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Black Americans Are Moving to Phoenix in Historic Numbers. Few Are Finding a Better Life.

Phoenix is America’s fastest-growing large city, driven in large part by an influx of new Black residents. But building a sustainable community there is a challenge.

Collette Blakeney says she felt daunted when she first arrived in Phoenix. “I felt stuck in a place where leaders didn’t prioritize making it livable for people who aren’t rich,” she says.

This story was produced in partnership with High Country News

In late October 2012, the 80 mph winds of Hurricane Sandy pelted the tiny suburb of Pennington, New Jersey, where Brian Watson worked. Watson’s job as a fraud analyst for Bank of America Merrill Lynch required him to be on call 24/7 despite the severe weather. And so he worked — even as utility poles buckled under the storm and transformers exploded in its ferocity. 

Parts of Mercer County lost power for an entire week. The disaster caused an estimated $70 billion in damage and prompted Watson’s company to look for a place that was safe from severe coastal weather. “The company discovered that they didn’t have an adequate response to the power going out or natural disasters in general,” Watson told me. Executives at the company chose Phoenix, far from the coast — and chose Watson, who led the New Jersey office during the storm, to establish an additional hub in the sunny Arizona city. 

Watson, 37 at the time, moved to the Phoenix area in January 2014. He was apprehensive about the heat — he’d read about the city’s increasingly hot and deadly summers — and about moving to a city where he’d be one of a relatively small number of Black residents. But his anxiety was tempered by the fact that Collette Blakeney, whom he’d just started dating, would join him and that they’d navigate their new city together. “As long as I have her,” he told me, “I’m good.” 

When Blakeney — “Coco” to her friends and family — first arrived, she felt daunted. The city was hot and sprawling. After living in New York City, she was used to urban bustle, but Phoenix, one of the nation’s five-largest cities, felt different. It lacked community spaces and the public transportation she was used to. “I felt stuck in a place where leaders didn’t prioritize making it livable for people who aren’t rich,” the 38-year-old from South Carolina said.

Collette Blakeney and Brian Watson photographed at South Mountain Park in South Phoenix, Arizona in January by Matt Williams.Credit: Matt Williams
Collette and Brian Watson photographed at South Mountain Park in South Phoenix, Arizona in January.

Watson and Blakeney settled in an apartment in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix, and married in August 2015. After a few years, they bought a home in an affordable, yet rapidly changing neighborhood in South Phoenix. The home is newer and more spacious than places they lived in on the East Coast. Plus, the neighborhood was diverse, and many residents looked like them. 

The Watsons are among the at least 70,000 Black folks who moved into Maricopa County between 2010 and 2020. More than 650,000 people have relocated to the Phoenix area during that time, making Maricopa the country’s fastest-growing county. A disproportionate amount of that growth is driven by new Black residents: Between January 2020 and December 2021, the Black population’s increase outpaced every other major racial group. Maricopa County’s Black population is growing nearly seven times faster than its white population, making it the fastest-growing region for Black people outside the Dallas and Houston areas, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2010 and 2021. 

Those moving to Phoenix are a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Black Americans who have left the coasts and the Midwest in search of better jobs and safer communities. This isn’t the first time that such a significant number have been on the move: Between the early 1900s to the mid-1970s, roughly 6 million Black people left the South and spread across the country in what historians call “The Great Migration.” In recent years, Black America is in the midst of another great migration — one in which many are reversing the previous trend and returning to the South, drawn by the lower cost of living and a larger Black community. But historic numbers are also moving to the West: Las Vegas and Phoenix have the fastest-growing Black populations outside of the Gulf Coast region.

