Where does Chicago’s black middle class live?

(As a foreword: I’m very conscious, as I write this, that I’m explaining something a large number of readers already know; I want to acknowledge that what I’m doing is not unearthing some previously-undiscovered secret, but trying to demonstrate a few of the basic facts of the city’s social geography that really, truly are mysteries to a huge number of people, both in Chicago and in the rest of the country. It would be nice if we lived in a world in which the black middle class were not an exotic demographic to most non-black Chicagoans, let alone the dominant view from outside the city: but we don’t, so here we are.)

There are at least three ways one might go about answering that question.

1. If you picked a random middle-class black person, where are they most likely to live?

To answer this question, you probably just want to count up all the middle class black households and tally them by neighborhood. So that’s what I did. The tricky part, obviously, is defining “middle class.” In the end, I went with something like what I did with my Chicago income segregation maps: households making at least 75% of the metropolitan average income, which works out to about $45,000 a year. There are a million problems with this: it doesn’t account for household size, or life station (a 26-year-old with a bachelor’s making $40,000 doesn’t count, even though nearly anyone who met them would consider them middle class, while a single parent with four children making $45,000, whose economic and social position is likely much, much more precarious, does), or any number of other things. I considered using education, but in a city like Chicago – and this is especially true among African Americans, I think – a huge number of people with middle-class lives have union jobs that don’t require a college education.

Anyway, with all those caveats, here’s the map:

B45totSo the answer is mostly on the South and West Sides: that’s Austin there on the far West Side, with the largest number; Roseland, Auburn Gresham, and South Shore are the leaders on the South Side.

There are things to say about this, but I’m going to go through the next two maps before I say them.

2. If you picked a random person in a given neighborhood, what’s the likelihood that person would be black and middle-class?


In effect, what this does is control for the number of people in each community area. Austin, for example, which looked super impressive in the first map, now looks less impressive; it turns out that it has a lot of middle-class black people mostly because it has a lot of people, period.

Anyway, the standouts now are Calumet Heights, the darkest-blue trapezoidal shape on the far Southeast Side; Avalon Park just to the north; and Roseland, Washington Heights, and West Pullman on the far, far South Side.

3. Finally, if you picked a random black householder in a given neighborhood, what is the likelihood that person would be middle-class?


This is a considerably weirder, and in some ways more misleading, map. There are now standouts on the Northwest and Southwest sides, in addition to the far South Side; but, if we refer back to the first map, we see that most of those places have vanishingly few black households to begin with. In fact, it’s much worse (in the sense of the numbers are much smaller) than that map even suggests: in many of the darkest-blue areas, we’re talking about dozens of households. Many of these are areas that, up until twenty years ago or so, had literally – or almost literally – zero black residents. To the small extent that they’ve been integrated since then, they’ve been integrated with solidly middle-class people.

Anyway, a few notes on the whole thing:

1. The black middle class exists in Chicago. In large numbers. This shouldn’t really be news, but speaking in my capacity as a white person who knows a lot of white people, and other people of various ethnic backgrounds from the North Side and suburbs and other parts of the country/world, it really is.

2. Perhaps even more importantly, the vast majority of Chicagoans who are both black and middle-class live on the South Side, and to a lesser extent, the West Side.

3. The concentration of middle-class households varies dramatically from one black neighborhood to another.

4. Still, the majority of Chicagoans who are middle-class and black live in neighborhoods that are mostly not middle-class – as opposed to Chicagoans who are middle-class and white, for whom the opposite is true. In this way, Chicago is pretty similar to the rest of the country.

The takeaway, for me, is that these maps contradict two of the biggest lies – or, if we’re being kind, misconceptions – about the social geography of Chicago. The first is that the black neighborhoods of the South and West Sides are an undifferentiated landscape of economic hardship. This is false in a couple of ways. For one, though there are, in fact, many people who are suffering for want of a decent wage in these areas, there are also many thousands of households that are not. (Though they are likely still disadvantaged by other consequences of segregation, including worse access to jobs and basic amenities, higher crime, lower-performing schools, etc.)

For two, just like white, Hispanic, and Asian people, black people are segregated by income. That is to say: some black neighborhoods are much wealthier than others. Of course, this kind of stratification is complicated, since it’s layered on top of – and interacts with – racial segregation. But the view of Chicago as bifurcated between the privileged North Side and deprived South Side needs to get sophisticated enough to recognize the major differences in privilege/deprivation between, say, Englewood and Calumet Heights. It also needs to recognize that even in neighborhoods that are majority low-income, there are generally a significant number of middle-class residents.

