Dominique James, 23, posing in her Hyde Park neighborhood | Photos by Qurissy Lopez (The TRiiBE)

Black folks being forced around and out of Chicago ain’t nothing new.

In the late 1950s, the University of Chicago displaced low-income Black residents as it expanded its campus area. Today, neighboring Jackson Park, Woodlawn and Englewood share the same fear of being priced out as they prepare for the new Obama Presidential Center to move into the neighborhood.

Many Black Chicagoans are hoping the city’s next mayor will protect them from being pushed out by rising costs.

In the meantime, despite a population decline of at least 200,000 Black Chicago residents since 2000, some Black millennials are fighting back by intentionally staying in Chicago to contribute their talents and Blackness to the city that made them who they are. Dominique James, 23, is one of them.

“Chicago super raised me,” said James. “I owe a lot to this city. Who am I to give it to somewhere else?”

James in her Hyde Park neighborhood.

James grew up in and around Bronzeville. She returned to Chicago in 2017 after studying English at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Numerous job opportunities, and a thriving Black professional class, typically keep recent D.C.-area graduates in the Chocolate City. There is a clearer route to success for Black people there, one that isn’t so clear for Black people in Chicago.

Yet a fellowship at the University of Chicago brought James back to Chicago. She originally thought her stint in the city would be temporary, but she ultimately found her purpose at home: merging her love for law with art. With a job teaching artists at the youth literary arts hub Young Chicago Authors, nothing can lure James out of Chicago.

“My first day of teaching, I was like, ‘Oh. I’m not leaving any time soon,’” James explained. “I came back here for an educational opportunity and I’m still here because this is really where I feel I want to be and I’m supposed to be.”

James also knew she didn’t want to leave the South Side for the luxuries and conveniences of the North Side.

“I feel physically uncomfortable on the North Side. Something about the affluence just really makes me sick. Y’all really live in a different world and don’t care [about the South Side],” James says. “Part of it is envy. This is what it looks like to have resources and have your community invested in?”

Maya Roberts, 31, also left Chicago for college in Ohio. When she graduated from the historically-Black Central State University in 2009, she moved back home; first with her parents in Galewood and then to Logan Square, where she’s been for the last six years.

“I like Logan Square. I’m sometimes of two minds about it. I know [that] I, even as a Black person, gentrified the neighborhood when I moved in, just by virtue of having a college degree and other things,” Roberts says.

Recent college graduates across all economic backgrounds tend to look for living spaces that offer similar, if not better, resources as their campus experience. Already in the middle class before college, Roberts’ degree made her somewhat extrinsic to the low-income Latino residents who have lived in Logan Square long before she did.

Maya Roberts, 31, poses outside the Logan Square Blue Line train station.

In 2000, Latinos made up 65 percent of the neighborhood. By 2014, they made up less than 47 percent. Though Black people didn’t populate the neighborhood as much as Latinos, those who were living there have left too. White people currently make up most of the population in Logan Square.

“Now you see $100,000 cars [and] people in $2,000 suits,” Roberts says. “I appreciate that there’s now soy chorizo in the Mexican grocery, but I’m also, like, ‘What the fuck is this doing here?’”

Since newly gentrified neighborhoods like Logan Square are becoming more and more expensive, Black millennials like Roberts are considering moves to communities like North Lawndale. However, disinvestment in the West Side neighborhood has stood so long that North Lawndale is essentially unattractive to Black millennials fresh out of college.

Roberts chilling in Logan Square.

“I would love to live in North Lawndale if they had the amenities,” Roberts says. “If they had re-invested in that community after the Martin Luther King [Jr.] riots [in 1968], I would live there, but it’s not safe and there’s no grocery stores.”

Initially Roberts’ loyalty to her native West Side wouldn’t let her consider housing options on the South Side, but new affordable housing in Bridgeport and Pilsen, a Mexican neighborhood that has experienced much gentrification, made her consider a move to the South Side.

“I want to continue to enjoy [Chicago] now that I have a queer community and I don’t have to give it up so soon,” she explains.

Though moving isn’t an immediate concern, Roberts is giving some consideration to places outside of Chicago if she can’t afford to live in her preferred neighborhoods.

“Pittsburgh is always on my list because I have family there so it’s easy, but it’s a really white city and I couldn’t even speak to the queer community there,” Roberts says.

“I feel sad for leaving because I do love Chicago,” Roberts explains. “It’s sad that the focus is not on investing in these communities so that people will want to stay, can stay and thrive here.”

Justin White, 30, left Chicago in 2011. Born and raised on the South Side, he discovered an entirely new world in Chicago’s downtown while studying fashion merchandising at the International Academy of Design and Technology. As a student, he lived in Logan Square and Wicker Park in the late 2000s.

White remembers the continual increases in rent each year back then. He, too, felt like he was being priced out of Logan Square. On the other hand, the North Side neighborhood gave him the freedom to live in his truth: a queer man who dresses alternatively. But he still found restraints in what he could and couldn’t do.

“I was looking for more support in the art and weirdo communities. In Chicago, especially for Black people, there weren’t as many opportunities for alternative lifestyles,” White explains.

“The gay Black culture was a little bit divisive,” White continues. “You had to be a closeted Black man and a lot of the other communities weren’t as accepting of Black gay men.”

Photo courtesy of Justin White

Along with his struggle to find a full-time job in fashion, White ultimately did what he had to do. He moved to California where jobs in fashion are abundant. After a brief stay in San Francisco, White landed in Oakland where he found the mix of Black culture, welcoming queer communities of color and job stability that he desired.

Still, White misses Chicago. The cost of living is much higher in the Bay Area than in Chicago. Also, Californians aren’t as warm, personality-wise, as Chicagoans. He sees himself moving back to Chicago in the near future.

“There’s a lot of great things going on there [on the South Side],” White explains. “Hopefully, as the queer community develops more, it will be more opportunities in that area for me to come back.”

But he’s still unsure if he’ll ever call the South Side home again. Chicago’s violence narrative continues to dominate the mainstream media, and it’s that narrative that makes White fear home.

“I would come back to the North Side,” White says. “The South Side is a little scary because of the crime rate.”