’re earning dwindles to $4,000, all of a sudden rebuilding/rehabbing becomes profitable. Alternatively, if you’re still making $10,000, but a rebuilt/rehabbed building would give you $25,000 – again, rebuilding/rehabbing becomes profitable.)

For example: these townhomes in Logan Square. Credit: YoChicago
For example: these townhomes in Logan Square. Credit: YoChicago

As I said, to a large extent, I think this describes what’s going on here. But anyone familiar with Chicago’s racial geography will have already noted that there’s something else, too. (If you’re not: basically all of the deep-red areas are segregated black neighborhoods. A few are predominantly Latino.) Namely, black neighborhoods seem both to suffer much faster disinvestment than you see elsewhere, and to be less able to reach the reinvestment part of the cycle. Neither of those things are news – there have been several reports about how “black neighborhoods don’t gentrify” already this year – but I think it’s particularly striking in this context. It’s not just that black neighborhoods don’t gentrify: it’s that anti-black racism is so strong that it overcomes, and arrests, the regional pattern of disinvestment and reinvestment.

Or consider the problem from a different perspective. Some people have described gentrification as a process of “racial arbitrage.” Arbitrage, more commonly, refers to someone profiting by taking advantage of the fact that the same good has different prices in different places. (For example, you might buy cheap cigarettes in Indiana and sell them at a markup in Illinois, where taxes make cigarettes much more expensive.) In this view, some disinvested neighborhoods aren’t just cheap because their housing has deteriorated; they’re cheap because most of the people who live there are non-white, which makes white people not want to live there. Since white people make up a large number of buyers in the housing market, that means demand crashes, and so do prices.

But that also means that if you’re one of the few white people who doesn’t care about living around people of color, you can save a bunch of money by moving to a non-white neighborhood of roughly equal “quality” (whatever that means for you). Each additional white person who does so, however, makes the neighborhood that much whiter – and as a result, that much more comfortable for the majority of white people. At some point, the neighborhood is white enough that most white people are willing to live there, which brings up both actual and “potential” housing prices, inviting a wave of reinvestment and more gentrification.

It appears, though, that anti-black racism is so strong that there are virtually no white (or other non-black) people willing to move into black neighborhoods, even if it means saving a lot of money. In other words, regardless of whether you think this is good or bad, racial arbitrage doesn’t work in black neighborhoods. Even in places – northern Bronzeville, say – where proximity to jobs and transportation would make you think that it would be an attractive option, there is vanishingly little evidence for it. As a result, potential rents depend entirely on the purchasing power of a disproportionately poor quarter of the population, and stay relatively low.

As Pete Saunders has pointed out, many black South Side neighborhoods (like Chatham, pictured here) have a lot in common with working-class North Side communities.
Chatham demonstrates racial arbitrage fairly well: these bungalows would cost a good deal more in a similarly far-flung non-black neighborhood. Credit: YoChicago

These two concepts – the rent gap theory and the racial arbitrage theory – are both, I think, really helpful in understanding how Chicagoland’s economic geography has changed over the last 40 years, and how it’s likely to change in the future. The foundation is a tendency for an expanding donut-shaped ring of rich and poor neighborhoods as a result of cycles of investment and disinvestment in housing. On top of that – no less powerfully – are the consequences of racism, which have a number of effects. First, they accelerate disinvestment as white people and their resources flee non-whites, and as new non-white residents are discriminated against in the provision of retail outlets, public safety, functional schools, and so on. Second, they open up the possibility of racial arbitrage: that is, another way for “potential rents” to rise and attract reinvestment and gentrification. Third, for black neighborhoods in particular, they can freeze an area in the disinvestment phase by acting as a sort of ceiling on potential rents.

Finally, of course, zoning laws can act as an accelerant on the reinvestment/gentrification phase by effectively capping population in neighborhoods where lots of people would like to live, forcing some of those people to move to adjacent communities, and raising actual and potential rents there.

There’s obviously quite a bit more to say about all this; hopefully I’ll find the time to do so soon, and hopefully I’ll also hear from other people who have thought of things I haven’t. But, as I’ve said before, neighborhood change is easy to experience – and is too often talked about – as a kind of capricious, unpredictable thing. In reality, it appears that it’s heavily influenced by certain patterns and rules. To the extent that we’re unhappy with what neighborhood change looks like, understanding those rules, so that we can change them, seems important.


Periodically, I get emails (or comments) like this one from last night:

Subject: Just Saw Your Article on Milliken v. Bradley

So do tell: where do YOUR children go to school? And if you don’t have any, do you realistically see any future children you may have going to these “integrated” schools that you champion?

I think there are two things about these emails that are really fascinating. The first is how common the “just wait till you have children!” argument is. Now, to be fair, it is true that I don’t have any kids. I have, though, recently passed from the phase of my life in which zero of my close friends had children to one in which some of my close friends have children, so I think I’m in an okay position to appreciate how significant a shift in perspective it can bring.

But even if that doesn’t count, people like the author of this email seem to have forgotten that I was once a child. I have first-hand experience! And, as a child, the schools I attended (there were four of them) were all between 35 and 70 percent non-white. I did not always enjoy school, but I can confirm that exactly none of the reasons for that were related to excessive racial integration.

