The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

More on Bifurcating Chicago and Detroit

A block in Detroit’s Virginia Park neighborhood.  It has the kind of urban fabric that might be poised to return in the D.  Source:

(Note: this past Sunday I wrote a 20-tweet (!), 657-word (!!) tweetstorm that was largely a response to some things from about a month ago.  Yeah, I can hold onto a grudge.  Anyway, here I’m offering an expanded version of the content from that tweetstorm, but also some elaborations that can provide more clarity and nuance.  -Pete)

So last month I wrote a blog piece suggesting that the patterns of revitalization in Detroit and Chicago might be converging. The piece was in response to another piece written by Urbanophile Aaron Renn, in which he noted the factors behind the demographic challenges posed to Pittsburgh and Chicago.  In the comments section, I said that Chicago was facing limits to revitalization that weren’t readily recognized, while Detroit, in the early stages of its rebound, had fewer such limits.  I suggested that perhaps there was a convergence between the two.  Ultimately, I said, both cities were moving toward extreme bifurcation.  
At least, that’s what I thought I was saying.  I took some flak from Chicagoans in particular who took exception to the Detroit/Chicago comparison. Their criticisms came in two forms:

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.

Using the convergence framing that I did, and in the way I used it, the criticism was likely warranted.  Chicago is far wealthier a city than Detroit is, and comparisons are almost irrelevant due to that fact.

This point was brought home by one commenter in particular who made a very valid point: I did a neighborhood typology for Chicago that splits the city into one of six community types: gentrified; gentrifying; frontline; stable prosperous; transitioning; and isolated.   I even did a tidy table that shows how the community types compare with each other in a range of demographic factors.  Some people disagreed with some aspects of the typology, but this particular commenter was disappointed I didn’t do one for Detroit.

The commenter was right.  I didn’t do one. I tried to develop one for Detroit but there are no neighborhood or community-sized comparables in Detroit to Chicago’s Community Areas in Detroit. Zip codes come closest but still miss a lot of nuance, so I chose not to use them.

Then I saw this by Data Driven Detroit:

  They did a residential neighborhood typology similar to mine, but at the census block level. Here it is at closer inspection:

Here’s how Data Driven Detroit characterized their typology work:

Generally, the darker brown areas reflect residential areas that are more active, have higher population density, fewer vacant lots, fewer properties owned by banks, investors or the city, and less population decline.

Orange tend to have more challenges to the stability of the neighborhood such as higher rates of housing vacancy or bank ownership or population decline. These areas are stable neighborhoods, but require more intervention than brown areas to retain that stability.

Yellow areas have even greater challenges to neighborhood stability. Generally, blocks depicted as yellow have less existing housing than a brown area. These areas would require more intensive stabilization to be considered “traditional residential”.

Light green blocks are primarily residential areas with higher percentages of vacant lots or lower occupancy than traditional residential areas. Compared to dark green areas, the light green areas have quality housing stock, mixed with vacant lots.

The darkest green blocks are least active, with less density, more abandonment, and a high concentration of vacant lots.

Generally speaking, their analysis shows large amounts of vacant land (dark green) adjacent to the largely non-residential downtown, neighborhoods in various stages of transition beyond the city’s zones of abandoned land, and areas of relative stability on the city’s northeast and northwest sides.  Keep in mind, however, that this typology is more about physical condition, and less about economic conditions.  And, economically Detroit does lag Chicago, so stability there looks different from stability in Chicago.  For those who know both cities well, the Pembroke neighborhood where I grew up on Detroit’s Northwest Side might be a stable, black middle class area that’s comparable to Chicago’s Chatham, but it’s not stable or prosperous in the way that maybe Portage Park is.

