On May 26th, 1955, the Chicago Tribune published a brief follow-up to a U.S. News & World Report feature on Chicago titled “Chicago’s Comeback.” The Report piece, in the words of the Tribune, “ … tells the story, surely familiar to the readers of this newspaper, of the dynamism of the Chicago community in recent years. In commerce, transportation, and especially in industry, Chicago’s progress in the last decade has been remarkable, and at more than a few points has led the cities of the nation and the world.”

The city described in 1955 sounds, at times, entirely different from the city of today. Sixty-one years to the week after the Tribune’s congratulatory article was printed, City Journal, an urban policy publication, published a more sober assessment of Chicago: “Municipal-level census estimates released in the summer show that Chicago, alone among the nation’s twenty largest cities, is losing population.” The news provoked another round of local hand-wringing—and denial. Pessimists point to the exodus of residents, rampant crime, and the city’s disastrous finances; optimists cite a boom in population, jobs, and construction in Chicago’s central business area. Both are correct, but in ways very different from superficially similar divides in coastal cities. Chicago is in some ways the platypus of American cities, an amalgam of unique traits that make it impossible to categorize.

In sixty years Chicago went from leading “the cities of the nation and the world” to being a platypus. What went wrong—and when?

Chicago is illustrated in a litograph from 1874, three years after the Great Chicago Fire. Despite the rebuild, the city’s population was surging, on its way to 1.7 million by 1900, up from three hundred thousand in 1870. (Image from Everett Historical/shutterstock.com)

Chicago is illustrated in a litograph from 1874, three years after the Great Chicago Fire. Despite the rebuild, the city’s population was surging, on its way to 1.7 million by 1900, up from three hundred thousand in 1870. (Image from Everett Historical/shutterstock.com)

The history of Chicago goes back two hundred-plus years to when Jean Baptiste Point du Sable set up shop on the Chicago River. But the City of Chicago that we know today—the city with a bustling business district, cultural institutions, and, to paraphrase hometown author Thomas Dyja, the industrial Florence to New York’s Imperial Rome—really came into existence in the century between 1850 and 1950. By 1950, the city saw its largest population at 3.6 million people, all of whom drove the industrial, beating heart of post-war America. The nineteen fifties also saw the revival of a dream, long abandoned by then, that maybe, just maybe, Chicago could surpass New York and become the world’s city as much as it was America’s.

That never happened, of course, for a number of reasons. Geographically, Chicago’s position in the middle of the country isn’t as advantageous as New York’s position on the coast to welcome immigrants and other settlers. New York, too, has about two hundred years of settlement on Chicago. And in more contemporary times, New York has been able to avoid the worst of white flight, crime, and economic disasters that have plagued and continue to plague Chicago.

But Chicagoans can dream, and at the turn of the century they did. “It is not a fancy of the fanciful to conceive Chicago with a population of 10,000,000 people,” wrote David Swing Ricker in a 1908 article for the Tribune. “It is figured by statisticians that that day will come in the year 1974—about July 4 of that year.” Ricker goes on to make a number of claims about the Chicago of the future, from a massive subway system to the elimination of “dire poverty.” A graphic accompanying the piece predicts the city to expand as far north as Winnetka, as far south as Mokena, and as far west as a Lemont-Elmhurst-Arlington Heights axis.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Chicago was quite literally nothing, except perhaps a node for traders and settlers in the region.

Perhaps to Ricker’s dismay, his predictions were indeed “fanciful.” But not all of his predictions were hopeless, and for good reason. Chicago may never have ten million people (then again, neither does New York), but at the turn of the century, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect such a tremendous amount of growth. When Chicago was incorporated as a city in 1837, the population was approximately four thousand people. By 1860, the city had one hundred nine thousand people living in it, a 2,625 percent increase. And by the time Ricker was writing in 1908, Chicago had grown even more, swelling to a population of more than two million people. It wasn’t done. The city would continue to grow until the nineteen fifties, finally peaking at a population of three million six hundred thousand in the 1950 census.

