Our Town, Updated

Ten years ago, the population of Chicago, the country's third-largest city, increased by nearly 113,000. At the time, city advocates heralded the trend as a sign of a local urban renaissance, driven partly by young, mainly white, well-educated professionals who moved to the city and stayed to start families.

The most recent figures from the 2010 census, however, show a different picture. Even as the metropolitan region grew during the past decade, Chicago shrank -- by 7 percent to 2.7 million residents. The city lost 200,000 people, including 181,000 African Americans (a 17 percent decrease) and 52,000 non-Hispanic whites (a 6 percent decrease). For those who hoped that Chicago's urban renaissance might lead to enhanced neighborhood diversity throughout the metropolitan area, the census contained mixed if ultimately dispiriting data.

On a positive note, the suburbs as a whole, however, became more ethnically diverse. Numerous African Americans, Latinos, and Asians moved from Chicago mainly to inner-ring suburbs and a few older suburbs in the outer ring over the past decade. Yet contrary to historic patterns of first-generation immigrants settling in the city and then moving to the suburbs as they or their children "made it," growing numbers of first-generation immigrants are settling first in the suburbs. Many of them, particularly Hispanics, are poorer than past immigrants who first found a home in the city. This shift poses new challenges to suburban public services and to social integration in the suburbs. It also poses challenges for Chicago, which is now losing some of the immigrant influx that historically replenished its population.

With rare exceptions, though, the movement of minorities to the suburbs has not led to greater, long-lasting integration but rather to transitional enclaves of mixed ethnicity that are simply in the process of re-creating historic patterns of residential segregation typical of Chicago. Oak Park, a community that has enacted housing policies and practices encouraging long-term diversity, seems to have escaped this larger trend, proving yet again that racial integration is the result of specific measures -- not just good intentions. (Read our analysis of why Oak Park is successful here.)

Two primary factors probably caused the dramatic drop in Chicago's black population. First, over the past decade, the city's housing authority demolished thousands of public-housing units, much of it in neglected high-rises, and replaced them with fewer units of mixed-income housing. In some gentrifying neighborhoods, white renters and owners have moved into spaces previously occupied by blacks.

Second, the foreclosure crisis has pushed thousands of black homeowners from their neighborhoods. The mainly black, West Side neighborhood of Austin lost nearly a fifth of its population. Community organizer Elcee Redmond says that foreclosure played a major part in the exodus, particularly in multi-unit rental buildings, many of which are closed and abandoned. Hundreds of empty foreclosed single-family homes also line neighborhood streets.

Just across Chicago's border, Oak Park continues to succeed in its mission to achieve greater integration. The white and black percentages of village residents declined slightly in the last 10 years --  whites by 5 percent, blacks by 6 percent. At the same time, Oak Park gained Asian and Latino residents, despite rising housing costs. Oak Park Regional Housing Center executive director Rob Breimayer sees this "broadened diversity" as demonstration of how the village's self-conscious integration strategy has worked.

Where did the black families that left Chicago go? And where did the Latino population, which rose far faster at 29 percent, move to in the six-county metro area? Many blacks moved to nearby suburbs within Cook County (which also encompasses Chicago); suburban Cook County gained 57,000 African Americans. But that's less than a third of the decline in Chicago. Apart from the possibility of error rates greater than for past censuses, the numbers suggest many blacks simply left the area. In contrast, the Hispanic population grew more quickly and throughout more of the metropolitan region, but the increase was mostly in older, or poorer, suburbs.

This shift raises the theoretical possibility of long-term racial integration in the suburbs as a region and in their distinct communities. It's an appealing notion. But a trend toward suburban poverty and heightened economic inequality -- not yet confirmed by census figures -- seems to be emerging. That pattern has been developing for years nationwide, as documented in a 2004 Brookings Institution study on economic segregation in suburbs and cities in major metro areas. If this dynamic defines Chicago and its suburbs in the coming years, it will seriously complicate efforts to achieve racial and ethnic integration for any community that might want to follow Oak Park's lead.

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