The Working Catholic: Exploring demographic changes in Chicago
(POSTED: 10/17/12) One afternoon in the early 1980s, legendary Chicago urban character Ed Marciniak (1917-2004) invited me to go for a walk in the South Loop. “The Loop is expanding,” he mentioned as we set out. “It is being repopulated,” he noted as we crossed Roosevelt Rd., heading even farther south.
Those strolls continued over several years to include Little Italy, East Humboldt Park, Cabrini-Green, Chinatown, Bridgeport and more. We went to many nondescript delis for lunch; we chatted with contractors; we made appointments with officials, school leaders, pastors, community organizers and executives; stopped-in at real estate offices; and read hundreds of neighborhood newspapers. “This is something like gentrification,” Marciniak observed. “But different too. We need a phrase to describe it.”
Eventually we settled on the term “new inner city” and wrote several reports, with particular focus on opportunities for first-ring parishes like Old St. Mary’s, then on Wabash Ave. at Van Buren St., St. Joseph’s on Orleans St., Holy Innocents on Armour St., St. James on Wabash Ave. and others.
Alan Ehrenhalt is editor of Stateline, a cyber-based news service on social policy. He too looks for changing demographics and cultural shifts in Chicago and other cities. His new book is “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City” (Alfred Knopf, 2012). He too thinks that to describe the trend “as gentrification is to miss the point.” Demographic inversion is better, he writes. That’s because the phenomenon is more complex than some urban pioneers—artists and young professionals—moving into warehouse lofts. That’s also because the ports of entry for today’s immigrants are in the suburbs, not within the first-ring of downtown. Further, the post-World War II suburbs are aging, not being replenished by upwardly mobile young families. Meanwhile those young families start off in exurbia or back downtown. Chicago’s Loop, as only one example, gained 50,000 residents in the last decade.
Ehrenhalt, a native Chicagoan, uses the University of Illinois neighborhood and Logan Square as examples urban infusion. He also devotes an entire chapter to the vibrant Sheffield or DePaul University neighborhood. He likewise sees the urban part of the trend in Charlotte, N.C., and in Vancouver, British Columbia. He profiles Atlanta, Ga., and elsewhere to showcase the suburban part of the story. He discusses the challenges for human services, public schools and taxation in the changing city areas and in the new suburbia.
Ehrenhalt admits that the numbers are small and that the current recession makes forecasting difficult. He also says that some places, like Buffalo or Detroit, will likely not experience demographic inversion. But the old model of commercial downtown, ringed by manufacturing and poor areas, ringed by upwardly mobile blue-collar neighborhoods, ringed by white-collar commuters is over in many North American settings.
Ehrenhalt looks at hardware—housing, train stations, commercial developments and the like. But he is concerned about software—the glue that makes a place inhabitable. His previous book, “The Lost City” (Basic Books, 1995), profiled St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish on 62nd St. in Chicago. What are the software consequences for that neighborhood as the children and grandchildren of its longtime Irish-American, Polish-American and other ethnics choose to live elsewhere? What are the software consequences for those young families as they scatter to exurbia in Will or McHenry County? And what about the Mexican-American arrivals in St. Nick’s, especially as they navigate school systems?
The challenge for church leaders and other software experts is not to lament the loss of the good-old-days or to war against new trends. It is, rather, to broker community—one family to the next, one soccer club to another, or book club to another, or one wine-and-cheese group to another or any manner of mixing of spirits. The demographic changes can be exciting; the “new face” of a neighborhood or a suburban area can be enticing. However, the building blocks of community are stacked and fastened slowly and deliberately.
By Bill Droel, an instructor and campus minister at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. He edits a newsletter on faith and work for the National Center for the Laity (P.O. Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).