Understanding the reality behind these numbers is important to understanding why Chicago and its inhabitants have the ego, pride, and, vis-à-vis New York, the inferiority complex that they do. Chicago didn’t grow in a vacuum, and its rise can be expressed in more ways than just a census count. Why the city grew is as important as how it grew, and understanding both puts Chicago in a context that is sorely lacking in the current handwringing and doubt about the city’s future. Despite its faults Chicago is, still, the heart of America, the city that other cities want to be.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Chicago was quite literally nothing, except perhaps a node for traders and settlers in the region. Even in 1837, when the city was just as much a city as New York was (if only in name), Chicago’s population was minuscule, more of a village on a river than a respectable inland hub. But between the eighteen fifties and nineteen thirties, Chicago grew at a rate that no city had ever experienced. The Encyclopedia of Chicago, an indispensable resource compiled by the Newberry Library, puts the city’s growth in comparative terms that emphasizes its uniqueness:

“To start small and multiply several times in a few decades was not rare in the nineteenth century: Detroit expanded 13 times over, from 9,000 to 116,000, between 1840 and 1880; and St. Louis, 22 times over, from 16,000 to 351,000. But Chicago, going from 4,000 to 503,000 in the same 40 years, multiplied 126 times over. Then, despite its size, it doubled and redoubled. Increasing from half a million to a million, as Chicago did in the single decade of the 1880s, was truly rare, matched only by Los Angeles in the 1920s. Not even New York ever managed that. By 1900, Chicago was yet to observe its 70th birthday, but only one city in the Americas (New York) and four in Europe (London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna), all much older, were more populous.”

Chicago was, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a sort of “super city” that exploded on the shore of Lake Michigan. The city’s extraordinary growth was the result of a number of factors. It’s location, although preventing it from outpacing New York, positioned the city as the gate between the established East and the expanding West. Furthermore, the Midwest contained (and continues to contain) a number of advantages that primed one of its cities, although not necessarily Chicago, for a period of unprecedented growth—grain, livestock, waterways, technology (especially railroads), industrialization, and human capital. Chicago itself was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of all these factors, while other cities could combine only a few of them in any given sector.

The dream to catch New York may have turned out to be impossible, but it wasn’t always improbable.

From left: Seen from Franklin Street, Chicago in 1941 wasn’t that much different than today, a bustling hub of commuters and pedestrians; The city was a premier post for industry, and the Wood Street depot, or Potato Yard, seen here in 1959, housed hundreds of potato- (and other vegetable) carrying boxcars; Activism was alive and well in 1932, when twenty thousand unemployed workers flooded Grant Park.

From left: Seen from Franklin Street, Chicago in 1941 wasn’t that much different than today, a bustling hub of commuters and pedestrians; The city was a premier post for industry, and the Wood Street depot, or Potato Yard, seen here in 1959, housed hundreds of potato- (and other vegetable) carrying boxcars; Activism was alive and well in 1932, when twenty thousand unemployed workers flooded Grant Park.

Chicago reached peak population in 1950. The city was swollen with people, and not in a good way. Overcrowded housing, especially on the South Side, was a way of life. But post-war Chicago was an industrial giant that was used to exporting its name across the country and the world. In the twenty-first-century Chicago imagination, the nineteen fifties were, perhaps, a golden time in the city; the population was booming, the economy was the best it had ever been, and Chicagoans could look on their city with pride that not even New Yorkers, Los Angelenos, or anyone else had for their cities. Chicago was Chicago, and everyone knew what that meant.

More realistically, though, the nineteen fifties were a turbulent time for the city. Racial tensions, white flight, corruption, and a city trying to do too much all contributed to the bursting of the Chicago bubble and, more indirectly, the situation the city finds itself in today. “The growth up to 1950 … was due to the result of massive immigration a generation earlier, and the propensity to live in cities, the kind of jobs that were being created—a lot of economic forces,” explained Rob Paral, a Chicago-based demographer. “The war years led to a boom. So that’s kind of what led to the urban population growth.”

