Athenia Rodney is a product of the social mobility that New York promised black Americans in the past. She grew up in mostly black neighborhoods in Brooklyn, attended public schools, and attended art college on full scholarship. After that, she opened her own event planning company in the city.
But as her family grew, she found herself living in a rented one-bedroom apartment, with her three children sharing a bunk bed in the living room. It was difficult to enroll them in programs where they could have access to green spaces or swimming lessons. Looking at friends’ posts on social media showing trampolines in sprawling backyards in Georgia, the solution became clear to her: get out of New York.
Last summer the family purchased a five-bedroom home in Snelville, Georgia. “It was getting harder and harder to raise my kids in New York,” Rodney said.
The Rodneys are part of an exodus of black New York residents. From 2010 to 2020, a decade in which the city’s population grew dramatically thanks to an increase in Asian and Hispanic residents, the number of black residents declined. This decline reflected a national trend of younger black professionals, middle-class families, and retirees leaving cities in the Northeast and Midwest for the South.
The decline is sharpest among younger New Yorkers: The number of black children and teens living in the city dropped by more than 19% from 2010 to 2020. And data on school enrollments indicate that the drop is continuing. Schools have lost students from all demographic groups, but the loss of black children has been much more pronounced, due to family exodus and falling birthrates for black women.
The factors pushing families like the Rodneys to leave the city are many, including concerns about the quality of schools, the desire to live closer to their relatives and cramped housing conditions. But many of those interviewed for this story pointed to one root cause: the ever-increasing cost of raising children in New York.
Black families seeking opportunity in places where jobs and housing are more plentiful are finding new chances to thrive. But the exodus could change New York’s makeup at a time when black political power is at an all-time high. This worries black leaders, as well as economists who point to a shortage of manpower in sectors such as nursing, which traditionally have a strong participation of black professionals.
Filmmaker Spike Lee, who has promoted New York for years, fears that the city will become more expensive and less accessible, especially for people of color, who have contributed so much to New York culture, from the birth of hip hop in the South Bronx to artists like Alvin Ailey and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“It’s really sad because the reality is that New York is no longer an accessible city,” Lee said. And if blacks cannot afford to live in it, “we can seriously say that New York is not the greatest city in the world.”
Eric Adams, New York’s second black mayor, pledged to create an affordable city to stop “the hemorrhaging of black and brown families.” His mayoral campaign was built in part on a biography that reflects the roots of the black community in the city: his parents came from Alabama during the Great Migration, rose from poverty in Brooklyn to middle class in Queens, bought their own homes, and their children studied in public schools and colleges.
Younger black families say this trajectory has become more difficult. High inflation and the turmoil in the rental housing market as the pandemic recedes has hurt New Yorkers of all backgrounds. But black families lag far behind white families in terms of home ownership and wealth accumulation. Their average annual income is US$53,000 (R$274,000), compared to US$98,000 (R$507,000) for white families, according to the most recent census data.
Ruth Horry, 36, is a black mother who has spent years living in successive cockroach- and rodent-infested Brooklyn apartments, repeatedly having to move because of rising rents. He and his three daughters ended up in the city’s shelter system. In one shelter in Queens, the sink was so small that Horry would take his daughters to wash their hair in the bathroom at a nearby McDonald’s.
“The conditions at any place I could afford were appalling,” he said. “I was so fed up with it.”
In late 2019, she moved to Jersey City thanks to a New York City program known as the Unique Special Assistance program that moves needy families into permanent housing with a year’s rent paid in advance. The drop in the cost of living has transformed her life, Horry said. And she’s thinking of moving to the south of the country to save even more.
“I don’t get food stamps, social benefits or help with the rent,” said Horry, who now lives in a two-bedroom apartment and pays the monthly rent of US$1,650 (R$8,540) with the salary he receives from an NGO that helps families in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. “It’s a fantastic feeling.”
The exodus of black residents from New York has especially benefited the South. The region’s economy is thriving with the arrival of people from New York and other areas of the northern US.
But Regine Jackson, a professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta and a student of migration patterns, said that while more black northerners are making the decision to leave — which often provokes both joy and sadness — it remains unclear whether the South will be able to offer them the greater opportunities they seek.
They may have become disillusioned with life in the North, Jackson said, but there are still problems in the South. “There’s been a lot of progress since the civil rights movement, but there’s still a lot to do.”
The housing shortage in New York continues, and rents remain high. Governor Kathy Hochul recently pledged to build more than 800,000 new housing units across the state over the next 10 years — double what has been built in the last 10.
Christie Peale is director of the NGO Center for New York City Neighborhoods, which promotes affordable home ownership. For her, a more decisive effort is needed in this area.
“Our fear is that the city will become whiter and wealthier and that opportunities to take advantage of the strong market will only be open to investors, people with high purchasing power,” said Peale.
According to census data, 31% of New York’s population today is white, 28% is Hispanic, and nearly 16% is Asian. The white population has remained more or less the same, but the Asian population has grown by 34% and the Hispanic by 7%, according to the data.
The loss of black families is already having important consequences for the education system. Some schools have shrunk, and teachers have had to be redeployed due to falling enrollments. In the last five years, public schools lost more than 100,000 students. It’s a crisis that also affects other urban districts like Boston and Chicago. In 2005, black students made up 35% of New York’s primary and secondary students; today they represent close to 20%.
The administration has been looking to increase access to selective pathways, such as New York’s program for gifted students. But parents fear that, in a deeply segregated system, schools that receive mostly black students could be hardest hit in future rounds of school budget cuts, and that falling funding and program cuts will trigger further exodus.
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