Now, it’s true that I was fortunate to attend public schools that either had special academic requirements or in which the majority of students came from solidly middle-class families. But that’s sort of the point (especially the latter): there’s no reason an “integrated” school has to be mostly poor, or have low academic standards. In fact, by far the most troubled American schools aren’t the integrated ones, but the segregated ones.

The second thing I think is fascinating about these emails is how they reveal the worldview of a particular kind of racism: that of white people who hate/fear black people so much that they can’t conceive of other white people who don’t hate/fear black people as much as they do. It’s as if attending school with non-whites was some sort of obviously absurd dare that can be neutralized by turning it around on the dare-er, who will surely reveal themselves to be unwilling to perform the ridiculous act they proposed for you.

We tried busing, and it didn’t work, they say.

I don’t know what else to say about this, except that if you are inclined to send me an email along these lines, please don’t. I have enough.

* I should note that the other issue that I get “just wait till you have children!” emails about is living in apartments. “Wait till you have kids, and see if you don’t want a single family home in the suburbs!” The problem with this, again, is that I was once a child, and as a child I had the opportunity to experience both living in an apartment in a large city and living in a single family home in the suburbs. To the extent that I had a preference, it leaned strongly towards the apartment, where I could go play with my friends without bugging my parents to drive me.

Eighty years of Chicago’s population, annotated

With one caveat: this is not meant to be remotely comprehensive, because I don’t know enough to give a comprehensive overview of Chicago’s population trends since 1930.
401930s. Population at the end of the decade: 3,397,000. Up 20,000.

By the 1930s, the trends that we think of as beginning in the post-WWII era are actually already quite visible: depopulation of the older neighborhoods, and relatively rapid growth in outlying neighborhoods that resemble car-oriented suburbs. The trends are muted, though, because the economic situation means there isn’t much construction. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what’s going on in the Loop and South Loop, which both lost well over 30% of their populations. Comments would be appreciated.


1940s. Population at the end of the decade: 3,621,000. Up 224,000.

As the economy comes back, those greenfield suburban-type neighborhoods explode, largely with single-family owner-occupied homes subsidized by the newly created federal mortgage system. Many inner neighborhoods continue to lose population, although interestingly the older lakefront neighborhoods appear to be generally stable. By far the most interesting, and ominous, part of this picture is the Black Belt, or what’s now called greater Bronzeville: the stretch of lakefront neighborhoods just south of downtown, whose populations boomed between 40 and 75% during this decade. That’s because in the 1940s, the Second Great Migration began, and hundreds of thousands of black people arrived in Chicago from the South, only to find that racial segregation – which only a generation or two before had existed in a much milder form – had calcified to the point that their only option was to live in the ghetto. Since the white people around the ghetto weren’t letting it expand at this point – people who tested the boundaries were liable to have their homes bombed – the Black Belt simply became horrifically overcrowded.

Another way of putting that, of course, was that there was an extreme housing shortage for black people, since there wasn’t much new building within the ghetto, either. Those of you who read this blog may guess what comes next: unlike the current dynamic, in which housing in black communities is usually very under-priced thanks to a lack of demand, because non-black people refuse to live there, black housing in the 1940s was radically over-priced. Black families would routinely pay significantly more than white families for smaller, older, less sanitary, and more dangerous apartments.


1950s. Population at the end of the decade: 3,550,000. Down 171,000.

The ghetto breaks. In part, this is by design: the late 1940s and 1950s begin the era of large-scale urban renewal, which is largely focused on the areas near the Loop occupied by people that City Hall and downtown business leaders consider undesirable. Mostly, this is black people. Massive displacement on the northern end of the Black Belt is actually opposed by whites on the far South Side, who anticipate – correctly – that there’s simply nowhere for those black people to go within the existing ghetto.

The Lake Meadows project began what would eventually be the total destruction of a contiguous mile-long section of tens of thousands of black homes and businesses. This was completed by the early 1950s.

The spread of black families, a pent-up demand for housing because of low rates of construction from 1929 through the end of the war, and the creation highways to the suburbs produced an exodus from nearly every built-up neighborhood in the city. Areas with available sites for new construction along the edges of the city still saw huge population gains.


1960s. Population at the end of the decade: 3,367,000. Down 183,000.

Basically the same as the 1950s, except black people had by now been forced into a second large ghetto on the West Side, and white people began fleeing in massive numbers there as well. The two community areas that saw modest growth in the heart of the Black Belt, surrounded by expanding waves of severe depopulation, are where the five-mile-long string of segregated, high-density public housing towers were built.

Also in the 1960s, Mayor Daley bulldozed much of the old Near West Side, including Little Italy, to build the campus for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Residents further west, in Garfield Park, had requested that the university be placed in that large park, which would have a) spared tens of thousands of people having their homes bulldozed, and b) potentially created a social and economic anchor in a neighborhood that was clearly in the path of ghettoization. But Daley declined.


1970s. Population at the end of the decade: 3,005,000. Down 362,000.

