Seeing changes in suburbs through the presence of religious congregations

Suburban diversity, such as through having more non-white residents and more less wealthy residents, can be seen through what religious congregations are present in a community (and which are not). Three quick examples of congregations near the college campus where I work. Example #1:

It’s a poignant time for Sublett, who grew up in the church and today runs its deacon ministry. His grandfather, Carl Lewis Sublett, was one of the workers on the old Aurora, Elgin and Chicago Railway who helped start the church.

After meeting in the home of Charles Lucas, the church’s founders bought a $150 lot just south of the train tracks at 412 Crescent St. — today the location of St. Joseph’s Christian Orthodox — to build a church of their own.

It went up in an area referred to as “the Bottom,” a patch of lower ground along Crescent and Washington Streets. That, along with a neighborhood to the east of higher ground near Avery Avenue and Prospect Street called “the Hill,” were the two neighborhoods where it was acceptable at the time for African-Americans to live…

Eventually, the church outgrew the building, and on March 17, 1975, members dedicated the new, white-steepled church by walking about a mile east to where it stands at 1520 Avery Ave., according to church records. Sublett has pictures from that day and recalls the work church members put into erecting the church.

Example #2:

St. Joseph’s Orthodox Christian Church was established by a small group of faithful in March 1989. After meeting for five years in rented facilities, the present site was purchased from the DuPage AME Church. The present church was built in 1999. The community, which today serves well over 600 adults and children throughout the Chicago suburbs, is dedicated to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ through worship, fellowship, stewardship, and discipleship.

Example #3:

In late August, the Islamic Center of Wheaton bought and moved into the 26,193-square-foot former First Assembly of God Church at 900 E. Geneva Road, at the southwest corner of Geneva Road and President Street. Records show that, through a bank trust, the Islamic Center of Wheaton paid $3.15 million for the church and its 7.08-acre property.

Mosque spokesman Abraham Antar said he and his fellow congregants are excited about their new home, which he said is Wheaton’s first Muslim community.

“Wheaton is a city of faith, and we’re very privileged to be able to establish an Islamic community for Wheaton and especially for the western suburbs,” he said. “There are a lot of Muslims in Wheaton and the surrounding towns. It’s unfortunate for the (First Assembly of God) church that they lost their opportunity to stay there.”

That these three congregations meet and worship in a community known for its wealth, political conservatism, and concentration of evangelical residents and organizations says something. And these changes in religious groups are happening across many American suburbs; religious groups that even a few decades ago would not have been present now have thriving congregations.

The best scholarly text I know on the subject is the 2015 book Religion and Community in the New Urban America. The authors draw upon decades of research in religious change in the Chicago region, examine patterns across different religious traditions in suburbs, and look at different ways new congregations engage with the communities in which they are located.

(At the same time, the presence of new religious groups does not necessarily guarantee significant other changes in communities. Indeed, attempts by new religious groups to construct, purchase, or renovate buildings can invite concern and backlash.)

Patterns in racial/ethnic change in Chicago area counties 2010-2018

Recently released Census data at the county level shows the shift toward larger non-white populations in the Chicago area:

The Chicago Tribune article also points out a few of the notable patterns:

The six suburban counties gained a total of 14,857 non-Hispanic black residents from 2010 to 2018, most of them in Will and DuPage, the new census data shows.

Cook County, meanwhile, lost 75,081 black residents over the same time period. Black residents’ share of the county population decreased the most of any racial group in the last eight years…

In each of the six suburbs surrounding Cook, non-white Asian residents grew by at least 13% since 2010. DuPage County grew by the most people, with an increase of 21,960 Asian residents in that time.

I’ll throw in three more patterns I see in the table:

  1. The further out counties, the more exurban locations (Kendall and McHenry Counties) have much higher proportions of white residents. It will be interesting to see how these change in the coming decades. Not only are those locations farther from Chicago, they also have fewer historic industrial suburbs (like Joliet in Will County and Elgin in Kane County) that attracted more non-white residents.
  2. In all of the six counties, Hispanics account for larger proportions of the overall population than black residents. Whether this translates into political representation or status within the region is debatable.
  3. The Asian population is more concentrated as a proportion in some counties – DuPage, Cook, and Lake – compared to others.

