For Jennifer and Jason Parks, the serene block of tidy bungalows and three-flats in the heart of South Shore was the perfect place to buy their first house in 2013.
Jennifer Parks, a nurse and homemaker, taught their daughters how to ride bikes in a park down the street. She was delighted when a friendly neighbor shared vegetables from her garden. And she and her husband, an investment banker, took pride in knowing that former first lady Michelle Obama grew up on the very same block.
The idyllic atmosphere was shattered in late 2014, when a 20-year-old man was shot dead on that block walking his brother to school.
"That hit too close to home for my husband," Jennifer Parks said. The couple sold their rehabbed, two-story brick bungalow and moved to a cramped apartment in a Bronzeville high-rise while having a new home built in Northwest Indiana.
"If I was holding on to Chicago and something happened to one of our babies," she said, "it would crush me."
The Parks' exit and growing instability around their block go to the core of what is crushing South Shore and other once-stable neighborhoods on the city's South and West Sides — an exodus of middle-class African-American families seeking safe neighborhoods and job opportunities.
This population loss — 181,000 black residents between 2000 and 2010 — is tearing at the financial underpinnings and the social fabric of the entire city, experts say.
"If a neighborhood like South Shore can't fly ... something is terribly amiss" said Beryl Satter, a history professor at Rutgers University-Newark. "It's on the lake, it has great transportation, beautiful housing stock, a long history as a middle- and upper-class neighborhood. ... It should be like Evanston."
Instead, it is foundering, making headlines for seven murders in a half-day last month.
This was a stunning development for a once-vibrant neighborhood at the southern edge of historic Jackson Park, where the Obama presidential library and museum are to be built. Like residents in Woodlawn, to the west of the park, South Shore is hoping the $500 million-plus project will spark economic growth without displacing longtime residents.
Household incomes have fallen steeply at the same time the region has lost manufacturing and government service jobs. The aggressive peddling of subprime mortgages led to stunning foreclosure rates during the recession and housing market collapse. Low-income renters with subsidy vouchers have flooded the neighborhood, seeking better living conditions.
And the neighborhood lost some of its most vital businesses — a nationally recognized community development bank, a Dominick's grocery store and an Ace Hardware — leaving a hollowed-out commercial center at 71st and Jeffrey.
The Great Recession was a crushing blow for South Shore and other once-stable African-American communities, one expert said.
"It was almost like somebody dropping a bomb on communities that were already vulnerable," said Alden Loury, director of research and evaluation at the Metropolitan Planning Council, a regional planning organization. "When we talk about the exodus from these communities, some of that was because there were just fewer places for people to live."
The city's role
Some urban strategists, planners and community leaders fault the city for its response to the decline in South Shore and other African-American middle-class enclaves, saying it has fallen short in vision, planning and resources.
As industry has fled the city over the past 30 years, the city's economic development efforts have focused heavily on wooing out-of-town or suburban employers to relocate to Chicago, often to the downtown. McDonald's, for instance, plans to move its headquarters from west suburban Oak Brook to Chicago's hot Near West Side area, saying that a central city location will help attract and retain young, highly educated workers.
The emphasis on downtown has not brought job gains to South Shore, though.
In fact, no community across the city lost as many downtown jobs as South Shore between 2010 and 2014, an analysis of the most recent federal data available by the Metropolitan Planning Council shows. During that time, the number of South Shore residents working in the Loop fell by about 12 percent, while the number of jobs in the Loop overall increased by nearly 6 percent, the data show.
"The city has not figured out a way to attract young, black families to move into the city," said L. Anton Seals Jr., a South Shore activist and community outreach official at DePaul University. "There has not been a real effort to attract families who've gone to college or have blue-collar jobs to make this their home. And a big part of that is around public safety, around crime."
South Shore ranks sixth among the city's 77 community areas for incidents where one or more people were killed over the past decade, an analysis of Chicago Police Department data shows.
Relatively stable blocks, like the one where Michelle Obama grew up and where her mother, Marian Robinson, still owns a home, are just short distances from notorious pockets like "Terror Town." That east-side tract, just over a half-mile from Obama's childhood home, has a long history of gang executions and daytime shootings that have injured bystanders.