The second big lie, related to the first, is that basically everyone on the South and West Sides would get out if they could. This is sometimes stated explicitly; more often, I think, it’s the unspoken assumption that frames most outsiders’ conversations about those parts of the city. It assumes that everyone in Chicago follows roughly the same ladder of neighborhood prestige: one that tops out in Wicker Park, or Lincoln Park, or North Center, or Norwood Park, depending on your family status and subcultural preferences.

But this isn’t remotely the case. Someone who had only lived on the North Side – or outside the city – might figure that the reason there are so few black people (or Latinos! more on that in a sec) in, say, Lakeview, is that Lakeview is so expensive, black and Latino people have lower average incomes, etc., etc. And surely that is, in fact, a large part of the answer. But it’s not the entire answer, and one way to prove it is to show that, actually, the median black householder in Lakeview actually makes less money than the median black householder in Roseland, a neighborhood whose name is usually accompanied in media reports with adjectives like “struggling,” or “blighted,” and so on. It’s actually not even close: over $40,000 in Roseland, versus $33,000 in Lakeview. Those sorts of inversions of North Side/non-Chicagoan perceptions about neighborhood prestige are actually pretty common: black median household income is $24,000 in West Town, $31,000 in Lincoln Park, and $35,000 in North Center, but $39,000 in West Pullman,  $42,000 in Washington Heights, and $56,000 in Calumet Heights. And in Ashburn – a neighborhood on the very southwestern edge of the city that’s about 50% black, and which most North Siders (including me, until friends moved there a few years ago) have never even heard of – it’s over $70,000.

Why does all of this matter? Number one, it’s something that lots of people are wrong about, and I don’t like it when people are wrong about things. More generally, though, widely-held perceptions of neighborhood quality and prestige – especially when those perceptions are held by people with lots of economic and political power – play a huge role in shaping the future of any given neighborhood. From a governance perspective, there are lots of reasons you’d want the people in charge of a city to have an accurate impression of the communities they’re governing before they start making up policies for them; but also from a purely social point of view, the fact that most non-black Chicagoans – and the vast majority of non-Chicagoans – can’t distinguish between Englewood and Calumet Heights means that they won’t ever visit, spend money, and certainly won’t consider living, in neighborhoods that they would likely find generally pleasant. (I apologize for picking on Englewood: I definitely don’t mean to suggest that it doesn’t also have positive qualities, or that no one should go there. I’m making some big-picture observations about the size of its challenges relative to other neighborhoods, and common ways that people react to places with those kinds of challenges.) In short, it’s hard to build much of a local economy in a place that 75% of the population shuns without even thinking about it. (Read Robert Sampson’s Great American City for more on that.)

Anyway, this post is now long enough: I have more to say, but I will put it off to another time. I’ll leave you with two final maps: versions of map #1 above for Latinos, whites, and Asians. They’re fairly self-explanatory, but suffice it to say that most of this post could be rewritten, with only minor edits, to apply to Chicago’s Latino middle class as well.





28 thoughts on “Where does Chicago’s black middle class live?

  1. I’d say that the general assumption of those talking about black middle class flight is that Chicago’s black middle class is moving to the suburbs or out of state, not to other Chicago neighborhoods.

    If I interpret your maps correctly, the total number of black middle class households isn’t super-high, especially when you put it against the backdrop of city of more than a million households.

    1. It’s certainly much smaller than the white middle class – the appearance is also exacerbated, I think, by the fact that with a few exceptions, the South Side community areas are less dense, and just have fewer households, than the relatively more-populated North Side CAs. But mainly, yes, there are fewer middle class households.

      And I’d actually be curious to know how much intra-city migration there is in Chicago, and what the racial/economic breakdowns are. I’m not sure I’ve seen any numbers on that.

  2. There’s a similar twist in New York, in that the black middle-class neighborhoods are not the same as the white ones. But it’s compounded by the fact that because those neighborhoods tend to be far from Manhattan (generally in southeastern Queens and the North Bronx), they’re not gentrifying, but declining. As Aaron says, people in those neighborhoods often try moving to the suburbs, but face housing discrimination. The explanation I’ve read for why in Queens blacks have higher median household income than whites is that due to housing discrimination, they have a harder time buying a house in Long Island. Of course, many do manage to move farther out, and are replaced by people moving farther out from the poor neighborhoods closer to Manhattan; both the boundary between the North Bronx and the South Bronx and the boundary between Harlem and the UES/UWS have been moving northward.

