Why We Go Where We Go – A Story of Wicker Park

Scene from a recent Wicker Park Fest on Milwaukee Avenue.  Source: chicagotraveler.com
I sometimes get frustrated when I see the data that suggests that African Americans are moving away from Northeastern and Midwestern U.S. cities and relocating to the suburbs or to the South.  It seems many are chasing yesterday’s urban migration dreams, especially as cities are beginning to regain their footing.
Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution documented this shift among blacks as early as 15 years ago.  I’ve called attention to it myself.  Cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington on the East Coast, and Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Indianapolis in the Midwest have seen modest to strong declines in black population within their core city boundaries, and strong black population growth in their respective suburban numbers.  Those who aren’t moving to the suburbs of Northeastern or Midwestern cities are returning to the South.  Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Nashville and Houston can be counted among the recipients of a new influx of blacks contributing to their overall growth.
But if I really want to understand the sentiment that fuels this trend, I need to look no further than my own wife.
My wife’s family story starts in rural Arkansas.  My mother-in-law migrated from there to Chicago in 1968, joining a brother, two sisters and their spouses who had already moved here.  She would later bring her own mother here.  They all settled in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, renting apartments in a building near Division and Leavitt.  At that time there was a pretty significant African American enclave in the area that was part of a rather rich ethnic milieu in Chicago’s broader West Town community area.  My mother-in-law settled in an area that saw a Ukrainian enclave to the south, large numbers of Poles just to the north, and Puerto Ricans and Italians to the west.  In that regard her experience was pretty unique among blacks participating in the Great Migration; most usually settled in established and deeply segregated hubs upon moving North, like in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
My wife Gwen was born in 1970 into that Wicker Park neighborhood.  Her recollections of her childhood are in stark contrast to the gentrified Wicker Park as many understand it today.  It was diverse and a fun environment to grow up in.  But it was also poor – and quite dangerous.  Crime was visible and rampant.  Drug addicts were a common sight on the streets.  A commenter to this blog recently noted that in 1970 the Wicker Park and Englewood police districts in Chicago had similar overall and violent crime rates.  They have since diverged substantially.
After more than a decade in Wicker Park my mother-in-law decided it was time to buy a home and move her family to a safer area – the West Humboldt Park neighborhood.  She bought a two-flat in 1981 about two miles directly west of Wicker Park, where she still lives today.  To hear my wife tell it, the early days in West Humboldt Park were quiet, but it didn’t take long for the crime to follow them.  By the late ‘80s crime was every bit as visible and rampant there as it was in Wicker Park previously, and the crack era that would define this period in many U.S. cities was taking hold.  I became professionally familiar with the area while working for DePaul University’s Egan Urban Center in the ‘90s before meeting Gwen, and can attest to the crime problems. 
Gwen and I met in 1999, got married in 2003, and lived in a couple of South Side neighborhoods before moving to the suburbs in 2008.  We spent two years in Joliet before landing in Naperville in 2010.  Our experience in Naperville has been fantastic, even if more than a little “sprawly”.  Without question it’s safer.  I was able to utilize nearby public transit to my job in the Loop.  We enjoy shopping and entertainment amenities that weren’t available to us before.  We’ve enjoyed many pleasant days and evenings in a downtown Naperville that pedestrian-scaled and full of activity.  With our impending move to Peoria with my current job, Gwen would love to find a similar area.  If it were simply up to her we would never live in Chicago, or any large city, ever again.
You have to understand this.  To her, and to millions of other blacks who came up in cities at the same time, cities are not the next frontier, or some new land of opportunity.  Cities are not any more – or less – authentic in their being.  Cities are becoming something that no longer wants her.  In her view, cities are, at best, overpriced and over-regulated environments with no parking.  Full of incredible amenities, yes, but micro brewpubs, gourmet restaurants and coffee shops are not her scene.  She remembers when bikers avoided streets to prevent hit-and-run incidents; now they have their own bike lanes.  Cities are crowded, loud, and did I say no parking?  To her cities are best enjoyed through visits, not immersion.  She wouldn’t mind living in a city if we were one-percenters (or even five-percenters), so that we could live in the kind of home and have the kind of lifestyle that would mitigate her dislikes.  Alas, we’re not there yet. 
At worst, she sees cities as she experienced them during her childhood – dope boys on the corner, taking cover when she hears shots fired.  Troubled schools, traveling great distances to go to the supermarket.  Full of neighborhoods that lack access to the region’s job centers, both city and suburban. 
By contrast, she enjoys the lower density, retail-rich environment we live in.  Homes are larger and more contemporary.  The schools are excellent, and that means a lot when you have a third-grade son.  Parks and forest preserves are available for recreation.  Demographically speaking, Naperville has become a diverse community, with growing numbers of Hispanics, Asians and African Americans.  
Some of you may have seen Aaron Renn’s “new donut” development paradigm from a few months ago.  This is how he sees the transformation in metro areas evolving:



If I were to place Wicker Park and Naperville somewhere on this graphic, I’d place Wicker Park near the edge of the downtown circle, and Naperville in the middle of the larger collar counties circle.  