“One Naperville” sticker, more diverse suburb

While recently at a rest stop in Indiana, I saw a minivan with an Illinois license plate and this sticker on the back:

No automatic alt text available.

Given the uniqueness of the sticker and my scholarly interest in Naperville, I almost snapped a picture of the vehicle but did not feel so inclined with its passengers standing not too far away. Instead, I found the image on the Internet. I do not know if there are ongoing “One Naperville” efforts but I found an event from September 11, 2016 commemorating 9/11 put on by the Naperville Interfaith Leadership Alliance. The similarities in style to the “Coexist” bumper stickers are due to the makers of this sticker (see bottom right). The peacemonger.org people are the same ones behind the original “Coexist” design.

Naperville is known for a number of features including its wealth, its high ranking in a number of listings of quality places (examples here, here, and here), its fast-growing population at the end of the twentieth century, its vibrant downtown, its office space along I-88, and, more recently, its diversity. According to QuickFacts from the U.S. Census Bureau:

NapervilleQuickFacts

That this large and wealthy suburb is only 68.1% white alone is notable. The diversity is noticeable in different retail establishments, those using the city’s Riverwalk, the local government naming liaisons to minority groups, and the presence of different religious groups (including mosques).

However, Naperville was not always this way.

Why Americans love suburbs #3: race and exclusion

The most difficult choice in ranking the reasons Americans love suburbs came between this reason – which I ultimately put at #3 – and the #2 reason involving families and children. The reason this choice was so difficult is that race is a foundational factor in American life. I have argued before that race should be considered a factor until proven otherwise, rather than the other way around where it is easy to limit discussion of race to blatant racism or discrimination.

While the suburbs are a central feature of American life, they from the beginning reproduced one of the other central features of American life: the suburbs were primarily intended for white people. The segregation was more obvious and protected in the past. This included sundown towns, Levittown not allowing black residents, and restrictive covenants excluding a variety of racial and ethnic groups. Blacks did have separate suburbs. The separation between white and non-white residents, particularly whites and blacks, is still present today in suburbs through residential segregation. The more recent segregation is due to factors like a lack of affordable housing (often challenged by wealthier and whiter suburbanites – see examples here and here), exclusionary zoning, housing discrimination, and unequal lending practices such as predatory lending. This can be illustrated by one Chicago suburb that claimed to be “home to proud Americans,” words that hint at a largely whiter and wealthier population.

It is therefore not a coincidence that a factor that contributed to the postwar suburban boom in the United States was a phenomena known as white flight. As millions of blacks moved to Northern cities in The Great Migration, government policies (changing mortgage guidelines, redlining, the construction of interstate highways) and desires to avoid blacks led many white Americans to move to the suburbs.

But, this was not necessarily a new phenomena. As cities expanded in size in the late 1800s, fewer and fewer suburbanites wanted to be part of the big city. Until roughly the 1890s, many big cities annexed nearby suburbs (such as Chicago with Hyde Park, Boston with Roxbury, and New York City with Brooklyn) as there were still benefits to being part of the big city (such as tapping into sewer systems). However, this stopped around this time as suburbs could better afford their own public improvements and cities became less desirable. What were the urban problems that pushed suburbanites away? A combination of factors played a role including overcrowding and dirtiness but immigration and new groups moving to the city also mattered.

While all of this could also be couched in terms of Americans preferring small-town life (and there is plenty of evidence to suggest this is true), it is worth thinking about what that small-town feel is really about. Americans like urban amenities, even if they do not want to live near them, and the suburbs offer easy access to many amenities within metropolitan regions. Americans do not want to live in rural small towns – even if Americans are nostalgic for such places, over 80% of Americans live in urban areas. Yet, many suburbs are not small (even as large ones, such as Naperville, claim to still have a small town feel). I suspect part of the small-town feel is really about racial and ethnic homogeneity.

