Black Flight: Chicago's Urban Exodus Meets Racial Resistance

Part 2 of a 2-part Series Tracking How Blacks Meet Racial
Resistance When They Move Away From Chicago Seeking Better Opportunities, Prosperity and Safer Streets. See Part 1: Chicago’s “Reverse Migration” Impacts the Black Community

In August 2016, more than two dozen Rockford locals attended the groundbreaking ceremony for “The Grove at Keith Creek,” a 49-unit public housing complex set on six acres that will house 210 low-income, mostly Black Rockford residents. The complex was the site of protest and legal opposition throughout its development, aimed at stalling the project to a standstill.

As approval of the development loomed, the fight over The Grove had become heated in community meetings, then-Rockford Housing Authority Chief Executive Officer Ron Clewer said. Longstanding racial aggressions were unearthed in the process. In July 2015, Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey went on the record condemning the use of “racist code words” by opponents of The Grove.

“What I’ve been really shocked at is the number of emails I’ve gotten and some of the comments from people saying, ‘You shouldn’t let ‘those people’ come to the east side, which is a [racist] code word in my opinion,” Morrissey told local radio station WROK.

Unlike Joliet’s Evergreen Terrace, another housing complex under fire in suburban Illinois, The Grove, which is expected to wrap up construction in summer 2017, is seen as a success story by housing advocates. Director of Housing Justice at Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law attorney Kate Walz said she was “shocked” to learn that Rockford approved the 6-acre, $11.8 million Grove site, given opposition coming from as high as Illinois State Sen. Dave Syverson. Still, she warned of ongoing legal and social conflict between incoming affordable housing residents and local homeowners, even after the dust has settled.

“As is the common practice, in [Illinois towns like] Joliet, Aurora and Danville, politicians drum up the opposition then realize the monster they’ve created,” Walz said.

Nearly a year later, as The Grove prepares to open its doors, one of the plaintiffs on a failed lawsuit against The Grove says the damage has been done.

“Property values just took a dive as soon as [The Grove] was approved,” said Don Bondick, 61, a lifelong white Rockford resident and president of the New Towne Homeowners Association, which sits directly to the south of The Grove public housing site. “A lot of people bailed out and sold their homes out of fear of crimes, drugs, shootings, prostitution and stuff like that.”

Out of 50 units at Bondick’s New Towne condominium association, 10 homeowners either sold immediately or walked away from their homes, he said, adding that “all of them” were directly related to the incoming public housing development. But Bondick says it’s time to put hard feelings aside and welcome the new neighbors.

“I don’t know what else you can do. We lost a year-and-half-battle, and it wasn’t just New Towne Association homeowners, it was the entire area of Rockford,” he said. “We fought and we lost. And now we need some acceptance. These people are afraid to come here because they feel they aren’t wanted.”

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Black Migration by the Numbers

In Joliet, the “rats from the Robert Taylor homes” and Evergreen Terrace’s “cancer on the civic body” weren’t simply statements made by a city official (see part 1 of our series), it was a perspective routinely echoed by local media reports and repeated by Joliet residents opposed to new public housing. But in towns across Illinois, research has shown that similar racially tinged assumptions don’t add up. In Danville, Ilinois, 150 miles south of Chicago, the majority of public-housing applicants in 2009 were not new to the area. In reality, 61 percent were residents of the Danville area who had fallen on increasingly hard times, according to a study by the Illinois Assisted Housing Action Research Project. That same year, six new public-housing residents moved to Danville from Chicago, according to the report.

But that didn’t stop local news headlines from heralding a housing war. Other local news reports offered more punitive options as headlines like “Chicago Influx Takes Toll” ran alongside reports detailing the growing movement against new, low-income developments.

“The reality is, Chicago has exported much of its poverty, crime and gang problems at a time when funding for law enforcement and social services has never been higher,” Danville’s Commercial-News reported in April 2008, quoting as its primary source an Illinois Department of Corrections senior parole agent, who suggested a slew of “crime-free” policies including the implementation of public mapping systems for public housing (similar to sex offender registries).

Within Chicago, little has changed for Black residents in the 100 years since the Great Migration, according to a 2016 report from the Urban League exploring the city’s enduring legacy of residential segregation. “Chicago, the third-most segregated city in the United States, continues to experience the impacts of decades-old segregated housing patterns, which undercut African-Americans’ ability to build the human capital necessary to ascend the ladder of economic stability,” it surmises before offering the creation of a non-appointed, representative fair-housing council as a first step toward solutions.