Ald. Leslie Hairston, whose 5th Ward includes significant portions of South Shore, sees a lack of commitment at City Hall and within the business world. "There has been no investment in the community," she said, "no investment in economic development, no jobs — there has been a lack of vision by the city's leadership."
Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp, hired last spring by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to coordinate neighborhood redevelopment efforts, rejects that characterization but acknowledges the challenges.
"We clearly have work to do — we have lost middle-class families in the African-American community; there's no question about that," said Zopp, former head of the Chicago Urban League. "But the mayor and I are passionate about rebuilding our neighborhoods.
"If we don't do that," she said, "the city will never be the city that fully lives up to its potential."
She cited redevelopment efforts in Pullman and Woodlawn as examples of coordinated public-private investments leading to improvements in housing, retail, employment and transit. Pullman has landed a Wal-Mart, a soap factory and a Whole Foods distribution center. Woodlawn is home to upgraded affordable housing, with a Jewel-Osco, a renovated CTA station and a nearby mixed-use project in the pipeline.
"It's fair to say we're looking to do in South Shore what we've done in other communities," Zopp said, adding that grant programs have been put in place to seed commercial redevelopment in South Shore and other neighborhoods. Already, public investment has assisted with such South Shore projects as upgrades to the South Shore Cultural Center and an affordable housing complex, and the development of a Starbuck's, the mayor's office said.
A top priority now is landing a grocer to replace the closed Dominick's, she said. Other pivotal sites include the shuttered community bank property, which has been eyed as a location for a movie theater and dining complex, and the historic Avalon Regal Theater, which is under renovation. The 2,250-seat entertainment palace, a Moorish-Revival design, has been mostly unused since 2010. Its owner hopes to reopen in the fall.
Longtime South Shore residents are quick to point out that all is not bleak — that many residents live comfortable lives there, enjoying the stately architecture of the affluent Jackson Park Highlands enclave, the wide sweep of Rainbow Beach and its stunning view of the downtown skyline and the vintage elegance of the South Shore Cultural Center, a park district facility that once was a restricted country club. Home prices are relative bargains and public transit is strong.
And they point to signs of revival, like the opening of the Stony Island Arts Bank, a gallery, media archive, library and community center developed in a former bank building by artist Theaster Gates Jr.
"South Shore has a wealth of well-to-do, upwardly mobile, educated black people who do not engage in crime, and that never gets talked about," said Val Free, executive director of the Planning Coalition, a community group that coordinates block-club activity. "It's hurting us economically to allow the media to come in and only talk about the negative things that are happening."
The 7400 block of South Euclid, where Michelle Obama played softball and jumped Double Dutch as a child, remains a symbol of stability in a declining neighborhood, though one with some cracks in its foundation.
While neighbors are shaken by the recent shootings in South Shore, violence is rare on the block, an analysis of Chicago Police Department data shows.
So far this year, just two crimes have been reported on the block—one involved a driving infraction and the other a home invasion, police data show.
Many long-timers remain comfortable, among them Doris Terry, who bought her bungalow 41 years ago. Together with her husband, she raised three children there.
A retired hospital technician, Terry was a den mother of sorts when her children were younger, hosting cookouts in the backyard — roasting hot dogs and marshmallows for neighborhood kids who liked to play on her swing set. "They voted me best mom on the block," she said.
But her grown children all moved out of state — not unusual for a neighborhood that for years has provided a pathway for upward mobility.
These days, Terry has noticed signs that growing swaths of South Shore are changing for the worse. "The neighborhood is not as middle class as it used to be," she said.
Families in South Shore have long earned less than the citywide average, but the gap has widened dramatically. Last year, the census bureau reported that the median household income in the South Side community was just more than half the $48,000 citywide average.
The percentage of South Shore residents spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs shot up more than 40 percent between 2000 and 2010 — reflecting financial strain on increasing numbers of households, according to data compiled by the Chicago Rehab Network.
And the area's population has plunged, from 80,000 in 1970 to less than 50,000 in recent years.
"This is what it looks like when the middle class ages out, hollows out and is not replaced," said Carlo Rotella, a Boston College professor who is writing a book on South Shore. "More than in the past, this is a neighborhood of haves and have-nots living very near each other."
