The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Two Chicagos, Defined

Chicago skyline.  Source:
Years ago, when I first started working as a planner for the City of Chicago, my primary responsibility was working with community organizations that received Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding for commercial revitalization activities.  This being CDBG funding, our work was constrained to areas of the city where 51% or more of households earned less than the median household income for the Chicago metro area.  In the early 1990’s, this hardly interfered with our work — outside of the Gold Coast, the Near North Side, Lincoln Park, Lakeview and a few parts of the Northwest and Southwest sides, we were able to grant CDBG funding to virtually the entire city.

Fast forward twenty years.  Chicago’s transition from Rust Belt Capital to Global City has been unparalleled.  Where there once had been large swaths of middle-class, working-class and impoverished neighborhoods, with high-income enclaves, there are now nearly as many high-income neighborhoods as there are of the other three.  Perhaps someone who moved to Chicago post-1995 and lives in one of the up-and-coming areas is vaguely aware of this, but anyone who was here before then is quite right to be astounded.

Despite Chicago’s transformation, it’s been pretty well-documented that not all parts of the city have benefited.  The battle over the closing of nearly 50 schools, mostly located in the city’s poorer South and West side neighborhoods, brought this to light, as did Chicago’s high-profile murder and violent crime rates through 2013 (which, to date in 2014, have gone down dramatically).  Inequalities and disparities became evident in both areas; University of Chicago graduate student and blogger Daniel Kay Hertz brought the disparities to light with his analysis of violent crime in Chicago.  As he said in his piece:

Over the last twenty years, at the same time as overall crime has declined, the inequality of violence in Chicago has skyrocketed. There have always been safer and more dangerous areas here, as there are everywhere; but the gap between them is way, way bigger now than it used to be.

Over the last two decades a new but undefined paradigm has emerged, the one of “Two Chicagos”.  This is probably best explained once again by Dan Hertz, who recounted an overheard conversation on the L:

I was on the train earlier this week, and two white men got on and asked their neighbors, who were two black women, how to get to a hotel. The women told them. And then began a sort of stock conversation that Chicagoans have with tourists: How do you like the weather, ha ha? The men, who were from Atlanta, did not like it. Have you been on a subway before? Yes, but not often. Would you come back? Oh, yes. We love Chicago, the men said.

The men reached their station, and left.

One woman said to the other: I hate it when people say that – I love Chicago. No, you don’t. You love downtown and the North Side. The other woman said, Uh huh. 

That is a frequent sentiment of those who live on the other side of the invisible divide in Chicago.  But what, exactly, is that divide?  Where are the boundaries?  Exactly how deep are the difference?

I took a stab at trying to figure this out.

I compared some socio-economic statistics for the 56 zip codes in Chicago against medians and averages for the entire Chicago metro area (Indiana and Wisconsin excluded).  The differences are stark.

Let’s start by looking at maps of the areas of examination.  Here is the seven-county Illinois portion of Chicago’s metro area, with Chicago etched in:

I gathered data for all suburban municipalities and all City of Chicago zip codes within this area, for five variables — population, non-white population percentage, median household income, and median home value, and bachelor’s degree or more for persons 25+.  The data comes from the 2011 U.S. Census American Community Survey.  After collecting that data, I established an “average of medians” or “average of averages” to get a baseline for the metro area, and an understanding of how jurisdictions or zip codes would compare to one another.  One fairly big caveat — an average of medians or average of averages weighs all jurisdictions equally, skewing the numbers higher due to the number of small but well-to-do suburban municipalities.  So while the 2011 actual median household income for the seven-county area overall was $61,491, the average of medians was $74,731.  But since all data is expressed this way, differences are negated.

Next, I looked for Chicago zip codes that were above the metro area average in at least one of three categories — median household income, median home value, and bachelor’s degree or more for persons 25+.  These are the higher income neighborhoods that can be called “Global Chicago”.  Within the city, they look like this, in yellow:

Most Chicagoans would recognize this as the wealthier parts of the city.  It stretches from the far Northwest Side eastward to the lake, south to downtown and continuing south before ending in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side.  Again, I included all zip codes that were above the metro average for at least one of the three categories I examined, so not all communities are the same.  Hyde Park, for example, is here because it has high educational attainment, but is below the average for income and home value.  The same applies to Rogers Park and Edgewater on the city’s northern border with Evanston.  Jefferson Park, Norwood Park and Sauganash, on the other hand, located on the Northwest Side, rank highly in home value but lower for income and educational attainment.

Taken together, you can see how “Global Chicago” compares with the Illinois portion of the metro area, the metro area excluding Chicago to give you Suburban Chicago, and the balance of the city beyond “Global Chicago” that I’ve called “Rust Belt Chicago”:

The differences are indeed stark.  “Global Chicago” is on par with the Chicago suburbs and the metro area overall in terms of income, and has a lower percentage of minority residents compared to the metro area.  Interestingly, “Global Chicago” has a much higher home value and educational attainment when compared to the metro area overall or the ‘burbs.  Meanwhile, “Rust Belt Chicago” lags far behind.  “Rust Belt Chicago” has a large majority-minority population, has an income nearly one-half as much as the suburban households, and has only one-third as many college graduates as “Global Chicago”.

