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Were the Suburbs a Blip?

Chicago’s suburbs were once romanticized in John Hughes movies. Today, though, their well-to-do residents are flocking back to the Loop.

Image: Courtesy Universal Pictures

The 1980s were the pinnacle of America’s suburban era. Back then, nobody with money wanted to live in cities, which were seen as bankrupt relics of a lifestyle the country abandoned after World War II. In the ’80s, moving to the suburbs meant you’d made it.

Back then, the Chicago suburbs were particularly iconic. In movies by John Hughes — most of which take place in the fictional town of Shermer, Illinois, named after a road that runs through his native Northbrook — and in Risky Business, set in Glencoe, the suburbs represented both the prosperity and the status anxiety of American suburbanites.

Between 1967 and 1982, Chicago lost 250,000 jobs and a quarter of its factories. The city’s population fell from 3.8 million to less than 3 million. The Loop, almost entirely abandoned after business hours, decayed into a Skid Row of taverns, adult bookstores, short order grills, and men’s hotels — the type where Elwood lived in The Blues Brothers. As Gery Chico, the former chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley, told me several years ago, Chicago "was seen as a vestige of America’s industrial past.”

Now, though, the postwar suburban era is ending. The suburbs are becoming a haven for those who can no longer afford the city, and the well-to-do are seeking out urban living.

Last year, the Better Government Association looked into the declining fortunes of Dolton, a once-prosperous industrial suburb that has gone through the same transformation as many South and West side neighborhoods a generation earlier. When the factories closed, the workers left. The unemployment rate in Dolton is now higher than the statewide average, and household incomes are lower. According to the report:

The long list of problems faced by Dolton hardly fits the stereotype of suburban America, but they are increasingly becoming the norm, not the exception.

In 2017, Elizabeth Kneebone, a poverty researcher then with the Washington-based Brookings think tank, told a U.S. House committee there were more people living in poverty in the suburbs than in cities. She said the largest growth in the numbers of suburban poor was in the Midwestern rust belt, with Chicago area suburbs logging an 84 percent increase between 2000 and 2015.

In her congressional testimony, Kneebone identified housing costs as a significant factor in driving the poor from cities to suburbs:

The distribution of affordable housing options (often determined by a mix of market trends, zoning decisions, and housing policy) also affects the geography of the poor population over time. For instance, in some regions reinvestment in the urban core has translated to climbing housing costs that have led some residents to search for affordable options outside the city. In some cases, certain suburban communities have become more affordable to lower-income households over time as older, post-war housing stock has aged.

Meanwhile, the Loop added 5,000 residents between 2010 and 2016. A one-bedroom apartment above Block 37 rents for $2,600 a month. The city’s tallest apartment building, the 896-foot NEMA tower, opened last month in the South Loop, with “monthly prices ranging from $1,865 for a lower-level studio to $25,000 for a four-bedroom floor plan.”

On Twitter, urbanist Pete Saunders looked at the demographic trends driving the city’s rise and suburbs’ decline. He found that, between 2005 and 2017, Chicago’s population of 25 to 39 year-olds grew 15.7 percent, while it shrank in the rest of Cook County by 7.2 percent and in metro Chicago by 5.9 percent.

During the same period, Chicago’s population of 25 to 44 year-olds with a bachelor’s degree grew by 42 percent, while that same demographic grew by just 5.4 percent in the rest of Cook County and declined by 2.1 percent in the rest of the metro area.

Saunders’s conclusions: “The city is becoming younger and better educated. The suburbs are becoming older and less educated … suburban areas that once enjoyed a half-century advantage of attracting well-educated people may be losing that battle now, and must find a way to flip the script.”

For visual proof of that pattern, look at this map, which shows Chicago gaining people between 2010 and 2018 while all of its surrounding suburbs lose population.

John Hughes was a chronicler of suburbia, but the suburban teens in his movies are now the city-dwelling adults of the 2010s. Even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, whose characters grew up on the North Shore, takes place largely in the city: at Wrigley Field, the Art Institute, the Sears Tower, and the Von Steuben Day Parade. You can see the trend carried a step further in High Fidelity, starring Evanston’s own John Cusack as the owner of a Wicker Park record shop.

Love them or hate them, those kids from the suburbs are taking over the city.

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