Photo by Igor Studenkov

Fifty years after most of Austin completed its shift from a majority-white to a majority-Black community area, another, subtler demographic shift is taking shape. 

During the past 13 years, the number of Latinos in Austin has been slowly but steadily growing, while its Black population declined. The gentrification of the traditionally Hispanic communities drove many of its residents west to communities with good, affordable housing stock. While the new arrivals are struggling to access resources, they are slowly but surely making their mark, opening up businesses and joining local churches. The last major demographic change saw the loss of resources, and it remains to be seen what sort of economic changes this shift might bring. 

The demographic forces

According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s analysis of the U.S Census data, the West Side’s Hispanic population has been increasing in all communities – but it’s especially pronounced in Austin. Its Hispanic population more than doubled in 2020, and it saw the most significant decline in Black population. The community’s Hispanic population more than doubled to 19.25% from 8.85% of the population. Austin’s Black population decreased by almost 10% to 74.58% from 85.1%.  

Credit: Compiled by Igor Studenkov/Staff Reporter

CMAP’s analysis of census’ American Community Survey estimates for 2021-2022 showed that, since then, the number Hispanic residents dropped slightly, while the number of Black residents increased slightly, the overall trend persisted.

Even back in 2010, census tract level data suggested an increasing Hispanic population in North Austin. According to a map compiled by the University of Illinois at Chicago, tracts at the northeast section of Austin, north of North Avenue and east of Cicero Avenue, showed that at least 40% of the residents were Hispanic. The percentages for the tracts in other parts of North Austin east of Central Avenue also saw significant numbers. There were two exceptions to this general pattern – tracts that fell within Galewood were at least 20% Hispanic, and the census tract that includes the Island neighborhood was almost 24% Hispanic.

The 2020 data showed northeast Austin’s Hispanic population growth, accounting for as much as 60% of the population in some tracts east of Cicero Avenue. The Hispanic population is seemingly spreading out and growing on the census tracts further out, data showed. 

There is no longer any tract north of North Avenue where Hispanics don’t account for at least 20% of the population, and the same is true for most census tracts north of Division Street. In census tracts within Galewood, Hispanics made up an average of 30% of the population, while the Island’s share of Hispanic population dropped to 19%. 

In a notable change, there were only three Austin census tracts – all of which fall within South Austin – where Hispanics accounted for less than 10% of the population.

Urban planner José Acosta Córdova, author of the 2017 Latino Neighborhoods Report, said that Austin isn’t the only majority-Black community that has seen an increase in Latino population. North Lawndale and West Englewood, too, have seen such increases. 

“Look at gentrification in Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Hermosa, all those areas, but especially Logan Square,” Acosta Cordova said. “People are getting displaced, and they’re looking to stay somewhere close to the areas where they lived for many years. Sometimes, they want to stay close to schools.”

Austin’s solid and affordable housing stock, including multi-flats, attracts new residents. Austin’s loss of long-time Black residents – who either moved out or died without passing on their home to their descendants – means that Hispanic homebuyers have plenty of homes to choose from.

“It’s happening now, when you have areas like that, that are being emptied out, and Latino neighborhoods that are gentrifying or already gentrified, places like Austin are going to be attractive for Latino families looking to give a decent house, put some money into it, and fix it up,” Acosta Cordova said.

Between the declining Black population and the increasing gentrification, the trend is expected to continue, he said. 

The new arrivals

Maricela Delgado moved to Austin with her family about five years ago. The former Logan Square residents looked at several communities, and chose a property in the 500 block of North Long Avenue to call home due to its affordability. 

The block of Pine Street where the Delgado family moved to five years ago | Photo by Igor Studenkov/Staff Rporter

“We do have one of the smallest homes on the block but it was perfect for us,” Delgado said. “We probably were the second Latinos that moved on the block. We did have neighbors come say hi to us, welcome us. We met a neighbor who lived in Austin for generations. It’s been great. It’s a great decision for us.”

Since then, she has seen more Latino families searching for an affordable home move to Austin, including migrants from countries like Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia and most recently, Venezuela. She has found “great friends” and built relationships with longtime community members. She also supports new arrivals with language barriers by translating and sharing information and helping them request services offered by local government. 

Ald. Emma Mitts has represented the 37th Ward since 2000. While the ward borders shifted somewhat over the years, it consistently included the sections of north and central Austin east of Central Avenue. In a statement sent to this publication, Mitts described the demographic changes as part of “an ongoing reality in 21st century major urban cities like Chicago.”

Ald. Chris Taliaferro, who represented the 29th Ward since 2015, agreed that affordable housing stock contributed to demographic shifts. Austin’s proximity to traditionally Latino neighborhoods like Humboldt Park also contributed. 

“When it comes to housing, when it comes to development and growth, it becomes an attractive neighborhood,” he said. “We have growth and creation of jobs. When you have that in a neighborhood, you’re going to attract more people, and I think it’s great.”