The point I was trying to make about Chicago and Detroit is that I view both cities are pioneers of a brand of revitalization/gentrification that might be unique to the Midwest/Rust Belt. Both cities, and many others in the Midwest/Rust Belt, had development patterns that were impacted by their response to the Great Migration in the early part of the 20th century, and they impact development patterns to this very day.  Most Rust Belt cities, from Buffalo to St. Louis, gained significant numbers of black residents between 1910-1930 and again from 1950-1970, as blacks moved away from the Jim Crow South and toward the opportunity presented by plentiful manufacturing jobs.  The near universal response by all of the Rust Belt cities was to “carve out” a section of town for blacks to live in, and leave it alone.  This caused dramatically different development patterns than in today’s “superstar” cities, which generally received far fewer black migrants (Boston and New York, to some extent, while Washington, D.C. is a notable exception.  Most West Coast cities received even fewer black migrants). 

I see Chicago as the leader here in adopting its pattern of segregation, and Detroit is following the same pattern. Chicago “gave up” much of the west and south sides for the new black arrivals and established other places in the city or suburbs.  Detroit essentially “gave up” the entire city limits to its black residents and sprawled outward into suburbia.  Ever since blacks emerged in Rust Belt cities, the response by white residents has been to move elsewhere — and avoid the place you left with a passion. 

This has created an interesting dynamic as both Chicago and Detroit entered the New Urban Future that took hold maybe 25-30 years ago.  Chicago was able to make the switch and accommodate the mostly white, upper-middle-class-led revitalization of parts of the city because, in accordance with development practice, revitalization almost exclusively took place within formerly poor and working-class white ethnic neighborhoods.  Detroit, however, was very late to that party, in large part because its poor and working-class white ethnic neighborhoods had already disappeared.  In neither city was their much of an effort to touch neighborhoods with people of color.


On to today.  Chicago’s inventory of former poor and working-class white ethnic enclaves has effectively run out. Developers face a choice: expand outward into neighborhoods with larger numbers of people of color, or build more densely in already hot neighborhoods. With some exceptions (Humboldt Park, parts of Pilsen), developers are choosing the latter.

This has serious ramifications.  Building more densely in hot neighborhoods sounds good on the surface, but developers are likely approaching a ceiling (financial and physical) in those hot neighborhoods. Land acquisition costs go higher and higher.  Development review and approval receives heightened scrutiny from city planners and elected officials.  NIMBY residents organize against new development.  And the price of housing has to go up to account for the additional headaches the developer receives.  I think it’s bringing revitalization efforts overall in Chicago to a halt.

At the same time much of Chicago is hollowing out. Blacks in particular are leaving the city in droves, especially on the west and south sides. Black population in Chicago fell by 17 percent between 2000 and 2010, and another nine percent from 2010 to 2016.  Overall, Chicago’s black population is down 24.7% since 2000 — nearly 260,000 — and showing no signs of slowing down.

Since the black withdrawal from Chicago is largely driven by black middle-class residents, motivated by poor school quality, crime, a lack of amenities or services, or poor job or growth opportunities, increasing concentrations of poorer residents with fewer choices are being left behind.  So it appears Chicago is possibly headed toward extreme bifurcation: dense, wealthy concentration on the north lakefront, the Loop and near south side, and vacant concentrations of poor residents on the west and south sides.  There are (and will be) concentrations of middle-class neighborhoods that sit between the affluence and poverty, but they will exist in various states of transition, potentially improving — or collapsing..


Meanwhile Detroit is in the very early stages of its own rebound. I was there 3 weeks ago and saw evidence of positive change. If you’re from the D it’s welcome, maybe even a little overwhelming. If you’re not from there, it’s the kind of normal city redevelopment you see in most cities today.  Detroit just hadn’t seen it.

That’s because what’s happening there, in my opinion, is more redemptive than revitalizing.  I’ve written about this before, and I think what’s happening is that people who once turned their back on Detroit are now willing to return and give it another look.  The economy is fine there, but it’s not super-heated and bringing thousands of people and jobs.  Detroit is going through an emotional recovery as much as an economic one.

That being said Detroit has some good things going on in the downtown/Midtown/Corktown areas, but very little outside of that prospering core.  The map above shows where the trouble lies.  Immediately outside of downtown are broad expanses that are as vacant as they are occupied.  Beyond this “empty quarter” are a ring of neighborhoods in transition surrounded by an outer ring of more stable neighborhoods. The loss of manufacturing jobs has made Detroit a mostly black working-class city, with people working in the service industry or no job at all, struggling, without much economic impetus moving them forward.

Detroit’s current rebound, however, means that significant change could be on the horizon.  The influx of middle-class and affluent people that the city has witnessed over the last five years means that Detroit could eventually develop its own bifurcation features, like Chicago — but with a twist. My guess is that the D will expand outward and build up its “empty quarter” until it comes up against the transitional neighborhoods in the secondary and tertiary rings.

In this context Detroit’s “empty quarter” is an asset, for two reasons: 1) new visions of large scale walkable urbanism can be considered, remaking large swaths of the city; and 2) less displacement/disruption and resulting conflict.  My guess on where that might happen?  I’d say the east riverfront, Poletown East, Milwaukee Junction, North End, Virginia Park, Woodbridge, LaSalle Gardens, the Southwest Side.  Areas with considerable vacancy, but just enough urban fabric to form the foundation.

It won’t happen soon. There’s not enough juice (or time) in this economic cycle for it to happen in Detroit soon. But I’d bet developers are already buying lots and placing bets on areas that will build out over the next 10-15 years. 

Here’s where things get tricky. I can foresee a future where Detroit’s expansive growth on largely empty land outside of downtown will be hailed, but ultimately stalled as it reaches intact neighborhoods. Chicago’s vertical growth will be pilloried for having little influence in poor areas.

All because both Chicago and Detroit are notable for their extreme avoidance of revitalization in black neighborhoods, a legacy of segregation patterns established by the Great Migration more than 100 years ago.

7 Responses to “More on Bifurcating Chicago and Detroit”

  1. Barbara Samuels

    There are some clear differences between Baltimore and both Chicago and Detroit, but the last paragraph of this piece is very on the mark for Baltimore too. And a similar history of accomodating Black population growth during Great Migration, loss of manufacturing jobs and resulting impact, and now loss of middle class African Americans. This pattern is little understood in the superstar cities and is not reflected in the prevailing narrative of urban regeneration. Please keep writing on this!


  2. Pete Saunders

    Thanks for your comment. I'm not completely familiar with Baltimore (been there a couple times, but not since the late '90s), but I think Detroit is on a path similar to the one Baltimore entered in the '90s/'00s — significant downtown development that led to some adjacent neighborhood revitalization, but stalled out when faced with the prospect of interaction with troubled East and West Baltimore neighborhoods. I can see a future where in 5-10 years Detroit is about where Baltimore is today. Not that either city should stop there.


  3. David

    I I’m not sure Chicago has reached some point where redevelopment will not continue to spread out to neighborhoods adjacent ones that have experienced a significant reinvestment cycle. Wicker Park, Logan Square, West Loop, and Hermosa have benefitted from proximity to Bucktown and Loop. In migration will be an important factor driving further investment. CMAP's own projections of population growth in GO TO 2040 include a 16.8% increase in Cook County alone by 2040.Saying that, I have a few other observations:1. I am not sure tighter rules govern development activity in booming Chicago neighborhoods. Chicago is ruled by 50 zoning czars in the form of 50 elected aldermen. Chicago zoning is characterized, as much as anything, by aldermanic prerogative. If an alderman wants a project, he or she will get that project. That takes nothing away from the excellent planning review conducted by the Department of Planning & Development. But, zoning in Illinois is a legislative process, and aldermanic vote is the only thing that ultimately matters. This is why there is a cottage industry of powerful Chicago zoning lawyers who know how to navigate this political process.2. The \”redemptive\” reinvestment theory may play a part, but I think a fortunate series of parallel events converged, starting with generational dynamics, coupled with cheap land and building prices, the Great Recession, and some very wealthy individuals. These things converged to spark Detroit's long awaited renaissance. This dynamic started with GenXers, accelerated with Millennials wanting an escape from suburban upbringings, and who looked to Detroit when job prospects around the country died during the Great Recession. Detroit was cheap and people like Gilbert, with Ilitch and Chuck Forbes before him, recognized that Detroit was an amazing value. Ilitch and Forbes focused on the Upper Woodward corridor north of the Chrysler, and attracted suburban developers like Bernie Gleiberman to stake a claim. Gilbert decided Downtown Detroit was a better way to attract top flight talent to his growing fintech business, focusing on the Lower Woodward Corridor. The Ford family also played a role, working with the Tigers to create a sports and entertainment mecca just north of the Chrysler Freeway. That confluence of events, as much as anything, triggered Detroit's current reinvestment cycle.It's important to recognize that the seeds of Detroit's current reinvestment cycle started not with billionaires, but with strong willed, smart, savvy people like Tom Godderris at Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation, Sue Mosey at the then University Cultural Center Association, Maggie Desantis at Warren-Connor Development Corporation, and sustained work of groups like Hubbard Richard CDC, Woodbridge CDC, Southwest Solutions, Vernor Highway Business Association, Jefferson Chalmers CDC, and U-SNAP-BAC. Plus many others.When I worked at the old Community Economic Development Department and then Planning and Development Department, and later in Southwest, we couldn't pay media to write the stories you now see about Detroit. Each time I come back–most recently for ULI Spring Conference–it was amazing to me how much had changed in just the 6 months since my prior visit. I do think we are late in the current investment cycle, but I also think the way things are rolling out in Detroit, a sophisticated process has taken root that will sustain it, even through turbulent times.


