The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

A Little More on "Two Chicagos"

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis during protests against school closings last year.  Source:

Seems like my piece Two Chicagos, Defined has generated a good deal of interest.  I was fortunate enough to get a link from Planetizen (thank you, Planetizen) and a number of really insightful comments from readers.  It’s been a pleasure to engage in discussion and explain more of my thoughts in the comments.

A theme that popped up in the comments is that there is a good deal of variety and diversity in the parts of the city I call “Rust Belt Chicago”.  Not all neighborhoods in the RBC are deeply distressed communities.  Trust me, I am sensitive to this.  I spent more than decade living on the South Side, and it bothers me that one half — literally, one half of the physical geography of the city of Chicago — is defined by problems in concentrated areas.  Many are moderately stressed communities that hang in the balance; they are holding on, but they threatened by the deterioration around them.What they have in common with the distressed communities is they are all places where few outsiders venture, and they tend to get lumped in with the neighborhoods that receive the negative attention on the local news.  Maybe I can enlighten a little bit.

Let’s pull ZIP code 60619 from my analysis.  That ZIP corresponds to the Chatham, Avalon Park and Park Manor neighborhoods on the South Side.  Remember this table:

Here’s how 60619 compares:

Population: 63,825
Non-white Pct.: 99.3%
Median Household Income Avg.: $36,677
Median Home Value Avg.: $172,000
Bachelor’s Degree Att., 25+ Avg.: 23.2%

This area, particularly Chatham, has a long-standing perception as being the hub of Chicago’s black middle class.  To this day, these neighborhoods are home to a large number of city workers, teachers, and skilled tradesmen who earn decent wages.  The numbers, however, show it as an area that has an even lower household income than even other ZIPs outside of “Global Chicago”, with lower home values.  A few more adults have bachelor’s degrees.

What’s going on here?

Here’s a possible explanation regarding low household income for the area.  Instead of thinking of the neighborhood as full of households headed by two food service workers or a single-parent administrative assistant, it may be more instructive to look at the community as having three different types of households: 1) very low income households with the only income coming from Social Security, disability or other income transfers, with a food service worker or two thrown in; 2) a single-parent household headed by someone working as an administrative assistant or in a low-wage healthcare job; or 3) middle class professionals with city or school jobs, or skilled manufacturing jobs, bringing in incomes well in excess of the median.  Put together, you come up with a community that has a troublingly low income level.

How does this kind of blend happen?  Without question, Chatham, Avalon Park and Park Manor are impacted by their proximity to the more troubled Englewood and Woodlawn areas, among others.  “Global Chicago” is insulated from this.  It is this proximity to poverty that threatens communities like this, and accelerates the movement of blacks from city to suburb today.

When the Chicago school closing controversy was rearing its head last year, you could hear the despair in the teacher’s voices as they talked about the loss of jobs.  I won’t argue about the merits of the school closings.  But the loss of middle class jobs to communities like Chatham, Avalon Park and Park Manor is real.  The teachers know that they hold one of the few positions that can provide a middle class lifestyle in their community, and without them their community hangs in the balance.  That sentiment was at the heart of the debate.

2 Responses to “A Little More on "Two Chicagos"”

  1. Mike Healy

    Good stuff. I think there's obviously a daunting/exciting \”rabbit hole\” effect to be observed the deeper we get into this question. It could definitely do us well to add more indicators of \”global city\” life vs. perceived \”rust belt\” phenomena (unemployment rate, age distribution, housing tenure, etc.). E.g., as you say, despite some rough economic data, it is difficult to spend time in Chatham and not get the sensation that one is in a stable, high-quality neighborhood. If we wanted to do a little bit of crowdsourcing, would there be anything to prevent us from making a GIS model that would capture all the census tracts within given neighborhoods (as defined by the city's DHED). I imagine we could then really use such a model as a way to slice/dice and test different hypotheses. I don't know if anyone has the time or inclination, just spitballing here.As a final aside, I think it is interesting to consider all the major interventions and investments going on in the city right now (Chicago Riverwalk, the 606, Cabrini-Green redevelopment, Circle Interchange, etc.) and note that they almost all fall wholly within the \”Super Global City\” footprint of your previous post. I don't mean that as an indictment of anyone or anything necessarily, just interesting to note.



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