My parents, Joe and Yvonne Moore, married in 1974, and their first home decision was a cultural and practical choice: They wanted to live in an African-American community on Chicago’s South Side, put down roots and start a family.
I later learned as an adult how thoughtful their decisions were on buying that home and a subsequent home in an integrated neighborhood. I also came to the realization that my own homebuying decision did not benefit me like my parents’ decision benefited them. It wasn’t until this story that I revealed to them the troubles that I faced owning and trying to sell a condo in the Bronzeville neighborhood.
This is important because homeownership is one of the big staples of the American dream and a major way we build and retain wealth. Buying a house is a complicated and high-risk move, but it’s even more so if you’re black because all kinds of things are rigged against you. Race shapes the decision of what house to buy and where to buy it. It changes the way the whole system works for African-Americans.
Neighborhood of excellence
My dad worked for Shell Oil Company, part of the post-Civil Rights wave of African-Americans hired by corporate America. My mother was a special education teacher and administrator at Chicago Public Schools.
When my parents bought a house, they weren’t confined to the former Black Belt on the South Side, an area to which African-Americans had been limited. But they did buy in an area that experienced white flight two decades earlier: Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood.
“Chatham was a neighborhood of excellence,” my dad said, adding that he and his neighbors formed a block club and got to know each other.
The home my parents chose was a brick Cape Cod on quiet, leafy South Michigan Avenue. They bought it for $30,000 -- an average price for Chatham back then, though a family story has it that the owner, an elderly widow, found my father charming.
The house had four bedrooms and a typical South Side, wood-paneled basement prone to flooding when it rained. I have good memories of that basement: An old eight track and record players were next to shelves stacked with my parents’ records, from Redd Foxx comedy to the Ohio Players to Malcolm X.
The place where I grew up was more than a house or a neighborhood; 1980s Chatham forged my first view of the world and shaped my identity.
Growing up, we jumped Double Dutch rope. We rode 10-speed bikes. We ran through lawn sprinklers in our swimsuits in backyards while our parents barbecued. We walked the tracks and swung on swings at Nat “King” Cole Park. Each spring I counted on Mrs. Lee to order a box of Thin Mints to support my Girl Scout troop. Mr. Henderson’s family owned a popular shoe store. Mr. Montgomery retired from the Chicago Police Department.
I wasn’t thinking about race or class as a child. It would be years before I realized that I grew up in a kind of cozy cocoon of black middle-class vibrance.
But even at a young age, at some level, I knew Chicago’s blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians generally didn’t live together. I certainly never saw any of them in Chatham. Growing up in segregation was like air and water -- a constant, but something I never really thought about -- until I was a teenager.
Black and white on the Red Line
In the way that segregation is an everyday reality in Chicago, the way I opened my eyes to it was everyday, too.
One summer day in 1991, some friends and I were heading home from shopping in Chicago’s Loop. We got on a Red Line L train and headed back to the South Side to get dressed for the Johnny Gill concert at the New Regal Theater on 79th Street.
It’s easy to see Chicago’s segregation on the Red Line. Just watch who boards and exits. Back then, white people emptied off by downtown. But on this day, as my friends and I bumped along, the white folk packed the train shoulder to shoulder -- past downtown and into the city’s mostly black South Side.
To 14-year-old me, it was baffling. No way this throng of white Chicagoans lived off of my L line.
Then, all of the white riders exited the train car at the 35th Street station -- the stop for Comiskey Park, the White Sox baseball stadium. They were baseball fans. Mystery solved. My little world pieced back together.
I didn’t know this at the time, but my neighborhood, like others on the South Side, like others around the country, was black on purpose.
Before 1948, Chatham had been all white and deliberately kept blacks out, an example of the discrimination that met migrants from the South. Blacks started moving in after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racially restrictive covenants that year.
Whites promptly fled Chatham and similar South Side neighborhoods. Those places then became miles upon miles of black neighborhoods with high rates of homeownership. The communities brimmed with racial pride.