The wave of extreme depopulation following ghettoization spreads outward to places like Englewood in the middle of the South Side and West Garfield Park on the far West Side. Also notable, though, that Latino immigration is by now leading to population gains along a sliver of the Southwest Side, through Pilsen and Little Village.


1980s. Population at the end of the decade: 2,784,000. Down 221,000.

Depopulation continues on the South and West Sides, especially in and around areas where black people have moved. Latino immigration expands the area of growth on the Southwest Side. Large parts of the North Side are also stabilizing after several decades of decline, especially where there are immigrants.


1990s. Population at the end of the decade: 2,896,000. Up 112,000.

The first increase in population since WWII. There’s a huge increase in the number of Latinos, and they move into neighborhoods throughout the Southwest and Northwest Sides. Downtown and the north lakefront neighborhoods see rapid gentrification, although outside of downtown, restrictive zoning prevents that gentrification from turning into significant population gains. Hyde Park and South Kenwood – the light-blue areas along the south lakefront – have also stabilized. Meanwhile, the public housing projects built in the 50s and 60s have officially been declared failures, and the Hope VI federal initiative gives cities an incentive to redevelop those projects as mixed-income housing. The Chicago Housing Authority begins letting the projects empty out before demolishing virtually all of them in the next decade; I suspect that goes a long way to explaining the continuing rapid decline in population in greater Bronzeville. Early this decade is also the peak of the crack-era crime wave, and Bronzeville, not coincidentally, is perhaps the single most dangerous place in the city.


2000s. Population at the end of the decade: 2,696,000. Down 200,000.

Massive construction and population growth downtown is more than offset by declines virtually everywhere else in the city. The wave of Latino population growth has crested and begun to move out into the very outer neighborhoods and suburbs. Blacks leave the South and West Sides, including many who are displaced when the last of the public housing towers are torn down, and no one comes to replace them. Meanwhile, restrictive zoning on the North Side means that even as places like Lincoln Park and Lakeview reach all-time highs in prestige and median income, new construction mostly takes the form of luxury buildings replacing older buildings with roughly the same number of units. These neighborhoods remain 20% to 60% below their peak populations.



From the comments: On being part of Chicago’s black middle class

Last week, my post on where Chicago’s black middle class lives was republished at Crain’s. From there, it received many responses making many different points, which I might take on in a separate post at some point. But for the moment I wanted to highlight two recent comments left at the original piece.


My friends and I are all college educated, (many with MAs) Black twenty something’s who are looking to establish roots soon. Most of us have any desire to move to Chicago from the burbs (South Holland, Olympia Fields etc). Personally, despite the great amenities the North side has to offer, I am very apprehensive about living there because of higher rent and racial tensions (and frankly ,in my experience, north siders just aren’t as friendly). However, living on a more friendly (and adorable) south side means no grocery stores, no shopping, no restaurants, no nightlife, no fun. The south burbs aren’t as bad but are still generally lacking in amenities. Here’s an experiment, on google maps, look up your favorite places (Target, Starbucks, Thai food restaurants etc) you’ll find next to none on the south side. So what many (and I mean MANY) of us would prefer is to move out of state all together. That sounds extreme, but I literally feel that I have nowhere to live in Chicago.

Naomi Davis:

I imagine some rationale for lower household incomes for African Americans living north is that a significant percentage could be early career professionals, living single, making modest incomes relative to established families and professionals in their areas. I lived the majority of my years in Chicago as one such professional, only moving to the south side to combat cultural isolation and to pursue my life’s work in a social milieu I assumed would be more supportive to dating, marriage, community-building. People of color in the neighborhoods where I lived/loved for decades – Lincoln Park, Old Town, Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park, Bucktown – were either just like me or low-wage immigrants or low-income families, arguably remnants of pre-gentrification, but not necessarily the “public housing/SRO” enclaves referenced in previous entries. I also appreciate this more nuanced conversation around race and household income, core to my work. I bristle at the notion that a prime way to improve life in African American neighborhoods is to import whites – a surprisingly common thought. While my org actively invites blacks with higher incomes to “move back home” to our hard-won legacy communities, I’m always surprised that few consider the complementary alternative of helping lower-wage families increase their household income – again, core to my work. Complicated, of course, by seemingly implacable structures holding poverty in place. Implacable perhaps, but not impossible to transform. Gets me out of bed in the morning, anyway. Many thanks for your thoughts. I look forward to hearing more.

A credit to their race

Okay, I have abandoned not one but *two* draft posts tonight, but this has to be finished because it’s just so amazing.

I’m going to choose to interpret this as a piece of truly inspired trolling on the part of Ms. Preckwinkle, who is extremely smart and not averse to some good trolling now and then.

Who is she trolling? She’s trolling the people that Natalie Moore is talking about at the end of her appearance this week on Chicago Newsroom:

MOORE: I didn’t love [Kenny Williams’ speech at the Jackie Robinson victory rally downtown]. I think telling an audience – this assumption that every black youth is going to pick up a gun. Inspiration is good, but these boys are – you’re preaching to the choir. “Pick up a book, not a gun!” This is the rally for kids who have done that!

