Alicia Rios grew up in the Harbor, surrounded by Mexicans and native Texans who shared her Hispanic heritage.
There was comfort, she remembers, in living among those with similar cultural backgrounds in East Chicago. Rios' early experience with diversity was confined to school hallways, where she met children of other ethnic backgrounds.
"We accepted each other while in school, then went back to our segregated little areas," she recalled. "I think we feel safer that way."
But as Rios grew older, she and her husband wanted more for their children. They moved to Merrillville in 1979, lured by the higher-quality school system.
A Times analysis of census figures shows the region's population continues to shift away from urban centers into the suburbs, much as Rios and her family did more than 30 years ago when they left the familiarity of their old neighborhood.
Municipalities throughout Northwest Indiana and Chicago's south suburbs are becoming more diverse, a Times analysis of census population figures broken down by race and ethnicity shows.
The Times' analysis also reveals that, despite the increase in overall diversity, many region neighborhoods remain segregated.
In the past 10 years:
- The number of Hispanic residents rose in every municipality in Northwest Indiana except for East Chicago and Gary. That increase also was true for every south suburban municipality in Illinois except Dolton, Ford Heights, Riverdale and Sauk Village.
- The number of black residents grew in every municipality in Northwest Indiana except for Gary and Schneider. Figures for Kouts and Dune Acres weren't available.
- About 76.5 percent of Chicago's south suburban communities experienced an increase in black residents.
- The number of Asian residents increased in nearly every Northwest Indiana community -- particularly in Winfield, Dyer, Munster and Crown Point.
- The number of biracial and multiracial residents rose in 74 percent of region municipalities.
- The number of white residents declined in every south suburban Illinois municipality and in northern Lake County. The growth in white residents was concentrated in southern Lake County and four Porter County communities.
How the region compares
Roderick Harrison, a senior research scientist at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a former chief of the racial statistics branch of the U.S. Census Bureau, said the region's population changes reflect what is happening in several major Eastern and Midwestern cities and in California.
He said the decline in the North and Midwest is tied to the loss of manufacturing centers and jobs. In California, the exodus also seems to relate to the high cost of living, Harrison added.
That shift, coupled with decades of segregation, often means that as urban areas become more black and Hispanic, mobilizing public support and resources becomes more difficult, he said.
"In Gary and other midwestern cities, the collapse of major sources of employment means it would be very difficult to maintain the investments in education and infrastructure that are needed," Harrison said.
He said white residents leaving urban northern cities could be "a new form of white flight."
"They see increasing minority populations, declining infrastructure, and people who have options do start to see this as an untenable -- someplace they don't want to be five years from now," Harrison said. "They don't want to invest the energy to improve it. It becomes easier to try to move somewhere where the quality of life is better."
In Northwest Indiana, census figures show many white residents leaving northern Lake County and moving to Crown Point, Dyer, Hebron, Kouts, Lowell, St. John, Schererville, Valparaiso and Winfield. In Illinois, the number of white residents declined in all 17 south suburban communities whose racial demographics were analyzed by The Times.
Merrillville exemplifies the population shift occurring throughout the region.
Although the town's overall population rose 15.3 percent between 2000 and 2010, it lost more than 5,600 of its white residents, census figures show. Merrillville gained 8,686 black residents and 1,583 Hispanic residents over that 10-year period.
Census figures show it's a situation repeated in cities throughout Northwest Indiana and the south suburbs.
Hammond, for example, lost 18,288 white residents in the past 10 years as its minority population continued to grow. More than 10,000 Hispanics and 6,122 black residents have moved into the city since 2000, census figures show.
Portage lost 1,805 whites between 2000 and 2010 while gaining 2,196 blacks and 2,714 Hispanics, census figures show.
And more than 8,500 white residents left Lansing in the past 10 years as 5,920 blacks and 2,479 Hispanics moved in.
Gerald Jones, who moved to Merrillville from Gary in 1989, said he believes the region's population shift is about income -- not race. The 58-year-old said residents with means are moving to communities such as Crown Point. They leave behind lower-income residents who don't have the resources to move, the majority of whom happen to be black, he said.
"It's more of a class thing," said Jones, who is black. "It's not a black and white flight. It's a wealth flight."
Karen Pulliam has watched people leave Gary in search of better schools, safer neighborhoods and a good quality of life. The Gary resident said she believes those things still exist in her city.
But other residents haven't agreed. The city lost more than 22,000 people in the past 10 years. More than 18,200 of those former residents are black.
"I think it's always greener on the other side," Pulliam said.
