Mell Montezuma

At one point, Chicago was the land of opportunity for millions of Black Americans who were leaving the Jim Crow South. The industrial city expanded rapidly through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, as waves of Black Southerners sought economic opportunity in Chicago and permanently settled in the city. However, a combination of factors, including the collapse of the manufacturing sector and discriminatory policies, caused this trend to reverse in the 1980s, according to a recent report on changing Black Chicago demographics from the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Since then, Black communities in Chicago have lost about 350,000 residents. 

The breakdown of population by race demonstrates an inverse relationship between white and Black population changes, not just recently, but historically. According to the report, between 1990 and 2016, neighborhoods that experienced an increase in white residents saw a decrease in Black residents, and neighborhoods that experienced an increase in Black residents saw a decrease in white residents. Similarly, from the fifties through the seventies—when the Black population was at its peak—local, state, and federal governments developed pristine suburbs and incentivized white residents to move their families to greener pastures, and the white population in Chicago fell by nearly 900,000.

When so many white Chicagoans left, private interests and every level of government decreased their investment in the city.

“Inequity is built into the fabric of Chicago during and after the Great Migration. [The] segregation of Black residents to the Black Belt, and the subsequent economic disinvestment from these communities, had enduring effects that would surface more prominently in the 1980s and beyond,” said report co-author Amanda Lewis, a UIC sociology professor and director of the institute, at an event held on UIC’s campus last month.

Population loss coincided with the loss of manufacturing jobs. Black residents relied on employment in Chicago’s factories on the South and West Sides during the mid-twentieth century, and were hit particularly hard when manufacturing companies that previously employed tens of thousands of people shut their doors. According to UIC’s Great Cities Institute, in 1947, at the peak of manufacturing employment in Chicago, there were 667,407 manufacturing jobs; by 2014, the number had dropped to 110,445.

“In these same neighborhoods where the manufacturing jobs left, where there’s concentrations of segregated populations, primarily Black populations, the numbers of joblessness is extraordinarily high… and we’re still feeling the impacts of the decline in manufacturing,” said Teresa Córdova, director of the Great Cities Institute, at the same event in January. “So the real question then becomes: as the economy continues to change, how are we going to build an inclusive economy?” 

In particular, the report claims the destruction of the city’s public housing during the 1990s and early 2000s is “undoubtedly a factor” contributing to the displacement of Black residents in several communities: the Robert Taylor Homes, Cabrini-Green, Stateway Gardens, Ida B. Wells Homes, Jane Addams Homes, Harold Ickes Homes, Grace Abbott Homes, Henry Horner Homes, Randolph Towers, and Loomis Courts. 

Dispersing these concentrations of Black residents was the first step in the Chicago Housing Authority’s $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation. “At the core was an ambitious experiment of social engineering called mixed-income housing,” said Lisa Yun Lee, director of the National Public Housing Museum, of the CHA’s sweeping plan to reshape the city’s public housing. “It is clear that by creating mixed-income developments and a voucher system for long-term rent subsidy contracts in privately owned developments, the city intentionally shifted much responsibility for housing and management to the private sector.”

While previous studies have found that Black neighborhoods in Chicago do not typically gentrify, at least not in the same way as Latinx communities, the report found that the rising cost of living is making it difficult for Black residents to remain in the city, and the report projects it will only to worsen with massive developments like the Obama Presidential Center. “It is notable that the neighborhoods with the largest increase in whites and the largest decrease in Blacks are all located near downtown (Near North Side, Near South Side, Near West Side) or with direct access to downtown through public transportation via L trains (West Town, Logan Square, Lake View, Uptown),” the report reads.

The researchers cited work by the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, which concluded that, despite Chicago’s Fair Housing Ordinance and the federal Fair Housing Act, “historic practices of housing discrimination by race and source of income have not become extinct, but rather persist and continue to serve as barriers to housing opportunity to African Americans and low-income households across Chicago.”

The report showed that Austin, for example, lost over 16,000 residents since 1990 and had one of the highest foreclosure rates during the recession.

“Chicago has led the way and embraced these low-road development practices and categorically adopted market-based investment in the public sphere, meaning privatizing our roads, privatizing our parking spaces, privatizing [traffic] tickets, privatizing public housing, so many of the mechanisms that were part of the public sphere that allowed people to remain in place, that either weren’t punitive or they were actually supportive, have been eroded,” said Stacey Sutton, an assistant professor of urban planning and policy at UIC. “Not only are they Black, they’re low-income. They’re working-class Black folks that are leaving because they can’t afford to stay.” 

Other structural conditions continue to burden Chicago’s Black community. For example, Illinois’s prison population has increased 450 percent since 1980, with the majority of this growth occurring through the incarceration of Black residents, according to the report. Public school closures in Black communities have also disproportionately affected this demographic: according to a WBEZ report cited in the study, 44,700 Black students have experienced a school closing since 2002.