  4. D Holmes

    Insightful article, with analysis that breaks from the various standard narratives (mis)applied to rust belt cities. Its credible to use the term convergence in comparing the two cities, but also correct to note the key differences. The current standard narratives for Chicago, Detroit (and Milwaukee) can't seem to reconcile the dual nature of the cities, and in particular the failing inner city areas coexisting with extraordinary revitalization in other areas.


  5. D Holmes

    The future of revitalization is difficult to predict. I'd be surprised if Detroit grows enough in the next hundred years to fill the abandoned areas. In Milwaukee revitalization is focused on what could be described as high amenity areas (the lakefront, the downtown, the riverfront, university areas, the historic warehouse districts, and the old (but still majority white) ethnic neighborhoods near downtown. The availability of a thousand or so historic industrial or commercial buildings well suited to adaptive reuse is also dominating redevelopment patterns. There is enough vacant land in these high amenity areas to absorb the next 20 years of growth without the need for developers to seek opportunities in predominantly African American neighborhoods.What will be interesting is the eventual results of multi-decade efforts by the city to revitalize the historic commercial corridors in these neighborhoods as well as to create some high value amenities. There is also a wave of local African American developers who are starting to complete some impressive projects in these neighborhoods.


  6. Galleyfox

    As a millennial Chicago resident who moved from the sunbelt, I have a different perspective on this matter. It seems to me that both Detroit and Chicago effectively died from the combined forces of industrialization and suburbanization. However, the manner of their death was different. Detroit died in its entirety except for a small downtown core. Chicago shattered into a core city surrounded by small satellite cities (former neighborhoods). Suburbs like Evanston, Oak Park, and Cicero are not just suburban bedroom communities, but have fully functioning economies in their own right. Hyde Park, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Bridgeport and the neighborhoods around the airports had institutions that were strong enough to act as de facto governments and downtowns and so anchored their communities. The majority of the South Side however is effectively a giant suburb for a city that no longer exists and is quickly wasting away. In fact, you can literally see the economic center of the region slowly shifting to the West Side as a compromise downtown for all these different \”cities.\” That's why Chicago appears like such a platypus city to you. It is about 10 different smaller cities and their respective suburbs (in addition to the dying suburbs of the old Chicago) each growing or shrinking at different rates bound by a single central government struggling to find an equilibrium. It's an extremely unique situation as far as modern American cities go which is why nobody is sure of the outcome.


  7. Pete Saunders

    That's an interesting perspective. In a sense you're describing something like Chicago being similar to Los Angeles, a fragmented, multi-nodal metro area that has many elements constantly in competition with each other. I think Chicago has a stronger core than LA (politically, not economically), but your point is well taken.



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