Chicago is Not Losing its Population—Sprawl is

CALEB JOSEPH WARNER

American forests are better off than American cities.

For the past three years, the Chicago Metropolitan Area has suffered population loss. A good deal of economists are quite invested in the numbers. Chicago is in a class of its own. Why?

Because Chicago is the only Metropolis in all of the great land of America that has experienced this loss. Milwaukee does not count, though less than one hundred people moved to Milwaukee in 2017. One hundred people. If I were an alien, I could count them on one hand. We could take their names. We could ask them why they moved there. And they would probably say, “To be closer to my dying grandma” or something of the sort.

But we’re not talking about Milwaukee, Wisconsin today. For it has since the beginning been a kind of gateway of economic goop filtered down into Chicago, starting with the lumber industry that dried the northern forests of what they have now partly recovered. Thank you, Mother Nature. Oh Mother Nature is grand, isn’t she? How she recovers herself after a good nap.

Meanwhile we Americans in our cities when we lose our human leaves must wring our hands. As the testimony of Detroit has taught us, we do not do such a good job of recovering what we had planned for once it’s been lost. Any aerial view of Detroit will show you how nature has taken over once again. Green fills the blocks and squares like plant cells bulging with chloroplasts. The mayor of Detroit is in cahoots with the trees. For nearly a decade, there has been a plan in place to bulldoze a city quarter’s worth of abandoned buildings. An entire quarter of what was once one of ye major Metropoli. Though with my bird eyes, I see nature doing the work for him.

Gentrification of the South Side has nothing to do with racism.

I read a few articles blaming the Chicago loss on a fundamental racism. An article in the Atlantic claims that all the high earners moving to downtown Chicago are pushing out the poor populations in neighborhoods like Englewood. As evidence, the author thought it fit to interview a 21 year old boy and ask him what his job situation was like in Englewood. Great research. By poor populations in Chicago, the author was referring to the black population in the South Side. This amuses me. Why does this amuse me?

It amuses me, because it is a way of flattening the truth. It is as though her liberal heart (is this profiling?) sang with joy when presented with a statistic like the one to follow. From 2000-2010, 181,000 black residents left Chicago. Surely it must be some kind of racism the high earners are guilty of. After all, they are indeed the ones who so wickedly seek to gentrify the South Side of Chicago, an area which served as the locus for enquiries by St. Clair Drake in the Black Metropolis.

Without defining gentrification through some moral filter, I find it just a touch amusing again that it is the high earners who are blamed for the problem of Chicago’s population loss. They are the ones who perhaps from the suburbs or from the east are entering Cook County and making its bad parts better. Make of this moral claim what you will.

Meanwhile, how much consideration has gone into the fact that the black people who live in the bad parts of the South Side don’t actually want to be there? So much shouting and screaming is done about how the high earners are stealing all the opportunities and making it impossible for the poor black kids to get better jobs and move on. May the scapegoats escape this moral rage.

But of those interviewed inside the Englewood neighborhood, there is not a single one who said, “I want to be here.” What they seem to be saying is, “I am trapped here.” And what they are saying is, “Where we grew up, it’s considered cool to sell drugs on the corner of the street.” And they are saying, “Where I grew up, you have to look over your shoulder every five minutes.” Would, many of them say, I had a car so that I could get out of here to where there are good jobs. The ‘burbs!

How can the South Side perform the function of both being the place that (through gentrification by high earners and well-educated Millenial bitches) displaces the blacks and simultaneously also be the place that imprisons them? How can it be the place that is both full of opportunities taken and be devoid of opportunities? I cannot make heads-or-tails of this by some cursory internet search.

What I can say is that the South Side of Chicago seems to be a portion of the city not understood by anyone but those living in it. Everyone else places their tags on it as if the South Side of Chicago were the moral scapegoat of all America. They say it is a haven of crime, they say it is gentrifying, they say that Jim Crow Laws are still in effect, they say white people are pushing out the blacks. All these things might be true and furthermore from some cursory search the South Side has its own blend of middle and upper class demographics—black and white and miscellany. The South Side is not exclusively what it has been made out to be, this den of crime and black on black murders. Though in Englewood, it is absolutely black on black murders. 

