As the Black population continues to drop in Chicago and Illinois, few regret their move: ‘I have peace’

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Five years after leaving South Shore, Jason and Jennifer Parks are convinced the decision to move their family to northwest Indiana was the right one.

As Chicago continues to struggle to contain violent crime, the Parkses said they appreciate the town of St. John’s slower pace.

The four-bedroom home they had built on a wide lot in Lake County provides space, security and the community kinship they were searching for.

The family is among thousands of Black Cook County residents who left the city for other states during the past decade, according to recent census data. The so-called reverse migration out of Chicago has continued, lowering the city’s Black population by about 10%.

A city that once drew tens of thousands of southern Black residents and once held the nation’s second largest Black population seems to have lost its attraction for Black folks, who continue to leave. Chicago’s Black population dropped to 787,551 in 2020, its lowest total since the mid-1950s.

The Parkses and their four daughters had lived in a modest bungalow on South Euclid Avenue, the same block that Michelle Obama’s family once called home, until violence drove the Parkses out three years after they moved in.

Now they appreciate the active parents at the local schools where their 15-year-old twin daughters are thriving and have part-time jobs after school. Their younger daughters can play in the yard without the possibility of gunfire. Best of all, their new community has shopping of all kinds, and their money seems to go further than on the South Side, which lacked many of the basic neighborhood amenities they expected as homeowners.

“I’m glad that we’re out here. I have friends. I have a sense of community,” said Jennifer Parks, a triage nurse at University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center, who grew up in Chicago. “We feel safe. We really do. I know violence is everywhere. If someone wants to hurt you, they’ll hurt you. But I have peace.”

Her husband, Jason, who works in finance, agreed that safety was an issue, but said the lack of resources in his old community also propelled their move out of the South Side.

“What I expect if I’m paying property taxes and the like is, within a 10-minute drive in my community I should be able to have access to most of what I need. Most, not everything. And that’s what we have here,” he said. “We got what we were looking for in terms of space to raise our family and more of a neighborhood feel.”

Like the Parkses, thousands of those who left Cook County chose neighboring states like Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. On average, nearly 8,000 Black residents moved to Indiana each year between 2015 and 2019, according to the Brookings Institution.

Far removed from the times when Chicago was an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse and hog butcher to the world, Black Americans no longer arrive in the city with dreams of finding work. In fact, experts say those with less education and fewer skills are looking elsewhere.

Southern states like Georgia, Texas and Florida draw Black residents from all over the country. After Indiana, Georgia and Texas were the top destinations for Black residents leaving Illinois each year between 2015 and 2019.

There’s also a growing number of Chicago residents who have chosen far-flung states that haven’t traditionally had a large Black population, like Arizona, which has quietly become home to thousands of former Chicago residents, Black and white.

“When I got here, it was so peaceful and friendly. It was like day and night,” said Gerald Anthony Kelly, a South Side native and former CTA bus driver who moved to the Phoenix area in 2013. “Things you can do here you can’t do in Chicago, like sit outside at night. Go for walks at night. I saw the cost of living was so much cheaper here, and the job market was wide open here.”

Award-winning fantasy writer Nnedi Okorafor said she moved from the south suburbs to Phoenix earlier this year, drawn there by its year-round warmth. The author of 19 books, Okorafor said her resolve to stay in the Southwest grew after her daughter, Anyaugo, was accepted at Arizona State University.

“Each time I’ve gone (to Arizona), I’ve gradually fallen in love with the area because I love heat and the desert,” she told the Tribune. “Once (my daughter) got into ASU, it all just lined up and made sense.”

Career growth elsewhere

Illinois in general saw some of the largest losses of Black residents during the last decade of any state except New York. As Chicago’s Hispanic and white populations have increased in the last decade, the city’s Black population dropped by 84,738 since 2010, the second highest decline after Detroit.

The extended departure offers a challenge to city officials hoping to retain families and professionals who could help stabilize troubled South and West Side communities.

The mayor’s office didn’t respond to the Tribune’s requests for comment.

The outward trend is hardly a single phenomenon as the Midwest’s Black population has fallen by more than 130,000 people in the last 10 years, according to the Brookings Institution’s analysis.

The Atlanta, Dallas and Houston metro areas have gained the most Black residents between 2010 and 2020.

Researchers with the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council analyzed early data releases that found low-wage and low-skill workers among the most likely to leave Cook County, outnumbering new arrivals by a ratio of about 2 to 1.

“Non-college-educated Black residents may leave Cook County in search of employment, or simply not consider low-wage employment sufficient reason to stay if other aspects of the city fail them,” the council wrote in an online article last August. “Likewise, less-educated Blacks in other parts of the country no longer consider Cook County or Chicago an economic destination and its economic opportunities probably do not offset its negative national reputation for violence, segregation and uneven schools.”

The city’s inability to create or facilitate jobs to replace the industrial job losses, as well as the rise of drugs has contributed to the decline, according to researchers.