Immigration to Chicago is simultaneously one of the most well-known but also overlooked aspects to Chicago’s growth and current slump. Native Chicagoans may know tidbits of immigration trivia, like the fact that Chicagoland has the largest Polish population outside of Poland, or that eighty languages are spoken in Rogers Park alone. But the sheer number of immigrants to Chicago, and their absence in recent years, is much easier to overlook.

The dream to catch New York may have turned out to be impossible, but it wasn’t always improbable.

In the most explosive years of the city’s population growth, between 1850 and 1920, foreign-born immigrants never composed less than thirty percent of Chicago’s population, except in 1920 itself when that number was 29.9 percent. But from 1930 onward, the number of foreign-born Chicagoans has continued to dip, outside of 1980 when the number rose first to 14.5 percent from 11.1 percent a decade earlier, then to 16.9 percent in 1990. But the decline in the number of foreign-born residents in Chicago today has completely wiped out the gains from twenty and thirty years ago. Since the nineteen nineties, hailed as Chicago’s second Renaissance, immigration has stalled. According to Paral, immigration to Chicago between 2000 and 2007 was less than half of what it was the decade previous: twenty-one thousand immigrants to fifty-four thousand in the nineteen nineties.

Beyond the issue of immigration is also natural migration from rural to urban areas, then from urban zones to suburban ones. “Part of the story here is much bigger than Chicago; it’s about trends in the United States,” Paral said. “There are a lot of cities that have a roughly comparable pattern, especially in the east and central part of the country. There was, up to a decade, a time when most Americans lived in rural areas, and then, sometime around 1920, most Americans for the first time lived in cities. In the 1970 or 1980 censuses, most Americans for the first time lived in suburbs. So this is something that is much bigger than Chicago.” 

This internal movement is a well-documented trend in American history. In 1910, the census measured that approximately forty-five percent of the population lived in urban areas, but by 1920, over half (fifty-one percent) did. According to the most recent census data, in 2010, just more than eighty percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas.

But within those “urban areas” the suburbs are increasingly pulling people out of cities. According to a Wall Street Journal article from March 2016, suburban population growth has outpaced urban growth “for decades,” and Americans continue to live more and more in suburbs as opposed to cities. The census, unfortunately, does not differentiate between “suburban” and “urban” areas, hence the large percentage of people who live in census-defined urban areas. Nonetheless, the website FiveThirtyEight.com (headed by statistics guru Nate Silver) found that “…new census population data shows that the fastest-growing large cities tend to be more suburban.” For its part, Chicago is one hundred percent urban within the city limits. Chicagoland is mostly suburban, and its population is the largest between the coasts. thewaywewere

Chicago’s suburbs have a dependent relationship with the city. On the one hand, they are economically linked with the Chicago economy. On the other, they pull population and people from the urban core. In fact, the suburbs are one reason among several for Chicago’s poor population numbers since the nineteen fifties. “Public policies and decisions made by elected officials and voters are a big part of the reason” for Chicago’s slow decline, said Paral. “If you vote for and choose to develop highways that radiate out from cities, and if you make the interest paid on home mortgages tax deductible, those are decisions that make it more economically feasible for people to move to the suburbs.”

Rather infamously, racial motivations, triggered by an expanding black population on the South and West Sides, induced white Chicagoans to leave the city. The highways of the Eisenhower administration helped facilitate the move, as well as build out suburbs previously outside Chicago’s sphere of influence. By 1960, Chicago’s population was sliding and, except for a brief moment in the nineties, it has never been able to recover.

The opening of the suburbs in the nineteen fifties and sixties began a new chapter in the development of Chicago. In essence, the suburbs acted as a release valve that prevented the city from bursting at the seams. Nonetheless, the growth of the suburbs meant a decline in the city proper. By 1980, the city had lost three hundred thousand people, and by 2010, the city was at its lowest population since approximately 1920.