It’s not, of course, just about Kenny Williams. The JRW Little League team’s US championship has been mostly reported on through the prism of the boys’ race and fictitiously terrible neighborhoods, because even when black kids excel at the most normal, all-American thing there could possibly be – Little League baseball – we require elaborate storytelling to explain how it’s actually all about how these kids are rising above their broken black communities, not just doing something that’s exceptional by the most universal, mundane standards of American childhood.

Now, that’s more than a little unfair. To begin with, the presence an all-black team at the Little League World Series is not a normal event. Moreover, the South Side does, in fact, have more than its share of problems, and even if the particular areas where these kids are from have fewer of those problems, it’s not unreasonable to see this as a particularly happy thing to happen in that broader context. Certainly, many of the people on the South Side feel that way.

On the other hand, I think it is even less fair to a) tell a bunch of children who have only barely hit puberty that they carry the burden of representing to the world that black kids on the South Side can do something other than shoot each other, and then b) turn around and lecture them at their own victory party about how they really should be sure not to shoot each other.

In short, we have utterly refused to untether from these boys the albatross of being black, and particularly of being black from the South Side of Chicago. At every turn we’ve communicated to them that what they’re doing matters first and foremost because of where they’re from, and what they look like; that excelling at something ordinary is the farthest thing we expect from black children, an achievement that surely requires constant vigilance, lest they revert to their natural state.

In other words, this whole time we’ve been telling the pre-teens on JRW that they’re a credit to their race. If it sounds offensive and outdated when Toni says it, that’s only because we haven’t bothered to listen to ourselves.

Excerpts from “The Formation of American Local Governments,” by Nancy Burns

Scholars have argued that part of the reason for the Salem witch trials was that Salem Town refused to let Salem Village secede to form an independent town. The residents of Salem Village faced land constraints and consequent decreasing income; the residents of Salem Town had access to other forms of income because the male residents there were largely merchants. Salem Village repeatedly petitioned for its own government; just as repeatedly, Salem Town refused. The Salem witch trial accusers were from Salem Village; the accused were from Salem Town. (p. 34)

Exclusionary zeal in various forms has been a part of American local institutions from their beginning…. The earliest tradition is the establishment of towns that create economic homogeneity…. In the seventeenth century this process was led by English merchants who planned the colonization of New England. The resulting communities are exemplified by the founding of Watertown, Massachusetts, in the late 1630s: “Everyone hoped that there would be no poor, and Watertown had made special provisions to exclude them.” To that end, they established that “anyone who ‘may prove chargeable to the town’ could be ordered to leave.” (p. 35)

Church groups in St. Louis decided to purchase twelve acres of land in Black Jack, Missouri, an unincorporated section of St. Louis County, in 1969. The land was zoned for multiple-family dwellings. The groups planned to build racially integrated, moderate-income housing on the site. Almost immediately, the white residents of the area…petitioned the St. Louis County Council to incorporate the area. They succeeded. Immediately upon forming the municipality, they zoned apartments – including publicly funded ones – out of the city. (p. 36)

“The real issue is not taxes, nor water, nor street cars – it is a much greater question than either. It is the moral control of our village. Under local government we can absolutely control every objectionable thing that may try to enter our limits.” – suburban Chicago newspaper editorial in favor of incorporating as a separate municipality, 1907  (p. 37)

“Planners and zoning experts often appeal to their clients, that zoning for height and lot area, and sometimes other items, will protect them from ‘undesirable neighbors.’ In fact, all the arguments adduced to show that zoning protects property values are meaningless unless they imply this important element in the determination of values. No height restriction, street width or unbuilt lot area will prevent prices from tottering in a good residential neighborhood unless it helps at the same time to keep out Negroes, Japanese, Armenians, or whatever race most jars the natives.” – Bruno Lasker, academic, 1920  (p. 57)

Americans have discovered in local institutions effective barriers to racial and economic segregation. Living within particular city boundaries means that schools will not be integrated, that neighborhoods will not be integrated, that offensive industry will not be apparent, and that taxes will not be higher. It also means that the problems of people in other – even, and especially, neighboring – cities will be considered irrelevant to local politics….

Because municipal boundaries can be boundaries between races and classes, boundaries that reinforce homogeneity, the possibilities for transformative public discussion in local politics are severely limited.

Moreover, the space we have created for local political autonomy means that we allow local boundaries to define citizenship, and we allow that definition of citizenship to carry weight in American politics. Boundaries, and the import we give to them, can thus legally impede desegregation efforts, halt efforts at redistribution, and restrict access to services. (p. 117)

The South Side: Not actually an unmitigated sea of misery

As I’ve written before, the South Side is a much more diverse place than people give it credit for. This is true both in the ethnic sense – you can find Asian, Hispanic, white, black, and, yes, integrated neighborhoods there – and in the sense that for each of these ethnic categories, there’s a range of economic conditions.

Pete Saunders has a nice post reminding people of this second fact, by pointing out that the kids on the Jackie Robinson Little League team (and US champions, by the by) mostly come from neighborhoods that don’t actually fit the storyline some media outlets have chosen to put on them. That is, they did not all emerge from broken homes, dodging bullets as they cut through trash-strewn lots to the baseball diamond, which was the one outlet they had to seek relief from their impoverished ghetto.

