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Protests And Pandemic Change Quality Of Life For Chicago's Downtown Residents

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Downtown living in cities like Chicago has offered short commutes and bustling culture. But amid a pandemic and social unrest, people are rethinking city life. Monica Eng of member station WBEZ reports.

MONICA ENG, BYLINE: In recent decades, home seekers have flocked to downtown Chicago. Since the '80s, the residential population there has ballooned nearly sixfold, and it's made Chicago's downtown the nation's fastest growing. But then came the pandemic. It shut down offices and most entertainment venues. Recent unrest has also left many of the most exclusive stores covered with plywood. And that's got some people here wondering about their choice to live downtown.

JUDY AIELLO: I think when COVID first started, we missed symphonies and the plays and summer concerts.

ENG: That's Judy Aiello with the downtown residents organization called SOAR. But she said by midsummer, folks here were getting hopeful that things would soon return to normal.

AIELLO: Then when we got hit the second time, I think that's when people started to just think, what am I here for if I can't enjoy the cultural institutions that I moved here for?

ENG: Deborah Gershbein, who heads the residents association, says the one-two punch of COVID and widespread vandalism has left some shaken.

DEBORAH GERSHBEIN: I think many people do not feel as safe as they used to. People are very hesitant to go out at night.

ENG: All of this has led to speculation that cities like Chicago would empty out as residents fled for the suburbs. Across the country, this narrative was so prevalent that online realty site Zillow dug into the data.

CHERYL YOUNG: We really found that suburban markets aren't any stronger than urban markets.

ENG: That's Zillow economist Cheryl Young.

YOUNG: So that doesn't really support this theory that people are fleeing cities en masse and going to greener pastures or suburban markets.

ENG: Still, her data only goes through July. And there are two big exceptions to this trend - Manhattan and downtown San Francisco, where people are moving out. But Young says that was already happening before the pandemic.

In Chicago, some realty indicators do show more downtown condos for sale than usual. But overall, the Chicago Association of Realtors says it does not see a significant rise in listings yet, maybe because many people here seem to be taking the situation in stride. And some are even embracing the change, like fewer commuters and tourists. Lily Moy lives on the city's main shopping strip, the Magnificent Mile.

LILY MOY: It's brought us more together because there were fewer people as a result walking the streets on one Mag Mile (ph).

ENG: Aiello says the protests have encouraged some residents to think beyond their own situation and to work with her organization to find ways to address the inequality.

AIELLO: What can we do to reach out to the neighborhoods that are hurting?

ENG: And real estate agent Gail Spreen is urging her neighbors to take advantage of an emptier city.

GAIL SPREEN: What an opportunity to be able to enjoy our neighborhoods without whole 9 million tourists. You know, go to a museum that you would not go to because there's too many tourists. We will never see this again.

ENG: Lauren Kabir lives downtown with her husband and three young sons. And she says recent events have helped her appreciate downtown perks even more.

LAUREN KABIR: It's just a gorgeous place to live and so much to do for kids. I mean, the city isn't quite as beautiful as it was with the boarded-up windows. But if that's the worst of it, we can hang on until we recover.

ENG: And if recent peaceful downtown protests are any indicator, that recovery may be well on the way.

For NPR News, I'm Monica Eng in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.