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How a ‘reverse Great Migration’ is reshaping U.S. cities

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Chicago and other major metros face black Americans’ departure for the suburbs and the South

A home in Woodlawn, a traditionally black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
Getty Images

Alden Loury remembers when buying his home felt like achieving the American dream. A black journalist from Chicago, Loury and his wife were able to purchase a home for $165,000 in 2005 in Auburn Gresham, a predominantly black neighborhood on the city’s south side, where he grew up.

“I felt great,” he told Curbed. “I was back in my neighborhood. I knew the streets and the places I went to as a kid were still here.”

For Loury, who grew up in public housing as well as an apartment in a three-flat, buying a bungalow in his old neighborhood was a big deal. His timing, of course, meant coping with the impact of the Great Recession, which started in 2008 and caused the value of his new home to plummet. He and his wife dutifully paid the mortgage, waiting for the cycle of boom and bust to play itself out.

But recovery, for Loury’s home and much of the surrounding neighborhood, never really came. By 2015, when most parts of Chicago had recovered, Auburn Gresham and other predominantly black communities on the city’s south and southwest side were still dealing with lower home values and a thinning population.

Even after sinking money into repairs, including a new roof and windows, Loury estimated the market value of his home never went far above $70,000, based on Redfin data and sales prices for similar properties in the neighborhood. Banks weren’t interested in refinancing. Eventually, the Lourys realized that it didn’t make sense to keep sinking money into a home and mortgage that would never recover, and in 2015, they decided to take the hit and walk away.

“Even when you’re doing the right thing, you’re susceptible to this reality that these communities aren’t valued,” says Loury, who eventually moved to Bronzeville, another Chicago neighborhood. “We couldn’t escape that, despite our best efforts. What does that say for someone who’s on housing assistance, or chronically underemployed? That doesn’t speak well for the potential for success.”

Loury, who has long studied demographic change in the city and was the director of research and evaluation at the Metropolitan Planning Council, says his experience exemplifies a trend that’s reshaping Chicago: a large-scale migration of African-Americans to nearby suburbs and other cities, seeking better housing and economic opportunities, and in turn, changing the neighborhoods they leave behind.

Experts from the Urban Institute predict that by 2030, Chicago’s African-American population will shrink to 665,000 from a post-war high of roughly 1.2 million. This movement, which some demographers have labeled “black flight,” or a “reverse Great Migration,” is reshaping neighborhoods like the one where Loury grew up.

As Loury wrote in a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed earlier this month, the recent economic downturn put further pressure on historically under-resourced black neighborhoods in Chicago, increasing foreclosures and depressing real estate values. That has just added additional reasons for African-Americans to move away from these neighborhoods in search of a better economic future, leaving these places further devoid of people and resources.

King Drive through Chatham is lined with attractive, well-maintained houses like this small 1938 Cape Cod, with cheery yellow awnings and a walkway coated with the ubiquitous astroturf.
Eric Allix Rogers/Flickr Creative Commons

William Lee, a Chicago Tribune reporter who grew up in the South Shore neighborhood, wrote in an editorial that the exodus “has folks like myself, left behind on the South Side, feeling like life after the rapture, with relatives, good friends and classmates vanishing and their communities shattering.”

While local leaders and city government have repeatedly talked about helping neighborhoods recover, this exodus isn’t something the city has specifically articulated as an issue, says Loury. And that’s a problem.

“They’re missing the boat,” he says. “These communities are losing real assets. It’s a loss you shouldn’t stand by and watch. It’s a problem for cities to wake up and pay attention to.”

Seeking better opportunities outside the city

This isn’t a shift unique to Chicago. According to William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, the black population in U.S. cities has steadily declined for decades. The percentage of African Americans living in urban cores shrunk from 47 to 41.7 percent between 1990 and 2017, according to Frey’s analysis of census data, while the black population of the central cities in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas declined by 300,000 between 2000 and 2010. By 2010, a majority of African Americans nationwide lived in the suburbs.

Black Americans Increasingly Shifting to Suburbs

Region 1990 2000 2010 2017
Region 1990 2000 2010 2017
Urban Core 46.9% 45.8% 42.5% 41.7%
Mature Suburbs 18.1% 19.6% 22.1% 23.1%
Outer Suburbs 7.5% 7.8% 9.2% 9.7%
All Others 27.5% 26.8% 26.2% 25.4%
Brookings Institution analysis of Census Bureau data

This is a shift happening everywhere, says Loury, especially northern cities such as Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Detroit. It’s even impacting Sunbelt metros such as Atlanta, which is seeing a huge boom in African-American migration, but mostly in the surrounding suburbs.

But Chicago stands out.

“There’s no place with close to that amount of African-American population loss,” Loury says. “It’s staggering.”

Brookings’s Frey doesn’t believe that the shift is about displacement as much as it’s about chasing new possibilities. Younger black families have the opportunity to move to the suburbs to an extent that other generations, facing stricter redlining and segregation, could not.