Pulliam's life in a quiet part of Gary's Tolleston neighborhood debunks the city's stereotypes. She doesn't live in fear, and criminals don't run rampant down her street.
She doesn't gloss over the challenges facing Gary but said the city is worth the fight.
What happened in Gary is now happening, to a smaller extent, in other region cities -- people leaving to seek better opportunities. Pulliam said it is easier to leave than fight deterioration.
"How far are people going to run?" she asked. "I mean, there's a coast."
Pulliam, who is president of the Gary branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said she isn't sure black residents moving into the suburbs equals successful racial integration.
"Unfortunately, I wonder if people really get integrated into those communities when they are coming back to Gary to go to church," she said. "Sunday morning is still a pretty segregated time."
A Times analysis shows that while region municipalities are becoming more diverse overall, sections within those cities remain segregated.
About 91 percent of census tracts in Lake and Porter counties are dominated by one race or ethnicity, The Times' analysis shows. Census tracts are smaller divisions of municipalities.
Black residents are the dominant racial group in about 26 percent of Northwest Indiana's tracts.
They are concentrated in Gary, parts of Hammond and East Chicago and the northern part of Merrillville, according to the census. In most cases, blacks accounted for more than 75 percent of the population in each census tract.
Thomas Pavkov, director of the Institute for Social and Policy Research at Purdue University Calumet, said the region's segregation is partly a function of the United States' long history of racial division.
He said Ridge Road has historically been a physical boundary representing a cultural and political divide between racial groups.
"I think when you look on the face of it, when you see the relative problems that some of the north county communities have, I don't think it's been a good thing," Pavkov said.
Although white residents hold a majority in about 61 percent of Northwest Indiana's census tracts, they are more likely than black residents to be integrated with other racial groups, including Hispanics and Asians, census figures show. White residents are concentrated in southern Lake County and Porter County.
Only six region census tracts -- two in Hammond and four in East Chicago -- have a primarily Hispanic population.
The Hispanic population in Northwest Indiana and Illinois' south suburban communities grew only 7.5 percent in the past 10 years -- an amount far below the 43 percent growth at the national level, a Times analysis shows. But local Hispanic residents are moving in larger numbers into areas where they hadn't lived before.
Region officials said they are making adjustments to overcome language and cultural barriers.
Carol Schuster, vice president of patient care services at Franciscan St. Anthony Health in Crown Point, said the hospital provides in-house training and resources to help hospital officials understand how families from different cultures might react under the stress of illness. They also are trained to diagnose medical conditions that might be specific to certain ethnic or racial groups.
In 2005, the hospital began offering a phone interpretation service called Language Line at no cost to patients. The phone has two headsets or a speaker phone so the hospital employee, interpreter and patient all can hear the conversation.
Carolyn Bender, director of nursing operations, said the majority of requests for translation services are for Spanish-speaking patients.
In Merrillville Community School Corp., Danny Lackey's position as coordinator of diversity programming was created four years ago to determine how the school district could close student achievement gaps by looking at cultural and climate issues. He said he is using training and communication to overcome stereotypes and misinformation.
"When a school becomes more diverse, there is sometimes a perception that somehow that school is going down in some way, the quality of it, the caliber of it ... which simply isn't true," Lackey said.
Merrillville's high school graduation rate has steadily increased during the past five years and remains above the state average, Indiana Department of Education figures show. The percentages of white, black and Hispanic Merrillville students who graduated in 2010 also beat state averages.
The school district's ISTEP scores held steady as the number of minority students and the number of students receiving free or reduced lunches continued to increase, figures provided by the district show.
"Having a diverse school system is a tremendous advantage for kids, because our kids grow up with a comfort of being able to associate with other kids of different races, cultures and religions," said Tony Lux, superintendent of Merrillville Community School Corp.
Alicia Rios said that comfort didn't exist while she was growing up, but no one knew any different.
"We never realized we were being segregated," she said. "That's just how it was. We grew up respecting each other's territories."
Rios remembers people staring, discrimination in some stores and the lengthy waits to be served at bars and restaurants when she and her family first moved from East Chicago to Merrillville in 1979.
But, eventually, Rios and her family carved their niche, making friends and staying actively involved in the community until moving to Crown Point in 1999. She said her Crown Point neighbors were extremely welcoming.
Rios, who is deputy state director of women's activities for the Indiana League of United Latin American Citizens, said she is encouraged by today's emphasis on diversity training and communication.
"It is good to see leaders coming from different diversity groups," she said. "It shows unity -- that we are all working together for a better life for all of us."