Black People Are Leaving Chicago en Masse. It’s Changing the City’s Power Politics.

Chicago’s power struggle shows what’s at stake when a city loses its Black population. And they’re not alone: Nine of 10 of the cities with the largest Black populations are on the verge of the same exodus.

Black People Are Leaving Chicago en Masse. It’s Changing the City’s Power Politics.

ENGLEWOOD, CHICAGO — By the time Eugene Sawyer became Chicago’s mayor in 1987 following the sudden death of the first African American to hold the office, Black residents were already leaving.

For decades, long before Sawyer’s ascension, the Englewood neighborhood had been a center of Black life in Chicago, boasting one of the city’s busiest commercial districts and a growing middle class. And it was a true power base, a center of political gravity: Sawyer launched his political career near here, in the 6th Ward of Chicago’s City Council.

But there were signs of change, even then. It seemed that just as soon as Black people made the neighborhood their own, its fortunes turned. Houses started falling into disrepair, thanks to disinvestment. Stores closed up shop — including the massive Sears store that left the neighborhood in 1976.

Now that trickle is a flood. Englewood, one of Chicago’s 77 community areas, boasted nearly 100,000 people in 1960 but is now home to about 22,000. Like a tide going out, it has left relics of decades of decline: more abandoned buildings, shuttered schools and boarded-up storefronts. Its remaining residents face a seemingly intractable level of street violence.

On a recent November afternoon, Roderick Sawyer, who narrowly won his father’s old City Council seat in 2011, walked past block after block of vacant lots, pointing out the empty homes and apartment buildings whose gutted frames were overgrown by weeds, exposing themselves to Chicago’s notorious weather.

When he toured the neighborhood after his election, Sawyer said, “I’m not going to lie, I cried a little bit. I had tears in my eyes, because I saw there was nothing being paid attention in a lot of areas of Englewood.”

Englewood’s descent from a boomtown to a ghost town is a story with many causes, from government neglect to the loss of manufacturing jobs. But it’s also a story about what happens to a neighborhood when people decide to give up and leave — and how that reshapes the city around it.

Block by block, neighborhoods lost historically Black communities
Black residents at each Census

For much of the 20th century, Chicago was the mecca for many of the 6 million African American people fleeing the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration. Starting in 1916, the Chicago Defender, then the nation’s leading Black newspaper, urged Black Southerners to flee North. By 1980, the nearly 1.2 million Black people living in “Chi-town” had reshaped it into a place where Black businesses, culture and entertainment thrived. Some residents became millionaires, forming companies like Ebony/Jet and Johnson Products, businesses that became fixtures of Black American life. Mayor Harold Washington’s 1983 victory, breaking through Chicago’s Irish power structure, seemed like the turning point for Black political power.

Instead, Black political power moved.

Chicago — and neighborhoods like Englewood — offer perhaps the most extreme example of a demographic upheaval reshaping power in cities across the country. The 2020 census shows Black Americans moving, in huge numbers, out of their longtime homes in Northern and Western cities, and resettling in smaller cities, the suburbs and — in a twist on the Great Migration of the 20th century — the South. Nine of 10 of the cities with the largest numbers of African Americans saw significant declines in their Black populations over the past 20 years, according to census data compiled by POLITICO.

Among cities with the most Black residents, 9 of 10 had decreases since 2000

In sheer numbers, Chicago’s outflow has been particularly dramatic. In 1980, about 40 percent of the city’s total population was Black — one of the country’s most formidable concentrations of Black business and political power. Since then, that number has dropped to just under 29 percent. Only Detroit, a city with its share of troubles, has seen a bigger drop in Black residents.

Some parts of Chicago saw half of Black population disappear
Percent change, Black residents 2000 - 2020

The impact on Chicago has been stark, not only in the feeling and identities of neighborhoods like Englewood, but in the power politics of the nation’s third-largest city. Latino residents are beginning to replace Black residents, forcing a realignment in Chicago’s political scene — and a return of the bare-knuckle tribal fights that made Chicago’s City Hall legendary.