No, in fact, this is what the houses across the street from Jackie Robinson Park look like:


And here’s a random block from a few streets away:


If you look at the maps of the black middle class I made a bit ago, you can see the far South Side neighborhoods that make up the area around Jackie Robinson Park lit up in blue:


Now, that’s not to say that these neighborhoods don’t have problems. Like many, if not most, working- and middle-class neighborhoods in America, they’ve seen significant losses of well-paying jobs over the last several decades. Like most black neighborhoods in America, they’ve been shaped by a legacy of segregation that’s dramatically increased the concentration of poverty there, compared to working- and middle-class neighborhoods that aren’t black, and they have some of the issues that come with relatively higher poverty rates, like relatively higher crime rates. But they’re also, as Pete points out, not generally dangerous in the way that outsiders imagine every black neighborhood on the South Side is.

Roseland – one of the neighborhoods where a lot of the Robinson players are from – also happens to be home to Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, which Chicago Magazine named the fifth-best public high school in the city, just below the four super-elite test-in academies, and higher than another North Side selective-enrollment school, Lane Tech. Its average ACT score is even with Niles West, a well-regarded north suburban school that serves a significantly more affluent population.

Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep
Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep

Near Brooks is Poe Elementary, which that same issue of Chicago Magazine ranked as the fifth-best public elementary school in the city, above many of the neighborhood schools – and even a handful of selective enrollment schools – in places like Lincoln Park and Lakeview that have become the default option for the city’s “global city” class. Three other Far South Side schools made the top ten, two of them in black neighborhoods.

There’s something to all this – to my laying out the case that you should think of the South Side as a place where people live, and where they accomplish things that they and other people find admirable, like keeping tidy lawns, or playing baseball extremely well, or supporting high-achieving schools – that’s very noxious. That is to say, it assumes that a) the personhood, and respectability, of these people is in doubt, and b) that the esteem of the people who doubt it – the North Siders and suburbanites and newspaper writers and readers all around the country – is necessary, that it’s not enough that the residents of these neighborhoods are, in fact, people.

My indignance – not to mention the prospect of freeing up more time to write about things that shouldn’t be obvious – makes it tempting to declare that the esteem (or, at the moment, the ignorance) of the rest of the world doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, that’s plainly not true.

Brooks College Prep, the fifth-best public high school in the city, was at the receiving end of that ignorance last year, when parents from Walter Payton College Prep (number two on Chicago Magazine’s rankings) forfeit a game of baseball because they were too terrified of Roseland to allow their children to go to Brooks’ campus to play.

And if Payton parents – whose views, I imagine, are broadly representative of those “global city” households downtown and on the North Side, and in analogous neighborhoods across the country – won’t go to Roseland on a chartered bus to play a scheduled high school baseball game at one of the city’s elite selective enrollment high schools, they’re certainly not going there to spend any money at the local businesses, or to open businesses, or to visit the local sites, like the Pullman Historic District. Their ignorance demands that these places, and these people, be completely shunned.

Lobby at the Hotel Florence in Pullman. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers
Lobby at the Hotel Florence in Pullman. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

And while the parents themselves certainly deserve some blame for this, I’m going to go ahead and add it to the j’accuse from “The Dignity of Fifth-Graders” and ask that media outlets in Chicago and nationwide consider how their coverage of crime on the South Side has contributed to this situation. If you spend years telling your readers that the South Side is a “war zone,” then you don’t get to be surprised when your readers treat it like a war zone.

We don’t get to celebrate one baseball team’s worth of black kids from the South Side while we’re shunning all the rest.

Two for Thursday: Milliken and Metra

I have two pieces up elsewhere today. At the Washington Post, a look back on the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that reversed Brown v. Board of Ed:

In other realms, Roth’s logic – that political boundaries must be subservient to larger questions of justice, including segregation – is taken for granted. Think, for example, about Congressional districts. To start with, they’re redrawn every ten years to adjust to shifting populations. Not only that, but there are lots of rules designed to make sure the new districts aren’t unfair in ways that violate anyone’s civil rights. If they are, they can be thrown out by a judge, and ordered to be redrawn.

We go through all of this because we understand that unfair Congressional districts can be devastating for minority communities, denying them political power and, along with it, the ability to fight for policies that improve their lives.

School districts, of course, play just as large a role in determining their residents’ life chances, but share basically none of these rules.

And at Streetsblog Chicago, a post on ridership trends and the incredible wasted potential of Metra, Chicago’s commuter rail:

A coordinated effort between Metra, Chicago, and the suburbs to increase service and encourage development around walkable stations that serve relatively high population density could go a long way to improving access to jobs and amenities via transit for hundreds of thousands of people — and at a fraction of the cost of new rail construction.

At its most ambitious, that might look like the long-sought conversion of the Metra Electric line to true rapid transit — promoted most recently by the Transit Future campaign. But short of that, Metra could take a page from our sister city to the north, Toronto, whose commuter rail agency recently announced it would increase all-day frequency to every 30 minutes, making off-peak trips there much more convenient.


