Revisiting Black Suburbanization

In its March 31, 2011 issue the Economist noted the acceleration of a process often associated with white suburbanites, “white flight.” The article “Black Flight” reports that increasing numbers of urban black dwellers have been departing for suburban environs. “Black flight” has had consequences for both suburban and inner city communities. Too often, historians have ignored Black American suburbanization. In January of this year, T of M explored this very issue through the work of San Diego State University Professor Andrew Wiese. In his 2004 work, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century, Wiese addresses this historical blind spot. For Wiese, Black suburbanization unfolded throughout the century, but the ideals, values, and concerns of these suburbanites have garnered far less attention than their white counterparts. Placing Wiese in dialogue with other scholars on the topic, most notably sociologist Mary Pattillo-McCoy, T of M’s Getting to the Mountaintop: The Suburban Dreams of African Americans engages the discussion, exploring the dynamics of a process that is still occurring as we speak.

The Changing Colour of CitiesBlack Flight

Now it is the turn of America’s blacks to leave for the suburbs

Mar 31st 2011 | SEATTLE |

IN THE 1990s black Americans began returning in significant numbers to the South. This marked a reversal of the Great Migration, in which their parents and grandparents fled Jim Crow racism in the 1920s and 1930s for jobs in the industrial cities of the north-east, Midwest and West. But since 2000 the destination of many inner-city blacks has shifted again, according to details from the latest census. From Oakland to Chicago to Washington, DC, blacks are surging from the central cities to the suburbs.

Analysis of 2010 census data by William Frey, chief demographer for the Brookings Institute, shows that more than half the cities with large concentrations of blacks have seen significant declines in their black populations. About half of black Americans now live in the suburbs, up from 43% in 2000.

This is proving a mixed blessing. Well-educated blacks are finding better jobs, bigger houses and newer schools, just as white-flight suburbanites did in previous generations. But many lower-income migrants from the inner cities are finding poverty, crime and poor social services when they arrive in their new homes. In the past decade, poverty has increased more than twice as fast in the suburbs as it has in the cities.

Although the black exodus is happening across the country, its consequences are especially vivid in Seattle and nearby Portland, two of America’s whitest big cities. In each of these cities, blacks were squeezed by restrictive property covenants and racial prejudice into a small but highly visible central district—black-majority islands in a white sea.

By 2010 the islands had largely gone. Seattle and Portland had become “smart cities”, magnets for hordes of young, highly educated and highly paid newcomers, most of them white and childless. Hungry for “diversity” and rushing into relatively rundown black neighbourhoods, they snapped up the only housing bargains left. White-owned banks were eager to make loans to yuppies. Tens of thousands of houses were gutted and rebuilt. As gentrification gathered pace, property prices exploded. Black homeowners cashed in, taking their windfalls to the suburbs. Black renters were squeezed out by higher rents.

“My clientele has all moved away,” says Charlene Williams, owner of De Charlene’s Beauty & Boutique in Seattle’s Central District. Her neighbourhood was 79% black when she set up shop in 1968. It was 58% black as recently as 1990. Now it is 21% black. Ms Williams once had 13 hairdressers on her payroll; now she employs none. The young Ray Charles once performed in black-owned nightclubs in the Central District. Those clubs are gone, as are the restaurants where Ms Williams used to buy pork-chop sandwiches and peach pie. Eateries now offer crepes, wood-fired artisan bagels and north-west fusion cuisine.

The total number of blacks in the greater Seattle area has grown in the past decade, but they are widely dispersed to suburbs such as Renton, a dozen miles away. A few thousand black Seattleites still get together on Sunday mornings. They drive in from the suburbs to downtown churches. “There’s a community,” says Ms Williams, “but no unity.”