I was raised in a quiet, three bedroom home on a tree-lined street in the Chicago suburbs. During my childhood and teenage years, I rarely thought about why we lived where we lived. Back then, I never had reason to question our choice of community. My parents had been born in the same county I was, and lived their lives there just like me. My grandparents had well established lives in the nearby towns they had chosen to reside. I moved from the suburbs to Chicago almost twenty years ago, after returning from college in Pennsylvania. When I bought my first home, I learned the extent to which White flight is part of my story too. I know fractured pieces of my family’s past, but I may have more detail than many Americans do about their heritage.
Just a few years ago, I learned more about my great-grandparents’ arrival in the United States, and their place in Chicago. Shortly after my husband and I bought our first home four years ago, my mom sent me a document detailing the history of my Croatian immigrant great grandparents. To my surprise, the archive listed specific addresses where my ancestors lived when they first arrived in this country. One of the addresses provided their location at the time of my grandmother’s birth. Her newborn days were spent at a residence less than two miles from my current home. My great grandparents appeared to be renters who were financially fragile, because they moved frequently within a four or five block radius. However, I have also heard rumors of an ex-fiance who stalked my great-grandmother when she refused to marry him after she arrived in America. Maybe they moved often out of necessity instead.
I have vague childhood memories of my grandmother telling me how she loved taking walks to spend long afternoons at the Garfield Park Conservatory. As a suburban child, this detail did not mean anything to me. Now I know she grew up in West Garfield Park, and that the conservatory is still a beautiful oasis in the neighborhood. I was able to view the home she was raised in before it was torn down last year, sitting in the middle of a blighted block. The community area now is a predominately Black, disinvested, high poverty area. One hundred years ago it was an Eastern European immigrant enclave. I learned recently through census records that my maternal grandfather also grew up on the west side of Chicago in the Austin neighborhood; a different, now also predominately Black neighborhood.
This was not the only surprise in my family history. About a year later, my dad gave me a copy of our family history written by his mother’s aunt. Although my grandmother grew up in Ohio after the death of her mother, I was intrigued by the West Humboldt Park address of a home purchased by my Scottish great-aunt. She and her husband had lived in this house for over a decade. It was located only one mile from my current home. She had also resided in what is now a predominately Black, high crime, high poverty community. The building is located off a street currently known for its open air drug market.
History can be hard to place until we realize how it is connected to ourselves.
I understood White flight in an academic sense. Until I saw these addresses in writing and drove down the blocks my unknown relatives had once lived, I was not aware how the opportunities I had lived fit into this story too.
White flight is the phenomena of the 1950s and 1960s understood as the mass exodus of White homeowners from urban areas to the surrounding suburbs. Although neighborhoods can change organically over time, exogeneous conditions contribute accelerating pressure. According to an account provided by the Chicago Community Trust, West Humboldt Park and West Garfield Park began its racial turnover in the 1950s. These communities both finalized their respective demographic shifts in the 1970s.¹ I do not have the full story of how and when my relatives relocated from the city to DuPage County. Both of my parents were born in the suburbs in the 1950s, so my grandparents’ exodus may have either preceded or been part of the first wave of White flight. Because of what we do know about urban history, I can assume with some level of accuracy that they landed in suburbia for the same reasons as other White people of their era. White flight did not occur by chance.
In Chicago, just as in other cities around the United States, urban disinvestment occurred through deliberate policy and practice. Redlining, a subject I will explore later, contributed to the financial decline of Black communities because banks were permitted to avoid investing in these neighborhoods. In 1948, racially discriminatory restrictive housing covenants became unenforceable through Supreme Court legislation. Restrictive housing covenants were limitations in the mortgage deed that enabled White property owners to discriminate against minority purchasers. Once these covenants were no longer sanctioned, unscrupulous realtors preyed on fears of White homeowners.
In a practice called blockbusting, realtors would meet with White homeowners and incite them to sell their properties for fear that incoming Black neighbors would lead to declining property values. Racial prejudice was deliberately aggravated in the name of profit. America’s current housing market is based on the premise of homeownership as a wealth building tool, but one in which Black people were locked out through the denial of credit. White residents of urban communities often sold at values lower than necessary to get out of the area before their imaginary fears were realized and it became impossible to sell. The same properties were then sold at a premium to Black homeowners, when they were able to get access to credit. When White families moved out of the city, it was largely to the suburbs where government backed mortgages were more easily approved. White homeowners were able to build generational wealth as property values appreciated, enabling them to tap into equity. Black communities experienced further disinvestment, an element that created the racial wealth gap of our current day. A Brookings Institute study identified the income inequity between White households and Black households to be a factor of ten times difference.²
Homeownership is not the only factor that created a disparity in income and financial stability. The Great Recession of 2008 saw many homeowners of all walks of life lose significant home equity. But because of the forces of the housing market, these events do play a large role. Both financial and social capital compounds over time, and in various shapes and forms. The social capital provided by a stable neighborhood is one of the forms this compounding effect takes. An economically stable community usually provides better education systems, better health care options, greater proximity to amenities, and maybe most importantly, the belief the possibility of success exists. In combination, all of this leads to better outcomes in multiple areas of life that are exacerbated over time.
My family’s story is representative of broader sociological forces in action. My relatives left the city, compelled by societal influences they likely left unexamined. I later moved back to Chicago, as part of a cycle of urban development of which I was partially unaware. Unintentionally, I purchased property in a short distance of the places my forebears once walked the streets and sidewalks. The neighborhood was accessible to me. Developers have now spotted the same accessibility and affordability in my community. White families are moving back in and property values are rising. The devaluation of this area by my former generation because of unjustified racial fear set the stage for the gentrification process taking place now.
It is hard for any one person to fully appreciate their own puzzle piece in the whole gigantic picture.
In White America, we prefer to see ourselves as individuals that make individual decisions toward prosperity. We have difficulty seeing the collective social forces at work to create the options available to us, or limit the ones available to other racial demographics. Whether we recognize it or not, we are part of a system. And we are responsible for asking questions about how it functions.
This series will explore gentrification over the next several weeks. Read Part 1 below: