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Everything you think you know about Chicago is wrong

Chicago is lively, easy to get to and cheap. If it doesn’t stand out in any particular field right now, don’t worry. Something will emerge.

The challenge for Chicago is to enable the neighborhoods to share in the prosperity of downtown. Can we do it?
The challenge for Chicago is to enable the neighborhoods to share in the prosperity of downtown. Can we do it?
Patrick O’Neil

Everything you think you know about Chicago is wrong.

OK, not everything. Long term, we Sox fans know, you’ll never lose money betting against the Cubs.

But much of the conventional wisdom about the city is … well, not myth exactly, but inaccurate in ways that distort our understanding of the challenges we face.

As a new regime settles in at City Hall, it’s time to separate fiction from fact:

Chicago is one-third New York and two-thirds Detroit.

The idea behind this common remark presumably is that the North Side is thriving, while the West Side and South Side aren’t. In fact, sizable parts of the West Side and South Side are starting to revive.

But it’s closer to the truth than we might like to admit. Based on the number of people living in demonstrably poor parts of town (with household income less than two-thirds of the regional median), Chicago is 43 percent Detroit — that is, low-income. Hardly comforting.

The middle class is fleeing.

This claim surfaced a few times during the mayoral campaign. A recent academic study went so far as to say Chicago’s middle class had largely disappeared.

That’s true only if you take a narrow view of what constitutes “middle class.” By a more realistic measure, Chicago’s share of the region’s middle-class households has been expanding steadily for at least 37 years.

Exception: black middle-class communities, some of which are losing people at an alarming rate.

CLICK TO HEAR ED ZOTTI ON WCIU THE JAM

Writer Ed Zotti discusses the first of his new Sun-Times series on Chicago at the crossroads on WCIU The Jam.
Writer Ed Zotti discusses the first of his new Sun-Times series on Chicago at the crossroads on WCIU The Jam.

Declining population shows that Chicago — and Illinois — are circling the drain.

Not really. In Chicago, the continuing exodus of black families has offset gains in the city’s other major ethnic groups; the overall population remains higher than in 2010. The rest of Illinois is losing whites, while other groups grow, much as in states like Pennsylvania and New York. Are both problems serious? Absolutely, but neither reflects an existential crisis.

Chicago can solve its problems by taxing the rich.

Maybe that approach would work in San Francisco, where 21 percent of households make more than $200,000 a year. It’s less likely to work in Chicago, where only 7 percent make that much.

Gentrification is causing an affordable housing crisis.

On a citywide basis, not so. The median home price in Chicago is only slightly higher than in the metro area overall, and in many parts of the city it’s lower.

But it’s true in trendy neighborhoods. If a community becomes so expensive only the wealthy can afford to live there, the rich mix that made the area attractive in the first place disappears. That’s a problem for both those forced out and newcomers.

Can it be solved? Yes, provided we can overcome knee-jerk fears of increased density.

Chicago’s public schools are terrible.

Some of them are. The Chicago Public Schools, as a whole, compare unfavorably with most suburban school districts. What’s less widely recognized is that many schools have improved dramatically, and the city has the five best public high schools in the state.

Granted, they’re mostly in affluent neighborhoods. But the fact remains that, 30 years ago, few middle-class parents sent their kids to the city’s public schools no matter what part of town they lived in. An increasing number now do.

Prospects for the black community are unremittingly bleak.

They’re not bright. Chicago’s black community is in precipitous decline, its numbers having fallen by more than 250,000 since 2000, with an additional loss of 150,000 projected by 2030. The largest departures are among middle-class families with children.

Nonetheless, there are signs of a turnaround. On the south lakefront, the population is growing, demographic indicators are trending up, and the neighborhoods, while remaining predominantly African American, are becoming more diverse.

New jobs in Chicago these days require advanced degrees. We need more industrial jobs.

More industrial jobs in the city certainly would be nice. But the trend isn’t encouraging — manufacturing employment in the city, and for that matter in the region, is in long-term decline.

And it’s wrong to suggest most new jobs in Chicago require advanced degrees. According to state employment data, fast-growing fields in the city lately have included arts, entertainment and recreation and accommodations and food services. Typically you don’t need an advanced degree, or often any degree, to get a job in these industries.

Do such jobs pay a lot of money? Probably not. No one disputes that people with a college education tend to get paid more than those who don’t. If the argument is that we need more high-paying, low-skill jobs, good luck with that.

Too much money is being invested downtown. It needs to be steered to the rest of the city.

Let’s put it this way. More money needs to be invested in the neighborhoods. That doesn’t mean we can stop investing in downtown.

The fact is that public investment in the core has paid off. For years, starting with the 1973 Chicago 21 Plan that led to the creation of Dearborn Park, civic leaders poured enormous resources into building downtown residential neighborhoods, with the goal of stabilizing the city.

It worked. In the 1980s, public assistance was needed to launch many downtown residential projects. Not anymore. The private downtown housing market is booming, one of the reasons Chicago hasn’t gone the way of many of its Rust Belt peers.

One of the challenges now is expanding the transit system to improve access from the neighborhoods to the enlarged central area. Does a good chunk of that cash need to be spent downtown? Yes, because the densely built-up core is on track to double in size and we haven’t provided any new high-capacity service there since the 1950s. But it means significant investment in the neighborhoods, too.

Chicago’s reason for being has disappeared, and nothing has replaced it.

San Francisco has technology, New York rules finance, Los Angeles runs entertainment. Chicago once owned heavy industry. Today, some fret, it owns zip.

Let’s acknowledge that Chicago’s place in the global scheme isn’t entirely secure. But we’ve achieved an important prerequisite. The city over the past 25 years has evolved into a mature urban center — a common enough thing elsewhere in the developed world but rare in the United States.

Because of that, we’ve become a magnet for people and businesses. The town is lively, easy to get to and cheap.

So if Chicago doesn’t stand out in any particular field right now, don’t worry. Something will emerge.

But it won’t happen automatically. On the contrary, we need to invest our limited funds shrewdly. In doing so, we can create opportunities for everyone who lives here, not just the 1%.

Maybe you’re not buying this. I concede that Chicago’s history offers reason to be skeptical.

That’s the impetus behind this series, “City at the Crossroads.” Over the coming months, I hope to demonstrate what was merely asserted above — namely that our problems are solvable and our future promising if we grasp what’s happening and make smart decisions.

Then again, we can bumble along cluelessly and head over the cliff. We’ll find out which it is soon enough.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today we begin a new series, City at the Crossroads. In the coming months, journalist and author Ed Zotti will take an in-depth look at trends affecting Chicago and critical choices the city faces. Zotti’s message: Despite our city’s problems, a grand bargain offering a better life for all Chicagoans is within our grasp — but only if we act decisively now.

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