The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Chicago, Detroit and the Rust Belt Bifurcated City

Bungalow homes in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.  Auburn Gresham is one of many community areas in a state of transition — middle-class blacks are moving away, leading to neighborhood destablization.  Source:
So I got into a rather interesting discussion last week in the comments section of Aaron Renn’s Urbanophile website in a piece he wrote about population transformation in Pittsburgh and Chicago.  And it led to some, well, interesting points that deserve more comment.

First, let’s start with what Aaron said that kicked things off.  He noted recent American Community Survey data that shows that of the 53 metro areas with more than a million people, only four lost population last year. The two biggest losers were Pittsburgh and Chicago.  In Pittsburgh’s case, Aaron noted that the collapse of the steel industry led to a “lost generation” of currently middle-aged persons who fled the region over the last few decades, making the Pittsburgh metro area skew old.  More people are dying than being born in metro Pittsburgh, and retirees might be a leading cause of large net domestic outmigration.  Pittsburgh’s saving grace, however, is its surge in young adults with degrees.  It’s increased by 52% since 2000 (I’m assuming he’s referring to the 25-34 age cohort), tops among Midwestern cities.  It’s great news for Pittsburgh, but the surge has yet to be strong enough to counter larger demographic trends.  Yet.

Aaron noted that Chicago’s demographic situation is quite different.  He notes it here:

Chicago’s population problems seem to be driven by three factors, which are different from Pittsburgh:

1. The continuing loss of black population, especially in the city but also in the region.

2. A collapse in Mexican immigration (which had been Chicago’s biggest source of new immigrants).

3. A significant migration loss from people making less than $75,000 per year, and especially less than $25,000 per year.

Aaron’s analysis of the upscale class reaction to Chicago’s demographics is spot on.  He’s right; most residents of Chicago’s upscale core seem little concerned about the population loss in the city’s poorer areas, whether it’s driven by black outmigration or the halt of Mexican inmigration.  In fact, many may view it as a necessity in the city’s furious move to join the League of Dominating Global Metro Titans.  But however you want to state it, currently Chicago, a majority-minority city, is headed toward being smaller, whiter and wealthier. 

Chicago’s rather unique position is causing all sorts of reactions, including varied ones from yours truly.  The Atlantic published an excellent article on Chicago’s bifurcation, which noted that Chicago’s booming Loop and lakefront neighborhoods are doing as well as any American coastal city.  Sadly, however, the boom simply isn’t reaching those currently not plugged into the growth network, and middle-class, working-class and low-income minority residents are leaving Chicago in huge numbers. As for me, I’ve alternately praised Chicago, tried to understand the isolation of its troubled areas, and wondered out loud how so much good and bad could exist simultaneously in the very same city.

I’ve been noting the economic and demographic changes of Rust Belt cities for a long time, and what we’re seeing in Chicago, in retrospect, isn’t unique.  It’s apparent in virtually all Rust Belt cities to some extent; a recent piece in CityLab notes that one upscale condo building in St. Louis is more valuable than some entire low-income neighborhoods there.  If anything, we’re getting to the point where we can possibly conclude that Rust Belt bifurcation is a feature, not a bug. 

That led to a rather provocative comment from me:

I think Chicago and Detroit are on similar paths, or converging, but the stories play out differently in each city. In Detroit people are celebrating the city’s downtown rebound but are wary of what’s next for the city’s neighborhoods. In Chicago people love the Loop and north lakefront, but wonder why its boom hasn’t touched more of the city. I’m beginning to believe both will follow a similar trajectory that most will later discover to be truly Rust Belt-ian in character:

1) Booming and growing new economy cores and inner neighborhoods;

2) Collapsing and emptying outer neighborhoods, formerly housing (mostly black) manufacturing workers

Stretch this trajectory out. Chicago, Detroit and Rust Belt cities like them will ultimately be smaller and whiter, maybe not with a white majority but with a plurality. They’ll also be noted for having a “no man’s land” between the booming and collapsing areas. Why? Because there’s always going to be some trepidation about moving into “sketchy” areas in Rust Belt cities that surpasses that of the coastal cities, and people facing that choice would prefer to either build up the strong areas (YIMBYism) or move into depopulated “sketchy” spots.