But suburban expansion doesn’t fully explain Chicago’s dramatic population loss. In fact, according to census data released earlier this year, the Chicago metropolitan area itself is also losing population: six thousand two hundred sixty-three people moved out between 2014 and 2015 according to the government. Illinois, not just Chicago, is an unpopular place to be.

The problems facing Chicago and its metropolitan area are numerous. To explore the issues, the Tribune surveyed a number of ex-Chicagoans who moved in recent years. The paper found that, “Common reasons [for moving] include high taxes, the state budget stalemate, crime, the unemployment rate, and the weather.” Flatlining immigration and birth rates compound the problem.

Daniel Hertz, a senior fellow at the think-tank City Observatory, also credits a decrease in population density for making Chicago’s issues worse than they need to be. “It’s only been very recently, I think the last couple years, when you started to see the Chicago region as a whole stall out in terms of population,” Hertz said. “Chicago is not making the most of the neighborhoods where there is lots and lots of demand to live. Downtown, obviously, there are a lot of buildings and tons of housing, and the population is exploding. But places like Logan Square, Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, Lakeview—those are just a few places that probably have as much residential demand as they ever had, and yet their populations are flat or declining.”

In a 2015 article for Crain’s Chicago Business, Hertz points out that at one time Lincoln Park was home to more than one hundred thousand people. Today, its population is at sixty-four thousand. On the apartment-to-apartment level, buildings that once were homes for families of “five or six people” are now home to “a family of three or four—or maybe a childless couple. Or maybe just one person,” Hertz said.

“Large family households are being replaced with smaller households,” he continued. “People are tearing down three-flats and building single-family homes, and Chicago’s zoning laws aren’t oriented toward allowing more density in neighborhoods, and they haven’t been for a really long time.”

As Lincoln Park became wealthier, for example, lower-income residents were eventually forced out as the neighborhood became more expensive. As a result, Lincoln Park and other depopulated neighborhoods became “segregated enclave[s]” of wealthy homeowners, in Hertz’s assessment, while “regular people” were forced into other neighborhoods or the suburbs.

Of all the problems affecting Chicago, neighborhood depopulation is perhaps the worst self-inflicted one.

A question on every Chicagoan’s mind, at least in the context of this conversation, is “What about Houston?” Newspapers for years have (in Chicago) decried the city’s endless losses, or (in Houston) praised the city’s innovation and growth. It’s not difficult to see why, as the census numbers show, Houston just keeps going, while Chicago just keeps slowing.

A Houston Chronicle article from June 2015 quoted University of Southern California demographer Dowell Myers as predicting that “It isn’t ‘possible,’ it’s ‘probable’ that Houston will grow to be the country’s third largest city,” and that “[Houston] has the employment trajectory, and it has the land area.” Chicago’s “exclusionary zoning rules” are also cited as an issue that gives Houston an edge, because Houston’s zoning laws are much looser.

bigfive-landareaBut Yonah Freemark and Marisa Novara, policy analysts with the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council, say there are more factors that go into a city’s growth (or decline) than zoning laws. “Zoning can reinforce existing trends. For example, you can have some very high-density zoning downtown and get big buildings. Or it can stop trends,” Freemark explained. “On the north lakefront, the zoning laws used to allow much larger buildings than are currently allowed. That basically produced a series of very large buildings in the nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies. But then the city decided that they wanted to stop having such large buildings, and so the zoning policy put that trend to a stop. So zoning can play an important role in determining the way the city looks and how it develops over time.” But, Freemark noted, “one thing zoning can’t do is address the demand for construction.”

If zoning laws aren’t the silver bullet that determines a city’s destiny, what can stimulate construction in places like Chicago? “The city recently strengthened its transit-oriented development ordinance, which allows for higher density and less parking near transit,” Novara said. “And we’ve seen a lot of areas near transit take advantage of that and respond to the fact that there’s huge demand. That’s mainly been on the North Side near the Brown and Blue lines.”

“One thing we’re really interested in exploring is how to extend that phenomenon to other parts of the city that have transit,” she said, “and in many cases have a fair amount of vacant land, and take the same kind of benefits that we see from allowing people to live near transit and extend them to places where people would benefit from the affordability and the proximity to transit.”

