Chicago, that touchy city, got a big kick in its pride this past week, when the Census Bureau reported it lost about 206,000 people over the last decade.
What all this really means -- to Chicago, to Illinois and to the Midwest -- is going to fuel both academic research and barroom talk for some time to come. This posting will try to raise some questions for this debate and, very tentatively, suggest some answers.
The facts are these. According to the 2010 census, Chicago has 2.69 million people. On the one hand, it's still America's third biggest city. On the other, it's smaller now than at any time since the 1920 census, 90 years ago. Since its peak of 3.62 million people in 1950, it's lost nearly a million people, about 25 percent of its population.
This loss doesn't put Chicago in the emptied category of places like Detroit or Cleveland, which have lost more than half their peak population. But it raises question about the number of people that evenly a supposedly successful post-industrial city like Chicago can support. It shrinks both the city's tax base and federal aid, at a time when Chicago, like every other city, needs all the revenue it can get. It implies fewer children, which means less state aid for schools. And it questions whether Mayor Richard M. Daley's 20-year campaign to turn the city into a magnet for people was as much of a success as we all thought.
At first glance, Chicago is still split evenly three ways -- about one-third white, one-third black and one-third Hispanic, mostly Mexican. But this deserves more than a first glance. The white population seems to have held about steady. The Hispanic population is up 3.3 percent since 2000, considerably less than most Chicagoans would have expected. And the black population plummeted, by no less than 17 percent.
Already, those Hispanic figures are being questioned. First, demographers suspect that some 40 per cent of Chicago's Mexican population is undocumented. These people are here but may not be counted: being here illegally, they sure aren't going to answer the door when the census taker knocks. The same may be true of other immigrants, especially from developing countries, who may have come here to get away from oppressive governments and aren't inclined to give candid answers -- such as "How many people really live in this house?" -- to government representatives here.
One skeptic is Mark Brown, the shrewd columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, who wrote that he's spent the past decade watching Latino neighborhoods expand, Latino school populations soar and Latino businesses move into one shopping strip after another. Maybe the count is accurate, Brown said, "but they sure fooled me."
It's also been noted that this census took place in 2010, two years after the recession began wiping out jobs, especially in construction, that drew many of the immigrants here in the first place. No one knows for sure, but immigrants who were here in, say, 2005, may have gone home by 2010, and could return when the recession eases. In other words, the dip may be temporary. Or it may be permanent.
Certainly, the decline in the African-American population is part of a trend. Chicago is a much more integrated city than it used to be, with educated middle class blacks moving steadily into white neighborhoods. But the old inner city, the black ghettos on the South and West sides, have been emptying for decades.
These neighborhoods are pocked by lots where houses used to stand. Shopping streets are abandoned. Even new houses stand vacant, their owners the victims of foreclosures in the past two years. Too many young men are in jail. It's a bleak landscape, devoid of hope.
So those for whom hope still exists have gone elsewhere. Some to near-in suburbs, some to other cities, like Danville or Decatur, which offer plenty of Section 8 (low-rent) housing. Many persons, it's believed, have returned to the American South, 60 or 70 years after their ancestors came north to work in the great Chicago factories that have long since closed.
Add to this the destruction of most of the Chicago public housing projects over the past two decades, and you've given hundreds of thousands of people every incentive to move away.
At the same time, the Loop, Chicago's center, has boomed, as affluent young people of all races have moved back to the city and bought the lofts and town houses blooming there. This expansion of the Loop has regentrified some of the old close-in neighborhoods, shoving out the poorer people who lived there. Where have they gone? No one really knows for sure, but the Census Bureau figures indicate that many of them have left Chicago altogether.
Almost all old Midwestern industrial cities have a black ghetto housing persons for whom the economy has simply moved away, leaving them stranded without jobs or hope. No one I've talked to has any idea what to do about this. Some Ohio state government officials suggested the best solution may be subsidies or other incentives, just to get them to move somewhere with more opportunity.
If Chicago's census figures are any indication, this may be happening. Or it may not. The tracking of the black migration out of old central cities has received scandalously little academic research. When people go, no one knows where they've gone. Yet this migration may be changing the demographics of cities like Chicago. For basic governmental and planning reasons, it would be useful to know what's going on.
Other thoughts occur:
Of all the older Midwestern cities, Chicago is by far the most successful in making the transition from industrial city to center of global commerce, an avatar of the knowledge economy. The Economist magazine, in a special supplement much welcomed here, called the city "A Success Story."
But the census figures drove home what was evident before: that Chicago now has fewer people and fewer jobs than it had in 1950, when the industrial era was at its height. In other words, even a booming post-industrial economy can't support as many people as the old industrial economy did. If this is true in Chicago, it's probably true in other cities, too, which implies that for the nation as a whole, globalization is no long-term solution.
Chicago's white population seems to be holding steady. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that more skilled and better-paid whites are moving in, even as lower-paid whites are fleeing the city's higher costs for the suburbs and exurbs. This evidence indicates that Chicago, like other global cities, is adapting the European model of prosperous cores, with the poor relegated to the outskirts.
Paris is the prime example of this, with its glittering central neighborhoods, while poorer Parisians, especially North African immigrants, are parked in fetid housing projects beyond the Peripherique ring road. Recent rioting among these immigrants indicates this is not a model for Chicago or any other city.
Again, anecdotal evidence is one thing, solid data is another. Detailed census information, broken down by neighborhoods and zip codes, should tell us soon what's really happening. If the city is becoming smaller but richer, this has all manner of implications for spending on social services, schools, public safety and other items on the urban budget.
Superficially, this would seem to be good for the city, but not so good for the near-in suburbs. Indeed, DuPage County, the first suburb west, has always been an upscale place and a Republican stronghold: the new census pictures showed that DuPage's overall population held steadily -- but only because new African-American and Asian residents offset the departure of 45,000 whites.
Like most cities and their suburbs, Chicago and its collar counties have never liked each other much. But the hard fact is that they all belong to the same region and will rise or fall as one in this new global economy. When it comes to population movements within regions, it's not possible to anoint winners or losers, to say that Chicago is gaining and the suburbs losing, or vice versa.
What we can say is that Chicago, which has become a laboratory for the impact of globalization on cities, is changing fast, both in general and in detail. These census figures are more than abstract numbers on a chart. As we figure them out, they will tell us how we are likely to live -- and with whom we are going to live -- in the globalized century just started.