Taliaferro recalled the contentious 2022 ward remap process, when Latino aldermen tried to increase the number of majority-Hispanic wards while Black aldermen tried to preserve as many Black wards as possible – but other than that, he didn’t see much tension. And he said that the only kind of demographic transition he’s concerned about is one that would bring gentrification. 

Mitts said that it was important to make sure that all segments of the community benefit from “equitable investment.”

“We must support each other, be hospitable to one another, and prioritize services to all our demographic assemblies: today’s longtime residents, new multi-ethnic arrivals, seniors, youth, current and future homeowners, working families, existing and emerging businesses, and other community groups,” she stated.

A number of businesses catering to immigrants from various Spanish-speaking countries have been popping up in Austin, especially in the 37th Ward portions of North Avenue and Division Street. Mitts said that she welcomes this, because having “a steady growth mix of locally responsible businesses is much better and more civically preferable than the opposite — losing retail and service companies.” She said that her office has been helping them navigate the business licensing and zoning hurdles, with particular emphasis on returning vacant lands and empty storefronts to productive use. 

The Island story

The Island neighborhood on the southwest edge of Chicago gets its name because it’s separated from the rest of Austin by Eisenhower Expressway in the north and several blocks of industrial buildings in the east. The student body at G.R. Clark Elementary School, the local neighborhood school, is 50% Hispanic, 41.7% Black and 4.2% white.

Island Youth Ambassadors | Igor Studenkov

Kathy Jankun declined to say how long she lived in the Island, but her mother, Martha, has been living in the same house since 1962. Growing up, the neighborhood was still mostly white, she recalled. 

“All of the neighbors knew each other, most of them were policemen or firemen,” Jankun said. 

In the 1990s, the number of Hispanic residents increased dramatically, she said. 

“When Cicero turned Spanish, the Island turned Spanish, so I think it just followed through what was [happening in Cicero],” Jankun said. “I think that’s a reason why – Cicero changed pretty quickly too. It was all Italian, and that become Spanish, and that trickled over.”

 Many older white families either died or moved out, but some, like hers, stayed. More recently, Jankun has seen Black families arrive from the other side of Eisenhower Expressway. 

“When you talked to African Americans who moved in, they said it was quieter, and it’s peaceful,” she said. “It was still Chicago, still affordable.”

The neighborhood remained peaceful and safe for as long as she lived there, but the signs of disinvestment were impossible to miss, she said. She recalled a grocery store and a bakery on Roosevelt Road, and a G.R. Clark playground with “slides that that were probably as tall as skyscrapers.” Today, both Chicago and Cicero sides of Roosevelt Road are dotted with empty storefronts, and the closest grocery store is an Aldi location near the intersection of Roosevelt Road and Central Avenue.

That aside, Jankun said she can see why people continue to move to the Island.

“It’s still a really good neighborhood,” she said. “I recommend anyone to come [and move in]. It’s pretty nice. We like to keep our area clean. Everybody is welcome.”

Between two demographic changes

Retired judge Amanda Logan moved to Austin when she was “13 going on 14.” She said that her family moved to Austin so that she could enroll in Austin High School. At the time, the school was seen as superior to increasingly Black high schools further east, such as Marshall High School.

Austin College and Career Academy High School | David Hall

“They had yearbook, they had cheerleading — I was a cheerleader — they had band and orchestra, they had everything that you would want in a high school,” Logan said. “When I got there, it was mainly white, 90% white. When I [graduated in 1970], it had to be 80% Black.”

She said that while Black and white students occasionally fought, “most of the time, we got along and enjoyed ourselves.” But Logan vividly recalled teachers leaving and clubs shrinking as the population shifted. 

After graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University, Logan moved back to Chicago. In 1979, she and her mother moved to a house on the 1500 block of North Mayfield Avenue, near North Avenue and Austin Boulevard. The disinvestment she saw as a teen continued. 

“When I first moved up on Mayfield, we had a Jewel and different grocery stores in North Avenue. They’re gone,” Logan said. “They started to leave, and I don’t know why — we do buy groceries.”

Still, she thought that Austin had a lot of things going for it – the housing stock, the proximity to O’Hare and Midway airports and Eisenhower Expressway, the CTA rail lines and bus routes. And she felt that, lately, Austin’s commercial corridors have been moving in a promising direction. 

She has noticed more Hispanics – Mexicans, Venezuelans, and Puerto Ricans – moving to North Austin. Her next-door neighbor was Hispanic.  

“As far as I can see, everybody is getting along,” Logan said. 

In 2021, Logan sold her home to a friend of her neighbor and moved to the South Side’s Bronzeville neighborhood. She wanted to live closer to the Loop, and she didn’t want to have to pay to rehab the building. Yet she has nothing but love for Austin and she wants to see the community thrive.

“You’re going to make it a neighborhood regardless of who’s in there,” Logan said. “Everyone wants to have the kids educated. Everyone wants good schools. They want to come home without worrying about being knocked on the head. They want to buy some groceries –that’s a common thing for everybody. That’s what we should be working toward.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...