On Nov. 8, 2013, Richard C. Longworth recalled in a Chicago Tribune op-ed a series he had written for the paper 30 years previously titled, “City on the Brink.”
In 1983, the series did not depict a city on the brink of booming prosperity, Longworth wrote.
“It chronicled a litany of loss — of industries, stores, people, jobs and taxes — that seemingly doomed Chicago to be the next Detroit. Most of the civic leaders I interviewed saw no turnaround in sight.
“By the time I left the Tribune 22 years later, I was writing about Chicago’s rebirth as a global city, with a glittering downtown, new service industries, chic stores and restaurants and a growing population of well-heeled, well-educated global citizens, many of them the grandchildren of the people who had fled to the suburbs years before. Chicago didn’t become Detroit and, for many reasons, never will.
“Two different cities, then and now, and two different economies. One, a dying industrial city in the post-industrial era. The other a rising global city in the global era.”
“We can’t understand what’s happening in Chicago’s most blighted neighborhoods now unless we understand the economic catastrophe that struck them 50 years ago. And if we’re inclined to turn away now from the crisis of their lives, to brand them as ‘those people.’”
It’s a long and thoughtful piece on a topic that, unfortunately, too often gets simplistic, clichéd treatment.
Which is why I am thrilled to point you toward another piece that, in its own way, addresses the topic of divided Chicago but gives some depth and perspective.
Daniel Kay Hertz is a graduate student pursuing a masters in public policy at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. He compiled the map below using U.S. Census data for median household income in each census tract in Chicago from 1970 through 2012.
It’s a fascinating and depressing look at economics and demographics in motion. There’s undoubtedly a cause-and-effect argument to be had here: Did the middle class leave Chicago or did Chicago leave it? Race place a role in this, but how big?
Hertz probes the difficulty of drawing conclusions from this data in the blog post that accompanies his map.
“(T)he obvious and immediate reaction to these maps is to see them as a direct consequence of rising income inequality,” he writes. “There is some truth to that, but the researchers from which much of this data came have already discovered that income segregation has actually risen faster than inequality. So that’s not the end of the story.”