Throughout all of this, the American suburbs have recently become more racially and ethnically diverse. More blacks are moving to the suburbs, whether outside Chicago, Seattle, Kansas City, or elsewhere. Many new immigrants are moving directly to suburbs. But, it could be a long time before non-whites achieve parity of location in suburban areas.

(Of course, social class also plays a role in all of this as race/ethnicity and social class are intertwined throughout American history. Non-white suburbanites who are middle-class or upper-class may be more palatable to white suburbanites. For example, it is interesting to see responses to increasing suburban poverty: will more suburban communities address the issue, such as through offering social services, or will they try to limit lower-income residents?)

“A Visual History [of race and ethnicity] in the U.S. Census”

Ariel Aberg-Riger argues in a visual history that the United States Census is implicated in matters of race and ethnicity. From the beginning of the piece:

VisualHistoryofUSCensusBeginning

Numbers are never just numbers: they must be conceptualized and then operationalized, they are collected via particular methods, and then given meaning by politicians, scholars, journalists, and the public. Even a simple count is not so easy, particularly when much is on the line for numerous groups.

Minority populations up, white populations down in almost every Chicago area county

New Census data displayed in the Daily Herald shows the change in population by race and ethnicity between 2010 and 2017 in the six northeastern Illinois counties in and around Chicago:

2017CensusDataChicagoAreaCounties

Daily Herald graphic of 2017 Census data.

The headline points out one clear trend of the data: the absolute numbers and percentages of non-white residents continues to increase in every Chicago area county. (The one exception is a decrease in the black population in Cook County.) Many of these collar counties had few non-white residents just a few decades ago.

But, there is another possible headline here: as the minority population grows, the white population has decreased in every county except for Kane County which had a very small increase in the white population. It is not required that the white population must decrease when the minority population increases so this is notable.

As the population changes in the Chicago region, it is due to both increasing minority populations and decreasing white populations.

Repealing a suburb’s English language resolution amid demographic change

The Chicago suburb of Carpentersville passed a resolution in 2007 saying English was the official language. The suburb continued to change and now officials have repealed the resolution:

Local officials say the English resolution caused nothing but controversy, and that progress came instead from targeting troublemakers, not Spanish speakers. Now, as one of the most diverse communities in the Chicago area, leaders hope to put the controversy behind them.

There’s also the demographic and political reality that Hispanics now account for slightly more than 50 percent of Carpentersville’s population of about 38,000, up from about 40 percent when the language measure was passed. Whites now make up about a third of the local populace, with most of the rest African- or Asian-American…

Still, it’s a touchy subject. When asked about the change in local law, Village President John Skillman, a lifelong resident, downplayed it. He said village documents and meetings will continue to be in English, and emphasized that the resolution made no concrete changes in the first place…

At the same time, efforts have been made to reach across ethnic boundaries. Last year, in addition to its Fourth of July fireworks, the village held a Mexican Independence Day celebration, and this year, its first Cinco de Mayo festival.

It is a relatively quick turnaround from a set of white candidates running for office and getting enough votes to join the Village Board and passing this resolution (and other measures aimed at undocumented immigrants) to repealing that same resolution eleven years later. At the least, it could suggest there is power of being part of local government: in a suburb of roughly 38,000 people, it may not take much to run for local office and campaign for particular issues. Regardless of what side of a political issue a resident is on, running for local office can make a difference.

The rest of the article hints at ways the suburb has come to terms with an increasing Latino population: Latino businesses in town, addressing gang activity, local festivals, and whether residents experienced discrimination. But, there is a lot more that could be addressed here. Did such a resolution significantly change day to day life? (The article suggests no.) How much do white, Latino, and black residents interact and participate in each other’s social networks? How does this play out in certain civic institutions like schools, religious groups, and community organizations? Resolutions or ordinances can certainly have a symbolic effect but there are a number of layers to community life and interactions in a suburb like Carpentersville.

(Side note: this is an apropos follow-up to yesterday’s post about how many Americans speak a language other than English at home. This affects more than just home life.)