The Black Community Commercial Development Conundrum


A common question I hear, particularly from middle class Black residents in the Chicago area who grow frustrated with the condition of their communities, is, "why can't we have the amenities that other neighborhoods have?"

I definitely understand the question. The frustration is that there are Black middle class and upper-middle class residents who live comfortably in nice areas of the South and West sides, yet have few, if any, of the amenities that one can easily find in communities with a similar income base. The same occurs in suburban areas as well. People are upset that there are fewer of the retail options they prefer, fewer of the bars and restaurants they like, fewer of the cultural amenities they want to frequent. The common refrain: "why should I have to go to X if I want to do Y?"

The truth is, the numbers don't work in favor of Black middle class and upper-middle class residents. It's hard for developers and retailers to justify upscale amenities in areas where there are some upscale residents, but not necessarily a critical mass.

As I often do, I took a deeper look at the Chicago area to see if it tells a story that is useful for the rest of the nation. I pulled some household income data for the Chicago metro area. Specifically I was looking for how Black household incomes compare to the median for all households in the metro, and compare to white households as well. If we look at income distributions for all households, for all Black and all White households, and for all non-Black and non-White households, some interesting things come to light. Check out this table:

Here's what stands out to me:

Black households earn far less in income than all households overall and White households in particular, but perhaps few understand the disparity. The gap between White and Black household incomes in the Chicago area is large. More than half of all Black households earn less than $49,999 a year (56.0%), while the rate for White households is half that (28.4%). At the upper end, 23.1% of White households earn more than $150,000 a year, and just 7.2% of Black households, less than one-third of the White rate, earn as much.

Black households account for less than 17 percent of all households in the Chicago metro area, and that number decreases at higher income levels. At the metro level the number of Black households is fairly small, when overall spending potential is considered. Black households account for 28% of households earning under $49,999 a year, 13% of those between $50,000 and $149,999 a year, and 6.1% of those earning more than $150,000 a year.

Another point comes to mind that's not demonstrated in the numbers. I think working class and low-income Black households tend to be more geographically concentrated, and middle class and affluent Black households tend to be more geographically dispersed. With more lifestyle options, Black households at the higher end of the income spectrum end up in places that effectively exclude lower income residents. Great for individual householders, but not so great for Black communities that want to expand commercial opportunities.

Read the rest of this piece at Corner Side Yard Blog.

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.