With about 1.3 million black residents, Chicago’s Cook County recorded the largest black population of any county in the United States, but that may change soon. The Chicago Tribune reports that since 2010, the Chicago area has lost more than 35,000 black residents in what Brookings Institution demographer William Frey calls “reverse migration.”
Reasons for the exodus, greater than in any other metropolitan area in the country, include the search for safe neighborhoods, secure incomes and prosperity. Residents are now setting their eyes on the suburbs, which have better housing and job opportunities, but the steady loss of the black middle class poses a larger issue in neighborhoods across Chicago.
Stephanie Schmitz Bechteler, director of research and evaluation at the Chicago Urban League, weighed in on the matter. “You lose that healthy mix of incomes in the community, which can be problematic for the families still living there, in terms of investment and reinvestment and circulating dollars,” she said. “I’d never fault a family for leaving, but it does present challenges for the community they leave behind.”
Former Chicago resident Roosevelt Johnson, 47, is also aware of the potential consequences linked to the shifting demographic. “I think it’s very unfortunate. It’s creating a dangerous culture of individuals. If I didn’t have a job, if I had little education and I’m hungry … I’ll become a desperate individual,” he said. “I’m saddened by the fact that my trips to the city are now filled with less enthusiasm, more apprehension and a much more sobering view that ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ is more so in song than reality.”
While Chicago continues to see a drop in its black population, the Greater Atlanta area has seen massive gains. 2015 marked the city’s largest influx of black residents with 198,031 newcomers.
“Atlanta has a rising black middle-class population, and people want to link into that labor market,” Frey said. “But there’s also a cultural part to it. If you’re moving to a place where the economy is not so much better (than where you were) and you don’t have family or friends there, but there is an established black community, that’s attractive to you.”