The city saw ongoing losses of families with children from 1990 to 2010. Jim Young / Reuters

Although the city has gained some young, educated white residents, it continues to lose minorities and families with children to the suburbs.

The back-to-the-city movement continues to be a hot-button issue among urbanists. On one side, some applaud it as source of talent, jobs, and revenue. On the other, critics deplore the unaffordable housing prices, gentrification, and displacement that has come along with it. That said, one thing has become increasingly clear: In the U.S., the back-to-the-city movement tends to be limited to young, skilled, and affluent residents in cities such as New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Seattle.

Where does Chicago fall on this list? Neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square, River North, and Wrigleyville are noted examples of gentrification. But how extensive has the city’s urban revival really been? A recent study from William A. Testa of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and William Sander of DePaul University takes a detailed look, examining the extent of Chicago’s back-to-the-city movement from 1990 to 2010.

The study’s key findings cut both ways. On the one hand, Chicago has become somewhat more educated and affluent in relation to its suburbs. In fact, Testa and Sander find a positive association between living in the city and residents ages 25-34, which increased from 1990 to 2010. The city has also seen a small increase in the number of families with young kids, with the share of households with preschool-age children increasing from 28 percent to 31 percent.

Even more pronounced is the influx of young, educated residents to Chicago. The share of city-dwellers who hold a bachelor’s degree or above has increased. In 1990, suburban residents in the Chicago area were more likely to have a college degree than city dwellers, but this is no longer the case. The study finds that, as of 2010, the city and suburbs have around the same percentage of residents with a college degree. White (non-Hispanic) residents in the city are also much more likely to be college educated. On this score, the study’s statistical analysis shows a slightly negative association between having a bachelor’s degree and living in the city back in 1990, but a positive association between the two in 2010. The share of adults with a master’s degree was positively associated with city living in 1990, and has strengthened over time.

When it comes to affluence and income, the results are more mixed. Median household income for the city has increased relative to Chicago’s suburbs. By 2010, the median household income for non-Hispanic whites was about the same in both the city and suburbs. In fact, the study finds that the median household income for non-Hispanic whites in the city rose from a 77 percent deficit in 1990 to rival that of suburbs in 2010. While the statistical analysis revealed a negative association between income and living in the city across all income brackets for all three decades, that association grew slightly weaker with time. That said, median incomes remained higher in the suburbs among black and Hispanic residents.

The city saw ongoing losses of families with children over the entire three-decade period. The city’s share of households with school-age children declined substantially, from 35 percent in 1990 to 27 percent in 2010. Just one in ten non-Hispanic white households with school-age children lived in the city as of 2010. The study found no notable association between having children and living in the city in 1990, but a negative association between the two in 2000 and 2010. Interestingly, it also found a negative association between living in the city and being married for all three decades. More troublingly, the city continued to lose households overall to the suburbs, with its share of households falling from 37 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2010.

The biggest signs of a great inversion have to do with race. While educated, affluent, white residents have come back to the city, black and Hispanic residents have shifted to the suburbs. From 1990 to 2010, the city’s share of black households declined from 77 percent to 61 percent, while its share of Hispanic households fell from 59 percent to 43 percent. Currently, one in four suburban residents in Chicago are either black or Hispanic, according to the study. And highly educated black and Hispanic residents were more likely to be found in the suburbs than the city. Other research shows that the city’s largely black neighborhoods remain untransformed by gentrification.

The study suggests that Chicago’s back-to-the-city movement is limited mainly to young, educated, single, or newly married white residents living and working in and around its downtown core. In this way, Chicago reads like a case study of what urban planner Markus Moos calls “youthification.” But, as the authors note, this limited urban revival “is hardly a ‘great inversion.’” Ultimately, the long-standing divide of rich, white suburbs surrounding a poor, black, minority city is being reshaped into a patchwork of overlapping class and racial divides.

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