Regarding southern and western cities, like Houston, Freemark made two observations on common misconceptions. “One is this idea that they have looser zoning laws. It is true in many cases that in Texas cities you’re allowed to build more, especially in Houston. But the reality is that they also have restrictions. They have significant parking requirements that are similar to zoning requirements. The idea that they don’t have zoning restrictions is, I think, inaccurate.

“The other thing I would say is that Chicago is significantly denser than almost all of the areas in the southern and western cities—even in our most depopulated areas. The result is that we actually are building up; we’re building more infill construction than these other places. That’s something we need to take into account. Another thing worth pointing out is that, while it is true that these other cities have increased in population, a lot of that increase has been caused by two factors: one, the increase in size of these cities because they have the ability to annex their suburbs … and two, they have significantly more immigration than we do.”

Freemark touched on something important but easily overlooked: the difference in sheer land mass between Chicago and Houston. The city of Chicago, and its 2.7 million people, is contained within two hundred thirty-four square miles. Houston, with its population of 2.1 million people, is spread out over six hundred square miles. In fact, Houston’s size is larger even than Los Angeles’ and incorporates a number of suburbs that lie far outside the city center. In that regard, comparing Chicago and Houston isn’t appropriate.

Despite Houston’s confidence that it can overtake Chicago, Rob Paral sounded a note of doubt when asked about the future of the two cities: “It’s a big ‘who knows?’ [if Houston will surpass Chicago]. Mathematically it could happen if Houston keeps growing at the rate it’s growing. But we don’t know if Houston will continue to add forty thousand people a year. If it did that for another decade it would pass Chicago. But I really can’t, and wouldn’t, say that I know it’ll do that.

“I don’t know if that’s a realistic trajectory for Houston. Something in my gut instinct says no, it won’t, but if it continues its current rate of growth it would,” he concluded. Chicago may be hurting, but it’s far from being down for the count.


If New York is the world’s city, then Chicago is America’s city. And although for a while Chicago appeared positioned to surpass New York, not only in terms of population, but also culturally, New York was able to establish its place as America’s first city through methods that simply weren’t available to Chicago. Where Chicago annexed, New York “consolidated,” a fact of history often lost on Chicagoans. The five boroughs—Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island—that compose contemporary New York City were at one point their own cities. Even today they remain their own counties but organized under one entity. There were a number of motivations for consolidation, but chief among them was an economic one: a united New York would dominate the domestic and, eventually, global economy. So, on January 1st, 1898, after a long campaign led by the New York elite Andrew Haswell Green, the five boroughs came together under one entity, the so-called “City of Greater New York.” Although the boroughs retained more autonomy than any of the townships annexed by Chicago ever did, New York City nonetheless cemented its place in American society.

Thus, New York is the culmination of five hundred years of immigration, growth, and consolidation. Chicago is not. New York is a coastal megalopolis; Chicago is a heartland metropolis. And Chicago’s history shares a number of similarities with other Midwestern cities and towns: It was settled by frontiersmen, grown by industry, came of age at the turn of the twentieth century, and is now suffering a post-industrial gutting, crisis, and regrowth. But Chicago is still heart of middle America; it is still the City of the Big Shoulders. Chicago is still Chicago, the city other cities want to be.

About the author

Dominic is a recent graduate of Loyola University Chicago with a degree in political science. Interested in Catholic and higher education news, he has seen his work featured on RealClearEducation, National Review Online, and The Drudge Report.

More From Chicagoly



  • Phil Lynch December 9, 2016 at 11:04 am

    Great article. Keep up the good work.

  • Phil Lynch December 9, 2016 at 11:08 am

    An informative piece. How will Chicago fare in the 21st century?

  • Last Chiringa January 26, 2017 at 7:56 am

    Please can I have the contacts of Dominic Lynch. I enjoyed his articles all the way from Africa, especially one Catholic Universities. I am a Catholic as well and gained a lot despite the backwardness of many of our people here in Africa.