Back in 1987, Roderick Sawyer’s father inherited a political agenda from Washington that included ambitions to build a multiracial coalition among the city’s low-income residents and white progressives — one that would help advance marginalized communities. Today, that dream feels distant, as Black and brown communities battle each other for a greater stake in city government.

The locus of conflict, right now, is redistricting: As the city redraws the maps of its 50 City Council wards, dictated by population, the council’s Black Caucus is trying to preserve 16 of the 18 majority Black seats it now holds, plus one seat in a mostly Black ward. The Latino council members are pushing for greater representation (one more seat) given their growing population. Rather than building a bold new coalition of united Black and brown leaders, the council is defined by the argument between them.

Where one proposed City Council map would strike Black-majority seats
These wards are remapped every 10 years. This proposal is from the Chicago City Council Latino Caucus.

After Chicago’s City Council failed to come to a compromise last week, the Black and Latino caucuses are gearing up for what could be a bitter and expensive referendum that would allow voters to make the final call, possibly prolonging the fight into May, before the June primary.

The delay in drawing boundary lines means the council will hold public hearings, which is what Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been calling for throughout the process. In spite of the “vagaries of the redistricting process, we’ve got to find a way to meet in the middle,” she told POLITICO.

The fight is ultimately about holding on to power, but part of the conflict is rooted in cultural worries as well. Chicago’s Black-majority neighborhoods nurtured not only countless families, but also towering figures of American history: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Ida B. Wells, Jesse Jackson and Barack and Michelle Obama.

Sawyer is one of the members of the council’s Black Caucus trying to keep as many Black-majority seats as possible, and sees himself partly as a curator of this legacy. “I don’t want to lose this identity as being a Black community,” he said as he walked through Englewood.

“That’s not to say we don’t want whites and Latinos coming and living in the neighborhood,” he continued. “They’re more than welcome to add to that cultural diversity — and maybe then they’ll learn something about Black people and the Black experience.”

Chicago’s Black exodus, and the messy push and pull for power on the City Council, hold some important insights for the rest of the country as we navigate massive demographic shifts. What happens to Black political power when African Americans leave one-time “Chocolate Cities” en masse? Is it possible to create multiracial coalitions? How do you get people to stay — or to come back?

Asiaha Butler could have been one of the ones who left.

Today, she’s executive director of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood — a neighborhood group that mobilizes Black residents and Black-owned businesses interested in recapturing the neighborhood’s legacy.

But she herself was nearly part of the exodus. She recounted her story as she sipped tea on the sun-soaked patio of a freshly built Starbucks across a parking lot from a Whole Foods — a suburban style marketplace that looked nothing like the rest of Englewood, but instead has become a symbol of another broken promise.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel once promoted the luxury grocer as a source of jobs and fresh food, “opening doors to a new future for the Englewood community.” But five years after the store opened, a flood of new development has yet to sweep through.

Butler’s mother once worked in the bustling commercial strip that Whole Foods had promised to revive. Her parents met here, too. In 2002, Butler was ready to lay down her own roots and purchased a home not far from this spot. Then she researched nearby elementary schools for her daughter and, dismayed by the neighborhood’s test scores, elected to send her to a public school in another Chicago community.

Life got even worse on the block. Gunfire rang out nearly every day. A stray bullet struck the house. Someone once tried to rob the family. By 2008, Butler was ready to leave.

Black residents are moving out of the areas with the most homicides
Neighborhoods, by Black population change and number of homicides

Butler, like so many Englewood residents before her, built what she called “an exit plan.” She would go to Villa Rica, Ga., an exotic-sounding Atlanta-area community where Black life seemed more prosperous. Many of her friends and family had already sought refuge in Georgia, Texas or Virginia, searching for a better quality of life: affordable and larger homes, warmer weather and better-performing schools.

“What you knew, what you grew up with, what you could relate to, no longer exists,” Butler said. “When we bought our house, there were six more homes on that block. They’re all gone now. It’s almost like a vanishing act.”

