It stands to reason that Chicago’s streets might feel sleepier than usual during major holidays. After all, people spend holidays prepping for dinner, relaxing or catching up with family and friends — not commuting to work, shopping or eating at restaurants.
But questioner Jed Dulanas feels that streets in Chicago are more than just sleepy; to him the streets feel empty during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“There was a Thanksgiving night where I rode my bike back to my apartment in Lakeview from Portage Park,” he said. “I thought it was so strange how dark all the residential buildings were and how there were almost no cars on Irving Park Road.”
When he got closer to the Lakeview neighborhood, there were so few cars that he even dared to bike down the middle of the streets.
As a Chicago native used to hearing street noise and street traffic — only to have it snatched away a few times a year — he couldn’t help but wonder: Is everyone here from another city? How many people are actually from Chicago?
For that question, Paral explained that recent Census Bureau data don’t detail which city residents were born in. But the data suggest that about 1.58 million of Chicago’s 2.70 million residents were born in Illinois, meaning about 42 percent of residents couldn’t have been born in the city. Here’s that breakdown:
That same set of data also shows Chicago has more potential “local natives” than some other major cities, including New York and Los Angeles. (Proportionally, fewer residents in those cities were born in their respective states). Census data suggest Chicago’s population is mostly average when it comes to the percentage of residents who migrated here versus those who were born and still live here.
Paral says he doesn’t know of any demographic data that specifically tracks traveling during the holiday season, but there are some traits unique to Chicago that could hint at an answer to Jed’s question. So Paral took some time to tell us more.
Dulanas says that Chicago’s streets always feel empty around the holidays. Is everyone actually leaving for their home city?
First of all, the fact that fewer people are out on the street doesn’t necessarily mean that folks have left the state because maybe they’re just in their house with their loved ones. So that’s one issue when we feel that Chicago is emptied out at holiday season. That maybe means the streets have emptied out but the city hasn’t emptied out.
Another interesting thing about Chicago around the holidays … You do sometimes see more license plates from out of state. I’ve always noticed in Pilsen and in South Lawndale, [you’ll] see license plates from Texas at the holidays.
The most recent census data shows about a third of Illinois residents were not born in-state. Why is that?
We’ve always been a magnet for folks moving especially to Chicago and the Chicago area from rural or smaller towns in the Midwest. And we still see this in the data — a lot of the migrants here come from central Michigan, central Wisconsin, etc. The  novel Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser — that great Chicago novel — starts with the protagonist on the train moving to Chicago from a small town in Wisconsin. So that’s definitely a part of the legacy of Chicago.
Is there any reason to believe that has changed over time?
Actually at this point in our history, more Illinois residents were born in Illinois than years ago. If you go back about 100 years, a higher percentage of people in Illinois came from elsewhere. In other words, there was more in migration in the past in Illinois. There’s less of that now.
We get a little bit less migration from other parts of the Midwest than we used to, although it’s fairly steady. What’s changed compared to about half a century ago, is that we used to get a lot of migrants from the South, and primarily that was due to the African-American Great Migration. If you go back to the 1950s and 1960s more than 10 percent of people living in Illinois were born in the South, whereas now that’s less than about 5 percent of the population. So there are fewer people coming from Southern states, and somewhat fewer Midwesterners moving here from other parts of the Midwest, although that still does go on.
Is there any way to track just how many people come and go during the holidays?
I don’t think we’ll ever know that. If I come from another state, I might go back home for the holidays. But maybe my family comes to visit me here for the holidays as well. We’ve got a big airport and a lot of transportation, so people go both ways.
I would venture to say that probably a lot of people living here do go somewhere else for the holidays. There’s also another factor at play: A lot of people in Illinois are here for professional education or training. So you’ve got a lot of students who would leave the state to go back home. … So I think to some extent you will see a little bit of emptying out of the city at the holiday time.
Is there anything else unique to Chicago that could account for more residents leaving during the holidays than the average city?
A lot of us in the city grew up in a suburb, and maybe we go to Naperville for the holidays or maybe we go to Peoria or elsewhere in the state to go back home. We might not be leaving the state, but we might leave the city because so many Chicago residents today weren’t literally born here, but are from elsewhere in Illinois. So, yes, there’s a lot of movement. The highways don’t get less crowded.
Max Green reports for the WBEZ news desk. Follow him @maxraphaelgreen