Saturday, February 22, 2020

Blacks Flee Chicago

At NYT, "Black Families Came to Chicago by the Thousands. Why Are They Leaving?":

HILLSIDE, Ill. — Hardis White, 78, could hardly wait to break out of suburbia.

He dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans and a Bears cap, strode out of the rectangular bungalow he shares with his wife and daughter and folded his tall frame behind the wheel of his silver Nissan sedan.

Forty minutes away from his suburban neighborhood of Hillside, he arrived in Chicago, on Laporte Avenue, to see what he had come to see: a handsome brick house with white trim, two stories tall, as solid as the first day he saw it in 1967.

For a moment, he gazed at the house. Marvin Gaye played softly on the radio. The grass seemed a little long, he murmured. He put the car back in gear and started back to the suburbs.

“I don’t know why I keep coming back,” he said. “I guess I just miss the neighborhood.”

Some people, lured by nostalgia and curiosity, drive past their old houses now and then. Mr. White does it nearly every day.

Today, he is one of the more than 200,000 African-Americans who have moved out of Chicago in the last two decades, though in some ways, he never left. For more than a year, he has taken this daily pilgrimage back to the house on Laporte, to the city where his children grew up and where two of his daughters still live.

The steady exodus of African-Americans has caused alarm and grief in Chicago, the nation’s third largest city, where black people have shaped the history, culture and political life. The population of 2.7 million is still nearly split in thirds among whites, blacks and Latinos, but the balance is shifting. Chicago saw its population decline in 2018, the fourth year in a row. Since 2015, almost 50,000 black residents have left.

They have been driven out of the city by segregation, gun violence, discriminatory policing, racial disparities in employment, the uneven quality of public schools and frustration at life in neighborhoods whose once-humming commercial districts have gone quiet, as well as more universal urban complaints like rising rents and taxes. At the same time, white, Latino and Asian residents are flowing in, and Chicago’s wealthier, whiter downtown, West Loop and North Side have been booming. Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first black mayor in decades, has vowed to stem the loss of longtime residents, and the city has collectively grasped for solutions.

The White family is a living symbol of what Chicago has kept and lost.

Members of three generations of the White family have grappled with the choice of whether to stay in Chicago or leave. Each family member’s story offers a glimpse into the city’s shifting migration pattern. Each story reveals what has made Chicagoans decide to leave the city or made them more determined to remain.

Mr. White, who arrived in Chicago from Mississippi when he was a teenager, moved to the suburbs because of the growing needs of his wife, Velma, who has dementia. Like many Chicagoans of his generation, he left the city only reluctantly.

The couple moved in with Dora, their oldest daughter, who traded Chicago for Hillside for a very different reason: She was fed up with drug sales and violence in the family’s neighborhood on the West Side.

But the couple’s other adult daughters, Nesan and Tshena, still live in the family home on Laporte, confident that their neighborhood is showing signs of a turnaround.

And in the next generation, Ke’Oisha, the Whites’ oldest grandchild, left Chicago for job opportunities elsewhere, following a path out of the city that many other black college graduates have taken. She headed south, finding a career in Houston, a growing metropolis teeming with young transplants and opportunity.

In one sense, the Whites are an archetypal Chicago family, said Rob Paral, a demographer who studies the city’s population.

Many black Chicagoans have taken only small steps away from the city, resettling in nearby suburbs in Illinois or Indiana that offer more highly rated schools and a lower cost of living. Others have followed the path of a reverse migration, making homes in places like Atlanta, many decades after black families came to Chicago and other Northern cities in large numbers in search of opportunity.

“It’s an American tragedy,” said the Rev. Marshall Hatch, a pastor on the West Side whose congregants have been disappearing for years, heading to cities throughout the Midwest and the South. “Look at the legacy that the African-American community had in national politics, in culture, with blues and gospel and jazz, and sports, from Michael Jordan to Ernie Banks. African-American Chicago is being destroyed.”

The Chicago story of the White family begins in 1956, with 13-year-old Hardis riding a train north with his uncle. They started their journey in Tupelo, Miss. Their destination was Chicago’s Union Station. They were part of the Great Migration, when millions of African-Americans moved north, seeking a better life.

Life in Mississippi had often been grueling. Young Hardis was required to pick cotton, usually bringing in 150 pounds a day. Chicago was an instant wonder, with its skyscrapers and buzzing street life. He and his uncle, who came to Chicago to join family members who had already settled there, arrived days before the city hosted the 1956 Democratic convention.

“I loved it right away,” he said.

When he was 23, he married Velma, a fellow transplant from the South. In 1967, they bought the house on Laporte — a two-flat, in Chicago parlance, on the city’s West Side — for $23,500. They were among the first African-American couples on the block.

But the next year, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and riots tore through Chicago. “That’s when most of the businesses started moving out,” Mr. White said. “Car dealerships, supermarkets. When the business goes out of the neighborhood, that’s the neighborhood.”

White families were fleeing, urged on by unscrupulous real estate agents.

“Things were changing fast,” Mr. White said. “They had rumors going around, telling the whites that blacks were moving in, so they’d better sell their property.”

Some white neighbors vowed to stay, then left anyway. “One guy, three doors down, told me he wouldn’t sell his place just because blacks were moving in,” Mr. White said. “And that’s the last time I saw him.”

The house on Laporte was the center of the White family’s world. Dora, Nesan and Tshena attended school around the corner. Mr. White worked overnights as a meatpacker in an Oscar Mayer plant, stirring vats of sausage in bone-chilling temperatures on the factory floor, and Velma was a nurse at Cook County’s public hospital. More family members — Mr. White’s mother and his sister and brother-in-law and their children — lived in the upper flat...
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