Where does Chicago’s black middle class live?

(As a foreword: I’m very conscious, as I write this, that I’m explaining something a large number of readers already know; I want to acknowledge that what I’m doing is not unearthing some previously-undiscovered secret, but trying to demonstrate a few of the basic facts of the city’s social geography that really, truly are mysteries to a huge number of people, both in Chicago and in the rest of the country. It would be nice if we lived in a world in which the black middle class were not an exotic demographic to most non-black Chicagoans, let alone the dominant view from outside the city: but we don’t, so here we are.)

There are at least three ways one might go about answering that question.

1. If you picked a random middle-class black person, where are they most likely to live?

To answer this question, you probably just want to count up all the middle class black households and tally them by neighborhood. So that’s what I did. The tricky part, obviously, is defining “middle class.” In the end, I went with something like what I did with my Chicago income segregation maps: households making at least 75% of the metropolitan average income, which works out to about $45,000 a year. There are a million problems with this: it doesn’t account for household size, or life station (a 26-year-old with a bachelor’s making $40,000 doesn’t count, even though nearly anyone who met them would consider them middle class, while a single parent with four children making $45,000, whose economic and social position is likely much, much more precarious, does), or any number of other things. I considered using education, but in a city like Chicago – and this is especially true among African Americans, I think – a huge number of people with middle-class lives have union jobs that don’t require a college education.

Anyway, with all those caveats, here’s the map:

B45totSo the answer is mostly on the South and West Sides: that’s Austin there on the far West Side, with the largest number; Roseland, Auburn Gresham, and South Shore are the leaders on the South Side.

There are things to say about this, but I’m going to go through the next two maps before I say them.

2. If you picked a random person in a given neighborhood, what’s the likelihood that person would be black and middle-class?


In effect, what this does is control for the number of people in each community area. Austin, for example, which looked super impressive in the first map, now looks less impressive; it turns out that it has a lot of middle-class black people mostly because it has a lot of people, period.

Anyway, the standouts now are Calumet Heights, the darkest-blue trapezoidal shape on the far Southeast Side; Avalon Park just to the north; and Roseland, Washington Heights, and West Pullman on the far, far South Side.

3. Finally, if you picked a random black householder in a given neighborhood, what is the likelihood that person would be middle-class?


This is a considerably weirder, and in some ways more misleading, map. There are now standouts on the Northwest and Southwest sides, in addition to the far South Side; but, if we refer back to the first map, we see that most of those places have vanishingly few black households to begin with. In fact, it’s much worse (in the sense of the numbers are much smaller) than that map even suggests: in many of the darkest-blue areas, we’re talking about dozens of households. Many of these are areas that, up until twenty years ago or so, had literally – or almost literally – zero black residents. To the small extent that they’ve been integrated since then, they’ve been integrated with solidly middle-class people.

Anyway, a few notes on the whole thing:

1. The black middle class exists in Chicago. In large numbers. This shouldn’t really be news, but speaking in my capacity as a white person who knows a lot of white people, and other people of various ethnic backgrounds from the North Side and suburbs and other parts of the country/world, it really is.

2. Perhaps even more importantly, the vast majority of Chicagoans who are both black and middle-class live on the South Side, and to a lesser extent, the West Side.

3. The concentration of middle-class households varies dramatically from one black neighborhood to another.

4. Still, the majority of Chicagoans who are middle-class and black live in neighborhoods that are mostly not middle-class – as opposed to Chicagoans who are middle-class and white, for whom the opposite is true. In this way, Chicago is pretty similar to the rest of the country.

The takeaway, for me, is that these maps contradict two of the biggest lies – or, if we’re being kind, misconceptions – about the social geography of Chicago. The first is that the black neighborhoods of the South and West Sides are an undifferentiated landscape of economic hardship. This is false in a couple of ways. For one, though there are, in fact, many people who are suffering for want of a decent wage in these areas, there are also many thousands of households that are not. (Though they are likely still disadvantaged by other consequences of segregation, including worse access to jobs and basic amenities, higher crime, lower-performing schools, etc.)

For two, just like white, Hispanic, and Asian people, black people are segregated by income. That is to say: some black neighborhoods are much wealthier than others. Of course, this kind of stratification is complicated, since it’s layered on top of – and interacts with – racial segregation. But the view of Chicago as bifurcated between the privileged North Side and deprived South Side needs to get sophisticated enough to recognize the major differences in privilege/deprivation between, say, Englewood and Calumet Heights. It also needs to recognize that even in neighborhoods that are majority low-income, there are generally a significant number of middle-class residents.

The second big lie, related to the first, is that basically everyone on the South and West Sides would get out if they could. This is sometimes stated explicitly; more often, I think, it’s the unspoken assumption that frames most outsiders’ conversations about those parts of the city. It assumes that everyone in Chicago follows roughly the same ladder of neighborhood prestige: one that tops out in Wicker Park, or Lincoln Park, or North Center, or Norwood Park, depending on your family status and subcultural preferences.