Census data suggests change may come too late for many: a “Black flight” away from Chicago is already underway, but the vast majority of these local transports are not public-housing residents. Rather they’re Black residents with the means to leave Chicago for better opportunities, prosperity and safer streets. According to Census data analyzed by Alden Loury of the Metropolitan Planning Council, tens of thousands of Black residents left Cook County between 2005-2014 seeking new permanent residence. Of that number, around half have stayed in Illinois, followed by destinations in Indiana and Georgia, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Of those who stayed in Illinois — which includes residents from across the economic spectrum — around 7,000 moved to Rockford, 3,400 moved to the Danville area, and 3,800 moved to Will County, which includes most of Joliet. The majority, around 31,600, moved to areas in Kane, Kendall and McHenry counties.

For Black families, the outward trend from cities is national, according to Census data. In 2000, 55 percent of African-Americans in the country’s top 100 metro areas lived in the cities of those regions. Today, more than half of African-Americans live in the suburbs of those same regions. But as City Council records, emails from politicians, policy changes and the stories of those Black residents who have left Chicago for the suburbs suggest, racial discrimination in housing has followed African-American families across borders. And with that incoming diversity often comes the telltale signs of its companion: white flight. Since 1980, the white populations of Danville, Joliet and Rockford have dropped by roughly 20 percent. During that same period, the number of non-white residents has risen nearly across the board.

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Video: PBS News Hour on “Why neighborhood demographics are shifting in Chicago.”

Underlying Discrimination Persists

Willie Brown has lived in Rockford for 25 years. He bought his first home on Rockford’s East Side, an area known locally as the historically, majority white side of town divided by the Rock River, 90 miles to the west of Chicago.

From the start, his real estate agent was reluctant to take him to the East Side, instead choosing to direct him toward “raggedy places” on the West Side, he said. But Brown persisted, and in the end he purchased an East Side condo in 1993 — the first Black person to own property in that building.

After becoming a member of the homeowners association, Brown discovered that the building’s bylaws explicitly prohibited Black homeownership.

He recounted, “We had to have a meeting to get the language out that restricted Blacks.”

It wasn’t just housing. While many municipalities entered into consent agreements in the 1960s designed to integrate public schools, the Rockford school district was sued in 1989 and found guilty of decades of “cruel” discrimination against minority students in 1993. That’s the same year that Brown, a Rockford firefighter, husband, father and founder of Internal Intelligence Group — which consults on and hosts business diversity and inclusion trainings — integrated his condo complex.

Aside from a spike in the mid-2000s when nearly 50 percent of African-Americans reported owning their own home, Black homeownership has been on the decline nationally. In the fourth quarter of 2016, less than 42 percent of respondents reported owning a home nationwide, according to Census data.

“I think individuals have been able to look under the scab and see this sickness that’s been festering,” Brown said. “In the 1960s, we took the [no Negroes allowed] signs off, but we didn’t do anything else to prepare the institutions for what was coming. I think deep down it’s gotten worse. We’ve polished the top to make it look better, but it’s festered because we’ve failed to do serious equity and diversity training in our organizations and institutions.”

Organizations like Together Rockford and the Rockford Housing Authority are trying to change that, the latter by providing homeownership programs and housing vouchers for residents enrolled in public housing.

“I am [optimistic], and the reason why is because we have to look at victory and success in any shape or fashion that it comes, Brown said. “I would love to have the big first-place trophy, but I realize that even small victories count toward the ultimate goal. And there are plenty of small victories.”

Challenge to Opportunity

On a private tour of Rockford led by Clewer in March 2016, the totality of the city’s public-housing strategy was on full display, including new and under-construction complexes, a senior citizen center, disabled-supportive properties and a garden, maintenance repair facility and a laundromat linked to residential work programs. The grassy tract that will contain The Grove sat unoccupied within sight of a local school and neighbors promoting campaign-style signs on their lawns urging the city to reject the public-housing development.

Clewer was unfazed. Despite resistance to low-income housing and seemingly intractable segregation, he believes Rockford can become a city that turns a challenge into an opportunity.

“I don’t think housing is a solution to poverty. It’s a platform for life,” he said, crossing the Rock River on the final leg of the drive. “If we put a roof over your head, that roof better come with access to jobs, good quality transportation, and a safe neighborhood for your kids to live and go to school in.”

That’s what good housing is supposed to do, Clewer said, in any community.

Nearly a year to the day after our tour, Clewer announced his resignation from the Rockford Housing Authority, leaving questions around Rodkford’s housing future to his successor. But with new development, an incoming tax base, live/work programs for affordable housing residents and increasing awareness of the potential benefits, Clewer hopes that some solutions to Rockford’s depressed housing market, unemployment record and social divisions can be found in what may be, to some, an unexpected place: newcomers who buy homes, open businesses and join the broader Rockford community.

This project was supported by the Social Justice News Nexus at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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