My dad, a Vietnam War veteran, had his own version of middle-class militancy.
“It’s nation time. Time for all the black folk to stand up and be counted,” he often said when I was growing up.
That anthem was just one way he drilled into us to not shop at small businesses in Chatham unless they were owned by blacks.
And honestly, it wasn’t that hard; we had black dry cleaners, banks, hair salons, barbecue joints, barbershops and soul food restaurants.
“We supported. There were restaurants like Army & Lou’s and Izola’s. I would take the family on Sundays and go have dinner there on 79th Street, and that’s where we used to see the mayor. He would be in there Sunday afternoons, Harold Washington, with his bodyguard eating dinner,” my dad said.
The black tax
But Chatham was no urban Mayberry. When I was in high school, the “Chatham rapist” stalked the neighborhood. On more than one occasion, thieves broke into our garage.
“There was crime in the neighborhood, although it was a very nice neighborhood,” my mom said. “But you would hear about robberies in the area, so that was a downfall, I think.”
This is part of what’s called the black tax. Black middle-class neighborhoods are more affected by urban ills than white middle-class neighborhoods; you have to deal with more poverty, more crime, worse schools and fewer services.
My dad said he saw the black tax even when he shopped at a Jewel grocery in the neighborhood.
“When I wanted to pay for the groceries by check, I had to almost get my birth certificate for ID,” he recalled.
But then he went to a Jewel in neighboring Evergreen Park, where he didn’t have to show any ID. He also noticed the prices were lower. When he asked why the prices were higher at the Chatham store, he was told the store had to pay for security.
“There is a shortcoming of living in an all-black neighborhood, even one as affluent as Chatham,” he said.
The inequities of the housing market ripple out into other parts of life. For all the work and money it takes to get you into a middle-class neighborhood, you get less for it. Scholar Mary Pattillo calls this the two faces of black middle-class communities: the privilege and the peril. Black homeowners receive 18 percent less value for their homes than white homeowners, according to Dorothy Brown, a tax law professor at Emory University.
“When we first moved into Chatham, I really didn’t think about living any place else; we had just moved in,” my mom said. “But as the years went by, more of our peers and friends and families started moving into different areas. A lot of them moved into integrated areas, and you begin to see what they had -- the houses and then the conveniences, the stores nearby.”
When it comes to jobs, education and salary, the black middle class equates to white lower middle class in America. Many white Chicagoans have no idea that a place such as Chatham exists and couldn’t pinpoint it on a map. Everyday black-middle class life is invisible in America. People going to work, sending their children to school, living their lives, minding their business.
Lessons from Sutherland Elementary
Even with our racial pride and identity, my parents wanted their three children to experience diversity and understand the city and the world, far beyond the limits of Chatham. They wanted me to function in the larger society and not just in a black cocoon.
So, in 1981, they enrolled me in a new magnet-style program at Sutherland Elementary in the Beverly neighborhood, miles away from Chatham.
Beverly was a fledgling integrated neighborhood back then and wanted to head off white flight. In the 1970s, white residents saw that integration was inevitable and deliberately embraced integration to maintain a racial balance for stability -- a dramatically different approach for a white neighborhood.
“We wanted you to have that experience and with knowing people of different cultures, and those people respecting your culture and you respecting their culture,” my dad said.
My mom, however, had another motive for picking Sutherland.
“I also worked as a teacher at my neighborhood school, and I really felt the kids and I needed our own space,” she said. “I didn’t want people coming over saying, ‘Mrs. Moore, Natalie did this, Joey did that, Megan did that.’”
I loved Sutherland. I didn’t know I was a part of a social experiment until I was in college. The teachers treated us equally. We adored the principal. My sixth grade teacher, Ms. Traback, gave me one of the books that changed my life -- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Each classroom and grade had a number of black students; there were enough of us that we didn’t feel like flies in buttermilk. Later, my younger brother and sister, Joey and Megan, joined me.
