Eli Reed / Magnum Photos

Whither the Black Exodus?

Errol Louis

June 26, 2024

Black political power is inextricably tied to the size of the Black population in New York.

Black political power is inextricably tied to the size of the Black population in New York.

In early January of this year, an impressive cross-section of the City’s political leadership assembled at the Bridge Street AME Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant for the funeral of John Flateau, a longtime political activist and scholar who was one of the architects of New York’s current Black political renaissance. 

A tenured political scientist who spent stints as chief of staff to Mayor David Dinkins and executive director of the state’s Black and Puerto Rican legislative caucus, Flateau had spent decades quietly mastering the obscure but critical field of redistricting. A veteran of countless battles in courtrooms and backroom strategy sessions, he was the lead plaintiff in Flateau v. Anderson, one of a trio of federal cases in the early 1980s that abolished New York’s at-large City Council districts, redrew state legislative lines and made portions of the City’s voting rules subject to federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act.

New York Mayor Eric Adams came to the funeral to pay his respects, along with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and state Attorney General Letitia James. All of them got their start in politics by winning local City and state seats created by the Flateau’s line-drawing and litigation. Keith Wright, the Manhattan Democratic county chairman, was there, as was his Brooklyn counterpart, Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn. A number of judges were in attendance, including Paul Wooten of the Appellate Division, the state’s second-highest court.

“I would not be standing here today if it were not for Dr. John Flateau’s leadership,” said state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, one of a crowd of current and former elected officials who turned out, “... [were it not for] him paving the way for people that look like me to enter into the elected space.”

The concluding eulogy was delivered by the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, the 93-year-old activist pastor who is a political legend in his own right. Daughtry took note of the power players in attendance before raising a sly rhetorical question.

“How can we have so much power … and gentrification?” He asked the mourners, who shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

Daughtry said aloud what political strategists and officials have been whispering about for years: that a steady out-migration of Black New Yorkers means the community’s current political ascendancy, decades in the making, will likely wane — and perhaps evaporate — in years to come. That’ll require new ways of thinking about how to build economic and electoral clout.

These days, no matter where you fall on the economic spectrum, it’s easy to make a case for leaving New York.

How could it be otherwise? “The city’s Black population has declined by nearly 200,000 people in the past two decades, or about 9 percent,” the New York Times reported last year. “Now, about one in five residents are non-Hispanic Black, compared with one in four in 2000, according to the latest census data.” Bedford-Stuyvesant, the heart of New York’s Black power explosion — the community that elected Shirley Chisholm as America’s first Black female member of Congress — is undergoing rapid change, gaining 30,000 white residents between 2010 and 2020 while Black population in the neighborhood plunged by 22,000. Parts of the community have seen a fivefold increase in the number of white families.

Harlem, which ceased to be majority-Black in 2000, gained 18,000 white residents in the decade from 2010 to 2020 and lost nearly 11,000 Black residents during the same period. The area around the fabled Sugar Hill section of the neighborhood has gone from 11% white to 19%, with no signs of the trend slowing.

The New York phenomenon mirrors steep drops of Black population in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and other urban centers over the last 20 years, as families relocate to Atlanta, Houston, Charlotte and other Southern cities in what the Washington Post describes as a reversal of the Great Migration that brought Blacks north throughout the 20th century.

The underlying drivers of the population shift are economic. These days, no matter where you fall on the economic spectrum, it’s easy to make a case for leaving New York. The city is currently in the tightest housing market in 50 years with a vacancy rate of 1.4%. The Apartments.com website calculates an average rental rate in the city to be $3,779 per month for just over 600 square feet. It makes sense for young families to trade the high cost of living here for a less expensive suburban or rural lifestyle elsewhere in the country, especially in the South.

“There seems to be a loop almost of what started as the Great Migration, people returning back to where their families left to move north in the first place,” journalist Jenna Flanagan of WNET said in a recent program about the Black exodus from New York. Sky-high residential rates are not the only driving factor. Flanagan talked to a Black married couple relocating to North Carolina in order to realize their dream of buying a commercial space from which they could operate, and eventually franchise, their family bakery — a proposition that would be impossibly expensive in New York.

Economic push factors are complemented by the pull of history, culture and family.

The turnover in historically Black neighborhoods includes some happy endings. But such outcomes are relatively rare.

“My family’s from South Carolina. They migrated to New York City, Bed-Stuy, in the ’40s,” Anthony Cunningham of the baking couple said. “So I kind of wanted to go back home to where my family started, and finish what they started. I needed to continue the journey to get back what was stolen from my family in the 1900s when they left the South and came to New York City.”

The turnover in historically Black neighborhoods includes some happy endings in the form of newcomers paying seven-figure prices for homes that cost less than $50,000 in the 1950s and 1960s. Some Black New Yorkers are leaving town and settling into comfortable retirements with life-changing wealth. But such outcomes are relatively rare: A 2021 report by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli notes that 67% of white New Yorkers own their homes compared to only 34% of Black households and 29% for Latinos — gaps that are significantly higher than the national average.

And there’s a bigger question for the character and future of America’s most important city. What happens, culturally and politically, when traditionally Black spaces change character or cease to exist altogether? Professor Zulema Blair of Medgar Evers College says the result could be a doom loop of cultural amnesia.

“Culturally, people, places and things are wiped out. We see buildings, museums, etc., landmarks not being the same as they were previously, churches, parks,” she says. “If those move or those become different spaces, there’s nothing really left to pass down to generations.”

Blair voices a fear that crosses into politics: “Culturally, if we don’t write about it and speak about it and tell the stories, a lot of our history could be gone.”

The controversial 2022 demolition of the Jacob Dangler mansion at 441 Willoughby Ave. was a graphic case study in the waning of Black population and power in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The 120-year-old facility was used as a masonic temple, a community center where local Boy Scout troops met and a catering hall where generations of Black families celebrated weddings, birthdays and other milestones. But an entrepreneur got control of the site, swiftly sought a demolition permit and leveled the building while local leaders frantically, and unsuccessfully, beseeched the Landmarks Preservation Commission to intervene.

The incident shocked some community members into creating an organization dedicated to giving landmark status to much of Bed-Stuy. The Center for New York City Neighborhoods has created the Black Homeownership Project to fight against predatory lending, aggressive speculation and other factors that have contributed to a long-term slide in rates of Black home ownership. But such efforts have to graduate from being one-off pilot programs to becoming enshrined in public policy. It will take more than scattered rearguard actions to reverse New York’s steady Black out-migration — and the political consequences that are certain to follow.