What can be definitively said is that murder does happen on the South Side and that the violence and drug use and gangs have been terrible for years. “Murders in Chicago increased by 58 percent between 2015 and 2016 and the number of nonfatal shootings grew by 43 percent.” We all agree that this mostly happened in the South Side, eh? This seems to be a given, so much so a given that Spike Lee can make a musical crime drama film about the South Side called Chi-Raq.

And though the South Side is more than just a center of crime, undoubtedly much of the black population would not consider the South Side to be a desirable area to continue living. Why does it have to be racism that is causing the population loss when common sense seems to be telling us that black residents are moving from black neighborhoods because they are tired of the violence and impoverishment?

At least on paper, this would mean that as the traditionally black neighborhoods in Chicago are draining by means of drugs-gangs-violence, the high earners are moving in to gentrify what empties. The causal chain in this case would be reversed. It is not the high earners displacing the poor, but the poor making room for the high earners (should we accept what seems to me only a general trend mapped over a complicated cultural exchange).

This is all theoretical and I have no real statistics to fall back on. But I am in quite good company. The mayor of Chicago has no statistics to fall back on, either. Back in 2010, Emanuel claimed that the Census was off by 200,000 and called for a recount. Accurate information in Chicago comes down to it seems the will to imagine and the might to maintain thy machinations. It is as though we all were standing at the top of the Sears Tower, making claims about the areas we can so easily point out.

All this to be said, race is involved because it is racially distinct neighborhoods that are changing. Though compared to other Metropoli, the change is not happening all that fast. And because it is not happening all that fast, it does not seem to be all that violent and abrupt. Chicago is losing its population, but it’s losing it slowly. As Chicago loses residents, those areas losing population like Englewood (from 89,659 in 1970 to est. 26,121 in 2015) are slowly receiving new replacement residents. Who are these new replacement residents?

I have no idea, but my guess is that it would be someone rather like me who is young and educated and has a job at the heart of the beast, but cannot afford to live downtown in the Loop in which there are hundreds of thousands of jobs. Someone like me, though not me, has the opportunity with their education to work downtown but do not yet economically have the upper class pleasure of living in the heart of the Beast’s Muck. I know for myself that I would take the “chance.” Though even there I bely an incipient racism against living in a black neighborhood, don’t I? Because I, like the poor black people already living there, don’t want to live there. 

Chicago is only losing people because the South Side is losing people and as the South Side loses people, the South Side will change. And if the South Side is cursed with a demographic of people who do not want to be there, may this change so that the South Side is populated by people who chose to move there instead of people who have felt trapped since childhood. The final question to be answered then is, “Where are these transplants, em, transplanting?”

Sprawl is beautiful at night.

The real reason I wanted to look at the population loss in Chicago today was because I have always been fascinated by that other region so dependent on the Beast’s growth. I’m talking about the western edge of suburbs which like the western frontier is a field with goal post’s ever moving.

You see to me, the situation has always seemed so clear. When you go and view the world from the top of the Sears Tower, right at the heart of the Beast, you can see how it sprawls out until it stops. The growth of Chicago seems so clear from up there. In my fickle imagination, I equate the growth of Chicago with the sprawl of Chicago. Chicago sprawls outward as the population increases, I thought.

I find the lay of Chicagoland so inspiring, because it is so apparent. You have a flat land. You have a city butted up against the flat lake and where else will it spread, but outwards like a puddle of water added to drop by drop on a flat table? You can see where the city ends. You can see the edge of the city and how the spandrels of the Metra lines and the highways with their spindles between hold the whole together like a web. It really is beautiful from far off.

Few sights in my entire life inspire me more than flying into O’Hare on a clear night, to fly out over Lake Michigan, to come in and see the crisp grid, to nearly be able to pick out right where it is in the sprawl that I will travel car-wise for thirty-five minutes. I feel like I can get my arms around it. And to be able in just a minute-long gaze to get my arms around over nine million people! How remarkable from plane and much more so from tower. It’s enough to make you feel like Rahm Emanuel.

Urban and rural America are the same America populated by the same roaming Americans birthed from the same American Metropoli seeking the same American Dream.

It almost makes a preschooler claim about the disparity between urban and rural America seem legitimate. “Look there, son, there is where urban America stops. And look there, son, there is where rural America begins.”