The only problem I remember at Sutherland happened around fifth or sixth grade. A classmate who heard I’d gone to Disney World said something like, “Oh, you went to Disney World? I didn’t think blacks could afford to go to Disney World.”
My sister later told me none of her white friends would spend the night at our house. I thought I had some who did.
“No. I don’t think so,” my dad told me recently.
“I think your pajama parties were just usually your friends in the neighborhood,” my mom added.
During my junior year at Howard University in 1996, my parents called to tell me about the next big development in my family’s house -- they sold it. When I came home for Thanksgiving, it would be to a new house in the Beverly/Morgan Park area.
I had a flair for the dramatic and was very weepy about them leaving my childhood home, my childhood neighborhood. I never got to say goodbye to the house.
At the time, I selfishly didn’t think about my parents’ financial decision. I felt betrayed and wondered why, as their children were getting older, would they want a bigger house?
“I’m so glad that we got out,” my dad told me recently. “I’m sorry we didn’t leave earlier. I’m sorry that we had to leave to begin with.”
My parents made a good decision, but they also got lucky. They bought the Chatham home in 1974 for $30,000 and sold it almost 20 years later for more than four times that amount. By 2010, Chatham was going through rocky times. U.S. Census Bureau figures show population loss, decreased median income and plummeting home values.
There was also the housing collapse. Black homeowners were set up, by certain lending practices, to take a harder hit than whites. Subprime loans were targeted at black homeowners, and those loans were concentrated in black neighborhoods, like Chatham.
My parents left before the collapse, and the devastation of the housing crash didn’t hit their new neighborhood like it did in Chatham. Their new home -- a four-bedroom, mid-century modern split level -- is located in a housing market with stable home values.
My parents told me their decision to move into an integrated neighborhood -- Beverly is 62 percent white and 34 percent black -- has paid off. Blacks have far less equity in their homes. That changes if you live in an integrated or white neighborhood.
Buying in Bronzeville
I didn’t know these things when it was my turn to buy. I just had this random goal to buy by age 30 because it seemed like the right thing to do, and everyone in my family had bought properties, including both sets of grandparents.
When that time came, at age 32, I mainly thought about what I could afford. My dream neighborhood, the trendy South Loop, was out of my financial reach. Instead, I happily chose a black South Side neighborhood: Bronzeville, where blacks had settled after they arrived from the South as part of the Great Migration.
I bought in May 2008, right before the housing collapse and before all the buzz that Chicago might host the 2016 Summer Olympics partly in Bronzeville. Bronzeville was considered “The Next Big Thing” for black professionals looking for roots. It has grand boulevards, comely greystones and is close to the lake and expressway.
I loved the idea of investing into a historical legacy with the chance to usher in change. I represented a wave of young black homeowners buying into that idealism.
Then reality set in.
Too many empty lots. Not enough economic development. No Olympics. Crime. The housing crash. Retail redlining. The realization that black doesn’t trump green.
I paid $172,000 for my three-bedroom, two-bathroom unit in a red brick three-story walk-up. I remember the first time standing in my own place, admiring the fireplace, stainless steel and the paint colors I picked out.
Because it was a condo, I didn’t see myself staying there forever. I saw the condo as my single-gal pad and had planned to rent it out after moving to something better. I saw the property as a long-term investment.
My friend and real estate agent Esther Williams helped me get the condo -- and also helped me try to sell it. She lives and works in Bronzeville.
Even though Chicago has seen a glut of condos, she said there are unique forces at play in black neighborhoods when it comes to homeownership, like fighting bad appraisals.
“A lot of time, banks are sending in appraisers that are not from the area and they’re just looking at just the numbers and not the dynamics,” Esther said.
I can attest to bad appraisals. In 2013, after the market crash, I refinanced to lower my monthly payment. My condo was assessed at $55,000.
I was floored.
I tried to focus on my lower expenses and not the fact that I was sinking underwater.