But as you might guess, this is a conundrum for me.  In a recent piece at Pacific Standard, geographer Jim Russell crunches the numbers and notes the growing paradox: 

“Concerning population, Chicago’s suburbs crush the city. In terms of education, the two parts of the metro whole are equals. We’re not done dis-aggregating. Looking at race and ethnicity, city whites are better educated than their suburban counterparts. As for income, whites make about the same regardless of residential location in the metro region. More important are the trend lines. The city, mainly for whites, is surging. Despite robust population growth, the suburbs are in relative decline for economic health.”

My wife sees opportunity in the suburbs.  And I can’t knock her for it.  But she’s not tracking the movement of the dark space in between.

A couple years ago, Gwen connected with many former childhood friends from Wicker Park on Facebook.  She found out that a “Wicker Park Reunion” was being organized to be held at the park itself.  She was excited to reconnect with many of the people she grew up with and get a chance to catch up with them.  We got there at the height of the party on a summer Sunday afternoon, with maybe 250-300 people in attendance.
The contrast between the reunion participants and the people in the park was pretty stark.  The reunion was full of people dancing to music blasting from the DJ’s sound system.  Numerous grills were fired up serving all sorts of good summer food.  Laughter flooded the park.  Meanwhile, there were dog-walkers looking to toss their Frisbee in the park.  There were skateboarders passing through.  There were people seeking a sunny spot for sunbathing.  There were young kids playing in the water fountain.  That would be this beautiful fountain:

Source: chicagoparkdistrict.com
Gwen remarked that the fountain never worked when she was a child, and wasn’t operational again until maybe 15 years ago.
Gwen did catch up with her former Wicker Park playmates and classmates.  Like her, most had moved away from the neighborhood, but some still remained.  Many had moved to other West Side neighborhoods sometime in the ‘90s, like Garfield Park, Austin, or Lawndale, or to inner ring suburbs like Maywood, Bellwood and Broadview.  A much smaller group branched further out to locations in DuPage County like we did, to Lisle, Westmont, Downers Grove.  Sometimes Gwen would ask about someone who wasn’t there, and she’d find out they moved to Atlanta, or Washington, or Houston.
When we were asked about where we were living and said Naperville, people generally said “great!  That’s fantastic!  Gwen, girl, you really came up!  I hope to get someplace like that one day!”

I don’t begrudge anyone’s desire to live where they want.  I just wonder who’s moving toward opportunity, and who’s moving from it.

4 thoughts on “Why We Go Where We Go – A Story of Wicker Park

  1. Maybe there is a racial component to migration trends in urban and suburban areas, but overall, my impression is that anybody who directly experienced city life between the 1960s and 1980s has been turned off by the idea of city living, regardless of race. I guess the racial component could be that it was primarily black people who experienced city living during that period of time. I think those who have experienced it since the 1990s will probably view cities more fondly, though, which makes your concern that black people are being excluded from the resurgence of our cities very legitimate. Cities should be welcoming to all people regardless of their race, age, values, or lot in life. Maybe upwardly-mobile black professionals should resist the urge to move to the suburbs, and invest their money in the cities instead. Besides, if cities are resurgent, then investing in them gives people a chance to make even more money, and a sense of helping rebuild the city to boot. It's harder to push out people with money anyway. With all that said, not all suburbs are losing their appeal. Here's a checklist of items that can make a suburb desirable:

    1. High-quality planning
    2. Nice houses
    3. Good schools
    4. A central business district
    5. Multimodal transportation

    The more items you can check off, the more desirable the suburb is, and the fewer items you can check off, the less desirable it is. I think this explains how suburbs like Naperville and Oak Brook are still desirable despite suburbs in general losing their appeal.

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  2. Your raise some good points here. Many people behind the resurgence of cities today grew up in '70s-'90s suburbia, and did not directly experience cities at their nadir. People who grew up in the suburban bubble almost reflexively denounce the authenticity of their upbringing yet tout the authenticity of gritty cities. It reminds me of the Anne Hathaway movie Havoc

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Havoc_(2005_film)

    in which rich LA kids who identify with hip-hop gangster culture get in over their heads.

    Whether or not upwardly-mobile blacks will begin to prefer cities is an open question. But I also don't believe that the fall in favor of suburbia means all will decline. Many will still survive, even thrive, for the reasons you mention. In fact, if suburbs manage to make your #5 a priority, I think many will be quite fine.

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  3. I'm not sure that it's accurate to generally state that suburbs are losing their appeal – while certainly some are suffering, on the whole they continue to grow quite robustly (and faster than center cities):

    http://www.vox.com/2015/1/22/7871687/death-suburbs-myth

    And while I (and probably many other readers on this site) would also find desirable the items you list, I'm not sure how relevant they are overall. Under Renn's “New Donut” theory, certainly having nicer homes – newer and sized to modern tastes – accounts for part of the continuing desire for suburbs, as always the lure of good schools. But so few suburbs have multi-modal transportation, a CDB, or “high-quality planning” that it's unlikely to play much of a role. With suburban growth nationally continuing to outpace urban growth, people still find suburbs that lack those characteristics attractive.

    Albaby

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