To learn more about the Community Development and Policy Studies (CDPS) Industrial Cities Initiative (ICI), please read our first blog.
Why was Aurora chosen for the ICI study? Aurora, Illinois was historically a manufacturing hub, and met the criteria explained in the last ICI blog based on its past manufacturing job base, and changes in population, income, employment over several decades. Aurora in the 1960s was a vibrant manufacturing center due to its proximity to rail (freight) lines. Since that time, Aurora’s population has grown significantly, mostly due to immigration.
What does the data tell us about Aurora? According to Census data and estimates from the American Community Survey (an ongoing survey conducted by the Census Bureau, as opposed to the more commonly known decennial survey), the population in Aurora grew 140% between 1970 and 2009. The Hispanic and Black populations grew disproportionately from 2000; by 2009 the Hispanic population representing almost 40% of the total population and Blacks representing over 11% of the total population in 2009. Another notable data point is the percentage of families below the poverty line, which increased from 3.6% in 1970 to 9.4% in 2009. Future blogs will explore the connection, to the extent there is a connection, between this demographic change and the percentage of the population that is living below the poverty line.
Some preliminary findings from interviews in Aurora: While we do not have a hard and fast list of questions, each interview touches on a few main topics: (1) retooling the workforce; (2) immigration; (3) decreasing crime; and (4) revitalizing the downtown.
Located in the city is Valley Industrial Association, which works with Aurora manufacturing companies to provide services related to training, seminars, and hiring. Aurora also has a high-quality community college: Waubonsee Community College devotes significant resources to retraining the unemployed or underemployed. Waubonsee also offers workforce development and training programs for companies, and has outreach at places like the Hesed House, a multi-service resource center, whose overall mission includes assisting homeless individuals in learning new skills and finding employment, among other services for the homeless.
The Burlington and Quincy railroad located in Aurora in the 1850s and was the town’s largest employer for decades drawing new job-seeking residents to Aurora. Our contacts noted that many people came to Aurora during the railroad boom when there were plentiful jobs. The railroad drove economic and population growth until many of the railroad shops closed in the 1970s. After these closures, the railroad ceased to be the main source of economic growth and employment.
Even after these opportunities started to dwindle, the Hispanic population continued to grow in Aurora, as new immigrants joined family and friends in the area. With the large influx of Spanish-speaking Central and South American immigrants (primarily) there is great need for additional English literacy education – often referred to as “English as a second language” or ESL training. Waubonsee and other organizations like the Dominican Literacy Center are key ESL training resources.
Data from the police department indicates that in 1978 there were 76,000 people in Aurora and 4,200 acts of reported crimes. The most recent reading is a population of almost 200,000 and 4,400 acts of reported crime. While the number of acts of reported crimes are up, the population has almost tripled (i.e., crime per capita has dropped rapidly). Aurora has combated crime with multiple tactics such as sweeps of open air “drug markets,” undercover police officers patrolling neighborhoods, and community policing. All of these have helped decrease the crime in the area.
With the decrease in crime and the larger population, Aurora is also trying to revitalize its downtown, with mixed results and perceptions among residents. Some still associate downtown with danger while others want the “Old Aurora” back. Still others advocate spending the revitalization funds in the surrounding areas. What will happen to the downtown area remains to be seen, but the city has an aggressive plan.