Credit: Jake Grella / Unsplash

After a dramatic drop of 200,000 residents between 2000 and 2010, this past decade Chicago’s population has risen back up by a modest 1.9 percent, or about 50,000 people, according to redistricting data released by the Census Bureau in mid-August. Chicago has retained its status as the nation’s third-largest city, for those who care about such things, though Houston is hot at the heels.

There’s a lot to unpack in the numbers—all 2,746,388 of them—and it will take years of research to formulate strong narratives about how and why Chicago is changing in the way that it is. But the city’s demographic shifts and the total population growth make it a “very good census” for the city,
Chicago-based demographer Rob Paral says. 

Its Latinx, white, and Black populations each hung onto roughly a third of the total population, with the Latinx population rate of growth slowing down to 5.22 percent and the Black population rate of decrease also slowing to -9.71 percent, down from -17 percent the previous decade. At the same time, the Asian American population increased by an impressive 31.02 percent and now represents almost 7 percent of city dwellers. 

Neither the regrowth nor these demographic shifts were a given: the 2019 American Community Survey had projected that Chicago would continue to shrink. And continued growth among Latinxs comes as good news after the data collection difficulties caused by the pandemic and the Trump administration’s yearslong effort to depress immigrant participation in the census.

The most dramatic city growth occurred in just a few neighborhoods. The Loop swelled by 44.4 percent from 2010, a rate high and above any other neighborhood population increase, according to a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) community data snapshot. The larger downtown area, including the Loop’s three adjacent communities—South Loop, Near North Side, and Near West Side—added 58,417 people. In the same time period, the Near North Side surpassed Lakeview to become the city’s most populous neighborhood. 

Second to the Loop was the lakefront, which grew from Uptown down to Hyde Park. Here, the change was more varied: some neighborhoods grew by only a percentage point or two. But a cluster of neighborhoods around Hyde Park, including Oakland and Douglas, grew between 11 and nearly 15 percent. Edgewater, South Chicago, and the East Side were the only lakefront neighborhoods to mark a total population decline over the last ten years. 

“Chicago’s population data is a microcosm of the polarization of the U.S.,” Paral says. 

In the Loop, a third of residents earn more than $150,000, according to CMAP data. Its median income is $108,676—more than double the city’s median income of $58,247. Its demographics also depart from the city’s as a whole: it’s 61.7 percent white and 18.4 percent Asian, but just 8.8 percent Latinx and 7.8 percent Black. 

Hyde Park’s demographic and median income is more representative of the city’s, but even its sustained income diversity sets it apart. According to a report by DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, Hyde Park ranks first in the city for income diversity, which is “extraordinary” considering that its adjacent neighborhoods Washington Park and Grand Boulevard rank in the bottom five. Since 1970, the city’s middle-class neighborhoods have nearly disappeared as its higher-income neighborhoods have gained and lower-income neighborhoods have lost wealth. The city’s five most income-diverse neighborhoods can be found within four miles of the Loop, the report said. 

“I always describe Hyde Park and the Loop as two drops of water on wax paper,” Paral says of the growth in and between the two neighborhoods. “They’re constantly trying to move toward each other.”

Demographic changes by neighborhood

As the Loop and lakefront grew, the rest of Chicago experienced a loss of 10,000 residents, according to a WBEZ analysis. Several majority Black neighborhoods on the south side lost more than than 7 percent of their residents (among them are South Chicago, Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Roseland, and South Lawndale). Neighborhoods known to be gentrifying or already gentrified, like Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Pilsen, and Avondale, also posted population losses between -1.5 percent (Logan Square) and -7.7 percent (Avondale), as smaller incoming white households continue to displace the typically larger Latinx households that are being priced out.

At the same time, almost half of the city’s 77 community areas underwent dramatic demographic changeover, according to WBEZ, gaining 1,000 residents of one race and losing 1,000 of a different group. In several neighborhoods, like New City, Chicago Lawn, and Austin, Latinx population increased as the Black population decreased. On the western fringes of the city, in the neighborhoods around O’Hare and Midway, as well as in Hegewisch in the southeastern corner of the city, Latinx residents increased as the white population decreased. Elsewhere, majority white neighborhoods like West Ridge diversified, gaining Black and Asian residents. 

“I don’t see this pattern as desegregation as much as the continued legacy of racial segregation across the city,” Metropolitan Planning Council research fellow Nick Villarreal says. “There is still a significant whiteness to the north side and the lakefront, but in the northwest there are solid increases in Black population, so it’s nice to see those areas diversifying.”

After the Loop, some of the neighborhoods with the biggest growth were majority Black neighborhoods like Grand Boulevard, Oakland, and Douglas, which saw a collective 12.1 percent population gain, with Oakland seeing the highest gain at 14.9 percent, after each saw steep declines in the previous decade. A majority of this increase was in Black residents, analysis by Bread Price Fixer, an anonymous Chicago-based data engineer, shows. 

Looking forward from this census data, the biggest question for Paral is how the city is going to support neighborhoods where demographic change will require new infrastructure, like in Clearing, where younger Mexican families are replacing the older white population that’s leaving the area, and in neighborhoods with aging Black populations.

“If you have a shift from 70-year-old white people to 30-year-old Mexicans with children, they’re probably going to have different needs for parks and education,” he says. “And for African Americans who are aging: what’s needed for them that is not there?”

