Placeholder Image

Chicago residents sign a makeshift memorial on the South Side honoring three shooting victims in 2013.

Urban Violence

Gunfire Is Reversing the Great Migration in Chicago

In a 14-year span, the city’s African-American population plummeted by an estimated 200,000.

Joy Brown’s suburban Illinois living room isn’t furnished yet. But to the 38-year-old mother of two, having to sit on the floor is a small inconvenience compared to what she had to contend with in her old neighborhood of Austin, an impoverished area on Chicago’s Far West Side. Brown says she fled the neighborhood in January largely because she was afraid of shootings, a regular occurrence around her former home.

In early May, two of Brown’s friends in Austin were fatally shot. One was the victim of a stray bullet, and the other died when a social media flame war erupted into a gunfight. “Everyone I grew up with is getting killed,” Brown, who had lived in the neighborhood most of her life, tells The Trace.

Gun violence is hollowing out more and more of Chicago’s historically black neighborhoods, driving residents to seek out safer communities outside the city. Areas like Austin, once a refuge for African-Americans fleeing economic deprivation and Jim Crow laws in southern states, are now exceptionally dangerous. As the urbanologist Daniel Kay Hertz has shown, while homicides dropped citywide in Chicago starting in the early 1990s — mirroring a national trend — some parts of the city saw much more modest dips. In a few police districts on the city’s South and West Sides, homicides have increased to the point where “the inequality of violence in Chicago has skyrocketed,” Hertz writes.

Austin is one of the neighborhoods on the wrong side of that divide. Once home to a thriving commercial district filled with family-run shops and banquet halls, it’s seen many of its small businesses closed over the past 20 years, victims of economic downturns.

It has also become one of Chicago’s most dangerous communities. From 2011 to 2012, Austin experienced more homicides than any neighborhood in the city. In 2015, at least 199 people were shot in the area, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization that records U.S. shootings by monitoring media reports and police blotters. Between April 6 and May 5, more than 150 violent crimes were reported in the neighborhood, according to a tabulation by the Chicago Tribune.

The carnage is propelling the flight of African-American families like the Browns. From 2000 to 2014, Austin’s black population declined by more than 21,000, or about 20 percent, according to estimates from U.S. Census data and from The American Community Survey.

The loss of African-American residents in the neighborhood is mirrored in other troubled communities on the city’s West and South Sides. All told, over that same 14-year stretch, Chicago’s black population decreased by an estimated 200,000 residents, or nearly 19 percent.

Black Population Loss in Chicago (2000–2014)

Amid the city's high rate of gun violence, the number of African-American residents has declined by an estimated 200,000.

Changes in Chicago’s black population by census tract
+1000 increase
-1000 decrease
0
Austin neighborhood
Population loss and gain estimates are derived from U.S. Census data collected in 2000 and 2010, and from the American Community Survey, administered from 2010 through 2014. The boundaries of individual census tracts can change slightly from survey to survey. This view reflects boundaries as of the 2010 census.

There are many explanations for why blacks are leaving Chicago. Former residents cite higher taxes, failing schools, job losses, and even the weather as contributing factors for why they left. But one of the most prevalent complaints is violent crime.

Thoughts of leaving Chicago have become “a common conversation, especially with black millennials in the city of Chicago,” says Corey Hardiman, a 25-year-old who mentors kids on the city’s South Side. For many of them, violence is part of their daily existence. “Chicago is depressing,” says Hardiman, who has lost three close friends to gun violence and is thinking of relocating to Texas. “When people are constantly being killed, at the rate they are being killed, it’s depressing.”

More than 130 people were killed in Chicago as of the end of March, the vast majority by guns, an increase of more than 80 percent over the first three months of 2015. The city has also seen more than 600 non-fatal shootings in the first three months of this year, twice as many as in the same period last year.

According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, the city had its worst winter for gun violence since 2003. Chicago is currently on track to experience the most homicides since the late 1990s. 