Would that it was so simple, but it has been beaten into my head with the city of Chicago that such a sharp divide between the hinterlands and a metropolis is hogwash. Nature’s Metropolis, a book by William Cronon, walks through the folly of this invented divide between city and country.

I would strongly suggest to anyone who believes that the divide between urban and rural America is severely pronounced to inspect the economic reality behind this claim. Here is the bud of all future insights: urban and rural are not dichotomous, but are rather two regions dependent on one another.

Is it true even on an economic level that an American in rural Illinois, say, is employed by business independent of the nearest metropolis? Perhaps I should inspect more closely what is meant by the growing divide between urban and rural America. To me it smacks of someone who cannot get their head wrapped around the election of Donald Trump and who through seeking the source of his voter base has therefore claimed there being a wide gap between “them and us.” But since I sense that I might be setting up a straw man here, I will decline to reply to this fictional person.

Instead, I would like to respond to the person who believes in the gap of urban and rural regardless. I would first behoove them to consider that though a job might be physically remote from a metropolis, it is nevertheless dependent on the business centered within a metropolis. A metropolis is a metropolis for a reason: it is a center. And what else is a metropolis centering but everything outside it? And what else is outside a metropolis, but rural areas?

If you accept the mechanic of global cities in this gLoBaL economy of ours, you must also accept the fine print of the definition of a global city. A global city is defined as a city that links local regions to a global economy. These local regions are the rural areas surrounding a global city. And if this is not enough for you, this push to inspect the economics of it all, you must consider a broader definition of economics. If your idea of economics is mere money changing hands, I ask you to see economics as a science that looks at the communal participation of individuals to one another and a society. Insert my B.A. in BS here.

For myself, I must like the rest of America catch up with the reality that even this has been altered by the internet and that often a job of someone in rural Illinois may not be dependent on Chicago, but may rather be dependent on Seattle or San Diego. Beyond this, there are more than economic realities to encounter when inspecting the divide. This is more complicated than I am willing to deal with here, but the questions are there. It is tremendously difficult to come up with the right questions, but it is quite easy to come up with bad ones. Bad questions accept the assumption of the divide.

Despite the changes presented by the information era, I am still curious about the fundamentals of the regions physically proximate to Chicago. I am especially curious about the areas that seem to be in the midlands between the spread cornfields and the city. Though those living there might consider themselves however they’d like culturally and may go to community college while ignoring the cornfields as nothing more than scenery, still how could they live disassociated from that economic reality and from the fact that Chicago is the nearest Metropolis? But as this stands, I have little more to say that is valuable.

Much of Illinois corn, though not more than half, is exported. Much of this exportation is still done by barge down the Mississippi to Baton Rouge, out through the Gulf of Mexico and then to Asia and other parts of the world. I find this worth noting, because my brother-in-law works on barges in Baton Rouge and though he does not work with grain barges, he is participating in an international system of trade that links him to where my parents live. This system links where my parents live in Geneva, Illinois to very likely where my other brother in Taiwan lives. And to think of trade internationally like this is not a result of the global or information era. I have nothing more to say about this.

We make a deal of urban and rural America, but what of the suburban midlands?

After inspecting the decline in Chicago population growth, my mind immediately jumped to the house that I was born in. You can find the Bliss Homestead in Sugar Grove, Illinois. It was built in 1897 by a man with the last name Bliss, a railroad tycoon, and in 1996 was the birthplace of Caleb Joseph Warner. You will pleased to know that it is on the historic registry of homes and cannot legally be demolished.

You may or may not be disappointed to know that, though when I was born in it the home was surrounded by cornfields, it is now like a fly encased in amber surrounded by housing developments. I will not tell you the exact location of this private residence, but go to Merrill Road as a bird. Go there as a bird and see how it so sadly finds itself in the presence of its enemies. And the Bliss Home is surrounded by enemies, because it was these very housing developments that with their ruin and wreck of debauchery hath torn down the very brothers who ought to have stood in the holy historic midst of Bliss. Yet they were not saved from the fire, because they had gone but a few generations without families to love them. What ruin and wreck.

When standing from the Sears Tower, you might look out to the sprawl and think, “Ah see, that is where Chicago grows.” And all my life I have believed this, that Sugar Grove is about to be consumed by the sprawl of Chicago. That it is imminent and has already happened. Unfortunately, I have more questions than I have answers. Because if you go to Merrill Road in Sugar Grove, you will find that what surrounds the housing development is…cornfields.

