Which comes first? Closed schools or blighted neighborhoods?

As Chicago closes public schools, a question arises: Do school closings contribute to a community's downward spiral — or are they a symptom?

February 18, 2013

The above Google Street View map of Chicago's Englewood community shows Woods Academy on the left. It was identified as a potential CPS closure last week. Many of the surrounding properties on Racine Avenue, including the ones pictured on the right, are either vacant lots or abandoned properties.

 

The image above gives a glimpse of what students walking up Racine Avenue on Chicago’s South Side pass on their way to Woods Academy: block after block of boarded up buildings and overgrown vacant lots.

The blight surrounding Woods Academy, a Chicago public school in Englewood, is a common scene outside many other neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides.  

DataDive

The data used in this story was mostly obtained through the city's Data Portal: data.cityofchicago.org.




 

Woods Academy was one of 129 schools flagged last week when CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced that nearly 20 percent of the city's 681 schools are eligible for closure.

The release of the school names has started another round of debates as the potential closures were more acute in neighborhoods already grappling with economic and violent crime issues, specifically the Austin, Humboldt Park, South Shore, Englewood, West Englewood and North Lawndale communities.

Many neighborhoods on the North, Northwest, and Southwest Sides were unaffected, with some of those communities having no schools at risk for closures.

The crux of the CPS rationale for closing the schools is the notion of underutilized schools. The district claims that many of the schools operate below their originally-intended capacities, which could translate into higher costs to maintain large facilities.

Analysis of census data suggests that the areas most affected by the potential closures have experienced dramatic drops in population over the past few decades.

Some may argue the population decline was a symptom of inadequate schools, limited access to mass transit, struggling local economies and a disproportionate amount of Chicago's violent crime, exacerbated by gang and drug problems.

The cocktail of social and economic problems has led to a drastic real estate decline in the affected areas. The communities have higher amounts of foreclosures, decreased property values, abandoned buildings and properties the city demolished. (The city has a process to raze buildings as they become safety hazards from disrepair or magnets for crime and drug trade.)

WBEZ has compiled reports of abandoned properties, city-owned vacant lots, community area census figures from the city's data portal site and juxtaposed them to the locations of the potential school closures.

The result: The areas with the most possible school closures are almost a 1:1 match against communities with the most distressed real estate. 

The above Google Street View shows a street in the Englewood neighborhood pocked with vacant land plots and abandoned properties. Nicholson Tech Academy is the school on the left of the image. While spared a spot on the possible closure list, it has been previously flagged as underutilized. A large amount of the surrounding properties on Peoria Street are vacant or abandoned. Google's street cameras appear to have captured a team of contractors working on an abandoned structure on the right of the photo.

 

Abandoned properties

The map below details properties that were reportedly abandoned, according to data from the city's data portal website.  Abandoned properties can constantly change, depending on when ownership changes hands.  The data are a reflection of reports made by residents through the city's 311 call center.

The map below reflects a sampling and not a definitive account of reported abandoned properties from Jan 1, 2012 to Feb 1, 2013. Duplicate reports were removed to get a more accurate measure, however it's possible that some of the properties could currently be occupied. In fact, some of the reports will indicate if a property is being occupied. Abandoned properties can be illegitimately occupied by vagrants, children or gang members. 

 

 

Vacant lots owned by the city

The city of Chicago owns thousands of properties, including office buildings, parks, industrial buildings, schools and parking lots.  

The following is a compilation of "city-owned land inventory."  Like the previous map, it reflects a snapshot, not an updated record, of largely vacant lots owned by the city of Chicago. Most used to be private residences or businesses that were razed.

The number of properties changes hands and is updated so frequently it is difficult to have a accurate database of properties that are vacant and without development.

However, the following map offers a sufficient indicator when paired against Google's satellite imagery.  Some of the empty lots may have been recently sold and can show newly constructed structures. Some properties were turned into parks, urban gardens, parking lots, etc.

It's important to indicate that Cook County handles the transfer of deeds regarding properties and that this map is a reflection of city data that does not necessarily correlate (effectively talk) with data from Cook County.

Last year, the city of Chicago began demolishing abandoned properties they believed to be magnets for crime. Those properties are also included in the data set below.


How does this look?

When the data sets for abandoned and vacant properties are combined, the map paints a dramatic picture of blight across Chicago.  While some of the individual discrepancies are more visible in satellite and street view, the data are mostly accurate in portraying distressed communities, which may now lose many public schools.

 


 

Population

The following table shows census figures by community area, utilizing census data from 1990, 2000 and 2010.