By Darnell Little and Dan Mihalopoulos

July 4, 2011


One path that so many black middle-class home buyers have followed from Chicago’s South Side in recent years ends just off Lincoln Highway, past the entrance to the Newbury Estates subdivision in Matteson.


On Willow Road, a boulevard lined with 3,200-square-foot houses, five of the nine buyers in the 1000 block moved to Newbury Estates from heavily black sections of the South Side. Buyers came from the Woodlawn, Park Manor, Morgan Park, Gresham and Englewood neighborhoods, property records show.


The subdivision, about 30 miles from the Loop, represents only part of a much greater migration to the south suburbs from 2000 to 2010. In all, Chicago’s black population declined by about 181,000 people, or 17 percent, in that period, according to recently released figures from the 2010 census. The rapid contraction of the black population was the main driver of the city’s overall population loss of about 200,000 in the last decade, a fact noted by Rahm Emanuel in his mayoral inauguration speech in May.


“No great city can thrive by shrinking,” Emanuel said. “The best way to keep people from leaving is to attract the jobs that give them a good reason to stay.”


But many left despite having good jobs in the city. Although the census data does not indicate where those who left Chicago ended up, the new population figures show that Matteson recorded the largest numerical increase in blacks of any city in the Chicago area.


Statistics obtained by the Chicago News Cooperative reveal rising income levels in parts of Matteson and other south suburbs where the black population grew rapidly in the last decade, suggesting that high wage earners factored prominently in the movement from the city to the southern periphery of Cook County.


The trend of blacks’ leaving Chicago in the past decade apparently included all economic levels, said Alec Brownlow, a geography professor at DePaul University. Spiking foreclosure rates in South Side and West Side neighborhoods increased the already high number of vacant and abandoned homes, making those areas less popular with middle-income blacks, Brownlow said.


“I would imagine that the wave of out-migrants displaced by the teardown of public housing units is supplementing the middle classes moved by the foreclosure crisis,” he said.


The Chicago Housing Authority’s demolition of public housing across the city was responsible for the sharpest declines in what had been predominantly black census tracts. But housing authority officials, in a report released in April, said most families from the vanished high-rise developments resettled within the city, mostly in low-income, minority neighborhoods.


The decline in the black population in the first decade of the 21st century was evident across Chicago, including in many historically middle-class areas.


Demographers say some blacks from Chicago and other Northern cities moved as far away as the South, where they have ancestral ties. But in the Chicago area, many blacks with the economic means to buy new homes are living in places like Matteson, where a middle school near the new $24 million community center is named after Colin L. Powell. Some Chicagoans who moved to Matteson in the last decade say the highly promoted revitalization of some parts of the city did not touch their old neighborhoods as much as it improved downtown and nearby areas that gentrified.


Whatever advances came under former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration were not enough for Rodney Smith, a corporate account manager for FedEx in downtown Chicago. He left his longtime home on the Southeast Side in 2003 for Park Forest and moved to Matteson in 2007, buying a house in a new subdivision across Lincoln Highway from Newbury Estates.


“It didn’t matter how far I had to drive,” Smith, 52, said. “For me — I came from 96th and Yates — this is paradise. It was a shooting gallery there every night. I was just a typical homeowner trying to get the hell out of the city.”


Smith said a succession of Chicago police commanders “promised to get the gangs and the drugs under control, and there was no real change.”


While he checked the mailbox at the end of his driveway in the Ridgeland Estates subdivision, he said he would be interested in returning to the city only if he could move into a condominium on the lakefront. The $1,700 that he spends on his monthly mortgage payments for his spacious home in Matteson would be enough for no more than a small unit in a desirable section of Chicago, he said.


In the city, Smith said: “There is no middle. Daley and his politics effectively did what was rumored — middle-class erosion. It’s either rich or poor.”


Smith’s only misgiving about life in Matteson is that his neighborhood is almost entirely black, and he had wanted his family to experience living in a mixed neighborhood. From 2000 to 2010, Matteson (which has a population of roughly 19,000) experienced an 85 percent increase in its black population, to almost 15,000. The white population dropped from more than 4,000 to less than 2,800.


During that same period, average incomes soared in many newly developed areas of the city off Interstate 57. In the census tract where Newbury Estates was built in the middle of the last decade, the median household income rose by about $5,000 when adjusted for inflation, to almost $95,000 a year, according to statistics from the Illinois State Data Center. Similar rises in median income also occurred in parts of other south suburbs where the black populations grew dramatically, including Richton Park, South Holland, Lansing and Park Forest.


Nonetheless, there are some clouds even over Matteson and its neighbors. The economic downturn and real estate market bust in recent years have taken a toll, prompting fear among some of the newcomers that their refuge may succumb to the same urban woes they fled.


Joseph Fondern, 47, president of the Newbury Estates homeowners’ group, said that one of his neighbors had not paid his neighborhood maintenance fees since coming from the city a couple of years ago. Referring to the recent arrivals from Chicago, Fondern said, “The unfortunate thing about some, not all, of them is they are not used to many things in this community, like being in a homeowners’ association.”


The economic makeup of homebuyers in many largely black areas of the south suburbs is shifting, too. In the areas that gained the most blacks in the last decade, 42 percent of buyers in 2006 were middle- and upper-income, according to the Woodstock Institute, a research group in Chicago. That figure dropped to 26 percent by 2009.


But whatever their income level, the newcomers say they feel more at ease after leaving the city. James Turner, an engineer at the University of Chicago, said he and his wife moved to Newbury Estates in 2005 because “there is too much chaos” in Englewood, where they used to live. Turner, 58, recalled his old neighborhood as he worked in the front yard of his 3,000-square-foot home.


“You can’t trust the city,” Turner said. “You can’t trust it to have peace unless you are somewhere on the North Side, next to the lake. Maybe Rahm Emanuel can do something and put the police where they should be.”



South Suburban Black Meccas


Matteson, about 30 miles south of the Loop, recorded the biggest increase in its black population of any city in the Chicago area between 2000 and 2010. These were the places that gained the greatest numbers of African-Americans in the decade.


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