Census data released in late March showed that Cook County, which includes Chicago, experienced the greatest population loss of any major U.S. region in 2015, topping even Michigan’s Wayne County, home of Detroit, which for decades has been the fastest shrinking big city in the nation. 

The city’s black flight marks a dramatic reversal for Chicago. For much of the first half of the 20th Century, the city was a beacon of hope for African-Americans who sought careers in slaughterhouses and steel mills and as Pullman porters. Now, Chicago is losing its reputation as a city of progress for blacks.

Nearly half of the city’s African-American men between 20 and 24 were unemployed or not attending school in 2014, according to a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago. And the number of black households in Chicago earning $100,000 or more has fallen precipitously, as affluent blacks increasingly search for opportunities and a lower cost of living in the South — the same part of the country African-Americans fled during the Great Migration.

Donald Sharp, a pastor at Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church in the South Side neighborhood of Avalon Park, has seen his congregation shrink from roughly 500 members to just 200 in the last decade. Asked to explain why his parishioners are abandoning the city, he tells the story of two sisters who moved to Iowa several years ago because they wanted their children to grow up in a safer environment. Their mother, reluctant to leave, finally joined them earlier this year after selling her house. One of the daughters later joked to him that the biggest local news in their Iowa town is a car accident.

Sharp, a 79-year-old Chicago native, says blacks who flee the neighborhood want a sense of “security and safety” that they can no longer find in an area with few jobs, declining schools, and a lack of prospects.

Robin Hood is a reverend and anti-gun violence activist in North Lawndale, a rough area on Chicago’s West Side. “Why would people want to live in a neighborhood like this?” asks Hood. Several of his siblings and cousins in the area have been killed by stray bullets or in stickups. But while he and many of his relatives have remained in the neighborhood because of their longstanding ties to the community, Hood says even some former gang members whose lives he helped turn around have moved out of North Lawndale to escape the violence.

“They won’t come back around for nothing,” says Hood, a 54-year-old lifelong Chicago resident.

Forrest Stuart, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, is writing a book about Chicago gangs. He says that the fear of gun violence can trump the emotional ties that might make people hesitant to leave their communities.

“‘I don’t want to be shot’ can overcome any obligation some people may feel to be close to family,” or to stay in a neighborhood they have long called home, says Stuart.

But there are also those who refuse to leave, or can’t afford to do so. Among those remaining residents, a sense of mission can emerge, says Stuart, as they come to see themselves as key to saving their neighborhoods. “It’s like, I’m still here, and I’m anchoring this community.” 

Joy Brown says she held out as long as she could. She ultimately used a Section 8 federal housing voucher to rent a new apartment with her husband and one of her children in the diverse, middle-class suburb of Berwyn.

The Chicago Housing Authority encourages those who receive Section 8 assistance to remain in the city, but Brown — who, like most applicants, had to wait years for a voucher — made up her mind to leave last year. She says she was reluctant to move away from her oldest son and mother, who still live in Austin, and she misses the friends she grew up with in the area. But she says she definitely prefers her new life in Berwyn, a city of nearly 55,000 people that had only one fatal shooting in the past year, according to Gun Violence Archive data.

Though Berwyn is only 20 miles from her former home, Brown says the neighborhood feels like a different world. “There aren’t as many killings over here,” she says. “There’s no one hanging out on the streets, no groups of kids standing on the corner.”

Brown has landed a part-time job at the local YMCA, while her husband, who had trouble finding full-time work in Austin, has been hired by a private company as a driver for the elderly — jobs, Brown says, that they couldn’t have gotten as readily in the city.

“We didn’t just think this would be a change for the good,” says Brown. “We knew it would be.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, this article misstated that Chicago is on track to experience the most violence since the early 1990s. The city is currently on pace to witness the most homicides since the late 1990s. 

[Photo: Scott Olsen/Getty Images]