    1. One advantage Chicago middle class families have in wanting to move to the suburbs is that those suburbs are cheap, particularly on the south and southwest sides. There’s clearly been an influx of black and latino families into those areas.

      1. I reside in Olympia Fields, a “Cheap” suburb just south of Chicago. My property taxes alone are $14,000 a year. I would consider that far from cheap.

    2. Yeah, I suspect there’s something similar happening in Chicago. The problem in Chicago is that the north-south dynamic means that by moving farther south, the black middle class is also moving farther away from the largest job concentrations downtown and in the suburbs.

      1. Shirley Cashin’s The Failure of Integration makes the same point about black middle-class suburbanization in the DC area: PG County is located in the exact opposite direction from the Tysons Corner favored quarter, and this pattern replicates itself in other metro areas with a segregated suburban middle class, such as Atlanta. (The argument the book makes is that the predominant current in the black middle class, which is that liberation means one doesn’t need to know white people to succeed, perpetuates inequality, and only integration can equalize outcomes.)

        It’s a bit different in New York in that the water interferes with the simple wedge model, but again, the directions of black middle-class suburbanization are not the same as those of the favored quarter: in Long Island, middle-class blacks move to the South Shore, whereas the richest suburbs are on the North Shore and resist school integration. At least in Long Island, the suburban job centers are in the middle, unlike in DC or Atlanta or Chicago.

      2. Ugh, forgot to reply. Yes, I’d recommend the book; it’s a pretty good treatment of the problems of segregated black middle-class areas.

      3. Most of the jobs I’ve held were downtown. I’m from the South Side and live 3 min away from the 95th Red Line Station. There aren’t many jobs on the South Side. When I go to the job board (Indeed.com), I find that most of the jobs are North.

        I plan on creating a huge change on the South Side of Chicago very soon. Remember my name, Joseph Randall.

  3. Thank you for a very informative reasearchh about aour city. It would be also interesting to compare the numbers of middle class households in different Chacago areas with the numbers in the suburbs. It is hard to say without exact data, but I think suburbs should be leading here

  4. Great post – I really like seeing more nuanced examinations of space and social data.

    One important note is that the scales on your 4 different #1 graphs are very different – e.g. the highest group for Asians is > 3000 and the lowest for whites is < 5000. I know there are big differences in population size and income between groups, but those absolute numbers are misleading to compare.

    1. Thanks! As to the scales, the point isn’t to compare the relative size of white v. Latino v. etc. middle classes – it’s to see where they tend to concentrate. In that sense, I don’t think the varying scales are super important.

  5. Didn’t know where Ashburn was? Don’t fret — there are many South Siders who don’t know where Ravenswood is, either. I kid, but it’s true.

    Seriously, this post really brings to mind the book by Patrick Sharkey, Stuck in Place. In it he points out that middle class blacks are far more likely to live next to poverty than similar middle class people of other racial/ethnic groups, and one impact of that is that neighborhoods with a middle class presence are judged by the poverty near them. I could rattle off many black middle class neighborhoods on the South Side that are significant parts of larger Chicago Community Areas — Wrightwood (in Ashburn), North Beverly (in Auburn-Gresham, my old nabe), Rosewood (in Roseland), Pill Hill (the upper middle class part of Calumet Heights), Jackson Highlands (in South Shore), Park Manor (in Grand Crossing) — but they all go unrecognized because they’re more like islands of relative affluence, largely unconnected from similar areas. My old block at 82nd and Hoyne was very nice, but go a half-mile east to Ashland and it’s a different environment.

    My other thought is related to Aaron’s. He’s correct in saying that the black middle class doesn’t exist in large numbers in Chicago anymore. I’d say that’s in large part due to black flight over the last 20-25 years. I don’t have the numbers with me now, but I’ve seen data that in 1970, the city/suburb residency split of blacks in the Chicago metro area was about 85/15. In 2010 it was more like 60/40. To be sure, not all blacks in the burbs are middle class (see: Ford Heights), and not all blacks who moved to the burbs were middle class, or just as importantly stayed middle class. But I think it’s safe to assume that the preponderance of movers were those who had the means to do so, making them more likely to be middle class. So what was once a pretty large and clustered black middle class in Chicago, anchored on the South Side, has dispersed throughout the metro area and elsewhere.