“I’m not necessarily convinced that this is a shared sentiment, that Black people leaving the city is necessarily a bad thing,” said Elizabeth Todd-Breland, an associate professor of African American history at UIC who also serves on the Chicago Board of Education. “Black communities continue to be defined as places of pathology, as unredeemable, as places of deficit. Implicit in this is that the city may be better off with less Black people. Black people are problem people, with our problem schools, and our problem families, in our problem neighborhoods.” 

According to the data, the Englewood and West Englewood community areas had the largest Black population loss in the city, followed by Austin. On average, an increase of ten additional white residents in a neighborhood between 1990 and 2016 was associated with a loss of three Black residents. The report argues that residential racial segregation is not only getting worse in Chicago, “but the factors associated with population growth for one group relate to population decline for the other.”

The breakdown of Black net population loss by neighborhood since 1990 is as follows: 

West Englewood (-23,501) Englewood (-23,183), Austin (-18,838), Auburn Gresham (-14,905), Roseland (-14,863), Grand Boulevard (-14,520), North Lawndale (-14,259), Douglas (-13,497), Humboldt Park (-12,165), South Shore (-11,799), West Pullman (-11,460), Washington Park (-8,069), West Garfield Park (-7,129), Grand Crossing (-6,913), Woodlawn (-6,742), Greater Chatham (-6,503), East Garfield Park (-5,519), Washington Heights (-5,640), Edgewater (-4,051), Uptown (-4,164), South Chicago (-3,846), Riverdale (-3,601), Calumet Heights (-3,417), Hyde Park (-3,093).

But despite such losses, 829,781 Black people still live in Chicago, and Chicago remains the second largest U.S. city for Black people. And those who move don’t usually move very far, often relocating to surrounding suburbs in Illinois, or just across the state line in Indiana.

“There has been like an assault on Black people and Black communities in this city, and the migration numbers to me suggest exactly that,” said Alden Loury, senior editor of WBEZ’s race, class, and communities desk. “I hope this report is a call to action, that this is finally a statement that is made that says, ‘Chicago, wake up!’ Something is happening, we as a city, as a collective community, are doing something to these communities that are literally driving people away… But I do think Chicago needs to be slapped in the face, it needs to be made apparent, we still have a tremendous issue with race… In the city of activism, let’s get active, let’s make something happen.”

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Jacqueline Serrato is the editor-in-chief of the South Side Weekly.

Join the Conversation


  1. Please let’s stop the political correctness.
    The real reason we are leaving.
    1. Ghettoization -Poverty warehousing
    2. Too much Investor/ government/no for profit government dominated housing instead if home ownership dominated housing.
    3.LACK of home ownership
    5. Gross racial inequality and white
    6. Ignoring the needs of black middle
    class in favor if catering to a permanent underclass.
    7.Lower quality of life.
    8. Crime

    1. The Southside has become a
    POVERTY-WAREHOUSE. Ghettoization. A place for the downtrodden people who have made terrible decisions in life . A permanent underclass. Over abundance of low-income subsidized housing. High poverty is unattractive to businesses.

    2. Too much Investor, government non
    profit housing.Thet have low rental standards and don’t care how the quality of tenants effects the area.

    3. Lack of homeowners. Area just somewhere temporary. Homeownership had became not worth it as investor Iver saturate an area with section 8 housing liwincome housing increasing crime keeping away business. The schools are terrible.

    4. Redlining by banks retail and other businesses. Business owners don’t have access to capital .

    5. Gross racially inequality and white privallge.Lack of investment. Every white neighborhood on the Southside has commercial projects on the table and new business. The Southside only gets more government housing.

    6. Ignoring the middle class in favor of catering to permanent underclass. Middle class areas are over run with low income who increase crime drive away business and decrease property values. Middle class families can’t afford private schools that us required for mixed income communities.

    7. The Southside has a lower quality if life.
    a. Stores have codes for the restrooms.
    b. The doors on stores don’t open from both sides.
    c. Lack of access to basic amenities
    of dining/Shopping/ entertainment.
    d.Neighbors that don’t share the same values interest and have high antisocial behavior.
    e. Crime
    f. Not a good place to raise a family.

      1. The middle class is fleeing this area as well. It’s such a shame. It’s for the reason I stated above
        1. Lower quality of life
        2. Over saturation low income
        3. Bad schools
        4. Lack of amenities.

        GENTRIFICATION wont take hold

  2. Here us how to keep residents from leaving.
    1. Access to capital for business
    owners and developers
    Lower taxes and stipulations.
    2. No more subsidized housing.
    3. Good schools.

    The reality is the south side won’t be a good place to live until attracting and retaining the black middle class is a top priority.

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