Census Reflects Shift in Metropolitan Life

Census figures show suburbs and exurbs are booming, while urban centers — such as Chicago's Cook County — are eroding. But what do the statistics really show about life in large metro areas?

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Coming up, millionaire mudslinging. But first, new census figures released this week show that more Americans are moving to the extreme outer edges of metropolitan areas. Away from suburbs and into what are called exurbs. The changing demographics have affected cities in the Midwest and Northeast in particular. But nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the Chicago area. Over the past five years, the population of Cook County, which includes Chicago, declined more than any other in the U.S. But Kendall County, which is more than 50 miles west of the city is the third fastest growing county in the nation. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

Every day John Berg (ph) sees firsthand just how much the population is booming in the exurbs far outside of Chicago. No, he doesn't work for the census bureau. He's not a demographer. He's not even a home builder.

Mr. JOHN BERG (Metra Conductor): Tickets, please, tickets.

SCHAPER: Berg is a conductor for Metra, the Chicago area's commuter rail system. He works on the Union Pacific West Line, which just opened two new stations in the sleepy towns of La Fox and Elburn, extending service 10 miles further west than the trains use to go.

Mr. BERG: Since we've put service out there on the 23rd of January, every day you see more and more people getting on those two stops. Now there's people who live all the way to Rochelle. They're commuting into Chicago every day. So you're talking about 80 miles one way into Chicago.

SCHAPER: Here at the end of the commuter train line in the small town of Elburn, some 50 miles west of Chicago, there's nothing but a parking lot, empty corn fields, a couple of barns, and a farm house, and literally nothing else. But for the people who commute this far out, it's exactly what they want.

Mr. GREG PAUL (Exurb Resident): It's just so great to sit and sit on your deck in the summertime and watch the sun go down, and you know, it's beautiful. No, I love it. I love it.

SCHAPER: Greg Paul moved five years ago from Oak Park, a suburb bordering Chicago to near St. Charles more than 40 miles west. Technology allows him to run his web based commodity trading business from his home most days. Though he rides his train to the Chicago Board of Trade and the Mercantile Exchange a couple days a week. And he says the move actually saved him money.

Mr. PAUL: Bang for the buck with houses, it was a lot cheaper.

Mr. STEVE TURNOKI(ph) (Sycamore Resident): My name is Steve Turnoki and I live in Sycamore, Illinois and work downtown Chicago.

SCHAPER: That's a haul.

Mr. TURNOKI: It is a haul.

SCHAPER: Why? Why do you live way out there?

Mr. TURNOKI: I like the rural setting and I like the pay downtown.

SCHAPER: Turnoki's home is more than 60 miles from his job, and he commutes almost two hours each way.

Mr. TURNOKI: If it weren't for this train, I wouldn't do it at all because I'd go insane trying to drive in every day, especially with the snow that we see tonight. I get a lot of work done on the train, and a little me time without kids, without the family and without work bothering me, so it's kind of nice.

SCHAPER: Demographer Ken Johnson of Loyola University in Chicago says as more people move out to the edges of metro areas, businesses and jobs move out there too.

Mr. KEN JOHNSON (Demographer, Loyola University, Chicago): Many people may actually be reducing their commute times by living in the outer suburbs and working in the outer suburbs.

SCHAPER: And Johnson says many of those moving to the edge of metropolitan areas share some common traits.

Mr. JOHNSON: You're getting more affluent people, non-Hispanic whites and slightly larger family sizes moving out.

SCHAPER: There is something of a ripple effect going on. People move from the city to nearby suburbs while others move from those suburbs further out. Those moving into the city tend to be younger, usually just out of college, or immigrants who earn much less. From 2000 to 2005, Cook County lost about 73 thousand residents. But that's just a 1.3 percent drop.

Johnson says other urban counties in the Midwest and Northeast, including Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburg and Philadelphia have much more to worry about, losing three to five percent of their populations while their exurbs are growing.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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