‘Black Flight’ out of Chicago

CHICAGO - AUGUST 23: Alison Saar's "Monument to the Great Northern Migration", sits on South King Drive in Chicago, Illinois on AUGUST 23, 2012. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In a cover story for the Chicago Reader, urban planner Pete Saunders writes about how Black residents are fleeing Chicago in large numbers for suburbs and metropolitan areas in other regions as the city’s white, Asian American, Latinx, and multiracial populations increase. This “Black flight” reverses demographic trends of last century, which saw an estimated 7 million African Americans pouring into cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast from the rural South during the Great Migration. The Encyclopedia of Chicago says that more than 500,000 of those who left settled in Chicago; according to Curbed, “At some points during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, more than 1,000 new arrivals a week came through booming areas such as Bronzeville, many of them hoping to work in the heavy industry and steel plants on the city’s southeast side.”

Saunders suggests a combination of factors have caused the current exodus, including slow declines in Chicago’s violent crime rate, school closures and a lack of investment in important local institutions. Shifts in the kinds of jobs available and, perhaps, a pull to the South of generations before have driven Black Chicagoans to Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston. Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Diego are also losing Black population, but the decline in Chicago, at “four to ten times the rate of the other three,” has been most dramatic. According to the Urban Institute, by 2030, it’s estimated that Chicago will have lost more than 500,000 Black residents in 50 years. Saunders believes that systematic racial discrimination, the biggest driver of Blacks to cities during  the Great Migration, is the key driver of the new pattern as well:

Segregation has created a lack of economic mobility. I’d argue that Chicago is economically stratified to the extent that upward mobility for blacks here is particularly difficult. The CMAP [Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning] report noted that the unemployment rate for blacks in Chicagoland stubbornly stays at more than twice the region’s rate, and that more than 60 percent of blacks who left the region were without a local job when they did so. Networks are hard to penetrate. The power structure is rigid. There’s also a lack of residential mobility. Chicago and its suburbs are more open to people of color than ever before, but blacks here are acutely aware that people still attach stigmas to places we move to. This has the impact of stagnating or lowering property values and rents where blacks move in large numbers, often wiping whole chunks of the region from the minds of many. The south side and south and southwest burbs don’t even occur to many whites seeking affordable options.

The hallmark of Chicago (and rust-belt) segregation has been black avoidance. Since the Great Migration the practice has been to explicitly or implicitly contain blacks within certain areas. But as metro areas got bigger, transportation more of a challenge, and city living more desirable, new attention was given to long-forgotten places. Here in Chicago that started with former white ethnic areas (Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, etc). Within the last ten to 20 years that expanded to include largely Latino areas (Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Pilsen). But for the most part the pattern of black avoidance remains.

In places with stronger economies, like New York and Washington, D.C., there’s been more direct engagement—even conflict—between white newcomers and longtime black residents in many communities. Spike Lee famously ranted about gentrification arriving in black neighborhoods in Brooklyn five years ago, and the area surrounding D.C.’s historically black Howard University has witnessed significant change in the last decade. But the rust-belt pattern is one of indirect conflict. Places collapse, then new groups come in.

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