Publication Date

December 1, 2002

A map of the greater Chicago metropolitan area.Welcome to the Chicago metropolitan area! From the beginning, those who studied city life recognized that there was a strong symbiosis between the “city” and the metropolitan area within which it resided. The City, the 1923 classic collection of articles edited by Chicago sociologists Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, asserted:

The city consists of not merely a continuous, densely populated, and built up area, but of suburbs and outlying regions, which by means of rapid transit are within easy reach of urban activities. . . . Although the inhabitants of this larger area of settlement may not be under the same taxing, policing, and governing authorities as the inhabitants of the city proper, they think of themselves as part of the same metropolis and actively participate in its life.1

In that same year, the Chicago Regional Planning Association was organized at a meeting attended by over 200 citizens and public officials from across the metropolitan area, coming from as far away as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Dwight Perkins, Evanston resident and architect, was elected president. By 1925, the association received its charter, and drawing on the Chicago sociologists as well as faculty and staff at Northwestern University and elsewhere, began research into metropolitan issues and dynamics. In 1933, Roderick McKenzie published his extensive tract, The Metropolitan Community, in which he extended the work on the “ecology” of the city to the metropolitan area; by 1956, the association had defined the region as the 15-county area lying within a 50-mile arc of Chicago, comprising almost 8,000 square miles (of which the city of Chicago covered 185 square miles).2

The ambitious reach of the association was tempered by reality when the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC), its successor, was established in 1957, with a state legislative mandate to plan for the six-county area around Chicago, including Cook, and the five "collar" counties: DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will Counties. This was the major growth area, and also the census-defined "metropolitan area" of Chicago at the time. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau began to create agglomerations of these metropolitan areas, indicating their growing integration and interdependence. This "consolidated" metropolitan area eventually linking Chicago, Gary (Indiana), and Kenosha (Wisconsin) grew from 8 counties (Cook, the collar counties, and Lake and Porter counties in Indiana) in 1960 to today's 13 counties (adding DeKalb, Grundy, Kankakee, and Kendall Counties in Illinois, as well as Kenosha County in Wisconsin).

The present Chicago-Gary-Kenosha metropolitan area has 9,157,540 persons spread over 9,000 square miles. Chicago's population, within the city's 228 square miles, is 2,896,016, or 32 percent of the total population. Density ranges from Chicago's 12,750 people per square mile to the average 1,132 people per square mile for the region, and 852 people per square mile outside of its "central cities." In addition to Chicago, the central cities include Aurora (second only to Chicago in population in the region, an old industrial city tied to the railroad and steel product industries and home to one of Illinois' gambling riverboats on the Fox River); DeKalb (home of Northern Illinois University, begun as Northern Illinois State Normal School in 1895); East Chicago (in Indiana, home of Inland Steel and LTV Steel, site of a gambling riverboat on Lake Michigan); Elgin (former Elgin Watch Company and state hospital, also home to a gambling riverboat on the Fox River); Evanston (Northwestern University, Women's Christian Temperance Union); Joliet (old industrial city, home to state penitentiary, new Illinois & Michigan Canal historic site and a gambling riverboat on the Des Plaines River); Kankakee (old industrial city in Kankakee River Valley); North Chicago (old industrial city, home to Great Lakes Naval Training Center since 1911); Gary (in Indiana, home to U.S. Steel since 1906); and Kenosha, Wisconsin (an old industrial city, home to Nash Motor, American Motors, and Daimler-Chrysler companies, with the oldest U.S. "velodrome" for bicycle racing, and a major regional retail outlet mall).

A new type of "city" is evolving in addition to these older industrial and educational cities. In his 1991 landmark work, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, journalist Joel Garreau identified four “edge cities” in the Chicago region-the Schaumburg area (including Hoffman Estates and the Woodfield Mall); the O’Hare Airport area; the “Illinois Research and Development Corridor” (including the area around Oak Brook, Lisle, Naperville, Aurora, and the East-West Tollway); and the Lake Shore Corridor (around the Edens Expressway and the Tri-State Tollway).3 These areas combine office buildings, corporate campuses, and retail malls with planned residential developments, cultural and entertainment centers, new campuses of older colleges and universities, and, of course, access to the major metropolitan expressways. Many are experiencing the need for more controlled growth, and participating in organizations such as the Campaign for Sensible Growth.