Census and neighborhood-oriented funding

How does the census impact the way in which neighborhoods get money? It’s complicated. Most federal money (94 percent) is allocated to state or local governments using formulas that are either directly based on census data or on statistical indicators (for income data, for instance) that are created by census data. That money is then distributed regionally. 

For the first time in 200 years, the state’s population decreased, by 243,102, which may affect federal formulas for social service and health funding, like nutrition programs WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and Medicaid, or even transportation funding. But because Chicago as a whole didn’t see a total population decrease, and the state lost most of its population downstate, it’s unlikely that the city’s total funding for these programs will be cut—or dramatically cut. It’s a little harder to say how shifting population numbers will affect the allocation of social service and health funding at the neighborhood level.

The city was probably undercounted, however. Here, as in other big cities like Los Angeles, nonwhite neighborhoods were responding to the census at significantly lower rates than in 2010, CMAP reported in September 2020, some by as many as 20 percentage points. Even though the Census Bureau has various systems in place to reach those who don’t respond to the census, including using state records and statistical methods to guess at the characteristics of those who didn’t respond, low self-responding neighborhoods remain at higher risk of being left out of the bureau’s final tally. 

We won’t have confirmation about the undercount until the Census Bureau releases its undercount calculations in early 2022. But because of the Trump administration’s fearmongering around the census, and because of the abbreviated census count, it’s likely that the city’s population is actually higher than the 2,746,388 that the Census Bureau counted. If that’s the case, nonwhite neighborhoods would be receiving the brunt of the city’s undercount. It’s a mixed bag: the city may not be losing federal money, but its neighborhoods are probably not getting the money they should be. But the Census Bureau’s tally is what we have to work with. 

Neighborhood funding and budgeting

But public policy and political will are also important in the equations that determine where the money goes, as anyone who witnessed the flourishing of the Loop under the Daley administration, even before the area had the population data to show for it—or as neighborhood organizers who’ve fought against austerity policies justifying closing or consolidating schools and mental health clinics in their wards—might tell you.

Looking at this year’s data and demographic shifts, Villarreal says that participatory and neighborhood-oriented public policy will be essential in supporting the city’s neighborhoods over the next ten years. “It’s even more important than ever to be prioritizing policies that keep people in their communities, investing directly in the people and neighborhoods most in need. Participatory planning and development should be the norm, where developers and the city work with communities to understand what locals want and need to make their lives in their communities better, taking decisions out of boardrooms and into the hands of community members,” he says. “This process gives locals voice and agency to influence what businesses come to their neighborhoods, where housing is developed, and where parks are needed.”

He also says that zoning changes will be important for correcting harmful land use arrangements on the south and west sides, where families live next door to major trucking routes and heavy industry. “These environmental injustices don’t make neighborhoods in these areas attractive, and they push people away.”

As Mayor Lori Lightfoot prepares to make her 2022 budget address on September 20, coalitions of neighborhood organizations are gearing up to make the case for a neighborhood-oriented budget. Last year, a coalition lobbied the city to cut its police budget, which comprises 40 percent of the corporate budget, to fund essential support and COVID-19 relief for working-class families, and to avoid using regressive taxes to cover the budget shortfall.

Ignoring a survey to which 87 percent of respondents supported cutting from the police budget in order to reallocate city funds, Lightfoot pushed through a budget that relied on property taxes and parking fines, and refinanced debt to cover the shortfall. (The police budget was decreased by cutting vacancies; however, because other departments saw cuts, the police department’s share of the total budget actually increased.)

Neighborhood organizers saw last year’s budget as one in a long line of budgets that have contributed to the income inequality that defines life in Chicago for many.

“Instead of the change voters want, we see a continuation of the same budget policies that hurt working families and further enrich the wealthy,” Grassroots Collaborative executive director Amisha Patel wrote in response to the 2021 budget address.

As the budget address nears, Grassroots Collaborative campaign director Jung Yoon says they’re keeping an eye on how the city wants to spend the $1.8 billion it’s projected to receive from the American Rescue Plan, a second stimulus bill passed in March to ease economic recovery from the pandemic. In the mayor’s latest announcement, she said she was hoping to use part of the funds to cover the budget’s $733 million revenue shortfall. 

Already, the progress caucus of City Council has expressed resistance to the use of ARP funds primarily for debt service. “We were given those dollars explicitly to make Chicago healthy and stable, to help people’s lives, to help businesses recover from this pandemic,” Alderman Daniel La Spata said to WBEZ. “It should not be used for debt service. It shouldn’t be used for pensions. It shouldn’t be used for tax cuts. We may want to use it for those things. But that’s not why we were given those dollars.”

Lightfoot also announced that they had set aside $5 million for youth services, $9 million for small business assistance, $9 million for student reengagement, and $14 million for childcare assistance, WBEZ reported.

“It’s not surprising to see growth [in the Loop], where the city decides to invest,” says Yoon. “We see on the flip side . . . the city disinvesting from the south and west sides. But it’s also investing in increased police presence. It’s investing in corporate subsidies, to toxic polluters and heavy industry. Those are the Amazon warehouses that are popping up in the same neighborhoods, where Hilco is setting up shop, or MAT Asphalt.”

“What Grassroots Collaborative and many of our coalition partners are demanding is that that paradigm be flipped. That we actually make more reparative investments on the south and west sides—in the people instead of the corporations that exploit and extract.”