 The dissents to my comment boiled down into two types:

1) You’re crazy.  There’s no way Chicago and Detroit are comparable in any way.
2) Only a third of Chicago is struggling.  The wealthiest third is booming, the middle third is stable.

As I said in the comments, I think Chicago boosters tend to overestimate what’s happening in Chicago, and underestimate the scale of revival in Detroit and other Rust Belt cities.  I don’t mean to suggest that Detroit is on the leaderboard for top booming cities in the 2020’s, or that Chicago is on the precipice of collapse.  I do mean to suggest that Detroit’s revival is real and could continue to remake much of the city, while there are legitimate questions regarding the ability of Chicago’s global economy sectors to revitalize even more of the city. 

In 2016 I ran some data on Chicago’s 77 Community Areas, and grouped them in various categories based on their socio-demographic data.  I did a map that highlighted the community types in Chicago:

Accompanied by a description of types:

Gentrified Communities (dark green): Former middle and working-class neighborhoods that have firmly become well-to-do neighborhoods over the last 30 years or so. Home to a substantial amount of Chicago’s walkable urbanism inventory. Transit supported and amenity rich.

Gentrifying Communities (light green): Historically similar to the adjacent gentrified communities, but part of a second or third wave of growth that emanated from the first group. Almost as affluent and educated as the first group, and quickly catching up, but not quite there yet.

Frontline Communities (yellow): Largely working-class neighborhoods that may be experiencing development pressure generated in the gentrified/gentrifying communities. People in the above two areas may identify with communities here as places for authentic ethnic dining or shopping. Less wealthy and with more minorities than the gentrified/gentrifying communities, but less than those on its outer flank. In Chicago, at least, fear of the prospects of gentrification here may exceed reality.

Stable Prosperous Communities (gold): Middle-class neighborhoods that sprouted in the city at the advent of the suburban era and have changed little since. Single-family home oriented and auto-oriented. In Chicago, home to many city workers who must remain in the city due to residency requirements. Rapidly growing older in its makeup.

Transitioning Communities (orange): Structurally similar to the stable prosperous communities, but more deeply impacted by one or two transitions. Some are receiving a large influx of new minority residents, largely Latino. Others are experiencing a huge outflow of middle-class families, largely African-American. Those experiencing the Latino influx are becoming younger and less affluent; those experiencing the African-American outmigration are being hollowed out, leaving behind large numbers of older and younger less affluent residents.

Isolated Communities (brown): Impoverished areas of the city. Middle-class white residents left here in the ’50s and ’60s, replaced by middle-class and working-class blacks who bore the brunt of job loss in the subsequent decades. Plenty of walkable urbanism exists here, but demolition means it’s fading away.

And I finished it off with a table that shows how the subregions stack up demographically: 

When Chicago boosters bristle at any comparison of Chicago with Detroit, I think it’s in part because few seem to recognize how economically isolated some parts of the city are.  There’s a general understanding that whatever mental image one has of the South and West sides, they’re struggling; however, the transitioning communities southwest and far south sides are truly on the precipice, and without investment could spiral downward.  And with no new influx of migrants, and an economy that seems to be missing vast numbers of the city’s residents, free fall may be closer than you think.

One thing I’d say about Detroit.  There are few illusions about that city’s place among its residents.  Those inside the small global economy core of downtown, Midtown, Corktown, Woodbridge and a handful of other neighborhoods know that what they’re experiencing is the exception and not the rule.  Those on the outside — everywhere else in Detroit — know exactly how isolated they are from the city’s revival.  If anything, that could lead to a meaningful discussion in the city that will encourage greater economic and social inclusion.

Right now, Chicago’s doing well.  But not doing as well as many think.  And it’s misplaced hubris could lead to greater problems.

