Chicago is losing its black middle class. Can it get it back?

Conditions for black Chicagoans have become worse vs. the country overall and also compared to the rest of black America. Yet there are signs of a population turnaround.

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Ed Zotti / Sun-Times

Pete Saunders, an African American urban planner with a master’s from the University of Illinois at Chicago, has mixed feelings about leaving the city.

“The prevailing attitude among black people in Chicago is that, to move up, you’ve got to move away,” he says.

He and his wife, Gwen, left the South Side community of Auburn-Gresham and now live in Naperville, where they enjoy suburban amenities ranging from excellent schools and safe streets to no requirement for city parking stickers.

Other black families they know have left the Chicago area altogether for places like Atlanta, New York or Washington, D.C.

“There’s a lack of opportunity in Chicago,” Saunders says. “The feeling is there’s no place for us.”

Despite all that, he hasn’t written the city off.

“I can see us moving back,” he says.

“I love the vibe,” Gwen says of their occasional visits to neighborhoods like Hyde Park.

The Saunders family exemplifies the challenge for Chicago — hanging on to, and if possible luring back, middle-class black people who enjoy city living but are leaving town in vast numbers for a better life elsewhere.

The quest may not be hopeless, but there’s a steep hill to climb.

Since 2000, Chicago has lost 256,000 black people — more than any other city in the U.S. including Detroit. The city’s black population has fallen from a peak of 1.2 million in 1980 to fewer than 800,000 now and is predicted to drop to 665,000 by 2030.

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Chicago has lost black households at most income levels below $100,000, with the largest numbers in the $50,000-to-$75,000 range. The number of black households making $100,000 or more have increased modestly but nowhere near quickly enough to offset the losses.

Those leaving are largely families with children, census numbers suggest. Black population losses in the city are almost entirely confined to two age ranges — 35 to 54 and 19 and under. The decline in the number of school-age children already has led to one round of school closings, mostly on the West Side and South Side. Another seems unavoidable.

The impact of black flight is evident in the maps below. As recently as 2010, Cook County had 47 middle-income, majority-black neighborhoods with above-average levels of college graduates. Roughly half were in the city.

In 2017, the most recent year for which detailed data is available, it had just 27 such neighborhoods. Seventeen were in the city.

Some middle-class black neighborhoods on the Far South Side have declined precipitously.

For example, the Calumet Heights community, best known for the Pill Hill neighborhood around 91st Street and Jeffery Avenue where many doctors once lived, was solidly middle-class in 2010, with a median household income of $63,000.

By 2017, median income had fallen to $50,000 — a drop of more than 20% during a time when income in the city as a whole rose. The number of people living there who have postgraduate degrees — an indication of the number of doctors in the area — fell by 38%.

What happened? Pete Saunders blames the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation,” which set in motion the demolition of the agency’s entire stock of high-rise public housing between 2000 and 2011.

“CHA committed to building 25,000 new mixed-income and scattered-site units” to replace the demolished dwellings, he says. “Until the new developments were built, they would give out Section 8 vouchers” — rent subsidies that enabled displaced public housing residents to live in private-market housing.

“Basically, the plan failed. Federal money from HUD was cut when Clinton left office. CHA found very little market interest for mixed-income communities, Cabrini excepted. Bottom line, CHA built only a fraction of what they said they would and stayed with voucher distribution.

“CHA voucher-holders went all over but mostly to the South and West Sides. There was quite a bit of middle-class/low-income conflict in these neighborhoods starting in 2005 and 2006. That coincided with the disintegration and reconstitution of the city’s gangs, which had been based in the projects but now scattered throughout the city.

“Then, the nation was hit with the recession and foreclosure crisis, opening up many more bank-owned properties for vouchers. That one-two punch hit South and West Side neighborhoods really hard,” he says, with rising crime and poverty destabilizing once-solid communities.

“This is a story many black Chicagoans know and understand intuitively, and they’ve chosen to leave the city because of it,” Saunders says.

The crisis in the black community can’t be attributed solely to CHA, he acknowledges. Other problems include the city’s long history of segregation and the restructuring of the metropolitan economy.

Whatever the reason, conditions for black Chicagoans have become conspicuously worse, not just in comparison to the United States overall but also to the rest of black America.

Nationwide, black unemployment is at a record low of 5.5%. In Chicago for 2017, the latest year available, it was 19%.

In the entire country, black households make 63% of what white households do. In Chicago, it’s just 43%.

Of the 10 U.S. metropolitan areas with the largest African American populations, the Chicago region ranks seventh for educational attainment, with just 22% of black residents having graduated from college, well behind Washington (34%), Atlanta (29%) and Los Angeles (27%).

Given all of this, it’s difficult to imagine what would induce a black family to stay in Chicago.

Yet there are signs of a turnaround. As with the city as a whole, college graduates are the key. Between 2010 and 2017, Saunders points out, the number of black college grads in the city rose by more than 14,000 — at a time when Chicago’s total black population was dropping by close to 100,000.

What’s more, the number of black college grads in the city is rising faster than in the suburbs, reflecting what’s happening with the metro area’s college grads generally.

It’s premature to say black college graduates are flocking back to the city. Some neighborhoods are still losing black college grads, not adding them.

Still, some parts of town are seeing gains — notably the south lakefront. Coupled with increases in college grads of other ethnicities, there’s reason to think this area is starting to revive and eventually will become affluent as far south as Woodlawn.

Gwen Saunders says the family might return once their son is out of school — provided she can avoid city driving, which she hates.

“I would definitely move back,” she says.

This is part of the series City at the Crossroads by journalist Ed Zotti, who looks in-depth at trends affecting Chicago and critical choices the city faces.

Email comments to: letters@suntimes.com.

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