Gentrification is a loaded word. Some conjure up images of Logan Square and Wicker Park’s hip boutiques, bars and restaurants, while others imagine neighborhoods that have revitalized tremendously with regards to amenities, public safety and school quality. For planning geeks like us, University of Illinois’ Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement December 2014 report “The Socioeconomic Change of Chicago’s Community Areas (1970-2010)” and corresponding Gentrification Index fits the bill. While the report is layered with data and metrics, a few points caught my attention and are described below. Simply put, I left the report realizing that while gentrification is an issue in this city, it is not as widespread as everyone believes and neighborhood decline, falling incomes and joblessness are larger social issues we need to grapple with.
Despite the chatter about gentrification, the number of neighborhoods of low and very low socioeconomic status, categorized in the report through an index that includes race, age, educational attainment, income, housing value, poverty, job type and household composition, has grown from 29 community areas in 1970 to 45 community areas in 2010. The growth in communities with low and very low socioeconomic status is fueled dramatically by the decline of middle status communities from 30 in 1970 to nine in 2010.
Decades of policies promoting middle class suburbanization, exurban sprawl and job decentralization have hurt many Chicago neighborhoods and have created a host of environmental, infrastructure and congestion challenges that the region continues to grapple with.
The direct relationship between the growth in low socioeconomic status communities and middle class flight is significant pockets of concentrated wealth on the north and near west sides of the city. The study notes that high socioeconomic status neighborhoods make up 30 percent of the city’s community areas in 2010 and contain 38 percent of all residents.
As a non-native Chicagoan, I’ve noticed that people often dismiss conversations about Chicago’s segregation and neighborhood polarization as an issue that the city has and always will battle. As if it hasn’t gotten worse or as if there isn’t a solution. While the report doesn’t promote solutions, it provides data and a greater understanding of how we think of neighborhood growth and decline.