Places like Englewood that saw some of the highest number of homicides in the past two decades — 467 in that neighborhood alone — have also had the largest outflow of Black residents, according to a POLITICO analysis of Chicago Police Department data. The handful of the city’s neighborhoods that grew their Black populations all had far fewer killings.

But the losses were also driven by a series of destabilizing events: the loss of manufacturing jobs, the demolition of public housing, a housing bubble, endemic gun violence and the closure of public schools.

Chicago suburbs’ Black population picked up while the city’s fell
Black residents at each Census

What turned the small waves of Black residents leaving into a tsunami was the Chicago Housing Authority’s decadelong effort to move residents out of public housing. Much of the city’s public housing consisted of overcrowded high rises like the notorious Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, which were infested with rats and cockroaches and rife with gang activity. But the demolition of Chicago’s housing projects outpaced the construction of affordable housing, leaving thousands displaced. Many residents ended up in unfamiliar neighborhoods without social services to help them get a leg up, destabilizing middle-class neighborhoods in the process. Friction developed between new, low-income residents and longtime homeowners.

“You dumped people in communities simply because they’re Black,” said Delmarie Cobb, a longtime Illinois political operative who served as Hillary Clinton’s Illinois press secretary in 2016 and worked on Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign.

“You would never have dumped disparate people in white communities.”

With people leaving, the city started closing public schools, exacerbating a vicious cycle that continues to push out Chicago’s Black residents while failing to attract enough new ones. The Chicago Board of Education and Emanuel closed 50 schools in 2013 — the largest mass school closing in the nation’s history.

A moment of clarity persuaded Butler to stay. The sight of children playing in the dirt of a vacant lot outside her window one day, she said, inspired her to abandon the family exit plan and recommit to building back her neighborhood. She understands not everyone is willing to make a similar sacrifice.

“They want to try to stick it out,” said Butler, whose Twitter handle is @mrs_englewood. “But at the end of the day, all of us just want a community that’s walkable, that is safe, and that we can raise our children in. Unfortunately, on our South and West sides, it’s really difficult to do that.”

West Englewood, not far from Sawyer’s ward, paints a stark picture of a neighborhood in transition. But the neighborhood isn’t just a story of disappearance. While the Black population shrunk 33 percent since 2010 (from 34,178 and 22,912 in 2020), the Latino population is skyrocketing. It jumped from 774 Latinos in 2010 to 5,832 in 2020, according to the census. Latinos now make up nearly a fifth of the neighborhood — and their numbers are growing.

“I remember 10 years ago, I walked the ward and could count on one hand how many Latino families are here. Now I can count two hands on every block. It’s a phenomenal shift,” said Alderman Raymond Lopez, who represents the part of the neighborhood on Chicago’s City Council.

That migration has injected the Latino community with a sense of vitality that’s built thriving commercial strips elsewhere in the city: 18th Street in Pilsen; 26th Street in Little Village, South Archer Avenue between McKinley and Brighton Park are each crammed with Spanish-language marquees, restaurants and life supplemented by a deep pool of lower-wage immigrant workers.

“In West Englewood, you’re seeing the race line moving further East as Latinos are buying cheap houses and land. The same thing is happening in West Humboldt Park and Austin [on the city’s West Side],” said Frank Calabrese, who is advising the Latino Caucus on redistricting.

Rival ward maps have been pitched, each cementing Black or Latino power for the next decade amid the city’s shifting demographics.

Latino council members, armed with fresh census data showing its population is up 5 percent and the Black population is down nearly 10 percent, filed a map with the city clerk’s office last week that includes 15 Latino wards — one more than it has now — and two fewer Black majority wards. The Black Caucus has worked with the City Council’s Rules Committee on a map that includes 16 majority Black wards (and one predominantly Black ward) and 14 Latino wards.

But the Black and Latino caucuses agree on one thing: It’s also time to create an Asian-focused ward given that the city’s Asian population has increased to nearly 7 percent in the past 10 years. The most concentrated area of Asian residents is now split between two wards represented by white and Latino aldermen.

