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American Dream Betrayed

Suburban Decay

The American dream of the past century involved becoming middle class by moving to the suburbs with a house, garage, dog, children, and sense of safety with good school system. In fact, many scholars and policy analysts still make the city versus suburbs comparison with the underlying assumption that the city is poor and congested while suburbs are affluent and spacious. But just as many cities offer a great deal of economic and demographic diversity, not all suburbs are alike.

The most visible change in many municipalities is the composition of their residents. By and large, many towns are aging rapidly. For examples, while Blue Island's total population grew only by 3.8 percent in seven years, those between 50 and 64 grew by 55.2 percent; Burbank's growth of 5.3 percent is magnified for those between 60- and 64-year-olds, which grew by 55.3 percent, and Calumet City's 6.7 percent growth included sizable growth of those over 80 years old (43 percent).

Oak Park's overall stagnation (0.9 percent growth since 2000) does not reflect the 55.4 percent growth between 55 and 69 year-olds, and Evanston, which lost total population by 7.2 percent since 2000, gained residents over 80 years old by 25.1 percent during the same period. Similarly, Oak Lawn's decline in population by 1.6 percent did not deter the increase of the population over 80 by 24.6 percent. The sizes of growth in older residents in these areas indicate that they have yet to have an influx of young residents, or are losing younger residents, to balance their towns. Without a healthy proportion of residents who participate in the labor force to generate taxes, a community becomes difficult to sustain with such a large proportion of residents with fixed income.

Another change occurs in housing. One major stereotype of suburban residents is that they are consisted of homeowners. However, a number of suburbs that directly border Chicago experienced substantial increases in rental housing since 2000. For example, Dolton's rental housing increased by 30.4 percent, Calumet City's by 18 percent, and Harvey's by 16.1 percent by 2007. Incidentally, these towns all experienced a loss in home ownership while affluent suburbs like Evanston and Oak Park managed to increase home ownership with reductions in rental housing; Evanston experienced a 5.5 percent increase in home ownership and a 22 percent decrease in rental, while Oak Park had 5.8 percent increase in home ownership and 17 percent decrease in rental.

Not every municipality benefitted from overall increases in housing values across the area between 2000 and 2007. Oak Lawn and Burbank once maintained higher housing values than Chicago; now they have 16.7 percent and 12.8 percent lower median housing values, respectively, than does Chicago. Some areas that already had lower housing values, including Blue Island (42.1 percent lower than Chicago), Calumet City (50.9 percent), Dolton (49.1 percent), and Harvey (63.8 percent), fell further behind the city.

As a result of these changes, in addition to massive gentrification in the city, the latest estimated housing value in Cook County suburbs ($260,354), as well as that of all the suburbs in Chicago metropolitan area ($243,412), is lower than the estimated value for the City of Chicago ($270,700).

[See Estimated Housing Values in Selected Suburbs]

As a result of deteriorating conditions, some suburbanites are moving back into the city. But the more likely scenario for many of them is to go even further away from Chicago, contributing to urban sprawl while expanding the boundaries of Chicago's metropolitan area. Unfortunately, those who move further away from the city are met with other problems, from the stifling traffic congestion of Huntley and Lake in Hills to poor school conditions including the use of trailers in Aurora and Gurnee.

Combined with harsh conditions longstanding in poor suburbs like Robbins, a decentralization of poverty is underway throughout the region similar to the decentralization of business, housing and economic development that originally marked suburban growth.


Read more about who we are from Kiljoong Kim in the Who We Are archives.

Posted on February 9, 2009

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