After hours of meticulously charting Oak Park’s 2020 Census figures, Rob Breymaier started to become distraught by the story the numbers told.
According to Breymaier’s analysis of 2020 Census redistricting data made available by the University of Minnesota’s National Historical GIS, Oak Park’s total population went from 51,878 in 2010 to 54,583 in 2020 — an increase of 5%.
The data showed that people identifying as multiracial are the fastest growing segment of the population while people identifying as Black are disappearing faster than any racial or ethnic demographic. It’s the latter that has Breymaier concerned.
According to Breymaier’s analysis, people identifying as multiracial grew by 1,661, or 109%, while there were 823, or 7%, fewer Blacks in Oak Park between 2010 and 2020. There were also 230, or 1%, fewer whites, but 1,559, or 44%, more Latino and 467, or 44%, more Asian residents in the period between the two censuses.
For Breymaier — a former District 97 school board member and former executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center — the village’s precipitous loss of Blacks, or at least people identifying as Black, is a warning sign that Oak Park could be losing part of what has made the village so special.
Breymaier said he wonders if the apparent exodus of Blacks from Oak Park is a result of the village losing sight of the strategies and plans that helped make it a national model, albeit flawed, of racial integration.
“There are a lot of other places in the region that might consider themselves diverse, but their Black population is very small and the communities aren’t as welcoming,” Breymaier said.
“I wonder if there’s a change in the mindset about race in Oak Park that’s missing the fact that African Americans face a qualitatively different level of exclusion than other groups,” he added. “It’s more intense. It has a greater, much longer history. I’m concerned maybe we’re losing sight of that, that over time it appears we’re not as concerned about these issues.”
But not everyone who has analyzed the Census data sees the same picture. Tammie Grossman, development customer services director for Oak Park, reads the data differently.
“I’ve heard some people say, ‘Well, we’re losing our African-American population,” Grossman said. “I don’t know if that’s an accurate reflection. I think the Census officials allowed people to self-identify and a lot of people self-identified as being multiracial.”
Grossman said she isn’t surprised by the growth of multiracial people in Oak Park, since the Census options “aren’t black and white anymore.” Since the 2000 Census, participants have been allowed to choose more than one race.
In August, NPR reported that “research by the Census Bureau has shown that how some people self-report their racial and ethnic identity can change from census to census.”
Grossman said the reduction in the population of people who identify as Black may not necessarily equate to a flight of Blacks out of Oak Park; rather, she said, more people who previously identified as Black may be checking another box in the race category.
“I think it’s just an evolution of how we think about race,” she said, adding that more analysis of the data needs to happen.
But Breymaier pointed to nuances that may complicate that perception. From 2010 to 2020, he said, the Black multiracial population in Oak Park increased by 325 — from 849 to 1,174. During that time, whites who consider themselves multiracial increased by 1,582 — from 1,298 in 2010 to 2,880 in 2020. People in the “both multiracial” category, which is the overlap in the white and Black multiracial counts, increased by 310 — from 666 in 2010 to 976 in 2020.
According to Breymaier’s analysis of the data, the number of Blacks who decided to switch from identifying as Black to identifying as “biracial” is not large enough to account for the decline in Oak Park’s Black population. Another indicator of Black population loss, Breymaier said, is the declining number of children under 18.
“The overall change is negligible,” he said. “Both white and Black child counts went down while Latino, Asian and multiracial child counts went up. The scale of the decline in Black children is 29%, an alarming rate and one that might indicate that the Black population decline might accelerate.”
Breymaier said the number of Blacks in the village has been trending downward since at least the last Census.
“This is the second census in a row where we’ve seen a loss of the African-American population,” he said. “I think it was about the same amount last time, so we’re seeing a pretty significant decrease in the African-American population in Oak Park.”
He said Oak Parkers “have got to ask ourselves why this is and what we can be doing differently that would stop that outflow. Meanwhile, there are other things that are encouraging. We’re seeing a Latino population rise in a way that is a bit more in line with the regional population.”
Breymaier said the village should pursue an integration strategy similar to the famed Oak Park Strategy that was launched in the 1970s to stave off white flight and to carefully integrate the village.
“I’m not saying go back and do what we did in 1974; I’m saying be intentional, think about it, invest in it, so it can become a reality,” he said. “I think it needs to be done in a way that is updated for the times.”
Downtown high-rises correlate with
Oak Park population hike
In 2017, Anan Abu-Taleb, then the mayor of Oak Park, shared his vision for the village’s future during a March 24 meeting convened by Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin.
“We set a goal, a numerical value,” the mayor said in 2017. “We said we wanted to bring in $600 million of new investment over the next 10 years, increase our sales tax revenue by 50 percent and increase our population by 3,000 people.”
Since then, it would appear that Oak Park has come wildly close to achieving the third of Abu-Taleb’s benchmarks.
According to raw data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the village saw an increase of 5.2 percent in its population from 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That multiplies out to 2,705 new residents.
Tammie Grossman, director of development customer services for the village of Oak Park, believes there is a direct correlation between the growth in population and the construction of the village’s four high-rise apartment complexes, all of which were built under Abu-Taleb.
“I definitely think it’s probably due to those additional apartments that we added into the downtown area,” said Grossman.
Considered beloved or bemoaned additions to the community, depending on who you ask, the apartments are well leased, each boasting very high occupancy rates. Out of its 265 total units, the Albion, 1000 Lake St., is 98 percent occupied, as is the 263-unit Eleven33 building located at 1133 South Blvd. The Vantage building, 150 Forest Ave., has an occupancy rate of 96 percent for a total of 270 units. Meanwhile, the Emerson building, 1135 Westgate St., has the lowest occupancy rate at 94 percent but the highest number of units at 300.