From the comments: On being part of Chicago’s black middle class

Last week, my post on where Chicago’s black middle class lives was republished at Crain’s. From there, it received many responses making many different points, which I might take on in a separate post at some point. But for the moment I wanted to highlight two recent comments left at the original piece.


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.

Naomi Davis:

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.

5 thoughts on “From the comments: On being part of Chicago’s black middle class

  1. Doesn’t this throw a wrench in racial- (not income-) desegregation hopes? If middle-class blacks don’t want to live in White Chicago and don’t want White Chicago moving to them, Pete Saunders’ spread-Millenials-like-manure thesis isn’t looking very good, and while up-zoning idea would help with income-desegregation it may do nothing racially. Is then racial desegregation even a worthy goal? If self-segregation is a reality, doesn’t that undercut justification for transfers between the communities?

    As for amenities, I admit to being very confused. There are mixed hoods like Uptown or Hyde Park with plenty amenities. With black hoods, I know little of the far South hoods you demonstrated were black middle-class in your post, but why can’t they support amenities for their demographic, as I know South Shore and W Garfield Park support commerce catering to their demographics?

    1. I think DanaC’s point is that the predominantly black areas of the South Side and South Suburbs don’t have enough amenities to cater to black Milennials, and the North side is unfriendly to black Milennials because it has a low black population. DanaC would probably prefer to live in a racially integrated neighborhood like Hyde Park or Uptown. Perhaps DanaC is a bit myopic for not considering these neighborhoods (or thinking that other metro areas don’t have similar racial dynamics), but this comment is just a personal opinion. So racial integration is desirable because it can create communities where minorities can feel comfortable and still benefit from easy access to amenities.

      As for why the South Suburbs are lacking in amenities, racial retail redlining is still very much in effect. The following articles describes how upper middle class South Suburbs are having difficult attracting retailers because of negative perceptions by outsiders

      1. Yeah, I’m not trying to draw hard conclusions from a handful of comments, I just think it brings up an important point: we’ve been assuming there’s a demographic that desires integration without any hard evidence, and it might be worth someone’s time to gather some.

        Retail and amenities: I’m confused because if W Garfield Park and South Shore can support a lot of retail for their demographic, intuitively black-middle-class areas should be able to support that much more retail as a result of their greater wealth, regardless of any national-chain retail redlining. If anything, a wealthy neighborhood being ignored by national chains might actually benefit from the opportunity to keep the mgmt/ownership local, no? A mirror-image of the walmart effect. So I’d be interested to know more about the commerce of the black-middle-class areas. Is the lack of amenity a widely-held perception? Or is it particular to these commenters? Is it a generational thing (there are plenty of well-to-do white areas that don’t offer much for younger people), and if so why hasn’t a black millenial hotspot materialized? How big is that demographic?

        I guess I lean to a light-touch on policy responses to this stuff partially because my own understanding is so incomplete, and worse the specialists don’t seem to understand much more than I do.

      2. Sorry I took so long to respond – I’ve been on the road.

        So myb6, I think you’re right that integration is less straightforwardly good than people often make it out to be, in part for the reasons laid out in these comments. But people’s preferences around integration have actually been studied quite a bit; African-Americans are actually, on the whole, the racial group that’s comfortable with the highest amount of integration. The larger problem is that most whites – and Latinos and Asians-Americans – strongly prefer quite low proportions of black people in their neighborhoods, below the minimum level that many African-Americans themselves would like. (Obviously integration preferences vary wildly from person to person, even within racial groups, so this is all worded awkwardly. But I think you get the idea.)

        The lack of amenities is not a perception – it’s also been studied at some length, and any number of people have come to the conclusion that Chicago’s black neighborhoods, and black suburbs, are pretty dramatically under-retailed, even taking into account income. The problem with a lack of national and local chains is that even middle-class black households have, on average, dramatically lower wealth than white households with equivalent income. And it’s wealth that matters, generally, when you’re thinking about available capital to start a business. So a) even “middle class” black households lack capital to seed their own businesses; b) banks are unwilling to step in and provide the capital; and c) national chains won’t touch these neighborhoods, either. Between those three things, black neighborhoods of all income levels are in a bind as far as local retail goes.

  2. Here are some articles about Naomi Davis It’s definitely interesting to hear her describe her describe her move in the opposite direction that is considered “normal,” and how she found empowerment by moving away from “opportunity area.” But as for her comment against “importing whites” to predominantly black neighborhoods, I would argue that racial residential segregation is not harmful in itself, but because it is used as a tool for disinvestment in minority communities, in the same way that drug laws are not inherently harmful but are used in a racist manner. Therefore “importing whites” might be considered a good thing because it would make it harder for disinvestment of minority communities to occur.

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