“We’ve never recovered from losing manufacturing jobs from the ‘70s on and … the manufacturing jobs disappearing was replaced by the era of mass incarceration where we sent people to prison for many offenses … many of them drug,” said Daniel Cooper, the planning council’s director of research.

Black professionals are also leaving Cook County, though they are replaced by out-of-state Black professionals moving in. Examining census data from 2013 to 2017, Cooper, working with researchers Jim Lewis and Rob Paral, also found that Black professionals “have roughly replaced one another as some have left Cook County for nearby counties or other parts of the nation, but many managers and professionals from other states have moved to Cook.”

The reason appears to be the large number of corporations and businesses that draw professional Black jobseekers.

Some who left say the growth they’ve experienced since leaving wasn’t possible here.

Roseland native Apryl Moore, who moved to Texas in 2016, said her business, FreshSteps Medical Foot and Nail Spa in McKinney, is thriving in a way that she doesn’t believe would have been possible in her hometown.

Her business, which combines foot and nail care with a podiatrist’s supervision, has seen a boom in the affluent county where she lives and works, she said, adding that she’s receiving 20 to 30 new clients a month.

Her new home in Texas is free of the red tape that hampered such a business in Roseland.

“I’m on target for my business to bring in six figures in one year. I would have never been able to do that in Chicago,” said Moore, 49, a divorced mother of two.

‘I didn’t have peace’

In Tempe, Arizona, Kelly, the former CTA bus driver, said he found an outpost of Black Chicago transplants in a region that has drawn thousands of Illinois residents since 2010. Having lived in Chicago since he was 3, Kelly, 50, said most of his family had abandoned the city.

“Every (sibling) that was there, with the exception of my older sister, left. I have 14 siblings, now all of us are gone. In Indiana, California, Texas, Arizona. We all had to get out,” Kelly said. “It’s just not the place you want to raise a family,” he said.

The Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler metro area had the eighth highest gain of Black residents during the past 10 years, with more than 72,000 new arrivals. In addition to Chicago, Phoenix has gained a number of people from Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. Many believe the new arrivals from blue states helped tip the 2020 presidential election for President Joe Biden.

Chicago dining staples such as Lou Malnati’s, Portillo’s and Harold’s Chicken have opened stores there.

Kelly said he quickly found work as a city bus driver — first for Phoenix and later Tempe — all while maintaining his other job as the founder and host of the Internet radio station World Vibe Radio One.

The former Longwood Manor resident grew weary of the city and felt traumatized after several instances of crime.

“It made me nervous, honestly. I got carjacked. It was a rough experience. I’ve been shot at on the CTA bus twice. Two burglaries in Oak Park and twice more in Chicago,” he said. “There was a lot going on in Chicago. A lot of violence. A lot of death. I felt like I didn’t have peace.”

Kelly, like other former residents, dreads daily news reports of violence and crime in Chicago.

Moore, who first moved to Dallas before moving to McKinney to open her nail care business, knows the feeling. She said she felt apprehension whenever she returned to Chicago to care for her father.

“I left in 2016. I felt (crime) was getting bad then. After I left, I felt like it was getting worse,” Moore recalled. “I had to fly back and forth to Chicago for almost two years every month, sometimes twice a month, and I literally used to get anxiety about coming to Chicago.”

Jason Parks, the Indiana transplant, said a lot of big cities experience these kinds of problems.

“I don’t want to villainize Chicago,” he said. “Crime was an issue. I won’t deny that … but more than anything we wanted to create an environment for our family that really allows us to enjoy the neighborhood and our neighbors.”

Crime wasn’t a consideration for Okorafor, who said she began planning her escape from Illinois before the pandemic to evade Chicago’s notorious winter weather.

“First and foremost, I don’t like cold (weather). The winters were long and dark. Gradually I just lost my tolerance for the winter,” said Okorafor, 47, who is working on television development projects with HBO and Amazon.

“I’ve met three of my neighbors around my home. All of them are from Chicago,” she said. She added that she’s kept her suburban condo and hasn’t completely turned her back on Illinois.

“I always feel like I have to have a foot there. It’s my home base and it always will be,” she said. “Just not in the winter.”

Relocation hasn’t been without some minor gripes for the people the Tribune interviewed.

For Moore, her daughter had difficulty adjusting to high school among affluent classmates.

For Jason Parks, who grew up in Gary, he had to reacclimate to his conservative home state and get used to seeing Trump signs on front lawns. He didn’t anticipate the intense response to mask mandates at his children’s school. Trump earned about 42% of the vote in Lake County.

Still, his family is satisfied with its new home, though he didn’t rule out a return to Chicago, with some caveats.

“There would have to be a lot of financial reasons for me to come back to the city that would directly impact my family, because really that’s what drove me away — all of the financial things and the other political things,” Parks said. “Those things have to change.”

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