I decided to take this analysis a little further and determine if there is a core to “Global Chicago”, and how it would compare to the rest of the city.  I collected data for zip codes that exceeded the metro average in two or more of the three categories.  That produced this map:

And this table:

Here, a “Super Global Chicago” compares favorably with the ‘burbs in terms of income, but far exceeds it in terms of home value and educational attainment.  Including some of the peripheral areas of the previous “Global Chicago” with the previous “Rust Belt Chicago” to produce an “Average Chicago” leads to some gains, but it still lags far behind the other slices of the metro area.

Right now, the CNN series “Chicagoland” is doing its best to illustrate the “Two Chicagos” meme, highlighting blues festivals and Stanley Cup championship celebrations on one end of town and school closures and endless crime on another.  However, these maps and tables may do a far better job of demonstrating the impact of past and current practices and policies on the city’s landscape.  In fact, I think Chicago’s example is one that will serve as a model, for better or worse, for other cities across the nation.

In reality I see the “Two Chicagos” meme as overplayed.  Chicago may be better understood in thirds — one-third San Francisco, two-thirds Detroit.

10 Responses to “Two Chicagos, Defined”

  1. Anonymous

    It's interesting that the \”Super Global\” zone seems to have buffers/expansions to the north and south, but none to the west. I wonder what the cause would be – lack of easy transit options? Also, I'm surprised that the suburban areas have a higher income than any of the in-city regions. I'd guess the mega-wealthy suburbs are pulling the average way up?


  2. Mike Healy

    This is easy for me to say as I'm not the one doing the work, but would these maps look significantly different using averages (e.g., means) rather than medians? At the very least, I suspect tracts might be more meaningful than ZIPs, because there can be a fair bit of noise in the ZIP code data (the Willis Tower and the Merchandise Mart, for instance, each have their own ZIP codes. The population density within areas like the loop and streeterville might really dilute the \”median\” ZIP code's usefulness). To be clear, I don't think the geography will likely change very dramatically, but there are some areas (the parts of Beverly with all the multi-million dollar old mansions up on the hill, for instance) I was surprised not to see here.


  3. Pete Saunders

    Ondulado and Mike: You're both right that the equally weighted means creates some distortions in the data. Bannockburn, for example, has a median household income of $166,000 per year, but it has less than 1,500 residents and less than 300 households. Comparing it equally with, say, Riverdale, a suburb with 14,000 residents and a median household income of $41,000, does lead to some skewing. But I think proportionally things work out. With more time, my preference would be to work at the tract level and eliminate the doubt.And yes, my apologies to the Beverly/Morgan Park area, and Mount Greenwood and Ashburn too. These areas did indeed meet the criteria I established for this little project — Beverly for household income and home value, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood for home value, and Ashburn for household income. I went back and forth on whether I would include them on the map because of their distance from the other ZIPs, and because they have a more suburban character than much of the rest of the city, but then I forgot about them. They should be included. I should know better; I lived in Beverly for a number of years. My bad, and thanks for pointing it out.


  4. Anonymous

    Maybe there's no \”global Chicago\” expansion to the west because everybody involved in the global economy who lived in the western neighborhoods pulled up stakes and moved to DuPage County? Just a guess, because it seems like DuPage County has the best socioeconomic indicators of all suburban Chicago counties. And I'm guessing that it was once part of Cook County, based on the shape of both counties and the way they fit together.


  5. Pete Saunders

    Oops, realized I left this point unanswered. My guess is that the lack of westward expansion of \”Global Chicago\” is related to its spread in the north – an historical legacy of railroads. Trains coming into Chicago from the east ot going back out have only have one way to travel, from the south. As a result a lot of industrial uses built up in the area and dictated the makeup of the urban landscape. Relatedly trains headed west or coming in from the west generally had a few more choices but directly west was the preferred way in or out. The West Side developed similarly to the South Side. Conversely fewer lines with less traffic were headed directly north. That meant the North Side could develop more as a commercial center than strictly an industrial one, giving it an advantage when manufacturing began its decline. At least that's my guess.


  6. Yake

    Totally fascinating analysis. More please!I'm wondering (though I certainly don't know Chicago as well as you do, since I don't live there) if 1/3 San Francisco, 2/3 Detroit is the right analogy. Maybe your next task should be to differentiate within Rust Belt Chicago the way you've done within Global Chicago. The reason I bring that up is the difference between somewhere like Little Village (South Lawndale), which is working class and downscale but bustling and alive, and somewhere like Englewood, which suffers from abandonment. I could be wrong, but I don't think Detroit attracts enough immigrants to create neighborhoods like Little Village. Anyways, food for thought and keep the analysis coming, please!


  7. Pete Saunders

    @Yake: that last sentence is admittedly a little hyperbolic. I wanted to make the distinctions ring clear. But you raise a good point about subtleties within \”Rust Belt Chicago\”. There are thriving immigrant hubs like Little Village, and middle class \”bungalow belt\” neighborhoods like Galewood, Wrightwood, and Chatham. These 'hoods and others stand out in RBC.And the same subtleties exist in Detroit too. I grew up in Detroit in anneighborhood similar to the ones above, and while it struggles now, it doesn't show the same decline as other parts of the city.


  8. Steven Goetz

    A few simple statistical comparison tell quite a story. The next level of analysis would be for the more subtle neighborhoods. I wonder if the statistics indicate these subtle neighborhoods suffer as new neighborhoods are built? My feeling is these subtle neighborhood need to be dealt with in detail-oriented way to stop their decline or turn them around.


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