When Sari Schwartz moved back to the Chicago area after six years in Los Angeles, she was looking for an “up-and-coming new neighborhood” to call home.
The 26-year-old, who works for a music-tech startup, is originally from the suburbs. She said many of her friends and family live in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side.
“I wanted to try something new,” Schwartz said. “Just looking for an area with more restaurants, retail shops, coffee shops, places like that.”
She settled on a boutique apartment building on the Near West Side, near Restaurant Row, the stretch of Randolph Street dotted with restaurants and bars.
“I’ve been loving living here,” Schwartz said, adding that she signed the lease for another year.
When Paul Lee and his partners were deciding where to open the second location for their cannabis business, Dispensary 33, the Near West Side was an obvious choice.
“So many people are moving to the West Side,” Lee said. “They’ve done a lot of construction [and] business-building, and it’s now an area where it’s desirable to live.”
Dispensary 33’s second storefront — the first is in Andersonville — opened in May, welcoming customers into its sleek industrial space on Randolph Street, just blocks from the main cluster of restaurants and bars.
“Knowing [the area] has been growing for the last two decades,” Lee said, “I think you see that development almost coming to ultimate fruition when you see something like a dispensary come through.”
A few miles over, on the Near South Side, Tony Chan stood outside his high-rise condo building on a brisk morning as parents with strollers and dog walkers passed him.
He listed all the things he enjoys about living on the Near South Side.
“We’re by the lake, … there’s a lot of green space, we’re close to downtown,” Chan said. “[It] almost feels like we’re in the middle of the city. We’re intersected by all the major highways.”
Chan grew up in nearby Bridgeport, near Chinatown, and had his eye on the Near South Side for a long time before moving there.
“I’ve seen this area just explode in terms of development,” he said.
The Near West Side and the Near South Side were among Chicago’s top 10 communities for population gains between 2010 and 2020, according to a WBEZ analysis.
Overall, the city’s population increased by about 50,000 during that decade. But aside from those top 10 communities — which are found mostly on the North Side or near downtown — the rest of the city actually declined in population by more than 40,000 people.
WBEZ conducted an analysis of growth in Chicago community areas within the past decade, examining growth in population, new construction permits, jobs, and licenses issued to new businesses. The analysis showed that majority-white communities, collectively, experienced high growth in all areas: population, jobs, new construction and new businesses. The same was true for areas experiencing significant growth in white population, like the Near West Side and the Near South Side.
Collectively, Chicago’s 20 majority-white neighborhoods grew in population by 8% from 2010 to 2020. Conversely, in the city’s majority-Black neighborhoods, which are located mostly on the South and West sides, population shrank by 4%.
When compared with majority-Black and majority-Latino communities, and communities with no majority racial or ethnic group, majority-white communities also had higher rates of job growth, new construction and new businesses.
Meanwhile, majority-Black communities had the lowest figures for all of those categories.
Bringing businesses, jobs and new construction to such neighborhoods has been a decades-long challenge.
“Real estate investment is about return on investment for a large degree,” said Mike Moravek, principal in charge of architecture, engineering and construction at The John Buck Company, a real estate development and investment firm. “The investors are looking for a return on their investment, and a growth area represents a positive situation where that return is more likely.”
He added, “To acquire a site where there is no growth, there is no redevelopment, is not worth the investment.” He said race does not factor into his firm’s decisions on where to build.
“It’s more of the economic makeup,” Moravek said. “From a private investment point of view, it’s whether the investors will make a satisfactory market return. It doesn’t really matter what the racial makeup is, but those larger economic factors are what drive investors.”
Moravek said the Near West Side is a key growth area in Chicago. The John Buck Company recently completed a 586-unit, block-sized development there called the Porte.
“[The Near West Side] is a very exciting area to be in,” Moravek said. “It’s really attractive in terms of its proximity to transit, expressways; it’s close to the central business district.”
To invest in Chicago’s South and West Side neighborhoods, Moravek said, it takes a “cooperative approach between the public side and the private side.”
He added, “Perhaps there’s some land that the city could contribute at a very low-cost basis? If the major banks are willing to invest, accepting a lower return for such a location, that would help.”
Moravek said the disinvestment in Chicago’s struggling, majority-Black neighborhoods “is not something easily solved, but it is a challenge that we collectively need to address.”
Urban planner and writer Pete Saunders said the rapid growth and development near downtown and on the North Side of Chicago — and the stagnation on the city’s South and West sides — are tied to a key factor: race.
“Race is a big factor in the growth and development and revitalization in Chicago communities,” said Saunders, who studies Rust Belt cities and urban dynamics. “It’s a big factor that many people do not want to acknowledge.”
He said race affects all the building blocks that make up growth, and individual decisions by residents, business owners and developers all add up to what he calls “Black avoidance.”
Saunders said, “There is a resistance to investing in black neighborhoods that’s passed on from generation to generation. It lives on beyond the old redlining days from the 1930s and forward.”
He added, “At the individual level, it is a rational choice, but in total, when you combine all those individual choices, it becomes something that has a great impact on those particular communities” that are struggling.
Jackelyn Hwang, an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford, has studied how Chicago neighborhoods have gentrified over time. She said while the private sector may not cite race as a factor in business decisions — and instead cite traits like income levels, for example — “because we live in such a segregated society, race and class are highly correlated.”
Hwang added that changes in mortgage lending and lax regulations have allowed investors and developers to “become bigger players in the last 20 years,” allowing more speculation to take place.
She said it’s up to policymakers to curb that trend.
“I think it’s really on policymakers to promote investment in other places to create equal, more equitable growth, equal quality of life across neighborhoods,” Hwang said. In addition, when neighborhoods finally get the investment they need, policymakers should ensure that longtime residents reap the benefits, Hwang said.
The City of Chicago, for its part, has touted INVEST South/West, its $750 million-dollar strategy to spur development in some community areas on the South and West sides.
For Nedra Sims Fears, executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative (GCI), which promotes economic growth in Chatham and other majority-Black South Side neighborhoods, those investments can’t come quickly enough.
Her neighborhood has not seen the same boom witnessed by its counterparts on the North and Northwest sides. Sims Fears says developers and businesses should stop relying on incentives from the public sector — in the form of tax increment financing (TIFs), low-cost land and other breaks — to bring construction and jobs to Black neighborhoods.
“They need to get off the City of Chicago welfare,” she said. “It just blows my mind that we have to pay them to come to our community — either they want us as customers, or they don’t.”
Sims Fears says the lack of investment in Black neighborhoods and the loss of population in those communities are related.
“Don’t tell me about loss in population when I can’t give people how they want to live, because you won’t build the housing in our community,” she said. “So you just talk in circles.”
While she is frustrated with the cycle of neglect and lagging growth, Sims Fears is hopeful. She said there have been more conversations on race and equity in recent years, and she believes they will lead to change.
“I am hopeful that with this recent kind of reckoning, of understanding the civil unrest and the deep structural inequities that have resulted from white flight, that people are looking at themselves and seeing how they can be part of a solution,” she said.
WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities editor Alden Loury contributed to this report.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.