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Black Population Explodes in South Suburbs

By Lynn LeCluyse

The reasons that black families are leaving Chicago in droves and moving to south suburbs like Matteson, Ill., include many of the same reasons that people of all colors have historically fled urban settings in the United States: overcrowding, the promise of quality schools, improved housing, and a better living environment. The goal of creating a better life has prompted an influx of blacks to what was once a predominantly white suburb, and while they have largely achieved that goal, racial integration in Matteson has gradually eroded.

Bill Byrnes, a former staff member at Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Urban Research and Learning, explained that racial change in areas like Matteson traces its inception back decades ago.

“Beginning around the 1970s, a larger black middle class began to develop,” Byrnes said. “As a result, a large portion of this black middle class began moving out of the city of Chicago and into the south suburbs. These changes took place in areas like Dolton, Country Club Hills, and this also started happening in Matteson as well.”

He explained that racial change was common nationwide in a lot of major cities, especially in the Midwest. Although this trend took flight in the 1970s, Byrnes said it really accelerated during the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s.

“When racial change started to occur white people were panicking about it, a reaction that is not uncommon when the black population begins to increase in a mostly white area,” he said. “This pattern took place even though many of the blacks moving in were of a higher socioeconomic class than the whites moving out.”

A March 11, 1996 New York Times article about Matteson, entitled “Town Tries to Keep Its Balance in Wake of White Flight,” said, “In 1980, Matteson was 84 percent white. Ten years later, the figure was 53 percent. Today, this village of about 11,000 residents, settled by German immigrants, is 47 percent white and 48 percent black.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2010 data shows that Matteson is now 16.3 percent white and 78.72 percent black. Byrnes explained that in the mid-1990s, a Task Force comprised of Matteson residents began holding meetings to develop a plan to maintain integration and avoid such an imbalance.

“They did not want to see Matteson do that flip you see in a lot of other areas, where it goes from the majority being white to the majority being black after the white population vacates after the black population begins moving in,” he said.

Byrnes said that the Task Force initially received a lot of negative press. Many people believed that the plan to convince white people to either stay in Matteson or move back was racist. They knew that whites were being encouraged to move back only to keep pace with the incoming black population or to replace the other whites that were leaving. This plan was an attempt to achieve a racial balance in the area.

According to Byrnes, even though whites continue to separate themselves from blacks moving to the suburbs today, blacks are undaunted and continue to flood into places like Matteson. Ron Wexler, a real estate agent in the south suburb of Homewood, just six miles from Matteson, believes that race has little to do with this shift. He feels that people are moving strictly due to monetary rather than racial factors.

“Honestly I don’t ever really think people move in terms of race,” Wexler said. “I don’t believe all Caucasian people do one thing, all Chinese people do something, all Hispanic people or all black people do another.”

Wexler said that everyone desires improvement, no matter what a person’s background or skin color may be.

“I think all people want something better for their families and it’s social/economic factors, not race. In other words, where are they starting financially and what can they afford to move up to is usually a major factor in where people go,” Wexler said.  “People move based on their financial ability to purchase and get the most home and best area they can afford.”

He explained that as far as moving south, people want to stay close to family and jobs, so moving to the far north or west just isn’t usually what “South Siders” do.

“I know the majority of people from the South Side of Chicago have always mostly moved south,” Wexler said. “Just like my own family did in 1971 when we lived in the city and wanted to get into the suburbs, we went south because of the schools and home values.”

Carol Sonnenschein is a recognized expert on Geographic Information System development and utilization, as well as the program director at Chicago Metropolis 2020, a business-backed civic organization promoting healthy regional growth. She reinforced some of Wexler’s ideas about black population growth in Matteson.

“My sense from talking to people after the 2010 census showed the out-migration of African-Americans from Chicago is that, generally, middle-class African-Americans chose to move to Matteson because of its nice housing stock, pleasant neighborhoods and schools that were perceived to be of higher quality than the Chicago Public Schools,” Sonnenschein said.

She explained that although the development of south suburban communities in areas such as Matteson brings about new additions and dynamics in these spaces, the city left behind is also affected.

“While the growth is good news for Matteson, the loss of these families from Chicago isn’t so great, because the out-migration of middle-class households tends to reinforce the trend toward a city of rich and poor,” Sonnenschein said.

She noted that this financial gap poses issues for the city. One important concern is the deterioration of Chicago Public Schools.

“If higher-income families choose to send their kids to private schools, with lower income kids in Chicago Public Schools, there may not be sufficient pressure to improve the public schools,” she said.

While the city faces struggles as a result of the population shift, the suburbs experience challenges as well. The Metropolitan Planning Council’s Joanna Trotter notes in a blog post titled “2010 Census: African-Americans leaving city for suburbs,” that during this out-migration from Chicago it is important to ensure that the communities experiencing growth are also ready “to service, engage, and plan for new residents.”

Many south suburbs are currently experiencing changes, and Matteson in particular has come 180 degrees since 1980. Then it was 80 percent white, now it is nearly 80 percent black. So while blacks in Matteson have worked to improve their living situations, racial balance in the area has slipped away. One thing seems clear—flight to the suburbs and racial integration do not go hand in hand.

Photo courtesy of US Census Bureau

  • written by Patty Lamberti on January 24th, 2012
  • posted in Featured
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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.