Home Community Black Families Came to Chicago by the Thousands. Why Are They Leaving?

Black Families Came to Chicago by the Thousands. Why Are They Leaving?

by Julie Bosman

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. Hardis 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 past 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.

Hardis, 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 White, 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 White, 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.”

Hardis: ‘I loved it right away.’

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, Mississippi. 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, Hardis recalled.

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,” Hardis 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,” Hardis 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,” Hardis 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. Hardis 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 — Hardis’ mother and his sister and brother-in-law and their children — lived in the upper flat.

They threw birthday parties in the garage, balloons and children’s games spilling into the alley. The roomy front porch was a thoroughfare and a gathering place.

The Whites knew every house on Laporte, every neighbor. The Stewarts. The Williamses. The Martins.

“I thought I’d live there forever,” Hardis said.

Dora: ‘I wanted to get her out.’

Dora White, the eldest daughter, was the first child to leave Chicago.

After graduating from high school in 1986, she enlisted in the Army. Two years later, her daughter, Ke’Oisha, was born, the newest resident of a family home that held four generations of Whites.

But the city had entered a slump. Manufacturing was in decline. In 1992, Hardis lost his $13.60-an-hour job when the plant closed. “Oscar Mayer Closing Kills More Good-Pay City Jobs,” the headline in The Chicago Tribune read. Nearly 700 other employees were suddenly out of work, too.

And by Ke’Oisha’s sophomore year, in the early 2000s, Dora had grown concerned about their surroundings. By 2003, no other city in the country had as many homicides as Chicago. Their neighborhood of Austin, a community of aging brick houses, greystones and apartment buildings that occupies a large swath of Chicago’s West Side, had become notorious for its violence.

“It wasn’t too bad until the grandkids started coming — the next generation under me,” said Dora, 51. “My generation, you knew they were kind of selling drugs, but you didn’t really see it a whole lot. Whereas the young guys, they just started blocking streets, blocking traffic. They didn’t care.”

Dora worried about Ke’Oisha, who was bright and ambitious. “I wanted to get her out of that environment,” she said.

So she bought a house in Hillside, a tiny suburb less than 10 miles to the west.

She and Ke’Oisha drove back to Austin on Sundays to attend services at the Greater St. John Bible Church. But others who were once regulars in the pews and had also moved away did not return.

She has a steady job doing accounting and payroll for a company outside Chicago, and likes the quiet of her block, even if she does not know her neighbors as she did as a child. She traded the noisy rumble of the “L” train for the Metra, the suburban rail.

There is little doubt in Dora’s mind that she did what most parents would do if they had the chance. She pulled her child out of a dangerous environment. She helped set Ke’Oisha on a path to college and a successful career.

Somewhere along the way, she stopped missing Chicago.

“I can take it or leave it,” she said, sitting in a high-backed chair in her dining room in Hillside. “I rarely come into the city.”

Ke’Oisha: ‘I knew I wanted better.’

Ke’Oisha White was a teenager whose mother had moved her to the suburbs, and she rankled at the disruption.

But her parents’ focus on education was working. She became the first in the White family to graduate from a four-year college, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.

After graduation, Ke’Oisha knew where she wanted to begin her career: back home, in Chicago.

Rahm Emanuel, then the mayor, was luring companies to the city, lauding Chicago’s newfound reputation as a thriving technology hub. Ke’Oisha applied for job after job. Somehow they seemed out of her reach.

“I found myself struggling to get a good job, and I was depressed about it,” said Ke’Oisha, now 31. “I was under the impression that if I didn’t know someone, I wasn’t going to get the position.”

So she began hunting for work in other states, with an eye on Houston, where a high school friend had moved earlier.

“I was like, I’m just going to pray about this,” Ke’Oisha said. “Whoever offers the best job, that’s where I’m going.”

Hewlett-Packard dangled an internship, with the promise that it could turn into a permanent position if she excelled. The company paid her relocation expenses, and she moved into a two-bedroom apartment for $800 a month, a steal compared to what she was paying in Chicago.

It was a blow to her parents. They could accept if she was in the Chicago suburbs. But Texas? “My father was like, ‘No one in our family has ever left,’ ” she said.

Seven years later, it is not lost on Ke’Oisha that Houston, a city of 2.3 million people, is poised to overtake Chicago in population sometime in the next decade — in part because of transplants like her.

There, she found a career that seems boundless. The internship led to a job as a project manager. She bought a house on her own, where she lives with her Yorkshire terrier, Gucci.

Just before Christmas, Ke’Oisha came home for a visit. The day before she was scheduled to fly back to Houston in January, she was relaxing in her mother’s house, surrounded by decorations and presents under the tree.

It was a wonderful trip, Ke’Oisha said, Gucci resting contentedly on her lap. But her mind was already racing ahead to all the tasks that awaited her at work. It was time to get back to reality in Houston.

“I ended up loving it there,” she said. “I have no reason to come back to Chicago.”

Tshena: ‘The block is changing.’

Back in the house on Laporte last month, Tshena White paused midsentence to study the faint scratches on the dark hardwood floors in the living room. They needed to be replaced — another item for her ever-growing wish list.

After all, the house was now hers.

In the summer of 2018, her parents came to a decision: It was time to sell their beloved house. Velma was 67, and her memory was fading. Maybe we should move in with Dora in Hillside, Hardis suggested one day. His wife agreed, and they bought a new house there together.

The fate of the family home on Laporte was suddenly an open question.

“I just said, that house is not leaving this family,” said Tshena, who works at a hospital and, at 47, is still known to her father as “my baby girl.”

Tshena had never lived anywhere but that house, and she wasn’t inclined to leave. Her father came to her with a proposal: Would she like to buy it?

She paid $130,000, keeping the first-floor apartment as her own, and drawing rent from her sister Nesan, who lives with her children on the second floor.

Hardis and Velma White settled with Dora in Hillside. Sometimes, it was a struggle for Hardis, who since he was 13 had rarely been away from the constant hum of city noise. “In the city, there’s something going on all the time, 24 hours,” he said.

Every morning, he drove back to Laporte Avenue, waving at school crossing guards and making mental notes of what had changed.

Tshena said that for the first time since she can remember, gun violence is declining. In 2016, shootings spiked in Chicago. Since then, police have shifted tactics, intensifying their presence in certain neighborhoods, and relying on increasingly sophisticated technology for detecting crime. The last few years have felt quieter, Tshena said, and 2019 was the most peaceful of all.

“I don’t worry about going out on my front porch,” Tshena said.

She has noticed something else, too. “The block is changing,” she said. “It’s a mixed neighborhood block now — we have different races.”

In January, the morning after a snowstorm hit the city, the only sound outside the house on Laporte was the scrape of snow shovels.

Tshena was inside, near the things that had been in the house for what feels like forever: the family piano that Dora used to play, a picture of three little girls, huddled together in prayer, and an old-fashioned radiator that stretches the length of the front picture window. It was Velma’s favorite spot in the house. Now it is Tshena’s. She likes to sit on the seat above the radiator, feeling its warmth.

She peered through the window to the street. It was Saturday, which meant Hardis would be attending church nearby. Any minute now, he might pass by.

“We see him out there all the time,” she said. “He doesn’t need to stop. He just slows down and looks. He likes to know that the family is still there.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Source: The New York Times Company

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