Joseph Sohm /

A new study tracks the rise and fall of urban and suburban neighborhoods between 1970 and 2010.

For the better part of a century, the dominant U.S. models for cities and urban areas—handed down from the so-called Chicago School of urbanists—held that cities grow outwardly from their dense commercial and industrial cores and extend into more affluent residential suburbs. It’s only in the past couple of decades that we’ve seen the rise of the so-called “great inversion,” or the idea that wealthier residents have begun to prefer the city center while poverty and disadvantage have been pushed out into the suburbs. But do these two models fully capture the process of transformation that is reshaping our cities and metro areas today?

A new study published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers takes a detailed look at the neighborhood change and “sequencing” that is occurring in two of America’s largest cities: L.A. and Chicago. The study, by Elizabeth C. Delmelle of the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, traces the period of neighborhood growth and decline in these two cities over four decades, from 1970 to 2010.

Delmelle uses cluster analysis to map the transformation of 1,318 neighborhoods or census tracts in Chicago and 2,334 neighborhoods or census tracts in Los Angeles. Her analysis examines changes in demographic patterns such as the share of young and old residents; economic characteristics such as the share of adults who are college educated, living in poverty, unemployed, or working in the manufacturing industry; and housing characteristics such as median housing values and rentals versus owner-occupied units.

Based on this, Delmelle identifies five basic types of neighborhoods in L.A. and Chicago. Four of these types are similar (though not identical) across the two cities: newer suburban (recent construction, middle-class and affluent families with young children); older, stable suburban (long-standing neighborhoods with long-standing residents); struggling (high poverty, high unemployment, lower levels of education, low shares of owner-occupied housing, more rentals and vacant housing); and young urban (areas with increasing numbers of young, single, highly educated people living in apartments, condos, and multi-unit housing). The fifth type of neighborhood in Chicago is blue collar, which reflects the city’s legacy of working-class, former manufacturing neighborhoods with older housing and less educated residents. In L.A., the fifth type is elite, which reflects the city’s long-standing wealthy enclaves with high-income and older residents (including a sizable share over 60 years of age).

Mapping neighborhood patterns

The bulk of the study examines the four-decade-long process of neighborhood change and transition in the two cities. To get at this, Delmelle classifies neighborhoods based on how they changed over time (e.g. from blue collar to struggling, newer suburban to elite, and so on). The end result is a set of 10 longitudinal neighborhood clusters for Chicago and nine for L.A. The study then maps the patterns adopted by these neighborhood clusters for both cities from 1970-2010.

The map below shows the patterns of neighborhood change that emerged in Chicago.

Note the striped yellow band, which indicates a shift from blue collar to young urban near the coast. This is not just the result of gentrification, but also of youthification—the movement of more highly educated young people into urban centers—as noted by Markus Moos. Adjacent to this striped yellow band is a striped orange band, indicating neighborhoods that have shifted from struggling to young urban—an even clearer signal of gentrification. Roughly 5 percent of all city neighborhoods (61 tracts) have upgraded from struggling, according to the study.

It is extremely interesting to note that both blue-collar to young urban and stable young urban neighborhoods (in yellow) saw their share of white residents decline between 1970 and 2010. In stable young urban neighborhoods, the share of white residents dropped from 85 percent in 1970 to 63 percent in 2010, while the share of white residents in blue-collar to young urban neighborhoods fell from 92 to 62 percent. These neighborhoods also saw a modest increase in their black populations, from 12 to 17 percent in stable young urban areas and from 5 percent to 12 percent in blue-collar to young urban neighborhoods. This would seem to contradict the conventional notion of gentrification as a process in which whites displace blacks. In reality, these neighborhoods not only stayed racially and ethnically diverse, but became even more so over time.

Still, it’s important to note the distinct swatches of red, which highlight persistently struggling areas adjacent to these rapidly changing neighborhoods. These struggling neighborhoods have a high percentage of black residents and have seen their share of white residents decline from 20 percent in 1970 to 3 percent by 2010. Here we see the redefinition of the urban core from areas of manufacturing, working class housing, and poverty to a new incarnation in which areas of concentrated advantage and concentrated disadvantage are juxtaposed with one another.

Next are the bands of suburban-style neighborhoods, with gray indicating stable older suburban areas and purple highlighting newer suburban development. These neighborhoods have also seen their white populations decline, from 89 percent to 53 percent in stable older suburbs, and from 99 percent to 57 percent in newer suburban neighborhoods. Stable blue-collar areas (in orange) also saw a decrease in white residents (from 91 to 20 percent), as well as a substantial increase in their Hispanic populations.

L.A.’s neighborhood pattern, meanwhile, is rather different, as the map below shows.

Compared to Chicago, L.A. has far fewer urban areas that have transitioned up Delmelle’s sequence of neighborhood classifications. Note the large patch of red in downtown L.A., which signals neighborhoods that remain persistently disadvantaged. This includes some 500 neighborhoods, or more than 20 percent of all neighborhoods in the city. To the east are mainly gray areas, which indicate stable older suburbs.

To the west and along the coast we find a large cluster of green, indicating long-standing elite neighborhoods such as Brentwood, Bel Air, and the Pacific Palisades. In-between is a band of yellow, which indicates stable young urban neighborhoods around Hollywood and stretching into parts of downtown L.A. To the north, there is a large swatch of purple near the San Fernando Valley, indicating newer suburbs as well as a substantial block of young urban (yellow) juxtaposed with persistently struggling (red) at the northern edge of the city. On the whole, most of metro L.A.’s suburban areas climbed the scale over the four decades, while its inner city persistently struggled.

Even more so than in Chicago, each and every type of neighborhood in L.A. lost white residents over the study period. This is of course a product of the massive migration of Asian and Hispanic populations into L.A., which is one of the most diverse cities in the world. Still, the loss of L.A.’s white population is eye-opening. The city’s stable young urban neighborhoods saw their share of white residents decline from 93 to 48 percent, while its stable new suburban neighborhoods saw their white populations decline from 94 to 38 percent. Even neighborhoods that shifted from newer suburban to elite saw their share slip from 95 to 50 percent. The share of Hispanics and Asians increased as the city witnessed a large influx of immigrants, while the share of blacks remained more or less constant in most neighborhoods. Unlike Chicago, however, L.A.’s persistently struggling neighborhoods experienced a decline in black residents alongside an increase in Hispanic residents.  

Comparing L.A. and Chicago

Overall, the study finds the trajectory of development to be substantially different in Chicago versus Los Angeles. But despite all the attention given to the urban gentrification of U.S. neighborhoods, the reality is that struggling, persistently poor neighborhoods in Chicago and L.A. greatly outnumber those that are attracting younger, more educated, affluent residents. More troubling still, very few struggling, persistently poor neighborhoods have seen their fortunes improve over these four decades, and the great majority have remained consistently disadvantaged over time. Where anything resembling what we tend to think of as gentrification has taken place, it has been mainly in former industrial zones or working class neighborhoods. Delmelle’s detailed research suggests that, when all is said and done, racially concentrated disadvantage remains a much bigger urban problem than gentrification.

In the end, mapping neighborhood change in both cities underlines the fact that wealth is no longer relegated to the suburbs, nor is poverty a characteristic of the city alone. As a result, the terms “urban” and “suburban” are less helpful now than they were previously. Today’s city is made up of a much more complicated intermixing of neighborhood DNA.

Top image: Joseph Sohm /

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