Mar 1, 2011

'Chocolate cities' see rise in vanilla population

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.



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