Suburbia and the Black Experience


A couple weeks ago I was privileged to be the guest speaker at a wonderful event. The Cultural Inclusion and Diversity Committee of the Village of Hanover Park, a northwest suburb of Chicago, asked me to speak on the suburban black experience. It was part of a series the committee is conducting on the various demographic groups that make up their community. I had a wonderful time and I was honored to be invited.

The invitation to the event came at a time that I was working separately on a series on broad changes in city and suburban growth that also prompted quite a bit of reflection on the broader black experience in suburbia, and my own experience as well (I really encourage you to read the entire series). In a nutshell, I've been doing research that suggests that suburbia may not be paying off for African-Americans (and other people of color) in the way that it did for whites in the second half of the twentieth century. Why? Because our nation's current return-to-the-city movement may mean a shift in where future opportunity lies as well.

From the last entry in the series:

  • "Nationally, cities are growing again. This is a shift away from the previous 75 years of American urban history, when cities were in decline and their suburban outskirts were booming. This isn't true among all cities, but still represents a significant national shift.
  • Suburban areas continue to grow, however. As the largest slice of American metro areas (making up about 60 percent of the population in the nation's largest metro areas), they continue to grow at absolute levels that outpace the new city growth. But in an increasing number of metro areas city growth is actually outpacing suburban growth.
  • In addition to adding population, cities also appear to be getting significantly more wealthy and more educated, at a time when both matter more to the economic fortunes of metros than they have in decades. Many cities are outpacing their surrounding suburbs in gaining income and educational attainment.
  • City growth is being driven by large increases among Latino and Asian groups, via immigration and natural increase, and by a smaller-but-still-consequential increase among young and often affluent whites.
  • Suburban area growth is also fueled by large increases among Latino and Asian groups, as well as significant growth from African-Americans. White population growth in many suburban areas of metros is slowing, stagnant, or outright falling.
  • Countering the trends for whites, Latinos and Asians, the numbers of African-Americans is falling in cities while rising in the suburbs. This is happening to varying degrees among metros, but fairly consistent throughout.
  • This trend is most pronounced in the Rust Belt, whose cities have struggled to keep pace in population growth with other cities nationwide because of black population loss and lower Latino and Asian population bases."

But before I get into what could lie ahead, let's begin at the start of the change. How did black suburbia come to be? How has it evolved?

The larger scale suburban experience of most blacks in most American metro areas is pretty recent, but follows the path of every racial and ethnic group that preceded them. There have been blacks living on the outskirts of American cities as long as, well, cities have had outskirts. But wider migration to the suburbs generally started in the 1970s in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, as upper-middle class professional blacks sought housing in previously unavailable areas. Suburban movement began building in the '80s and accelerating afterward.

What made these areas previously unavailable to blacks is the same thing that made them successful in the white flight era -- exclusionary zoning that limited housing construction to certain price points; little to no affordable and/or multifamily residential construction; and a dose of violence when deemed necessary. Even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made these and other practices illegal, their legacy often made it difficult for blacks to head to suburbia.

As a result, whites pretty much had a one generation head start in moving to suburbia, starting following World War II, building through much of the '60s and '70s and reaching peak suburbia in the '80s and '90s. Also as a result, more white residents today reside outside of core cities, while blacks (and other people of color) continue to have a majority within core cities. However, that composition is changing.

Like I often do, I use data from Chicago, which I've called the most American of American cities, to make my point. In our metro area I see a distinct pattern in black suburban choices that I find revealing.

In Chicago, approximately 900,000 of the region's 1.6 million blacks live in the city, about 55% of all blacks in the metro area. Many live in areas of the city that were once considered off-limits, particularly on the North, Northwest and Southwest sides. A good number, perhaps even most blacks in the city, still live in the parts of the South and West sides that we were largely restricted to by formal and informal practices. Another 25% of blacks are scattered throughout much of suburbia near and far. But another 20% are heavily concentrated in two areas that are adjacent to the city's South and West sides, in the south and west suburbs.

What I see emerging are some class differences among blacks, leading to different suburban (and city) choices. From my perspective, many upper-middle income professional blacks are considering broad swaths of the metro area, going to areas where their incomes will allow them to purchase the homes they want with the amenities and services they desire. They're often less concerned with living in an area where they are significantly in the minority, as long as they gain access to the schools, shopping, and other things they want.

On the other hand, many middle class and working class blacks seeking more space, less crime, and perhaps a first shot at affordable homeownership, are moving to the inner ring, middle class bedroom communities of the south and west suburbs. New residents moving here are perhaps more concerned with being significantly in the minority, and choose areas where blacks are firmly established. The upside is that they are indeed affordable relative to other parts of the metro area. The downside is that affordability has some relationship to recent white flight, retail redlining, and the loss of many manufacturing jobs in each subregion.

So what does it all mean? It means that blacks have quite a varied experience in suburbia. Some experience the safety and security (and some might say complacency) that most people associate with suburbia.

However, it also means that many see the same patterns of white flight that defined their experience in the city, creating another level of anxiety that might distinguish black suburbanites from others.

This piece first appeared on Corner Side Yard.

Pete Saunders is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urbanism and public policy. Pete has been the editor/publisher of the Corner Side Yard, an urbanist blog, since 2012. Pete is also an urban affairs contributor to Forbes Magazine’s online platform. Pete’s writings have been published widely in traditional and internet media outlets, including the feature article in the December 2018 issue of Planning Magazine. Pete has more than twenty years’ experience in planning, economic development, and community development, with stops in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He lives in Chicago.