Credit: Simone Martin-Newberry

The Loop and lakefront show all the signs of a city that’s booming. Yet Chicago, and more broadly the midwest, is the epicenter of a little-understood reverse Great Migration.

Chicago lost population for the third year in a row, according to the U.S. Census’s annual American Community Survey, released last spring. Among the nation’s ten largest cities, only four (Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, and San Jose) are shedding black residents. Between 2010 and 2017, Chicago did so at four to ten times the rate of the other three. This is unprecedented for any major American city over the last hundred years.

Following the social unrest and suburban growth of the 1960s and ’70s, nearly all major American cities witnessed huge population losses. Chicago topped out at 3.6 million residents in 1950, and then went on a slide over the next 40 years to just under 2.8 million in 1990. It ticked upward slightly in 2000 for the first show of growth in half a century but has remained pretty flat ever since.

A policy paper released last year by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) noted some of the usual suspects behind the trend—an aging population, declining birth rates, delayed marriages, and stagnant immigration. Chicago’s not gaining large numbers of domestic immigrants like the Sunbelt cities of the south and southwest, or continuing to gain international immigrants like the major coastal cities. That’s partly true.

Economists and policy wonks also say Chicago’s economy isn’t as strong or dynamic as New York’s or those of the Bay Area or metropolitan D.C. They also cite Chicago’s high taxes as a factor in pushing some residents out. And they’d be partly right. But the fact remains that big coastal cities have taxes that are every bit as high, even higher, than those we have here in Chicago.

Neither narrative tells the whole story. The answers may be in the data at the race and ethnicity level. After a big drop in the first half of the last decade, the number of white residents in Chicago has grown 9 percent since 2005. Latino growth has slowed significantly, but it’s still up about 5 percent since 2000. Chicago’s Asian population has boomed, growing by 44 percent since 2000.

But Chicago’s black population, the city’s largest demographic in 2000, has dropped by 24 percent through 2017, going from more than one million in 2000 to just under 800,000 in 2017. The number of whites in Chicago surpassed blacks in 2017, and Latinos will almost certainly pass blacks by the time of the 2020 census.

Chicago’s population would be increasing if not for the black exodus. How can it be explained?

Well, there’s the lack-of-a-dynamic­-economy theory and the slowed­-immigration theory, already noted. And there’s the rust-belt-restructuring theory, which suggests that Chicago’s transition from a manufacturing­-dominant economy to a ser­vice- or tech-based one creates new winners and losers—and that we’re shedding those who are unable to contribute in the new economic environment. Also partly true, but pretty Darwinistic.

There’s also the “crime and schools” theory. Chicago’s violent crime rate has been a national story for some years now, and while crime is down significantly from the “crack era” 90s, it hasn’t fallen as much as it has in other major cities. The closure of more than 50 schools in 2013, mostly in black communities on the south and west sides, meant the loss of key local anchor institutions. Without a doubt there are many blacks who feel they are being pushed out of Chicago by its crime challenges, and that the school closures were an indication of a lack of investment in critical local institutions.

Chicago demographer and public policy consultant Rob Paral said as much in an interview with real estate news website last spring. Discussing the city’s population loss, he said, “Blacks are concerned about policy issues like school closures, crime, and policing. What we’re seeing is a reverse migration to southern areas of the country.”

That’s right—black Chicagoans aren’t flocking to the suburbs so much as leaving the region altogether. The number of blacks in the metro area but outside of Chicago has been relatively stagnant since 2000, an indication that people are leaving. The cities gaining at Chicago’s expense? Sunbelt hot spots like Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston. The draw is the perception of greater opportunity, and perhaps the chance to restore old southern networks with family and friends who stuck around.

That’s why I come down to Chicago’s legacy of segregation as the biggest driver of this pattern.

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 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 “crime and schools” theory is related to an even broader concept—displacement by decline. A lack of investment in parts of the city leads to institutional destabilization, and ultimately abandonment. When the time is right—values are at their lowest, or the social stigma is lost—revitalization can take place under a new regime. Some black Chicagoans point to the transformation of the South Loop and near south side, which lost nearly half of their (mostly black) residents between 1950 and 1990, but have since tripled in population via a high-rise condo-tower boom. The South Loop and near south side are more diverse than ever, as whites, Latinos, Asians, and others inhabit areas previously unexplored. This is why the discussion of black population loss in Chicago ends with bafflement and befuddlement—and makes “displacement by decline” the de facto policy.

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.

Strangely, Detroit might be one of the best examples of “displacement by decline” in action. The Motor City has been at the absolute forefront of urban stigmatization. But Detroit is now in the midst of a major transformation precisely in the areas that were once abandoned and left for ruin. Downtown Detroit has been transformed; surrounding neighborhoods are undergoing a renaissance. What was once the disgraced Cass Corridor is now upscale and hip Midtown.

For both Detroit and Chicago it appears the near future will bring the continued loss of black residents and continued gains in whites, Latinos, and Asians. Both cities, and others like them in the rust belt, will become more diverse and, at the same time, less black. Population loss will become population gain again.

By the middle of this century we could be talking about the incredible transformation of former rust-belt cities. But the blacks who contributed mightily to their growth in the 20th century might not be able to share in the new prosperity. Which leads to the question: Are blacks moving to new spaces with greater opportunity, or moving away from their next best shot at it?  v