Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mapping the Territory

A few months ago, I floated some speculations about Bridgeport’s real estate market, hoping to follow up with people who make their living in it, to hear what they thought.

So far, the follow up part has been slow going. (It turns out people don’t want me to profile their real estate holdings on my blog!) I’m not out to embarrass anybody, but I’m still optimistic persistence will pay off.

Lately, I’ve been working up some maps. I’ve been hoping to find patterns that would provide context, and maybe people who don’t want to broadcast their own business will be willing to theorize about cumulative effects (especially good ones).

Also I did a project like this before, and it still shapes how I think of Bridgeport now. That was 9 years ago this summer, I was editing an Affordable Housing Fact Book for the Chicago Rehab Network, a community development advocate, after the 2000 Census had come out.

You may recall, the 2000 Census was a triumphant one for Chicago. The population had grown for the first time in 40 years! The median income had grown significantly faster than inflation, and significantly faster than rents.

People were richer but housing was still cheap – that was a big improvement on CRN’s previous Affordable Housing Fact Book, which found that real incomes had dropped over the 1980s, and rents had doubled.

Even so, not all neighborhoods experienced the 1990s in the same way. That summer, I was trying to tease out variations the big picture obscured by mapping changes in population, incomes and housing costs across the city’s 77 community areas. When the Fact Book came out, it showed trends moving across clusters of neighborhoods in a few persistent patterns.

A large cluster of neighborhoods extending northward across the lakefront were booming: with a burst of new housing construction and growing numbers of high income households (and shrinking numbers of low income ones), they were at the center of an expanding ring of rising rents and home values.

At the same time, large swaths of the south and west side were still thinning out. Their populations were dropping, their housing stock was shrinking, and vacancy rates were still high.

Bridgeport and its neighbors, especially those hugging the I&M Canal on the way out to Garfield Heights, fell in a cluster that was virtually bursting.

Their populations were exploding, especially low income households displaced from the booming and thinning communities, or arriving as new immigrants. But the housing stock was not keeping pace, giving rise to various kinds of housing stress – from overcrowding to high housing-cost-burden, a measure of the portion of its income a household spends to keep a roof over its head.

At the time, I thought these were dangerous signs. From what I’d read, the “thinning” communities had been bursting ones, before a combination of housing stress and politics condemned them to the urban renewal ploughs.

But Jack Markowski, who was Housing Commissioner at the time, saw something different in our bursting cluster. He observed that overcrowding was a relative term – it’s often measured as more than 1 person per room, yet our Mayor at the time had grown up in a Bridgeport bungalow with 7 kids. He described the neighborhoods in the bursting cluster as vibrant, dynamic, even exciting places to be.

Now that I live here, of course, I’m inclined to agree with that assessment. My view of the cluster has also expanded, and the questions I’m inclined to ask have changed.

New City shared qualities with “thinning” communities in 2000. But it shares historic ties with Bridgeport. The Lower West Side, which includes Pilsen south of 18th Street, was a bursting community that’s been historically separate from territories below the South Branch, but it’s tied to Bridgeport by patterns of hipster-migration, and shares other characteristics with the Greater Bridgeport area.

The neighbors might not think of themselves as part of Greater Bridgeport, but they would probably recognize we share some broad similarities, especially when compared with the city as a whole.

Our populations include large numbers of the foreign born, and, historically, miniscule numbers of African Americans. Our housing stock is older than that of the city as a whole, and a relatively large portion of it is comprised of small apartment buildings, but very little of it is in buildings with more than 10 units.

Though there are variations within the area too: the Lower West Side and Armour Square outpace everybody in drawing immigrants; Armour Square (whose census tracts extend to State Street) and New City (which includes both Canaryville and Back of the Yards) include respectable numbers of blacks.

In 2000, Bridgeport, McKinley Park and Brighton Park were more similar to each other than the rest of the cluster by almost every measure. Their median incomes were identical for instance, and just below the city median. By comparison the Lower West Side, Armour Square and New City looked like poor relations – more modest in income but sharing a family resemblance.

