Critics of big cities found new fuel for their fire with the recent news about Chicago’s population decline. In a new census report, the city of Chicago’s population declined by 8,638 from 2015 to 2016. This followed a loss of 4,964 the year before.
First of all, these are miniscule changes for a city of 2.7 million residents. And a closer look reveals a more complex story: there are big differences across neighborhoods and subgroups. The city is attracting tens of thousands of affluent, professional young people, many of whom do not leave for the suburbs when they marry and have children.
Traditional terms like “middle class” or “working class” no longer tell the whole story. New types of jobs are growing in health care, law and other knowledge-based jobs. In a city where “who you know” could once lead to a cushy public sector job, “What you know” is now also a path to success. These new jobs require far fewer people — there are fewer assembly lines to staff or trucks to unload — so raw population is less important than attracting knowledge-based workers.
Another big change is that people often choose cities by considering lifestyle amenities together with the job. Indeed many people accept lower pay for more amenities. The most important industry in Chicago today is entertainment, broadly defined to include restaurants, museums, cuisine, sports, concerts, nightlife and the lakefront.
This is a big switch for the former “hog butcher of the world.” Today, instead of canned pigs, Chicago produces more art school graduates than any other city in the country. Many stay after graduation, thus perpetuating the city’s thriving arts scene. The arts in turn attract others working in many fields.
Summer concerts, sports events and other entertainment outlets attract visitors, some of whom eventually move here. The result: the area around downtown Chicago has been a national leader both in attracting more new residents age 25 to 34 and in job growth. Some parts of the city have seen population double, others are stable and some are in decline. If we look closely, that’s simply how cities work.
We learned this and more while writing our new book, “Scenescapes: How Qualities of Place Shape Social Life.” It details many Chicago specifics by comparing how they vary in other locations, from Seoul to Paris to San Francisco. Chicago remains vibrant, although now less a group of ethnic neighborhoods and more a collection of scenes based on new interests as well as primordial roots.
Shared interests in specific activities drive Lollapalooza, Chicago Summer Dance and Boystown. Other classic examples include the Haight-Ashbury hippy scene that epitomized the 1960s counterculture, or the Nashville scene of country music. Such dramatic scenes attract young migrants to cities.
Misconceptions arise by simply looking city-wide. We instead drill down to zip codes and neighborhoods. Stereotypes can then shatter. We found that parts of the Bronzeville neighborhood on the south side are as safe, crime-wise, as Lincoln Park. The west part of the Little Village neighborhood is much safer that the east part, which is fractured politically into separate wards.
Ironically, at the same time, some bemoan minor population loss, others express concern about “gentrification,” the process of new, affluent people forcing out long-time residents, who usually are racial minorities and have less money than the newcomers.
But the gentrification label is too simple. Even if new residents are young professionals, some choose their neighborhoods precisely to continue and enhance its authentic local past. This happens in Andersonville, where some newcomers learn Swedish dances and attend “Midsommarfest,” complete with a Maypole, inspired by a traditional Swedish rite.
Meanwhile Bronzeville attracts young, well-educated African-Americans who appreciate the neighborhood’s musical and literary traditions. On the north side many gays choose Boystown for tolerance unavailable in many other neighborhoods and home towns. On the south side, neighborhoods like Beverly and Pullman win residents by historical traditional values and architecture.
The new scenes are less binding — and potentially oppressive — than old-fashioned neighborhoods. It’s easier to enter or leave a scene, indeed many neighborhoods with enticing scenes have relatively few local residents, but many in-town and out-of-town visitors, like Michigan Avenue.
Scenes aren’t just cute or fun. They are means of production, important to the economy. When successful accountants discreetly adorn themselves with body art, they create work for tattoo artists, who use that money to pay rent, buy groceries, clothes and so on, keeping the economic wheel spinning with dollars earned and spent locally.
So, while Chicago has lost a few residents, it also prospers because of its vibrant scenes. One should not ignore Chicago’s serious problems, including decaying infrastructure, industrial disinvestment and — in some neighborhoods — violent crime. But let’s not leap to conclusions based on slight population loss. Chicago remains a talent magnet, attracting many of the best and brightest from around the U.S. and the world.
Terry N. Clark is a professor of sociology at The University of Chicago. Daniel A. Silver, who received his PhD from the University of Chicago, is associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.