At Wednesday’s address to the City Council detailing his 2014 budget proposals, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made it clear he believes the city’s neighborhoods deserve as much attention and resources as the downtown business district.
“I believe the old model between downtown and the neighborhoods no longer applies,” the Mayor said, referring to the historical imbalance that has seen downtown grab the lion’s share of money and attention.
In calling for an increase in the city’s small-business lending, the Mayor also said “Neighborhood small businesses are the lifeblood of our city, and often the first step on the economic ladder for new immigrants.”
That’s why he said the city is investing in the arts outside of downtown, for example, by delivering performance and exhibits to the neighborhoods. And why he is proposing an additional $4 million in services such as tree trimming, graffiti removal and road abatements to help “keep our blocks, our streets and community clean and livable.”
Even before the 2014 budget address, Mayor Emanuel has taken significant steps to turn his vision into reality. In March, he announced nearly $3 billion in public and private funds to create “Opportunity Areas” in seven neighborhoods, including Bronzeville, Englewood, Little Village and others, to foster new economic development, housing, and quality of life improvements.
Emanuel also started a program requiring neighborhood residents to be hired for at least 7.5 percent of labor hours on city construction contracts worth more than $100,000.
But underneath the surface of well-trimmed trees, arts programming and specific initiatives, another reality lurks. It’s a reality that sees some of the city’s hardest hit neighborhood continue to suffer job losses and economic disparity while more affluent communities and suburbs benefit from a downtown-centered prosperity.
A recent report by the Grassroots Collaborative titled “Downtown Prosperity, Neighborhood Neglect: Chicago’s Black and Latino Workers Left Behind” found that 2002 and 2011, black-majority and Latino-majority city ZIP codes suffered a median loss of 620 and 381 downtown jobs per ZIP code, respectively. Meanwhile, white-majority city ZIP codes gained a median of 509 downtown jobs.
"Job creation and re-location, subsidized by over $1.2 billion from Chicago taxpayers, disproportionately benefits non-Chicago residents. From 2002 to 2011, downtown economic activity brought a net gain of 52,404 jobs to downtown Chicago," the report said.
The Collaborative also found that only 1 of 4 of those new jobs was filled by a Chicago resident, and unlikely to be filled by a resident of a less affluent community.
Unfortunately, the Collaborative findings are hardly unique. In 2010, for example, the largest amount of dollars distributed from the 2009 federal stimulus program went to one zip code—60603—in the heart of downtown.
Nationally, the trend is much the same. Overall, the number of jobs moving to the nation's suburbs grew over the last decade, as jobs within three miles of a city center fell from 24.5% of overall positions in 2000 to 22.9% in 2010, according to the Brookings Institute.
While the Mayor’s focus on neighborhoods in his 2014 budget is undoubtedly welcome across the city, the reality is that the downtown/neighborhood divide remains a deep-seated structural problem unlikely to be solved by a piecemeal approach.