Communities across the area were built to house workers in Chicago’s manufacturing sectors. And by 2000 it was still true that workers employed by manufacturing industries, or in occupations in Production, Transport and Material Moving, maintained a strong foothold in Greater Bridgeport, even as they lose ground everywhere else.

And that may make Greater Bridgeport a good vantage on Chicago’s ongoing transformation from a manufacturing and logistics hub to whatever has come next – a service economy, a global city, maybe a magnet for the creative class.

Manufacturing jobs once brought masses of Chicagoans to the middle class. What has come next is often said to be have drawn the workforce into 2 tiers: those who provide professional services to corporations -- whose skills and long hours are compensated with high wages -- and the larger mass of those who provide consumer services – who do the housework of life the professionals no longer have time for – at a much lower rate of pay.

After 2000, the bursting cluster looked to me like the line of exodus low wage workers were following out to the inner ring suburbs as the higher wage ones priced them out.

Now, Greater Bridgeport strikes me as a point of confluence, where old and new, high wage and low wage, coexist. It’s not clear if it will last, or if it is just a moment in transition. But in the maps that follow, I hope to make a snapshot of what that looks like now, on a local level.

A Quick Complaint About the Census:
Before I launch in, though, I should acknowledge some limits on what these maps can say for certain about what’s happened since 2000.

It turns out that the detailed information once available through the long form of the decennial census won’t be covered by the census anymore, but by the American Community Survey. The Survey will be updated every year. (And it is still available through the legacy American Factfinder! Up until the 2010 ACS is added, when it will be migrated to the new, less-usable format.)

But the sample is smaller, and the margin of error is greater, especially for smaller geographies like census tracts. Plus, the data available now averages the years between 2005-2009, 4 of the most volatile years in the Chicago housing market.

So the observations that follow will sometimes start with 2000 data, which is more accurate but out of date, and use the 2005-09 figures as general indications of the kind of thing that has probably been going on since then.

After 2000: Some General Indications of What’s Probably Been Going On
To start with, some of the pressure that made Greater Bridgeport seem ready to burst in 2000 has lifted.

Chicago’s population stopped growing and dropped a little over the course of the decade, but its development engines kept running. The city’s housing stock grew by 70,000 units between 2000 and the survey of 2005-09. When the decade started, 10% of Chicago households were overcrowded, and only 6% of rental units were vacant. Now, less than 5% of households are overcrowded, and 9% of rental housing units are vacant.

In the 1990s, Greater Bridgeport’s population grew at rates that surged ahead of the city as a whole, and crowding was more intense here. In the 2000s, population dropped faster in some Greater Bridgeport neighborhoods, though it held steady, or grew, in others. Crowding fell from 2000 highs, like it did for the city as a whole, but it is still higher than the city’s 2000 peak in area neighborhoods, except Bridgeport proper and Armour Square.

The post-war urban-development engine has been more sluggish in Greater Bridgeport than in the city as a whole. The census counts existing housing units by the year they were built, giving some indication of development activity in the past – though some units built in earlier decades will have been demolished by a later census.

In fact, the median year built for housing units in Chicago dropped 3 years between the 2000 census, when it was 1948, and 2009, when it was 1945 (give or take a 1 year margin). The change probably reflects the demolition of thousands of units of postwar high-rise housing, and their replacement with low-density development. But Chicago’s housing stock is still weighted toward the post-war years.

The median year built for housing in Greater Bridgeport is uniformly “pre-1940” (a single category in the census). The area has lower portions of housing units built in each of the post-war decades than Chicago at large. And what units were built in the 1940s, 50s and 60s are weighted toward the southwest. McKinley and Brighton Park are sometimes described as communities of “second settlement” – that is, places the working class moved as they became more established. In the decades after the war, they were still filling in.

That pattern shifted as the decades passed, advancing eastward up the Archer corridor. New structures built in the 1970s and 80s accumulated in Bridgeport’s south and east quadrants. Structures built in the 1990s and 2000s clearly favored Bridgeport and Chinatown.

