African-Americans are abandoning this famously progressive city at a rate that has alarmed San Francisco officials, who vow to stop the exodus and develop a strategy to win blacks back to the city. In June, Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed a task force to study how to reverse decades of policies—and neglect—that black leaders say have fueled the flight.
Black flight can alter a city’s character. “It’s important for a city’s future that it be a diverse place, and San Francisco is drifting toward being an upper-middle-class city,” says Ed Blakely, director of Katrina recovery for New Orleans.
According to Census estimates, the number of blacks here shrank from 13.4% of the population in 1970 to just 6.5% in 2005—the biggest percentage decline in any major American city.
Other cities are losing blacks to the suburbs—Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, San Diego, Washington and Oakland among them—but none has seen anything like what’s happening here. The actual number of blacks has dwindled to about 47,000 out of a population of roughly 744,000.
In Los Angeles, the proportion of blacks is 9.9%, just over half what it was in 1970, although the number of blacks remains relatively high—366,000, according to 2005 Census estimates. And in Chicago an estimated 1 million blacks remain—about one-third of the population—even though more than 55,000 have left since 2000, says Kenneth Johnson, a Loyola University Chicago demographer who analyzed 2005 Census data.
No single cause explains the continuing exodus, according to city officials, leaders in the black community, demographers and current and former black residents. The high cost of housing—one of the highest in the nation—is a dominant theme, but there are other factors:
* The loss in the 1950s and 1960s of a key black enclave to urban renewal.
* High crime rates in some of the city’s surviving black neighborhoods.
* Substandard public housing, as acknowledged by city officials.
* Dissatisfaction with underperforming urban schools.
“Black people really don’t matter in San Francisco. It’s what this generation of political leadership inherited,” says Chuck Collins, president of the YMCA of San Francisco. “There’s been a very uneasy truce with the black population.”
Today, African-Americans across the USA are “suburbanizing” at a rate slightly higher than whites, he says. “As their incomes go up, they move out.”
Lower-income blacks are leaving, too, typically to a city’s closest suburbs. When cities redevelop blighted public housing or replace it with mixed-income units, many residents are left out.
Lost ‘Harlem of the West’
In the 1940s and 1950s, in segregated San Francisco, the historic Fillmore neighborhood was the “Harlem of the West,” thriving with culture and black-owned businesses. Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and other headliners jammed at dozens of jazz clubs. Block after block of Victorian and Queen Anne row houses filled the neighborhood.
In the 1960s and 1970s, urban renewal—”Negro removal” to many blacks, the YMCA’s Collins says—swept away the Fillmore. Hundreds of homes and businesses were razed, and 4,000 blacks were displaced, city officials estimate. “A lot of people will tell you it wasn’t some urban renewal innocent mistake but that deliberate efforts were made to transform that community in a way that pushed African-Americans out,” says Fred Blackwell, director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Development.
“This wasn’t just a San Francisco thing,” says the policy institute’s Johnson. Urban renewal projects in Detroit, St. Louis and other cities created large impoverished populations at the same time businesses were lost. “It led middle-class African-Americans to leave,” he says.
An aversion to affordable housing?
Redevelopment could slow the African-American exodus, but it’s unclear how it would address the far more challenging work of attracting blacks to the city.
At $9.14 an hour, San Francisco has one of the nation’s highest minimum wages. It offers a tax credit to working families. As of July, uninsured residents under age 65 became eligible for universal health care. Preschool is available free to every child. The city has approved more affordable housing in the past few years than at any other time in its history, Newsom says.
Many blacks here shun buying affordable housing because those homes have “equity restrictions” to keep them affordable, which means they can’t be resold at market rates.