10 Responses to “Chicago, Detroit and the Rust Belt Bifurcated City”

  1. Tupper B

    The reason I criticized your post, and still do, is because you also don't know what is going on in Chicago. You oversimplified it–a lot. Latino immigration slowed down a lot, but it is not completely zero. The huge outmigration happening in Chicago is among blacks, not Latinos. In fact, their traditional neighborhoods are gentrifying–see Pilsen, Humboldt Park, Avondale, Logan square. The debate on this is getting a lot of media, some of it even national. This differs from Detroit because Detroit doesn't really have anything like this. It doesn't have ethnic areas. The city is nearly all black. Chicago's black neighborhoods are collapsing (except for a few). The rest are either gentrifying or are growing more diverse (see the NW side and areas around Midway Airport, see Chinatown and the surrounding environs, see Bridgeport). So you have done very little homework.


  2. Pete Saunders

    If you've read this post then you'd see that I've done my homework to substantiate my points. I invite you to show your work.I'd add that your points seem to focus on what Chicago is becoming not completely what it is now, while focusing exclusively on what Detroit is now and neglecting what it could be becoming. I've taken the existing conditions in both places and considered plausible futures for both. Please back up your positions.


  3. Tupper B

    You didn't even back yours I don't even understand your position. That Chicago is becoming more like Detroit? Or vice versa? I'm just lost. Chicago has other ethnic groups than just blacks and whites. It has hispanics and Asians and others–in much much larger numbers than Detroit. It's white population is much much larger. All in both scale and percentage. Anybody can find this info just on Wikipedia alone. There is nothing here to defend.


  4. Unknown

    I am curious if Mr. Saunders has done a similar map and population breakdown of Detroit. Looking at his table above, about 1.2 million of Chicago's residents live in Gentrified, Gentrifying, or Stable Prosperous neighborhoods. That is around 44% of the population. Then another 445k residents live in frontline communities, at least some of which will gentrify. So right there is 1.6 million residents living in communities that are doing at least alright, if not better. And the fact that the frontline communities have bachelor's degree attainment rates closer to the stable prosperous neighborhoods probably bodes well for their future. Overall, Chicago (city) median household income is $47k. Since I don't have good data for Detroit broken out by community types, I think median household income and attainment of a bachelor's is a good proxy for the overall mix within Detroit. According to the US Census Bureau's Quick Facts about Detroit, Detroit (city) has a median household income of $26k and only 14% of residents have a bachelors degree. The city of Chicago overall has 36% of its residents with bachelors degrees. So I think that this is why people object to the comparison between Detroit and Chicago. Chicago's prosperous population just simply dwarfs that of Detroit both in its size and in its proportion of the city's population. The magnitude of the difference is so large as to be a difference in kind. Of course, Mr. Saunders point that poor black neighborhoods in Chicago face the same problems as poor black neighborhoods in Detroit is certainly true enough, but as Mr. Saunders points out, isn't that simply a feature of poor black neighborhoods everywhere in the North? The roots of the problem and the history would seem to be the same in all cases. Massive migration to neighborhoods in segregated cities where black employment depended on factory work, and then massive deindustrialization and disinvestment. That's true of basically all cities of a certain age in the US. The differences between cities are in the size of their economy plugged into the high value parts of the global economy. In that regard, Detroit and Chicago just simply aren't comparable, just as Philadelphia and NYC aren't comparable, although quite similar in other regards.-P Burgos


  5. Unknown

    Another point- Detroit (city) median household income is roughly equivalent to the median household income of the Low Income Isolated Communities in Chicago per Mr. Saunders analysis above.-P Burgos


  6. Rambis

    Excellent write up Pete. I'm having a hard time figuring out why people are so triggered by this observation. The only argument I'm seeing is \”Chicago and Detroit aren't comparable!\” but that's just non sense.


  7. jdw

    Tupper, something very similar to Pilsen is going to happen in Detroit's Southwest neighborhoods which ARE latino enclaves in the next 10 years. You can't say that Detroit is just \”blacks and whites\” while railing on someone for not knowing Chicago. There are massive immigrant communities in SW Detroit, Hamtramck, and inner ring suburbs like Dearborn.



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