[And the South Loop, which I originally included in the maps as a point of contrast. But through 2009, the Near South Side was comprised of just 4 census tracts – Bridgeport is divided into 16 – which makes all counts seem exceptionally large there.]

The 1990s and 2000s were boom years for Chicago as a whole, but new development added fewer housing units than in past decades, which probably reflects a preference for single family houses over big multi-unit buildings. In Bridgeport at least, a blooming of big houses built on multiple lots is visible from the street.

A Neighborhood of Owners and Renters
I had thought of Bridgeport as a neighborhood populated by bungalows and worker’s cottages and the homeowners who inhabit them. That is more true of McKinley Park and Brighton Park; it is less true of Armour Square, New City or the Lower West Side. On average, Bridgeport tracts have owner occupancy rates on par with the city as a whole.

On a census tract level, high rates of owner occupancy trace 2 distinct corridors through Greater Bridgeport: one includes Bridgeport’s northwest quadrant, and follows the Archer and I&M Canal. A second extends from Bridgeport’s southeast quadrant through Canaryville.

The Lower West Side, Armour Square and Back of the Yards are all renter-occupied at rates higher than Chicago overall. In many tracts, 60-80% of households live in apartments. But almost all of them are in small apartment buildings, and many of those small apartment buildings are owner occupied.

Small landlords have sometimes been assumed to be the keepers of an aging, dilapidated housing stock, and to lack access to capital to maintain it. There is a whole literature on the “small landlord problem.” It dates back to the decades of urban flight, when many small landlords probably really were left holding properties they didn’t want, but couldn’t sell, in neighborhoods that seemed to spiral into decline.

But scholars were still opining on the topic as recently as 2006, when Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies published a paper on how small landlords might be bought out by small-property-REITs, which could better leverage them to reinvest. Since then, bundled ownership and more leverage doesn’t necessarily sound like an ideal thing.

In fact, the literature has also consistently acknowledged that small landlords who were also owner occupants are exceptions to the “problem.” Owner occupancy has been the best indicator of good management among the small apartment stock.

Chicago’s population of small apartment buildings has been steadily decimated over decades. But Greater Bridgeport has managed to maintain a dense supply.

Owner occupied small apartment buildings are densest in the vicinity of Lower West Side and Back of the Yards, but Bridgeport also has large numbers in certain tracts, especially the blocks west of Halsted between 32nd and 35th Street. Bridgeport’s small landlord district might prove a good base for maintaining the neighborhood’s income balance in decades to come.

A Solid, Middle-Income Working-Class
Ownership is often associated with stability and prosperity, so it is striking to be reminded it’s not always associated with higher incomes.

Overall, median incomes in Greater Bridgeport are close to, but slightly below, the city median. In 2000, Bridgeport, McKinley Park and Brighton Park had median incomes that were markedly higher than their neighbors in Lower West Side, New City and Armour Square.

On a census tract level, most tracts were just below the city median in 2000, with the exception of Back of the Yards, where median incomes are significantly lower than that.

A few tracts along the Archer / I&M corridor surpass the city median, but the most regular path of higher incomes extends through east Bridgeport and Canaryville.

By 2005-09, those patterns were shifting. Citywide, incomes didn’t keep up with inflation, but in most parts of Greater Bridgeport they did. Most census tracts still show incomes below the city median, however. And the Archer / I&M Corridor is less solidly high income than it was; Brighton Park’s fortunes have fallen in line with the poorer relations in New City and the Lower West Side.

Higher incomes seem to match tracts with new construction, more than high ownership, with a solid corridor of higher income tracts following Normal Avenue corridor into Canaryville.

These tracts also marked the transformation of Greater Bridgeport’s employment base. A transformation most visible by comparing maps of workers employed in Production, Transport and Material Moving occupations with workers in Management and Professional ones.

Citywide, workers employed in Production, Transportation and Movement of Materials are a shrinking crowd – almost twice as many workers are employed in Professional and Managerial occupations. But they are still well represented in Greater Bridgeport, especially in the area’s southern and western parts.

