Gentrification may get a lot of attention in big cities but one journalist suggests the more influential issue in Chicago is the number of neighborhoods that have undergone severe declines.
At WBEZ, a Chicago public radio station, our neighborhood bureau reporters produced a package of stories, “There Goes the Neighborhood” (found here) in December, about the changing conditions of neighborhoods in racially segregated Chicago. We partnered with the University of Illinois at Chicago, which created a gentrification index for understanding how to measure neighborhood change in the city, for better or worse. The index measures 13 indicators of neighborhood conditions, including race, income, house values, education, and even the percentage of kids attending private schools. The findings confirmed and challenged some of our own notions, but the main takeaway is that gentrification is not as pervasive throughout Chicago as conventional wisdom might suggest.
Scoring neighborhoods based on the index, Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods were grouped into nine categories ranging from “stable upper/middle class,” meaning index scores remained high since the 1970s, to “severe declines,” meaning those scores dropped significantly since the ’70s. The “gentrification” category captured neighborhoods that had low index scores in the 1970s, but grew significantly higher by 2010. There were only nine neighborhoods that fit that “gentrifying” classification, almost all of them in downtown Chicago (“The Loop”) or just north of it, areas that have been historically white. These places were basically immune to the housing crash, but meanwhile a glut of luxury high rises cast shadows over Lake Michigan.
The category you want to pay attention to, though is “severe decline” — 14 neighborhoods found mostly in South and West Chicago have populations that are, on average, two-thirds African American. Add those to the 12 neighborhoods that have remained in extreme poverty since the ’70s, of which 94.5 percent of residents are African American…
Policymakers, hence, must address the concerns of inequitable development across neighborhoods and income inequality, which are both also national issues. According to a City Observatory report examining urban poverty released last year, the problem over the past four decades is not wealthy whites infiltrating black and Latino neighborhoods with designer Pulaski hatchets and vegan cupcake shops. Governing magazine came to similar conclusions, showing low percentages of gentrified Census tracts in Chicago since 1990.
Gentrification might be the sexy topic but addressing the pressing issues in persistently disadvantaged neighborhoods would likely help more people in the long run. Of course, addressing the issues in poor neighborhoods is complex and not change may not come as quickly as it does through gentrification. Given Chicago’s long history of residential segregation, many of these poor neighborhoods – which are often heavily non-white – are not in any danger of gentrification anytime soon because they are far removed from the edges of wealthier white neighborhoods where good real estate deals or trendy spaces appealing to young, white, creative types might be found.