Then, in the summer of 2014, my boyfriend and I planned to get married and move into a bigger place to accommodate us and his three daughters.
Moving from the Bronzeville condo wasn’t easy. I applied for a short sale, meaning I would sell for what the condo was worth and not by how much I owed on my mortgage. Esther listed the property at $70,000 -- the price units my size were selling for in the area. While the bank processed the paperwork, I let a buyer move in.
But when Esther put it on the market, a broker appraised the condo at $45,000 -- 20 percent less than the first low appraisal.
The bank rejected the short sale. The potential buyer moved out. She wasn’t allowed to purchase the condo even though she was willing to pay more. The mortgage lender would rather have an empty condo sitting than take the money.
I took such a beating that I paid the lender to walk away from the condo.
In the years after I bought my condo, I began reporting on housing and discovered how things work differently in black neighborhoods. I learned how I was up against extra risk, instability and adversity, and that’s all in addition to the housing collapse.
There are plenty of people happy with their home purchases in Bronzeville, but I’m not the only one who felt haunted. My friend Jessica, who asked me not to use her last name, moved to Bronzeville and also ended up moving out. I sat down with her a while ago, to try to make sense of the mess we found ourselves in with buying in Bronzeville.
Do you think you made a mistake? I asked her. I felt like I committed class suicide, like I’m down a class notch and that I have this albatross around my neck and not able to buy for awhile.
“I think only time will tell where things went wrong,” Jessica said. “But I do feel like it’s a part of the bigger picture of historical issues that Chicago has faced for a long time. I feel like I was buying in there with hope for the future. But what I think happened was dictated by the past and by (an) institutionalized power structure that continues to play out. It’s like fish in a barrel.”
Giving an integrated neighborhood a whirl
When I moved in 2014, it was to integrated Hyde Park on the South Side. I thought, Let me give integration a whirl. We’re renting. That same year my husband and I married in our new living room, and I gained three stepdaughters. Since then, I’ve had a baby girl.
I sometimes think about my parents’ homebuying success and their good luck, and I compare it with my terrible experience. I felt ashamed of it, like I made a mistake, and never told them about it until recently, when I began working on this story. I wanted to know what they thought of me buying a condo in Bronzeville.
“Well, I was concerned about investing in that area of the city, particularly since years ago, that part of the city was always known as being the red-light district,” my dad told me, adding that he was worried I wouldn’t see a return on my investment.
“I remember one evening I saw a prostitute walking down the middle of the street,” my mom added. “I didn’t know who she was at first, but then probably your father pointed out that’s what she was. I figure prostitutes aren’t necessarily going to bother you. They know what their business is and I guess if you stay out of their business, they’ll stay out of your business.”
Well, I bought in a black neighborhood like you did.
“No, no,” my dad said. “Chatham didn’t have that reputation that 48th and Prairie had. It was a bedroom community, Chatham was, with individual homes with some apartment buildings but mostly single-family homes.”
What should I do next?
“Down the road, if you can, find a place that meets the budget and expectations,” my dad said. “If that opportunity comes, you should definitely consider it.”
“Well there’s always close to your father and I,” my mom said.
No, I won’t be moving closer to my parents.
And after looking at my family’s experience, I’m more conflicted about homeownership. Buying my condo didn’t help me climb the ladder or establish a foundation for wealth. I lost money. Honestly, I feel jaded.
It’s true I ran right into the housing collapse, but I also ran right into a system that is stacked against African-Americans.
I haven’t given up on the idea of buying a home or living in a black neighborhood -- like the one where I grew up. I like the idea of putting down roots.
But if I buy a house in a black neighborhood, I know the challenges I’ll be up against, that is, unless the American dream of homeownership becomes more equitable for everyone.
Natalie Y. Moore is WBEZ's South Side reporter and the author of many books. Her most recent, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, was published in 2016 by St. Martin's Press. Parts of that book were adapted for this documentary.