But this isn’t remotely the case. Someone who had only lived on the North Side – or outside the city – might figure that the reason there are so few black people (or Latinos! more on that in a sec) in, say, Lakeview, is that Lakeview is so expensive, black and Latino people have lower average incomes, etc., etc. And surely that is, in fact, a large part of the answer. But it’s not the entire answer, and one way to prove it is to show that, actually, the median black householder in Lakeview actually makes less money than the median black householder in Roseland, a neighborhood whose name is usually accompanied in media reports with adjectives like “struggling,” or “blighted,” and so on. It’s actually not even close: over $40,000 in Roseland, versus $33,000 in Lakeview. Those sorts of inversions of North Side/non-Chicagoan perceptions about neighborhood prestige are actually pretty common: black median household income is $24,000 in West Town, $31,000 in Lincoln Park, and $35,000 in North Center, but $39,000 in West Pullman,  $42,000 in Washington Heights, and $56,000 in Calumet Heights. And in Ashburn – a neighborhood on the very southwestern edge of the city that’s about 50% black, and which most North Siders (including me, until friends moved there a few years ago) have never even heard of – it’s over $70,000.

Why does all of this matter? Number one, it’s something that lots of people are wrong about, and I don’t like it when people are wrong about things. More generally, though, widely-held perceptions of neighborhood quality and prestige – especially when those perceptions are held by people with lots of economic and political power – play a huge role in shaping the future of any given neighborhood. From a governance perspective, there are lots of reasons you’d want the people in charge of a city to have an accurate impression of the communities they’re governing before they start making up policies for them; but also from a purely social point of view, the fact that most non-black Chicagoans – and the vast majority of non-Chicagoans – can’t distinguish between Englewood and Calumet Heights means that they won’t ever visit, spend money, and certainly won’t consider living, in neighborhoods that they would likely find generally pleasant. (I apologize for picking on Englewood: I definitely don’t mean to suggest that it doesn’t also have positive qualities, or that no one should go there. I’m making some big-picture observations about the size of its challenges relative to other neighborhoods, and common ways that people react to places with those kinds of challenges.) In short, it’s hard to build much of a local economy in a place that 75% of the population shuns without even thinking about it. (Read Robert Sampson’s Great American City for more on that.)

Anyway, this post is now long enough: I have more to say, but I will put it off to another time. I’ll leave you with two final maps: versions of map #1 above for Latinos, whites, and Asians. They’re fairly self-explanatory, but suffice it to say that most of this post could be rewritten, with only minor edits, to apply to Chicago’s Latino middle class as well.




From the comments: Black-Latino-white segregation in NYC

This is too good not to make a separate post: commenter Neil, or “nei,” on some of the historical differences in racial segregation between NYC and Chicago. Read it first. I add a few thoughts at the end.

Talk to Me Like I’m Stupid is working!


I’m going to a add a few comments on NYC that might be insightful even though they’re a bit of a nitpick. First, I’m not sure if this a good assumption:

But in New York, black neighborhoods have become significantly mixed, in particular with people of Hispanic descent.

You’re assuming those neighborhoods were entirely black at one point and then hispanics came later for some reason. I don’t think that’s a good assumption, I’d guess they arrived at roughly the same time. Large-scale migration of hispanics into NYC started mainly in the 50s, and was mostly Puerto Ricans, looking at wikipedia numbers it looks like the Puerto Rican influx was slightly earlier than the black migration, which continued into the 60s and later. The poorest Puerto Ricans settled in the some of the same areas as blacks. The South Bronx was roughly equally hispanic (Puerto Rican) and black around 1970, today it’s about 2/3rds hispanic but with a more diverse mix of hispanics. The housing projects also become dominated mainly by blacks and Puerto Ricans, though some projects are mostly blacks and others mostly hispanic, though I suppose. Hispanics average significantly lower income-wise than blacks in NYC, and NYC Puerto Ricans tend to below average income-wise among NYC hispanics, I’d guess Puerto Ricans were poorer than blacks then, too. Unskilled, discriminated against with the added difficulty of a language and cultural barrier. The many that had little money moved to the cheapest and worst neighborhoods the city had to offer, which often had a large black population. In many ways, back then, it makes sense to group hispanics and blacks together, especially pre-1980. But…

It appears blacks triggered faster “white flight” than Puerto Ricans. Many Puerto Ricans lived amongst blacks, but there were many more mixed white & Puerto Rican neighborhoods than white & black neighborhoods. For example, Williamsburg, Brooklyn pre-gentrification was mixed Puerto Rican and white (mainly Italian-American); still has some Puerto Ricans left. I think there were a number of other similar neighborhoods, but not so many stable mixed white-black neighborhoods. If you look at sites with old maps by race, such as (you’ll need the professional edition), the black population was far more concentrated than the hispanic population. Looking through by decade, you can see census tracts near a black neighborhood shift from mostly not black to mostly black. Want to guess which neighborhoods would have a quick decrease in white population? Check the black population map a decade before, areas adjacent would lose whites. Hispanics weren’t as segregated, which suggests that white flight was more of a racial than just an economic thing. Violent crime rates were higher among the black population, but in the late 70s/early 80s the hispanic/black difference was small, suggesting both populations were equally “ghettoized” in some sense, but fear of blacks seemed to cause more white flight than fear of hispanics.

