On one of the last 80-degree evenings last fall, my wife and I decided on the spur of the moment to head downtown.
We had nothing special in mind — no tickets to a hot show, no reservations at a fancy restaurant. One of the advantages of living in the city, we’ve learned, is you can have a pretty good time just walking around.
We weren’t disappointed. It was a magical night.
We got off the Red Line at Chicago Avenue and headed toward Michigan Avenue. The sidewalk cafes were packed, the streets bustling. No doubt having an innate sense that good weather in Chicago was not to be wasted, everyone was out.
There were sights to see almost everywhere. In Apple’s glass-box store overlooking the Michigan Avenue bridge, an employee gamely tried to lecture about iPhone features while the rest of us gawked at one of the most iconic urban vistas on earth.
Along the Riverwalk, beautiful people partied on boats docked two-deep while wine-sipping tourists checked out river traffic ranging from sightseeing barges to kayaks.
On State Street, a crowd lined up under the Chicago Theatre’s marquee for a show by some fabulous performer. Who? I have no idea. People at my stage in life never do.
No matter. My wife and I enjoyed the experience immensely, the kind of zero-cost human spectacle that has entertained city dwellers since time immemorial.
But you wouldn’t have seen it in Chicago not too long ago. In the 1980s, downtown Chicago emptied out after-hours. Now, it doesn’t.
That might seem a small thing. But it reflects a fundamental transformation.
For much of the city’s history, people lived in Chicago mainly for some practical reason — like being able to get a job. Now, a growing number choose to live in Chicago because they like it — a change with profound consequences for the city’s future.
This is a change that’s only partly complete. Much still needs to be done to keep the city going in the right direction and solve formidable problems that remain.
But that lies ahead. Let’s talk about how far we’ve come.
A dramatic shift in most prosperous neighborhoods
As evidence on that score, consider these two sets of maps. They show the change in three demographic indicators — median household income, percentage of residents with a college degree and median home value — comparing 1980 with now, based on census data.
To oversimplify: Blue=good, yellow/orange/red=not so good.
The change is dramatic. In 1980, Chicago’s prosperous neighborhoods were mostly in outlying parts of town. The only affluent district in the city’s center was a short stretch of the north lakefront, from downtown to Lincoln Park.
Today’s situation is substantially reversed. The city’s core — including much of the North Side but extending south to 26th Street and inland to Western Avenue — is thriving. And many outlying neighborhoods have failed to keep up.
The maps also make clear we have a long way to go. There is a racial pattern to these inequities that cannot be denied or ignored. And the city-suburban wealth gap has narrowed but not closed. In 1980, median household income in the city was 80% of that in Cook County. Today, it’s 88%. The disparity between rich and poor neighborhoods is growing.
Chicago isn’t the only city to have experienced a flip in rich and poor neighborhoods, what journalist and former Chicagoan Alan Ehrenhalt has called demographic inversion. The preference of millennials for downtown living has a lot to do with it. But only a handful of cities have benefited from that in a big way.
In Chicago, the change was gradual. But, based on my research as a transit consultant, I’d say the tipping point can be dated with precision. Since 1998, professional employment in downtown Chicago has risen in lockstep with weekday L ridership. Each new downtown professional worker resulted in two additional L trips — presumably to the Loop in the morning and home at night.
In effect, virtually everyone who got a professional job downtown from 1998 on decided to live in the city and take the L to work.
That’s a remarkable development. Historically, metro Chicago’s wealthiest citizens and most of its civic leadership lived in the suburbs. Increasingly, they live in the city.
Changes are here to stay
Some take a bleak view of this, saying that, for the new generation of city-dwellers, city living is an expression of privilege — and a passing fancy: However much millennials might enjoy the bright lights, they’ll abandon the city for the suburbs once they start families.
I don’t think that’s true — it’s certainly less true than it used to be. There’s growing evidence many millennial city-dwellers — of all races and ethnicities — prefer to stay in the city if they can, notably the growing number who send their children to Chicago’s public schools.
That’s good because it means the city is stabilizing. The city’s historical pattern of neighborhood change — one racial or ethnic group arrives, only to be supplanted by another, sometimes poorer, sometimes not — has started to subside.
That can’t be said of the city as a whole. Much of the South Side — including some middle-income neighborhoods — is becoming impoverished, while gentrification elsewhere in the city is pushing low-income groups out.
But it is true in some places, in part because neighborhoods that have become affluent in recent times have stayed that way.
That wasn’t always true. In the late 19th century, the south lakefront was home to Chicago’s millionaires. A generation later, they’d cleared out.
In contrast, parts of Lincoln Park began to revitalize in the 1950s. It’s been an upscale place to live ever since.
The difference is that Lincoln Park experienced what might be called second-growth development: The neighborhood declined, then it came back. It gentrified. And the evidence is that gentrification lasts.
But it isn’t the only urban development pattern. A more instructive one can be seen in neighborhoods that remain strong in the face of difficulties without the benefit of a lot of money.
Like the far north lakefront neighborhoods of Edgewater and Rogers Park. Both have had challenges and still do. But they’ve shown impressive resilience.
For the most part, those who live in these neighborhoods aren’t wealthy. But a critical fraction has decided: This is where we want to be. And they’ve invested the time and resources a community needs to thrive long-term.
What characterizes city people isn’t money (though it helps). It’s a commitment to city life.
That’s important because city living isn’t to everyone’s taste. A Gallup Poll last year found that 12% of those responding wanted to live in a big city, while 20% actually do. That indicates a greater dissatisfaction than is true of Americans living anywhere else. In contrast, 21% said they wanted to live in a suburb of a big city, and 19% do.
Better for many, not for all
A city whose residents would mostly rather live somewhere else is inherently fragile. Many big Rust Belt cities held no longterm attraction and emptied out.
Chicago is past that point. For many now, the attractions of city living outweigh the drawbacks.
But not for all. In some neighborhoods, conditions are so dire that people who might otherwise be happy to remain would do anything to get out. Others in good neighborhoods would rather stay but can no longer afford to.
Finding the resources to solve such problems will take sustained growth, which will require tough decisions and timely investment.
In 1980, it wasn’t obvious we’d have it in us to tackle these issues. The experience of the past four decades suggests we do.
This is the third column in the series City at the Crossroads by journalist Ed Zotti, looking at trends affecting Chicago and critical choices the city faces.
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