In a city of neighborhoods with population shifts tied with race, history and economics, demographer Rob Paral argues the rash of articles about each census update has been a bit overblown.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time now, I didn’t use to see this jumping on these numbers, tracking it like a Geiger counter or a ticker tape like, ‘Oh my god, are we up or down?’” said Paral, whose firm, Rob Paral and Associates, helps philanthropic foundations, service organizations and government agencies with demographic research.

While there are lessons to learn — some troubling — about the city’s population decline, “The entire midwest, from North Dakota to Ohio, from northern Michigan to southern Missouri… for half a century now has been losing population,” Paral said on The Daily Line’s “Aldercast.”  

But Chicago has been losing population faster than some of its larger industrial neighbors in the Midwest. It is driven almost entirely by what Paral cubs a “reverse Great Migration” – a black population consistently exiting the city.

“The really big issue sitting in the room, really sucking up all the oxygen if you open your eyes, is what is driving African American population away from this city?” Paral said.

The black population peak in Chicago was 1980, according to Census data.

“We’re going now 16 years of losing 15,000 blacks a year,” Paral says. “It’s an amazing number – bigger than a lot of suburbs – moving away.”

“This is so important and striking. It’s not happening in other big cities. It’s not happening in Philadelphia, it’s not happening in New York, it’s not happening in Los Angeles.”

Without that exit, Paral estimates Chicago might still be considered the “Second City” in terms of population.

While columnists may blame taxes or crime, Paral says that answer will only be known “when a lot of African Americans who are very much from the community are part of the conversation. They can tell us what’s going on and how to stop it. Do we have that kind of conversation going on? I don’t know. I think we don’t, actually.”

Meanwhile, the city’s North Side is welcoming more affluent, largely white, young, well-educated people. What Paral dubs the “zone of affluence” is expanding from downtown through Lincoln Park – North and West to Lakeview, parts of Uptown, Edgewater, and now Pilsen, Wicker Park and Logan Square. Sometimes, that expansion has coincided with a loss of density, as some families tear down classic Chicago two- and three-flats in favor of single family homes.

“In Chicago, the story is, who is booming?” Paral said. “It’s really safe to say the developed zone of affluence… it’s pretty impressive in its scope and size.”

There is another threat to Chicago’s population – changing national immigration policy. Historically, past federal crackdowns have harmed cities in particular, Paral said, which serve as “processors of immigrants.”

“All the midwestern cities were built by immigrants,” Paral said. “When you turned off the spigots in the 1920s, it coincided with the declines of those cities… they were hit really hard by reactionaries. It had a multi-decade effect.”

That tide reversed when President John F. Kennedy liberalized immigration again in 1965, Paral said.

“It coincided with the boom of these cities again, to a great extent,” Paral said.

The city is on the precipice of a different large population drain as President Donald Trump’s administration seeks to crack down on immigration from Mexico as well as Central and South American countries.

Right now Chicago’s population is roughly 2.7 million. Without that Latino population surge, the city would be down as low as 2.2 million, Paral said.

“If it wasn’t for the Mexican immigrants of the 80s, 90s, and early aughts, we would have been cooked,” Paral said.

“We had massive immigration keeping the city’s population up. We’re at another precipice now nationally. You cut off immigration now, you screw Chicago.”


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