Calabrese argues that changes like those taking place in West Englewood show that the Black Caucus map is out of touch with Chicago’s current population trends. The Latino Caucus’ map, he said, “reflects the reality of Chicago demographics today.”

Alderman Jason Ervin, who heads the City Council’s Black Caucus, takes issue with his Latino colleagues, who he sees as trying to squeeze out Black people from the City Council. “It’s illegal,” he said, referring to the Voting Rights Act. He argues that the Latino Caucus map disenfranchises the city’s Black population by diluting their power; he says he’s ready to take the map his caucus supports and that was “developed by two-thirds of the members of the City Council” to voters.

The City Council’s fight to redraw boundaries has put a spotlight on Lightfoot, the city’s third Black mayor, who won in a 2019 landslide on a reform-minded platform. She’s mostly avoided jumping into the fight between Black and Latino lawmakers — even leaving town for Washington, D.C., on the day the council was supposed to vote on a map.

Lightfoot told POLITICO in an interview that she opposes gerrymandering that protects incumbents, and she has threatened to veto the first draft of the map supported by the Black Caucus because it protected an incumbent white alderman under federal indictment.

The mayor, a former prosecutor who for years handled redistricting cases in the courts, said, “the most important thing for me is not having districts or wards where there is zero competition.” Lightfoot added: “Nobody should be guaranteed a seat for life.”

“We’re not going to get beyond [being] the most segregated city in the country if we don’t start thinking about engaging with our residents,” she said, “and really, really rethinking the compact between government and the people in a very different way.”

Chicago’s ward map battle is playing out at the state and congressional levels, too. Boundary battles are an entrenched part of politicking in Illinois as they are across the country. While Illinois lost population overall — and a subsequent congressional seat — even outside of Chicago, the state saw its Latino population rise. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is also keeping a close watch on Chicago’s ward map fight, said state lawmakers diluted Latino representation in the statehouse and filed a lawsuit against the state saying the map is discriminatory.

In a decade there will be another census, another fight over maps. For many voters, in a city facing inevitable demographic change, the question is whether Black and Latino leaders can form meaningful coalitions that bring investment, better schools and less violence to their communities — or whether they keep Chicago politics rooted in the realm of spectator sport.

“We live in a city that is two-thirds people of color so we’ve got to figure out a way to get along,” Lightfoot said. “My hope is that we get to a place where people are going to see that there’s more to be gained by seeing the commonality and compromise.”

Chicago’s mapping fight is more than just a turf battle. It’s about who controls the future of the city.

Chicago effectively boasted a “strong mayor” system of city government for decades, but the council’s legislative authority is still empowered to oversee an enormous amount of money and influence. Under Chicago’s old system of patronage politics, the city’s 50 alderpersons became mini-mayors of their individual fiefdoms.

“People in Chicago feel that an alderman, or alderwoman, is more important than a state representative,” Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Ill.) said between votes in the U.S. Capitol, as he looked out from a balcony toward the Library of Congress and his office on a recent golden autumn afternoon.

And even, he said with a grin, more important than a member of Congress.

“The council is a place that can help ensure you protect against discrimination and racism and bring about more equitable investments into neighborhoods,” said Garcia, a former Chicago alderman and mayoral candidate.

“And a loss of that is probably perceived to be a loss in power, influence and protection.”

There’s irony in Chicago’s transformation. Back in the day, the city was the engine driving the Great Migration, the epicenter for Black hope and aspirations. But despite all that, Black political ascendancy here proved to be short-lived.

Harold Washington charged into City Hall in 1983 atop a wave of minority and progressive support — only to see much of his authority stymied by an all-white City Council majority in a racially charged blockade known as the Council Wars. Garcia later won an aldermanic seat representing a slice of the city’s Southwest Side in 1986, as part of special elections ordered by a federal court in seven wards redrawn to acknowledge the Black and Latino populations’ voting power.

“You had a Black community that all of the sudden, out of nowhere, or out of sight of the prevailing white consciousness ... elected the first Black mayor of the City of Chicago,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who co-founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late ’60s.