Beyond these "types" lay a broad array of communities. These include Cicero, which has traveled the journey from Al Capone's "town" to international infamy in the face of 1951 and 1966 riots against racial integration, to become a predominantly Hispanic community; Skokie, a major center of Jewish settlement after World War II, and the site of a Nazi march in 1978; Park Forest, famous post-World War II planned community and "new town," incorporated in 1949 and locus of William H. Whyte's sociological study, The Organization Man; and Lake in the Hills, in rural McHenry County, which grew almost 300 percent from a population of about 9,000 in 1990 to over 23,000 in 2000.4

Racially, the region is less diverse than Chicago, with the exception of Asians. The 2000 Census revealed that 67 percent of the region's population was white, 19 percent African American, 4 percent Asian, and 16 percent Hispanic (compared to Chicago with 42 percent white, 37 percent African American, 4 percent Asian, and 26 percent Hispanic). The central cities above, for the most part, have higher percentages of racial and ethnic minorities than the rest of the metropolitan area. Paralleling Chicago's reputation as a racially segregated city (the historic causes of which have been explored by historians Allen Spear, William Tuttle, James Grossman, and Arnold Hirsch), racial and class stratification in the metropolitan area are among the major issues explored by policy analysts at Harvard University's Civil Rights Project and the Brookings Institute. Among the topics investigated are the effect of the Gautreaux program (encouraging subsidized housing voucher holders to move to the suburbs) and the relative effect of federal spending on Chicago and the suburbs. Studies based on the 2000 Census find the mixed blessings of reviving cities and declining suburbs: an increasing affordability of homes in aging suburbs relative to the city's rising housing costs due to gentrification and the shrinking public housing stock. The median family income of that part of the region lying in Illinois (the only part for which median income data is available at the present time) ranges from Glencoe's $200,000 to Ford Heights $16,706.

Although studies of suburbs and metropolitan areas have lagged behind the astounding number of studies of Chicago, historians and sociologists are increasingly turning their attention to the suburbs. The process of suburbanization, the quality of suburban life, and the broad range of "suburbs" that have resulted have been the subject of some of the most respected scholarly works, including Ann Durkin Keating's Building Chicago: Suburban Developers and the Creation of a Divided Metropolis (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988); Michael Ebner’s Creating Chicago's North Shore: A Suburban History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Sally Helgesen’s Everyday Revolutionaries: Working Women and the Transformation of American Life (about Naperville) (New York: Doubleday, 1998); and Joseph Bigott’s recent book, From Cottage to Bungalow : Houses and the Working Class in Metropolitan Chicago, 1869-1929 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

Those interested in historical overviews and statistics on the Chicago metropolitan region may be interested in the Local Community Fact Book, published each decade since 1930. The 1990 edition, Local Community Fact Book: The Chicago Metropolitan Area1990 (Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago, 1995) included overviews of 53 municipalities in addition to Chicago’s 77 community areas. The 2000 edition will be one of the projects discussed in AHA session 70 on Chicago-area research.

is narrative editor of the Local Community Fact Book, 2000. She received her PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago for her dissertation, “Deeds of Mistrust: Race, Housing, and Restrictive Covenants in Chicago, 1900–1953.”


1. Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick D. McKenzie, The City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 184.

2. Roderick D. McKenzie, The Metropolitan Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1933); Daniel H. Burnham Jr. and Robert Kingery, Planning the Region of Chicago (Chicago: Chicago Regional Planning Agency, 1956).

3. Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (New York: Doubleday, 1991).

4. Willam H. Whyte, The Organization Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956).

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