Gentrification in Chicago- A Look at the Last Two Decades

The Polonia Food & Liquors Shop – a “mom and pop” convenience store– stands alone in the corner of Damen and Armitage, in the buzzing neighborhood of Bucktown in Chicago, surrounded by a crowd of boutique shops, bars, restaurants and hair salons that charge 50 dollars for a men’s hair cut.

“My family has owned this place since the 1950’s,” Moe, the storekeeper, told me once as he rung a bag of chips, “but twenty years ago, there was nothing here, this used to be a neighborhood of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans… I remember my mom used to tell me: don’t go outside, it’s dangerous! Now, take a look outdoors, things have changed.”

As a graduate student living in Bucktown, I used to visit the Polonia Food Shop on a regular basis to buy groceries. With it’s dirty white, worn-out, external décor, the store stood as a relic of a different era. It stood as a lone survivor of a past time, valiantly anchoring itself to the corner of the street as the fast-moving currents of gentrification rapidly replaced the surrounding businesses with new ones.

My time living in the northwest , walking the streets, talking to people, got me interested in the issue of gentrification in Chicago. I decided to study the subject with a little more rigor, looking at the issue using maps and statistical software.

The project eventually evolved to become the topic of the honors paper I wrote for my graduate degree. This is the first, of many, posts outlining some of my findings.

I wanted to get a sense of which neighborhoods gentrified in Chicago between 1990 and 2007, and what factors mattered in predicting whether a poor neighborhood would change.

I used census data between 1990 and 2007, and used the tract as my unit of analysis.

I considered a tract gentrified if it was poor in 1990 (I defined poor as being below the city average household income in 1990) and grew faster than the income of the city between 1990 and 2007.

This, and any, definition of gentrification should be taken with a grain of salt. There is no agreement among urban experts on what gentrification even means (and I can already picture my sociology and humanities professors banging their head against the table at my reductivisms).

But this definition is useful because it allows us to see some interesting patterns of neighborhood change at the city level.  The map below shows the patterns of gentrification in Chicago over the last two decades:


Gentrification in the City

The first pattern that immediately pops up  is the fast gentrification of tracts around the Central Business District. The map clearly shows a pattern of greater gentrification among  tracts closest to downtown. A bi-variate regression done on the data shows that, among gentrified tracts, being one mile closer to downtown is statistically associated with a 5 % increase in census tract average household income between 1990 and 2007. When other demographic, housing and location variables are controlled for, the size of the relationship is smaller, but still significant.

This finding is interesting but not entirely unexpected, as there has been substantial evidence that has shown that neighborhoods closer to downtown gentrify faster. This is usually because the downtown areas of cities have higher clusters of entertainment amenities and businesses , and gentrifiers, usually in the young, college-educated, medium-income demographic, move into these neighborhoods looking for affordable housing and easy access to the jobs/ entertainment opportunities downtown.

Another interesting, but again, not entirely unexpected, finding is how much the northwest of Chicago gentrified, and how fast it did.

We see a greater clustering of gentrified tracts within the neighborhoods of Wicker Park, Logan Square and Bucktown than we do in the other neighborhoods in Chicago.The figure below shows a map of gentrification in the northwest region of Chicago during this time period, we see that a 77% of the area lying within these two community areas (50 out of the 65 census tracts) gentrified.


Census Tracts Gentrified

Not only are the gentrified tracts in northwest Chicago more clustered together, but the data also suggests that these tracts gentrified faster than did the ones in the other areas of the city.

Average household income, for instance, grew 10 % more in the gentrified tracts of Logan Square and West Town than it did in the rest of the gentrified tracts of the city. The number of houses built, usually a strong sign of gentrification, grew 15 % more in the neighborhoods of northwest Chicago than it did in the gentrified tracts of the city as a whole, and the average median value of the owner occupied housing units grew 26 % more in the census tracts in northwest Chicago than it did in the city as a whole.

Given the abundance of hipsters, bohemians and “bohemian bourgeoisie”  in northwest Chicago today, one could take this preliminary findings to lend support to accounts that place artists as the catalyzers and drivers of gentrification,  a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “The Soho Effect.”

Urban sociologists Richard Lloyd’s book on Wicker Park, “Neo-bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City,” offers a good account of the rise of the bohemian subculture in the neighborhood of Wicker Park during in the 1990s, due, in great part, to what he sees as the influx of artists and creative capital into the region:

“…in Wicker Park the postwar decades has given way to a new style of redevelopment, combining its celebrated arts community with residential gentrification by white-collar professionals, the injection of new media and design enterprises, and thriving entertainment economy”.

Some of the data I gathered suggests that there might be some truth to this story.

The young, college educated, 18-34, never married share of the population grew at a faster rate in the community areas of West Town and Logan Square than it did in the rest of the gentrified tracts of the city: the percent of the population with a college degree grew 7% more in northwest Chicago than it did in the tracts that gentrified in the city, and the share of the population who are 18-34 grew 5 % more in northwest Chicago than it did in the rest of the city.

But this evidence is not sufficient to rally behind the story of artists as drivers of urban revitalization: first, because this is only descriptive data, and thus does not suggest anything about the possible causal mechanisms behind the process of the revitalization of neighborhoods, and second, because stories of gentrification are usually a “chicken and the egg story,” and so it is hard (at least using only descriptive data) to coin down what came first in the story: did gentrifiers move into poor neighborhoods because they were cheap? because they were close to downtown? because there were minorities there? or because there were other artists living there?

Overall, the literature on gentrification agrees that there are three factors: location– proximity to downtown, to public transportation lines,  housing– cheap and affordable housing, vacant housing space, and demographics–  endowment of young people, percent of minorities, that matter most in explaining why low-income neighborhoods gentrify.

So my next step was to try to tease out which neighborhood characteristics, in the form of location, housing and demographics in 1990 and 2000, most explain the gentrification of tracts between 1990 and 2007

This is the subject of my next post