Gentrification in Pilsen: Part 2

This is a lightly edited/revised version of my comments on Facebook and Twitter.

Last week, the Chicago Sun-Times published an article about gentrification as viewed through the lens of enrollment at Pilsen’s schools. I appreciate the work the author put in analyzing the local schools' enrollment and him telling the story of people like my great-grandparents, grandparents, and father, who were pushed out of the neighborhood that is now UIC. Not many other reporters have done that.

That said, he made the same mistake many other reporters before him have made: He wrote an entire article about immigrants and our immigrant community, but failed to mention immigration once! I raised this issue in my last blog post about gentrification in Pilsen.

You can’t have an immigrant community without immigrants.

From 2000 to 2014, immigration from Mexico was negative. NAFTA sent a wave of Mexican immigrants into Chicago, but that’s no longer the case. Due in part to the Great Recession and Obama and Trump’s immigration policies, that wave has reversed with 140,000 Mexicans returning to Mexico.

Moreover, the average American moves 11.3 times in their life. That number is higher for people who make less money; e.g. immigrants. When we’re looking at population trends in Pilsen, we can’t just look at counts. You have to look at flows. Who flows in and out of the community? As demographer Rob Paral put it:

I’m a product of that great river that starts around Pilsen and flows westward into the western suburbs. There’s a constant renovation on the westside of Chicago if we don’t screw it up now with our immigration policies. There’s always been a constant, almost like a river, of change on the westside of Chicago as one immigrant group after another flowed through it.

Up until 2000, Mexicans flowed into Chicago. Many of them landed in Pilsen. But with that in-flow turned off and the out-flow to Cicero, Berwyn, and Summit maintained, you get the neighborhood we’ve got. It’s been my theory that what most people call gentrification has really been declining immigration; from both the receding wave of post-NAFTA immigration and the reverse immigration following the Great Recession.

The rising rents that we all see in Pilsen follow from this. Without immigrants, there is no demand for the low-quality, unmaintained housing stock that characterizes much of Pilsen. For example, when I bought my home, one floor had been patched up but never renovated completely. The other floor was uninhabitable and hadn’t been touched in 50 years. I probably should’ve called Governor Pritzker’s property tax attorney :|

A Good Question

With this in mind, the question we should be asking is:

How much is Pilsen’s changing character due to gentrification (or the receding wave of post-NAFTA immigration) and how much is due to reverse immigration (aka the Great Recession)?

It’s a tough question to answer. The good news is the aforementioned Sun-Times author actually got new data from looking at enrollment numbers from the local elementary schools. You can actually see the effect of the Great Recession on Pilsen’s immigrant population!

While the plots that the author provided looked nice, they somewhat obscured the dramatic change that the Great Recession has had on Pilsen.

Good statisticians and data scientists dislike these types of plots precisely because they obscure trends in the orange and yellow areas. I took some time out of my Saturday to manually copy the data and create my own plot:

With the data separated out, you can see a few things:

  1. The decline in enrollment for K-2 dramatically accelerates around 2013. What year were 2013’s kindergartners born? 2008, the year of the Great Recession.

  2. The decline in enrollment for grades 3-5 unsurprisingly accelerates 3 years later in 2016. This is of course the same cohort born in 2008.

  3. The current 6-8 cohort was born, on average, in 2007. This is just before the Great Recession. There is, as of now, no accelerated decline in enrollment in 6-8th grade.

If you measure from 2013, the point at which you see Great Recession data start to show up, until now, the difference is striking. 2019 K-2 enrollment is at 62% of 2013 enrollment, while the 6-8th grade enrollment is currently at 83% of its 2013 number.

Using these numbers as a (very rough) proxy for separating the gentrification/post-NAFTA trend from the Great Recession/reverse migration trend, we can say that the long-term gentrification trend in Pilsen accounts for 17% of the decline in Pilsen’s Latino population (Pilsen’s public school enrollees are currently predominantly low-income Latinos), while the Great Recession accounts for the additional 21% of the decline found in K-2 enrollment.

Again, these are very rough measures. But the takeaway is that the effect of gentrification in Pilsen is equal to (or even less than) the effect of reverse immigration on Pilsen’s depopulation. Furthermore, we can’t entirely attribute the decline of population from 2000-2008 to only gentrification. There is the effect of NAFTA as well. It may be telling that the author omitted enrollment data for children born before NAFTA.


How many stories are written about gentrification? How much of the conversation is centered around gentrification? Is it equal to the amount of conversation and press that declining immigration gets? Nope. Not by a long shot. Why?

Maybe it’s because no one wants to talk about the Deporter-in-Chief that resided in Hyde Park and the White House for 8 years. Maybe it’s because local politicians and non-profits can’t rile up their base or get grants funded based on simple economic realities. Maybe it’s because their journalist friends prefer to be stenographers to those in power instead of doing the hard work of pushing back against simple and politically convenient narratives.

Come Census 2020 time, this lazy journalism and that political convenience is going to come back to bite Illinois. We’re going to lose a congressional seat and other funding associated with population. We could be doing things to prepare for or to avert this disaster, but instead we just keep hearing these simple and politically convenient narratives. Thanks Obama.