'Chocolate cities' see rise in vanilla population

Parliament was singing about hope in “Chocolate City.”

The 1975 hit became the anthem for Washington, D.C., a town populated mostly by African-Americans and run by African-Americans. In one particularly prescient line uttered when Barack Obama was just a 14-year-old, George Clinton rasped: “They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition too.”

Clinton was singing not just about the nation’s capital, but about lots of places with majority African-American populations — places where you could find a sit-down restaurant that served collard greens or smothered chicken, an African-American mayor and at least one museum that celebrated black history. They were given nicknames, such as and Motown, the first record label owned by an African American, for Detroit. They represented comfort and power for African Americans.

But data now being released by the Census Bureau from its 2010 tally of the U.S. population show that while the African-American population grew by 1.7 million since the last once-a-decade census, northern cities such as New York and Chicago, historically known for their large African-American populations, actually lost African-Americans. In fact, the African-American population dropped by 1.3 percent in Illinois, marking the state’s first ever decline in that group. The data also show a shift among African-Americans to the suburbs and to the South.

On the ground, people who live in some of these places known for their wealth of African-American culture say they have noticed, at least anecdotally, that blacks seem to be moving out of the inner cities and affluent whites moving in — mostly into a parade of new apartment and condominium complexes. Washington is one of those places.

“Black history in the district is disappearing brick by brick and yard by yard,” said Washington historian and author C.R. Gibbs. “The plain fact of the matter is, according to most experts, the population of the district is becoming wealthier and whiter and the black proportion continues to significantly decline.”

Census Bureau estimates place Washington’s African-American population at about 55 percent for 2005-2009, a drop of 16 percentage points from 1970.

As examples of the changes taking place, Gibbs, a lifelong Washingtonian, pointed to a current battle to raise the funds necessary to restore the now-closed Howard Theater, a place known for launching the careers of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Newcomers cannot always appreciate the value of local African-American history, said Gibbs. He lamented the disappearance of memories of places such as the African-American-owned valet business that once operated on Capitol Hill, a resident who used to grow vegetables for his neighborhood at the corner of South Capitol and N Streets, S.E., or the African-American-owned National Benefit Life Insurance Company, which operated where the Verizon Center now stands.

“It was amazing,” Gibbs said of the Chocolate City era. “You felt good about the name, even if you began to realize Chocolate City and the vanilla suburbs was a creation. It was ephemeral, like a snowflake in the sun.”

Now, people who don’t have such memories are moving into the city and that is changing what is preserved, Gibbs said. “Most people believe when they arrive in the neighborhood, the clock starts…. Black folks become a minority in their own neighborhood.”

Washington isn’t the only place that has seen demographic changes.In the city of Detroit, the African-American and white populations were 81.2 percent and 10.5 percent respectively in 2000, but 77.2 percent and 15.4 percent in 2005-2009 Census Bureau estimates. In Atlanta, the African-American and white populations were 61.4 percent and 33.2 percent respectively in 2000, and 51 percent and 43.1 percent in 2005-2009, based on census estimates.

What seems to be happening is a mix of changes, based on observances of residents and demographic experts. Some said the personality and purpose of many metro areas are shifting, as factories and industry no longer drive economies and as suburbs and exurbs become part of metropolitan areas. As developers create new in-town housing for wealthier residents, entertainment and other businesses crops up to serve those newcomers too.

But the changes can mean displacement of memories and sites that some African-Americans believe are historic and priceless.

Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper, chair of the English Department at Spelman College, first came to the Atlanta metro area 33 years ago to attend graduate school at Emory University. Her choice was between attending school in the so-called “Black Mecca” or in Iowa, but she liked the idea of living a region steeped in African-American culture. Like Gibbs, she has fond memories being part of a place run by African-Americans.

“Maynard Jackson was making important changes,” Sullivan Harper, who lives in Stone Mountain, Ga., said of the late Atlanta mayor who became first African-American to lead a major southern city when he was elected in 1973.

“He was helping to get Hartsfield (-Jackson Atlanta International Airport) that is now named for him, and he made sure that African-American companies were involved in that,” she said. “The leadership made sure in many, many ways that people were appointed to various committees.”

In today’s metro Atlanta, African-Americans are still a driving force in an area known for being home to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, various civil rights organizations, and several historically black colleges and universities, but whites seem to be moving into condominiums and other new developments downtown, and that seems to be shifting the political weather, Sullivan Harper said.

She pointed out that the 2009 election of Mayor Kasim Reed, an African American, was a close one that forced a runoff. She also pointed out that Gov. Nathan Deal, a white Republican, has appointed a state representative to oversee the review of a scandal involving standardized tests in the public schools. Sullivan Harper sees this as problematic because it sets a precedent of an issue involving the schools potentially being taken out of the hands of African-Americans.

“Things are kind of explosive,” Sullivan Harper said.

She added, though, that metro Atlanta is actually a huge region encircling the city, and she believes the racial makeup of that area is still rich in African-American presence and culture.

Dr. William Frey, a demographer and sociologist, credits the changes to African Americans’ continued march into the suburbs.

Frey, also a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, a research organization based in Washington, has examined 2010 data that the Census Bureau is beginning to release. He has found that of 17 cities of at least 200,000 residents that have an African-American population of at least 25 percent, the numbers of African-Americans have declined in 11. Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, Dallas and Houston are among those places, he said, calling the shift “pretty remarkable.”

“The real message is yes, there’s a lot of blacks living in cities and a lot of segregation but the metropolitan areas are becoming much more widely distributed,” he said.

There’s less evidence that whites are moving into inner cities, Frey said, referring to is examination of census data from 2000 to 2008.

“It depends very much on the city,” he said. “Cities these days are not the big economic engines they used to be.”

African-Americans also tend to be abandoning northern industrial cities for southern places, Frey added.

The demographic changes might not be as stark as some people might think. Some of the people moving back into the cities’ downtowns for the convenience, entertainment and culture might not necessarily be there for the long-term, said Dr. Margaret Simms, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a research organization based in Washington. For instance, once singles marry and settle down with children, some opt to move into the suburbs.

Simms also pointed out that demographic movement does not necessarily mean that impoverished people are moving up, or that segregation is diluting.

“Many communities are not touched by the changes, and for them, there may be little changes in their lives, culturally or employment wise or any of the other things that would make for a better life,” Simms said.

For those people who are bothered by the changes, there is opportunity to take action, Sullivan Harper said.

“I do think that people who are interested in preserving these chocolate cities who have some disposable income should really take a close look at foreclosures and other properties that are at bargain prices right now,” she said. “It’s a bad thing for the people who got foreclosed on, but if people have ambition about creating a vibrant chocolate city, this is the time to make the move.”

Gibbs simply wants people to realize that the history in Washington, Detroit, Atlanta and other places is important to preserve.

“When people come in that are unfamiliar with the history of the area, they don’t always know what to preserve, they don’t always know the accurate history, there are stories that get twisted and turned and become part of the lore of the newcomers,” he said. “Historical memory is being lost or compromised in the name of progress.”