Hispanic Murder rate dropped more than blacks, probably partly from heavy immigration starting in the 80s onward as well dismantling of drug gangs. 2011 rate was 1.4/100k for whites, 5.9/100k for hispanics, 14.6 for blacks and 1.5 for Asians.

Here’s a screenshot of a map of black population in NYC, 1970 [didn’t take a screenshot of a similar map for hispanics]

Chicago looked very different in 1970:

both from socialexplorer. It appears the equivalent of the South Bronx in Chicago in the 70s/80s would have been entirely black, rather than mixed black-hispanic. From what I can tell “white flight” in NYC came in two types:

1) Sudden very quick transformation from mostly white to minority. Usually more often from an influx of blacks then hispanics, and occurred in the poorest white neighborhoods, but generally mainly by near an increasing black population (block busting). Usually had white flight in the 60s or early 70s. South Bronx, Northeast Brooklyn are the best examples.

2) Gradual decrease of white population, starting later maybe in the 70s. Younger generations of whites slowed moved away, I heard them being described as “grandma neighborhoods”, since the non-transplant whites are older. They have often have some white population left, and a large immigrant population, but almost no black people (sometimes every possible race besides black). Southern Brooklyn and a lot of Queens are good examples of these places. While they were majority white, blacks were often discouraged from moving in by implied threats of violence.

Here’s an odd pattern. The three blackest zip codes in NYC are actually well off by city standards.

Top on the list (zip code 11411) has a median income of $81k/year, median home price of $404k. 93% black, 38% foreign born. Random streetview:


My guess is it’s too expensive for poorer hispanics (mostly owner-occupied homes), and whites or middle-class hispanics see little reason to move there, while some middle-class blacks want to move to a nice black neighborhood. Of course it was white at one, a bunch of synagoues in the area stand out as an odd relic, a couple have been bought by churches. Again, the white flight must have racial rather than economic as it’s not really any poorer than white neighborhoods in that area of Queens/Nassau.

The black population of NYC has a large immigrant contingent, but instead of black immigration breaking down segregated neighborhoods, it helped keep their setup. Since 1980, the black population has had a large domestic out-migration with the black numbers balanced by black immigration (mainly from the Caribbean but also from Africa). I saw numbers saying in 2000, 40% of NYC’s black population was either foreign born or had one foreign born parent. Most black immigrants moved to existing black neighborhoods, keeping the same segregation pattern. One interesting exception is some neighborhoods in Queens, there’s a section that’s mixed asian-black-hispanic. The largest black area of NYC [Northeast Brooklyn, with a larger black population than South Side Chicago] hosts the West Indian parade annually (maybe the city’s largest parade).

There are a number of neighborhoods in NYC that experienced white flight that have no black people. Sunset Park, Brooklyn has few white people, it had large-scale white flight around the time of de-industrialization around 1970. Puerto Ricans replaced the exiting whites, but no blacks. Today, western half of it is hispanic (mix of Puerto Rican and Mexicans), the eastern half is Chinese. The switch between the two groups happens in about a block, it’s a bit jarring. Continue east further, and it’s almost entirely Hasidic Jewish (Borough Park) with another quick transition. Almost no blacks today in any of those places. Washington Heights switched from White to Dominican rather quickly, you have it labelled as <10% black, though it has plenty of black hispanics.


Daniel again: It actually occurred to me when I was writing the original post that I didn’t know when the integration of blacks and Hispanics happened in NYC, and I’m glad someone set me straight about that. It’s an interesting point, although there has to be a much longer and more complicated story about why they ended up together: I guess maybe the lateness of arrival of Chicago’s Hispanic community? Or were Mexicans (the largest Latino group in Chicago, by far) less inclined to live in black neighborhoods than Puerto Ricans for some reason? Or were New York’s black neighborhoods somehow more attractive?

I did know about New York’s black community’s large foreign contingent, which really doesn’t have a parallel in Chicago. Chicago’s Caribbean and African immigrants are much fewer, but they also tend to move to the North Side’s small black communities in Uptown, Edgewater, and Rogers Park, rather than the main segregated black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. I don’t think there are any segregated black community areas in Chicago that are more than one or two percent foreign-born.

In other ways, this description is very applicable to Chicago.

The distinction between rapid and slow white flight, for example – although the vast majority of cases with black neighborhoods were rapid, there’s been some slower white flight – and lots of “Grandma neighborhoods” – on the Southwest Side, where Latinos and Asians have been replacing whites for ten or twenty years.

The distinction between “racial” and “economic” white flight, I’m not sure I fully endorse, but it does complicate the narrative somewhat to point out the places where black newcomers actually outranked their would-be white neighbors economically, but the whites left anyway. That also has a few parallels in Chicago – Calumet Heights, I believe, and a few other places on the far South Side – places that are solidly middle class, but are still shunned by non-blacks.

Anyway. Thanks, Neil, for this.