The housing development seemed proof of Chicago’s growth on its western edge. You will not believe my surprise when after inspecting a number of far western suburbs soon to be consumed, I found that their populations are stable. Some of them have had dips in population. Those villages with growth, like Elburn farther west than Sugar Grove, are small. Elburn grew by about fifty percent between 2000 and 2010, but the population to start with was 2,756.

The western edge of suburbs has not seen significant population boosts. This may or may not pertain to those leaving the South Side in droves. My initial hypothesis was that people were leaving the South Side in droves in a sort of reverse white flight to the suburbs. And maybe someone living in South Elgin would claim this.

After all, of all the suburbs on the western edge of Chicago, South Elgin seems to have grown the most in the past twenty years by a percentage between 2000-2010 of 36.6% and the decade before that, 115.4%. I’m not sure who these people are that moved to South Elgin. Even with such high percentages, it isn’t more than 15,000 people in about thirty years. Big whoop and what does it matter, because what is the point I am trying to get across?

I am trying to demonstrate that Chicago lost population in the South Side, but that population did not go to the suburbs. I don’t know where they went.

We are left with nothing more than a hypothesis.

Meanwhile, the part of Chicago sprawl that I thought was booming and constantly burgeoning outwards is stabilized and has been experiencing sort of negligible growth. I would call this sprawl the “natural” growth of Chicago as per my view from the Sears Tower—as natural as water spreading outward on a flat table. But why is the western edge not growing? Is it for the same reasons as Cook County’s population loss in the South Side?

Almost certainly not.

We could point our fingers to high taxes and ever higher taxes throughout the area and the entire state. That might be a likely culprit consonant with my parents’ complaints over the past two decades.

What is another likely culprit—and here please imagine with me—is that as the South Side is drained of those living there, those who would normally be pressured to commute from the suburbs are finding affordable ins that are closer to their city jobs. I’m just spitballing here.

But if it is true that so many people have moved from the South Side and so many high earners are gentrifying that area, it is also true that they are not moving westward. In the past, what has been the natural sprawl of Chicago has been dependent on commuters living within the suburbs who work in the city center.

Even Elburn, which as I mentioned is more west than Sugar Grove, is on the Metra line for the center of Chicago. That means that there are people living in Elburn, though their numbers be small, who commute to Chicago for work. It’s over an hour by car.

Here we ought, so as to get off the skinny branches and back to the main trunk of credulity, inspect the housing market for rentals. We need to establish some real connection by evidence that those who might have been compelled to commute from the suburbs are now commuting from within the city. If you take Englewood, for example—and I don’t know if it is experiencing gentrification—it is about forty minutes closer to the Chicago Loop than Elburn is by car. That is a big difference.

The suburbs of Chicago were designed and built to appeal to the commuter. They are called the suburbs for a reason: they come secondary to the urb. You know that whole term, bedroom community? You get to have the magic of a front lawn and a grill on your back porch while also working the high earning job in central Chicago.

Yet common sense implies that the same person who would choose the suburbs for affordability and ease of commuter access is the same person who would choose a nearby neighborhood for the same reasons: affordability and ease of commuter access. A gentrifying South Side satisfies both desires.

I have come to this place in my loose article to do two things. One, I wanted to inspect my beloved midland suburbs. I wanted to ask a question of the western band of Chicago sprawl that has always exemplified metropolitan growth to me. Two, I wanted to see if the population loss was at all related to this region.

The hypothesis I have discovered is that this western edge of suburban sprawl is not growing, because the South Side is attracting the high earner who might have moved there.

But this is just a hypothesis. How old is this high earner? How many kids does this high earner have? Does this high earner exist or did me and the Atlantic invent zher? All good questions, questions for another day.

For now, we must part. I will leave you to imagine the strange midland that exemplifies growth but is not growing and the historic Bliss Homestead encased in the amber of solidified suburban sprawl. And still the Fox River runs and still the corn it does grow and who knows really why one thing prospers and another fails. If the suburbs are full of people, they empty themselves on the city, and if a neighborhood falls to the south or to the north, in the place where population falls, there it will lie to be consumed by transplants. 

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