Workers in Management and Professional occupations are represented at lower rates, relative to the city, in most tracts; they are best represented in a visible cluster in Bridgeport, McKinley Park and Canaryville.

Occupations traditionally associated with the region, like Public Administration and Protective Services, show largest portions of workforce on the east corridor. So, surprisingly does Finance Insurance and Real Estate – a sector I’ve never associated with Canaryville before.

Artists are often talked about as an engine of the new economy. The Lower West Side, or Pilsen, shows high rates of workers employed in the arts and entertainment, as you might expect. And those occupations are visibly spreading into Bridgeport.

Artists are also sometimes described as the advance troops of gentrification. And it does appear that in some parts of Greater Bridgeport, home values are more visibly associated with artists than with other factors, like income, or professional employment.

But the scale on these maps is set to show rates higher and lower than those in the city as a whole. The actual rates of workers employed in arts, entertainment and media are significantly lower than those highlighted on the maps of production, or professional workers for instance. So it is hard to draw conclusions with confidence.

The Cost of Housing
Overall, home values in Greater Bridgeport were lower than for the city as a whole. Tracts in lower Pilsen make a notable exception, since the Lower West Side is otherwise a low income, high immigrant, neighborhood of renters.

Bridgeport also stands out for its high home values. Home values are highest around Normal Avenue and north Canaryville, where incomes are also high, and where large portions of the housing stock were built on old industrial land in the last 20 years.

Median rents are highest around Normal Avenue too, along with an improbable stretch of Garfield Boulevard on the northern border of Englewood. (Do these rents reflect section 8 contracts, or just large apartments?)

Rents are low in significant quadrants of Bridgeport proper, even where home values are high. The small landlord section appears to be charging affordable rents. So does the northeast quadrant, which has received some of the new immigrants spreading out from Chinatown.

Looking Back at Vacancy and Crowding
After 2000, the southwest bursting cluster was defined by crowding, even as it was surrounded by neighborhoods that were thinning out.

Since then, Bridgeport’s population has dropped, and its housing stock grew. It has low rates of crowding, and higher rates of vacancy.

But crowding is still relatively common in New City and the Lower West Side. So are vacancies. In fact, the maps of crowding and vacancy are almost the same.

We had heard about rising vacancies in neighborhoods with high rates of crowding after the 2000 census. We wondered if it showed that families were doubling up to pay rent. Rents are not high in these tracts, relative to others. It might also reflect substandard housing that renters won’t occupy, or neighborhoods in transition. Owner occupant landlords might prefer to keep units vacant than to rent to people they do not know.

If I were an affordable housing advocate, these are the areas I’d be focusing my attention now, to better preserve a stock of housing that has given generations of workers a sound foothold in Chicago.

As a citizen of Greater Bridgeport, though, I’ll be most interested to see what happens in 2 very different sections of Bridgeport itself: the Normal Avenue/Canaryville corridor, and the small landlord section west of Halsted. I hope they are both representative of Bridgeport’s future.

(If you have an observation, comment or critique, I am looking for feedback! You can reach me by e-mail at


  1. Great info, Kristin.

    I'd love to see the percentage of change for each category from 2009-11 too. Maybe there is a part 3 coming out soon? ;-)

    I'd also like to see the percentage increase of the arts category from 2009-2011 vs 2005-2009. It sure seems to me that there has been an increase in the arts in Greater Bridgeport

    Where is the Normal/Canaryville corridor exactly? Do you mean 34th to 43rd Streets?

  2. I have been thinking of the census tracts east of Halsted all the way down to 55th as Canaryville. Though some trends don't continue south of 47th. Is that off? What are the traditional boundaries of Canaryville?

  3. Kristin,

    A very informative article and I agree with you. I hope that the trends in the Normal/Canaryville corridor is indicative of the future of Greater Bridgeport as a whole.


  4. Kristin,

    Canaryville extends from the viaduct (our typical neighborhood "dividers") at 40th Street to 49th (another viaduct). Then from the viaduct east of Normal (around 400 West) to Halsted.