To get a better sense of where Chicagoans have been going, and why, Loury took a deep dive into Census data from 2005 to 2015, analyzing where African-Americans from Cook County (which contains Chicago) resettled. According to his analysis, 38 percent moved within the 14-county metro area around Chicago. The most popular destinations were in northwest Indiana, followed by a ring of suburban counties surrounding the city, including DuPage and Lake County.

The rest moved outside the metro area; a significantly higher percentage of the low-income African-Americans who left Chicago in recent decades moved to other urban areas within Illinois, such as Springfield and Rockford. Others, often those with more resources, moved out of state; the most popular destinations were Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Milwaukee.

According to Professor William Sampson, a sociologist at Chicago’s DePaul University who studies race, housing, and poverty, part of the shift is driven by black retirees taking northern dollars south and “living like kings and queens.” He surmises that the rate of migration back south has played a big role in changing demographics and political shifts in states like Georgia, where democrat Stacey Abrams is in the running to become the nation’s first female African-American governor.

Loury’s analysis of migration patterns backs up what others are seeing nationwide. The suburbs of Atlanta, Houston, Washington, DC, and Dallas experienced the largest increases in black population in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010, according to a Brookings analysis of census data.

Top 10 Metro Areas for African-American Households Earning $100,000 or More

Top 10 Cities in 2000 Percent making $100K Top 10 Cities in 2015 Percent making $100K
Top 10 Cities in 2000 Percent making $100K Top 10 Cities in 2015 Percent making $100K
Washington, D.C. 3 Washington, D.C. 7.2
Atlanta, GA 1.8 Baltimore, MD 5.1
Detroit, MI 1.7 Norfolk, VA 3.9
Baltimore, MD 1.6 Atlanta, GA 3.6
New York, NY 1.5 Richmond-Petersburg, VA 3.5
Richmond-Petersburg, VA 1.4 Baton Rouge, LA 3.4
Chicago, IL 1.3 Memphis, TN 3.4
Memphis, TN 1.3 New York, NY 3.1
Jackson, MS 1.1 Columbus, GA 3
Columbia, SC 1.1 Augusta, GA 2.9
Demographic data shows the growth of wealthy African-American households in southern metro areas, especially in Georgia. Nielsen

The movement of African Americans to southern cities such as Atlanta has led to some calling this a reverse Great Migration, a reference to the large-scale migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow South to jobs in northern cities in the early half of the 20th century. The Great Migration helped make Chicago a capital of the country’s African-American community. 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.

“People left the South for opportunity,” Corey Brooks, pastor of the New Beginnings Church on the South Side, told The Globe and Mail. “Now it’s the direct opposite. People are leaving Chicago to go south to look for better opportunities and a better lifestyle.”

More vital to Chicago and other cities losing their black populations is the question of causation. The combined population of the city’s Austin, Englewood, and West Englewood neighborhoods, all traditionally majority African-American, fell from 189,000 to 136,000 between 2000 and 2015. Loury has found that African Americans across the economic spectrum are making the move, not just those in the upper and middle classes.

“A lot of people who have been caught in this exodus, if you will, have been struggling economically,” he says. “If there’s one thing I’ll rest my hat on, if there’s one factor at play here, it’s about job opportunities and a lack thereof.”

His hypothesis is that moving out of the city is based on a number of factors: employment, housing, education, and concerns about safety and gun violence are the ones that leap out at him.

Paying attention to neighborhoods on the precipice

This move out of the city in search of opportunity is both a result and a cause of economic insecurity, according to Sampson. As upwardly mobile members of the community leave in search of opportunity, and a shift to a service economy has steadily eroded the city’s traditional manufacturing and industrial job base, concentrated poverty has crept into formerly mixed-income areas.

Changing demographics have led to shifting economic fortunes; A 2015 study by Nielsen found that just 2.1 percent of black households in Chicago earned more than $100,000 a year, the 21st highest in the U.S. In 2000, Chicago ranked seventh on that metric.

According to both Sampson and Loury, this outflux from specific neighborhoods has created a vicious cycle, especially for small businesses and entrepreneurs; as income and customers leave, it’s harder and harder to make the business case to stay.

“This has killed neighborhoods such as Chatham, an epicenter of working and middle class Black Chicago,” says Sampson. “As middle income blacks started leaving back in the ‘80s, from neighborhoods such as Chatham, they’ve been replaced by working class and poor residents. Chicago used to have one of the largest numbers of middle-income African Americans in the country. Now, there’s no heart to hold these communities together.”

Loury says he often runs up against pushback when he tries to raise questions about the African-American exodus from the city. Why is he trying to distract from positive news? Englewood, for example, is seeing a raft of new investments, Bronzeville is gaining population, and the city’s tech industry is expanding.

Perhaps it’s a question of awareness of the issue. According to urbanist Pete Saunders, few in Chicago realize “how economically isolated parts of the city have become.” As these demographic trends play out, the majority-minority city is headed toward being smaller, whiter, and wealthier.

“The response to this overall population loss has been pretty lukewarm,” Loury says. “I don’t think it’s been widely acknowledged by many, at least in the halls of power. They’re indifferent, and I find that troubling.”