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After years of stagnating growth, the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois are facing numerous challenges. With population loss comes income and property tax shortfalls, less clout in the U.S. Congress, and a dent to the reputation and ego of the city’s residents. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s hard to argue with the annual reports from the United State Census that illustrate Illinois’s and the Chicago metro area’s struggle to grow. While it can be debated how much of an effect the loss of 20,000 residents has on a metro area the size of Chicago, the steady but sure trend of population loss is worrisome.
However, there is one seemingly straightforward way that Chicago could bolster its population figures despite its stagnant growth. Over the weekend, the Chicago Tribune published a commentary piece from writer and Michigan native Edward McClelland which suggests that the Windy City should consider annexing surrounding suburbs to boost its total population and keep growing cities like Houston at bay. McClelland suggests that keeping Chicago at the top of the list with New York and Los Angeles “is essential to Chicago’s reputation as a global city.”
The idea of annexing suburbs is not far-fetched, and it’s a practice that Chicago has utilized numerous times, especially during the last decades of the 19th century and during the early 20th century when the city was growing faster than any other in the world. Large areas like Pullman and Jefferson Township—a former municipality which included neighborhoods like Albany Park, Avondale, Portage Park, and several others—were annexed into Chicago in 1889 to make room for the growing city. But with the exception of adding O’Hare and a narrow path to the major transportation hub to the city, Chicago did not annex much else during the second half of the twentieth century.
Chicago’s “Second City” nickname traces its roots back to the contest between New York and Chicago for hosting the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 where Chicago was viewed as a secondary choice for the now-infamous fair, but it’s also a name that lent itself to Chicago’s long-held title and reputation for being the country’s second largest city. Los Angeles overtook Chicago as the country’s second most populous city in the early 1980s and the City of Angels has continued growing ever since. It’s also worth noting that in terms of land area, Los Angeles is more than twice the size of Chicago.
Annexation would by no means be an easy sell for many edge cities and townships, but there is certainly an opportunity for some suburbs to benefit from an annexation into Chicago. McClelland lists Cicero, Stickney, Bridgeview, Bedford Park, Evergreen Park, Oak Lawn, Blue Island, Calumet Park, and Dolton—suburbs that have property tax rates that are double Chicago’s—as candidates for annexation. Combined, these nine suburbs represent roughly 240,000 residents that could be added to Chicago’s population count.
Annexing these cities would get Chicago back to the 3 million threshold, but it wouldn’t get the Windy City back into second place. However, including other nearby suburbs like Evanston, Skokie, Lincolnwood, Niles, Park Ridge, Norridge, Harwood Heights, Franklin Park, Melrose Park, and Oak Park would bolster the city’s population count by another 340,000 residents, bringing Chicago’s total population back up to nearly 3.3 million residents—a population figure that Chicago had during the 1970s when it was truly the Second City. But to overcome Los Angeles’s current 3.884 million people, larger sections of Cook County would have to be annexed into Chicago.
While the idea is an interesting one to entertain, it’s not likely that the residents of many of Chicago’s surrounding suburbs would willingly drop their borders and hoist a Chicago city flag over their former city halls. However, some edge suburbs are certainly witnessing major financial and infrastructural challenges of their own which could be eased by annexation. Regardless, Chicago and its many suburbs have a symbiotic relationship and the continued strength of the metro region depends on both the city and its string of many suburban municipalities continuing to work together on finding solutions to common issues.