    1. No, I’m sure. Did you ever see that UIC study about what North Siders knew of South Side neighborhoods, and vice versa? It’s pretty crazy.

      Yeah, I’m familiar with that research but haven’t read Sharkey’s book yet. High on the list.

      Do you have any sense what suburbs they moved to? Was it mostly southern (Homewood, Country Club Hills, etc.)?

  6. Do you have any insight as to why so many gentrifying or gentrified North Side neighborhoods have low median household incomes for blacks? I’m not sure if they would be considered “gentrification holdouts,” since these neighborhoods never had large black populations in the first place. Maybe the Lanthrop Homes have something to do with it? Or are there SROs or other small clusters of affordable housing?

    Also, would it be possible for you to create a maps for Latinos, whites, and Asians that show percentages instead of raw numbers? This might be useful, since Lakeview and Little Village have the same population bias as Austin.

    1. I would suspect that it’s a combination of general hostility to black people for a long time, and now largely social network effects, with some discrimination thrown in for good measure. Up until relatively recently, it was either outright dangerous or just very unpleasant for a black person to move to large parts of the North Side; and now, if you’re from the area and you’re black, chances are the vast majority of your friends and family live on the South or West sides, and most people aren’t super keen on moving far away from their social network. I’ve also been told that there’s still a lot of apprehension about being the only black person on your block in, say, North Center, for all the reasons you might imagine. Those are my impressions, but I’d love to hear it if someone else has anything to add.

    2. Bingo to the affordable housing point, both SROs (which are being forced out in places like Uptown and Logan Sqaure), CHA developments, and other affordable-housing developments. It goes back to Gautreaux v. CHA from the 60s and its “thou shalt disperse concentrated poverty” edict. You might notice a lot of these developments are for seniors, as they are more palatable to the predominately white, upper-middle-class residents of these gentrified neighborhoods but will still likely have very low incomes. (This is true in many suburbs, too, by the way.)

  7. Please add Black Picket Fences and Black on the Block by Professor Mary Pattillo–sociological expert on the Black Middle Class (in Chicago) to your book list.

  8. I imagine some rationale for lower household incomes for African Americans living north is that a significant percentage could be early career professionals, living single, making modest incomes relative to established families and professionals in their areas. I lived the majority of my years in Chicago as one such professional, only moving to the south side to combat cultural isolation and to pursue my life’s work in a social milieu I assumed would be more supportive to dating, marriage, community-building. People of color in the neighborhoods where I lived/loved for decades – Lincoln Park, Old Town, Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park, Bucktown – were either just like me or low-wage immigrants or low-income families, arguably remnants of pre-gentrification, but not necessarily the “public housing/SRO” enclaves referenced in previous entries. I also appreciate this more nuanced conversation around race and household income, core to my work. I bristle at the notion that a prime way to improve life in African American neighborhoods is to import whites – a surprisingly common thought. While my org actively invites blacks with higher incomes to “move back home” to our hard-won legacy communities, I’m always surprised that few consider the complementary alternative of helping lower-wage families increase their household income – again, core to my work. Complicated, of course, by seemingly implacable structures holding poverty in place. Implacable perhaps, but not impossible to transform. Gets me out of bed in the morning, anyway. Many thanks for your thoughts. I look forward to hearing more.

  9. My friends and I are all college educated, (many with MAs) Black twenty something’s who are looking to establish roots soon. Most of us have any desire to move to Chicago from the burbs (South Holland, Olympia Fields etc). Personally, despite the great amenities the North side has to offer, I am very apprehensive about living there because of higher rent and racial tensions (and frankly ,in my experience, north siders just aren’t as friendly). However, living on a more friendly (and adorable) south side means no grocery stores, no shopping, no restaurants, no nightlife, no fun. The south burbs aren’t as bad but are still generally lacking in amenities. Here’s an experiment, on google maps, look up your favorite places (Target, Starbucks, Thai food restaurants etc) you’ll find next to none on the south side. So what many (and I mean MANY) of us would prefer is to move out of state all together. That sounds extreme, but I literally feel that I have nowhere to live in Chicago.