A changing profile
Terry and others in South Shore grumble that it didn't help that thousands of low-income renters flocked to their community after the Chicago Housing Authority demolished thousands of public housing units and replaced them with rental vouchers.
"Most of the families ended up in high-poverty, racially segregated parts of the city," said Kate Walz, director of housing justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. "South Shore was a spot where a lot of families ended up."
In South Shore, apartments are large, and the neighborhood's history of stability appealed to families.
South Shore ranked second across the city for the number of buildings that were rented out to subsidized renters at some point between 2014 and early April of 2017, an analysis of Chicago Housing Authority data shows. There were more properties filled with subsidized renters than in all 20 of the city's majority-white community areas combined over that same time, the Tribune found.
On the 7400 block of Euclid, there are a handful of subsidized renters. Five apartments and one house on the block were rented out to voucher-holders at some point since 2014, records show.
But for all of the complaints about the growing number of low-income renters, neighbors say that most have folded seamlessly into this particular block.
There is one house, though, that has a reputation for being unkempt, a presence that can stir unease about decline.
The wood frame house, which was occupied by one of the last white families on the block when the Terrys moved in, was snapped up by an investor after the owner faced foreclosure in 2007. The front windows of the house were boarded up for a while, an unusual sight for the block that was largely immune from the housing crisis that left thousands of houses across the city vacant and increasingly blighted.
The investor began renting the house out to a family whose rent was subsidized by the federal rental assistance program. Even as the owner collected more than $140,000 in related rents between 2010 and the start of this year, there were signs that the property was falling into disrepair. In 2015, the city decided to fine the limited liability corporation that owns the home because trash was piling up in the yard.
Such a house would have been hard to imagine 60 years ago, when South Shore was thriving. Just nine miles south of the Loop, it boasted some of the South Side's most abundant shopping options in the form of supermarkets, restaurants, mom-and-pop stores and even department stores, a far cry from the empty storefronts that dot its corridors now.
Residents could enjoy Saturday movie matinees at the local Jeffrey movie theater, and playwright David Mamet once wrote of sipping chocolate phosphates at the local Rosenblum's drugstore as a boy.
But like many South Side neighborhoods of the era, South Shore underwent a swift, panic-driven racial transition. Discriminatory lending practices undermined the neighborhood's economic vitality, said Satter, author of "Family Properties: Race, Real Estate and the Exploitation of Black Urban America."
Though South Shore Bank, later renamed ShoreBank, embarked on extensive revitalization efforts, the bank failed in 2010 in the aftermath of the housing crisis — a loss described as "heart-rending" by former FDIC chairwoman Sheila Bair.
Of all the pressures on the neighborhood, though, perhaps nothing added more strain than the collapse of the housing market from 2007 to 2009. In the decade since then, 3,950 South Shore residential properties have fallen into foreclosure, according to an analysis by the Chicago-based Woodstock Institute.
Some of those were multifamily, which ratchets up the number of housing units affected. South Shore saw nearly one in five apartment units affected by foreclosures between 2009 and 2013, the second hardest-hit neighborhood in the city after Austin, according to the Lawyers' Committee for Better Housing.
"Foreclosures put units at risk for being vacated during or after foreclosure," said Mark Swartz, legal director of the committee. "And there's nobody who has any interest in keeping properties up during foreclosure."
A block's resiliency is tested
Residents on the 7400 block of South Euclid have wrestled with financial pressures, too. Nearly a quarter of the properties fell into foreclosure at some point over the past 13 years, but with the same resiliency of the community's best blocks, most were able to recover.
And there are signs of hope, neighbors say. Two families recently moved in on either side of Terry. A young couple bought one of the bungalows, and a family with three children bought the other.
Nonetheless, the factors that drove out the Parks family remain: loitering in the neighborhood center, the lack of robust retail and, most important, the threat of violent crime.
Now, Jason Parks is looking forward to his new home in St. John, Ind., where the family will move by the end of summer. He will get big front and rear yards and good schools for his daughters, as well as a home office and a "man cave."
Still, leaving South Shore was bittersweet for his wife, Jennifer.
"It was a very nice community," she said. "I loved Ms. Terry. She used to give me vegetables from her garden. ... But God has bigger and better for us."