Sitting on a bench in Lakeshore East Park, Jahaila Van Vreede reflected on growing up in the Loop in the 1970s and ’80s.
“I lived at 400 East Randolph Street,” Van Vreede said. “There were just three buildings here. People were like, ‘You live where?’ People didn’t believe me. ‘Nobody lives downtown.’” Then, this spot was “tall grass and unused railroad tracks,” she said.
Dedicated in 2005, Lakeshore East Park is now a miniature Central Park, surrounded by a miniature Manhattan. St. Regis, Aqua, The Shoreham — some of Chicago’s newest, most expensive apartment towers — look down on its dog park, a children’s playground, and manmade waterfalls drowning out whatever urban noise drifts into this sunken garden.
According to the U.S. census, the Loop — bounded by the river, the lake, and Roosevelt Road — was the city’s fastest-growing neighborhood in the 2010s, its population increasing by 44 percent. The fastest shrinking? Englewood, which lost 20 percent of its people. In 1970, Englewood had nearly 20 times as many people as the Loop — 89,713 to 4,936. In the last U.S. census, the Loop was almost twice as populous as Englewood — 42,298 to 24,369. The neighborhoods’ divergent fortunes — and the policies that have contributed to one’s rise and the other’s fall — tell us a lot about where Chicago is headed.
“We’re creating new luxury housing and getting rid of affordable two-flats on the South Side,” said Daniel Cooper, director of research for the Metropolitan Planning Council, which counted 1,028 new construction permits in the Loop and 925 demolition permits in Englewood over the past 11 years. “Those people aren’t moving to the Loop. The least-educated residents, people with blue-collar jobs, are going to other states. The city will become wealthier and whiter; we will continue to lose Black population. We’re losing Latinos to the Cook suburbs.”
Nine miles southwest of the Loop, Cecilia Brown stood beside a sculpture garden at 71st and Halsted. She wore a CPS Safe Passage jersey, having just finished a shift walking schoolchildren home through gang territory. Like Van Vreede, Brown also grew up in the 1970s, but in Englewood.
“There were a lot more Black-owned stores,” Brown recalled. “There was no crime. We can’t walk down the street now. There’s too many shootings. If I can go somewhere and have a job, I would leave and never come back.”
Resentment over the city’s growing divide was brought downtown in August 2020. After police shot a man in Englewood, protests and looting followed on the Magnificent Mile.
According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Loop’s median household income is $108,676. The average household size is 1.6. Eighty-two percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree. Half the housing stock has been built since 2000.
Amanda Whieting, a 38-year-old account manager for a software company, moved to Chicago from Ohio in 2014, settling in Printers Row because, she said, “I wanted to be closer to my office, and the benefits of not having a car.”
A concierge at St. Regis, which opened in 2020, described its residents as “Lumineers — industry professionals.” Tristen Heimann, director of residential rentals at Luxury Living, said the Loop has become a port of entry for the upwardly mobile: Many of his clients are professionals new to the city. (Rentals were down last year, due to COVID-19 and protests, but have returned to prepandemic levels, Heimann said.)
Every Chicago mayor is accused of building up the Loop at the expense of the neighborhoods. The city’s first tax increment financing district — the Central Loop TIF — was established in 1984 by Mayor Harold Washington to redevelop Block 37, which now has a shopping mall, an L stop, and the Marquee at Block 37 apartments, where one-bedroom rentals go for $2,400 per month (average for the Loop). Former mayor Rahm Emanuel spent $100 million on the Riverwalk expansion while closing 50 schools, six of which served Englewood. Dismantling housing projects has also taken a toll on the South Side. Destroying public housing, some argue, pushed gang activity into neighborhoods. (The Englewood police district had 66 homicides in 2020; the Central district had five.)
“Just because a community loses its population doesn’t mean it needs to lose its resources,” said Cecile DeMello, executive director of Teamwork Englewood, which sponsors a program to help ex-convicts find jobs and expunge their criminal records. “If you continue to disinvest, that contributes to the neighborhood’s instability.”
To Jerwayne Balentine, who operates Yo City Dog, a hot dog stand in a vacant lot at 63rd and Halsted, Englewood doesn’t have a population problem — it has a poverty problem: “Any impoverished neighborhood, I see poor people doing poor people shit. If you don’t uplift the community, expect that.”
What Englewood wants are Black-owned businesses that will keep wealth in the neighborhood. The Residents Association of Greater Englewood spent $35,000 to buy an abandoned Leon’s BBQ, hoping to attract a new restaurant. The city’s Invest South/West program is renovating a firehouse into an eco-food hub that RAGE CEO Asiaha Butler wants filled with local vendors.
“With us who weathered the storm, we need to do everything possible to have a better quality of life,” Butler said.
Gentrification is unlikely for Englewood, said Pete Saunders, an urban planner who helped draft the Greater Englewood Plan for the city in the 2000s. The last census showed that the divide between thriving and declining Chicago is no longer North vs. South, but lakefront vs. inland. Douglas and Oakland grew because the south lakefront was seen as “a new frontier.”
“I really couldn’t see gentrification going much further than the boulevards,” he said. “Englewood is too far inland.”
Englewood’s sense of neighborhood identity runs generations deep. Corie Luckett, an Englewood High School graduate, owns Englewood Branded, a clothing boutique that sells T-shirts featuring a cartoon bear named E-Dub.
“What can make Englewood grow is the opportunity to have ownership in the community,” Luckett said. “There are not too many businesses owned by people in the neighborhood. The city needs to support businesses here and provide capital. Anything can grow if you water it.”