    1. DanaC, can we talk? You and your friends/colleagues are young enough to bring vision and energy to dead legacy communities. For 3 years now I’ve been advocating to all who would listen – “Calling My Children Home” – to the places where grandparents gave their all and bought land and stewarded communities and built commercial corridors after white flight. You have the numbers and the creativity. BIG has renovation schemas and new construction designs created with you in mind. We have plans for rebuilding the corridors. This is the time of your life for the adventure of a lifetime, and no one needs to hand anything to you ready-made when you are as capable and hungry as you are. I urge you in the strongest terms possible to consider building a village in your own image. BIG can help with financing, technical assistance, and socio-emotional/spiritual supports. Something to consider before taking that big leap across state lines. AND black communities around the world suffer from a common whole-system problem. The only place we have ever found where we could thrive were the places where we planted ourselves, depended on ourselves, and invested ourselves fully in its cultivation. I grew up in such a place in St. Albans, Queens NYC where folks could walk-to-work, walk-to-shop, walk-to-learn, walk-to-play, and neighbors knew your name. It was attractive, interesting, safe, and nourishing. But my parents and their peers were the architects of it. It was not handed to them. Please dream a little…in your own image. Plan a walkable-village here in the hood and then build it. I moved to the southside after decades of northside living…in order to plant myself where I could build a thriving life. It’s taken me researching the problem I knew I would find here, designing a solution, founding an organization, building networks, talking-teaching-touring, implementing programs, to finally now beginning to build a hardscape to meet the possibility of self-sustaining black communities…from the ground up. I’ve been advocating that young graduates and professionals cluster into “gangs” and buy buildings for cash…live cooperatively…get married…have children…and expand their homesteads here in the centers of cities. That empty nesters return. Trust me, you will either resettle our legacy communities or be shut out by others who are making their moves, even as I write. In the Age of Climate Crisis, you do not want to live scores of miles out an expressway from jobs and resources. Small towns, if self-sustaining, are options – if they are friendly and in your image. Tweet me those options; I’m collecting data. In rural settings, unless it’s a Black Oaks context – also good luck. I’d love the chance to hear more of your thoughts and show you around the walkable-village we plan to manifest here in West Woodlawn – Chicago’s first black middle-class neighborhood, now a shell of its former self, but with the architecture to rise again…the southernmost tip of Bronzeville…home of Lorraine Hansberry and Emmett Till…awaiting your bold investment of heart. 773-678-9541 http://www.blacksingreen.org…please be in touch! Nae

  10. It would be interesting to know where new households move to when arriving to Chicago and how that corresponds with ethnicity and socioeconomic status. I moved to Chicago two years ago (I am a white male, early 40s), and knew very few people there at the time. I wanted to live in the city, in an area that was relatively safe, reasonably priced, and ethnically diverse. I chose Edgewater – I have lived here for two years and I love it. However, what is interesting is that there are clear socioeconomic and ethnic boundaries, with Broadway being the dividing line. West of Broadway are more single family homes, 3-flats, and condos, with some garden-style vintage apartments. East of Broadway is mostly mid and high-rise apartments and condos, with more modern construction. West of Broadway seems to be older, and more white and middle-class. East of Broadway seems to be much more diverse, with large numbers of Blacks (especially Africans), Latinos, Asians, and Middle Easterners, along with young single whites. The crime maps generally show the vast majority of crime coming from East of Broadway, but this is due at least in part to the fact that it is more densely populated.

    However, most maps I’ve seen really don’t look at inter-neighborhood data – Edgewater is so vastly different depending on which side of Broadway you are that I find that the aggregate maps provide little in the way of insightful data. I assume it is the same way for many other neighborhoods. It would be interesting to see some maps that look at data not based on neighborhood boundaries, but on socioeconomic and/or ethnic boundaries.

  11. Black on the Block is very relevant to this discussion. It focuses on the role of middle class blacks in poor but gentrifying Chicago neighborhoods, and how they relate to their poorer neighbors. It also talks about how middle class black people differed from white residents.

    There was an interesting study from Louisville published recently which speaks to black and white people’s knowledge/use of the city. They looked at residents of predominantly black and white neighborhoods respectively, and where they used twitter from. The black residents used twitter from both their own neighborhood and white parts of town, while the white ones did not go into the black neighborhood much. It’s no wonder that the south and west side neighborhoods in Chicago are often unknown to many whites.

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