That, he said, “became a threat to the hegemony of whites in this community, and it became a threat to a segregated Chicago.”

Today, Black Chicagoans are still gripped by frustration: their political power, when it came, wasn’t matched by the kind of economic clout needed to truly reshape the parts of the city they cared most about. So the city’s low-income Black neighborhoods languished, even as white neighborhoods and racially diverse, middle-class neighborhoods like Hyde Park thrived.

On the city’s West Side — another area riddled with violence — the Rev. Ira Acree has witnessed the rise and fall of Chicago’s Black population firsthand.

“America is going to be a color-majority nation soon,” Acree said, his brow still dotted with sweat an hour after an energetic service and two baptisms at Greater St. John Bible Church, a working-class Baptist church in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood.

“But Blacks are going to be a significant minority in Chicago,” Acree said. “That’s going to hurt us with representation, because some of these Black elected officials are going to be losing their seats. And then it’s going to be difficult to have an economic engine that runs in our community that we control.”

If one challenge for Chicago’s power structure is managing this demographic change, there’s another set of challenges for people with a different, maybe quixotic goal: Stopping the outflow.

Lightfoot, as well as other Black political leaders like Rush and Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), believes it’s possible to attract more Black middle-class and working-class people back to the city — preserving an important legacy — and keeping its foundation as a center of Black political power.

As Lightfoot sees it, the outmigration is slowing. Where others see displacement and population loss, Lightfoot sees possibility. The mayor says, and data backs her up, that many African Americans are leaving Chicago to go just over the border to Indiana.

“That’s an opportunity to think of a strategy to bring people back,” she said.

One proposal: In 2019, Lightfoot announced a plan to invest $750 million in public and private funds into 10 Chicago communities in the south and west of the city. The plan includes transforming vacant lots and rundown buildings into green spaces, grocery stores, streetscapes and affordable housing. A century-old firehouse in Englewood will become a culinary center and business hub. An empty bank in Austin will become a blues museum and cafe.

And just a few weeks ago, the mayor unveiled $126 million for development projects in the West Side’s Humboldt Park neighborhood and another in South Shore, a predominantly Black, middle-class neighborhood. (And birthplace of Michelle Obama.) The projects include mixed-income housing and the reuse of historic buildings.

The projects are also projected to create 2,200 permanent or temporary jobs, which Lightfoot says are tantamount to shifting the population trend. “The biggest thing we can do to stop out-migration of African Americans from the city is to create jobs,” she said. “Jobs that are attainable to the population that’s leaving — which is working-class Blacks.”

And Lightfoot proposed, and the City Council approved, a guaranteed basic income pilot program that will provide monthly payments of $500 to 5,000 low-income residents for one year, making it the largest such project in the country.

Meanwhile, also on the South Side, construction is underway on the Obama Presidential Center, a project the city — and the Obamas — hope will reinvigorate the area.

Chicago’s efforts to win back Black residents could be a test case.

American cities across the industrial North have yet to figure out how to reverse decades of neglect without displacing residents, said Andre Perry, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, a research initiative at the Brookings Institution, and a scholar-in-residence at American University. Urban development is generally geared toward attracting socially mobile professionals, who tend to be white, he said. If the schools do actually get better, if crime actually does fall, then housing by default will become more expensive in the absence of dedicated policy, he said.

In Chicago, that means the people that gave the city its culture, its character could be lost without urgent action from those in power, experts say. This isn’t a secret in Englewood, or in other Black neighborhoods facing similar challenges.

“This city is run by a machine,” Butler said. She said Chicago’s history — of redlining to keep Black people out of middle-class neighborhoods, of building a freeway that intersected the city’s Black community — will make it hard to turn things around. If the city fails again, she said, Chicago’s Black population will continue to decline.

“You see a few success stories, but for the most part, a lot of folks in these communities are hurting,” Butler said. “And if we don’t redesign it, you’re gonna keep getting people leaving the city. That’s the bad part about it.”