But Black residents in Phoenix face a distinctive set of challenges that impact their ability to build welcoming neighborhoods for their communities. Their experience has been made more difficult by policies that, for more than a century, have encouraged inequities in community investment, favoring predominantly white neighborhoods. And, unlike the previous Great Migration, this trend is rising against an existential threat: climate change. Black Americans are moving for a variety of reasons, but rising temperatures, drought, and erratic weather are already making their new homes less livable. “Everything is changing now, with new residents, growing segregation, the heat. It can be hard to thrive and survive,” said Rashad Thomas, a South Phoenix resident. It’s a reality that both new and longtime Black residents believe they have two ways to address: Either they move again, or else they hunker down and build thriving and climate-resilient neighborhoods, despite all the barriers.

A Struggle To Find Roots 

In August 2022, I visited Phoenix over a five-day period of triple-degree heat. In addition to its precipitous population growth, it’s also getting hotter: Phoenix is the fourth fastest-warming city in the country, averaging more than 110 annual days with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, about a 14-day increase since 1970. By 2060, scientists project the city will experience more than 132 days over that threshold. The scorching afternoons I spent there were punctuated by a cacophony of alerts warning of extreme dust events — known as haboobs — and poor air quality fueled by fire, dust, and industrial pollution. 

Earlier that year, I had come across the work of Phoenix-based poet Rashaad Thomas, who moved to Arizona initially when he joined the military. After his stint with the Air Force, though, he struggled with homelessness, moving from one city to another, never staying anywhere for long. He got on his feet and then met Nancy Portillo, whom he married in 2014. They lived in Scottsdale, a suburb north of Phoenix that is 80% white and just 2% Black.

Rashaad Thomas at Manzanita Park in January.Credit: Matt Williams
Rashaad Thomas has used poetry as an outlet to process the challenges he has faced since moving to South Phoenix. (Matt Williams)

In one of our many conversations, Thomas told me that he had been profiled by police and experienced racism during routine interactions with his neighbors in Scottsdale. According to 2020 data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, nearly 60% of racially motivated hate crimes in Arizona target Black people. Even when he found a home and hard-won stability, the comfort and belonging of community eluded him. Thomas processed this tension through the written word. He began sharing poems and short stories online about living in Arizona as a Black man. His words struck a nerve, making the connections between structural racism, environmental violence, and Black life in the desert, and in 2019 he was named the Best Phoenix-based Poet by Phoenix New Times, a local newspaper. Over the past few years, he’s published an episodic long-form poem titled “Phoenix Don’t Love Them.” In a recent installment, he wrote: “Front yard / nappy weeds. For sale sign, barrettes. Gentrification and environmental racism are horrible hair stylists and colorists.”

In 2015, the Thomases learned they were pregnant. Not wanting to start a family in a place they felt unwanted, they left Scottsdale and moved to South Phoenix, the city’s historically Black neighborhood — where Brian and Collette Watson also ended up. “I wanted my children to feel safe,” Thomas told me, “where they could walk out and know they’re not going to be attacked just because they’re Black.”

Moving to a Black neighborhood helped alleviate some of their fears, but it also created many new ones. Like many of the country’s predominantly minority towns and cities, residents here have struggled owing to decades of disinvestment. And as the state’s population has grown, so has its air pollution. Phoenix’s air quality is now ranked fifth-worst in the country for ozone pollution and in the top 10 for particle pollution. In recent years, the city’s longtime industrial pollution has been made even worse by wildfires: 2020 saw more than 2,000 blazes in the state.

The environmental, social, and economic inequities have taken a toll. Overall, the average life expectancy has plummeted. While every state in the country saw a big drop in life expectancy following the spread of COVID-19, Arizona’s drop was the nation’s fifth-steepest. In 2020, Black Phoenix residents under 65 died at a rate that was 1.5 times higher per capita than white residents and two times higher than Latino residents, according to a Capital B News and High Country News analysis of Arizona Department of Health Services mortality data.

“I moved here to feel safer, to be surrounded by Black people,” Thomas said. He felt that his family faced a choice between police brutality in Scottsdale and air pollution in South Phoenix.

Shortly after moving to the industrialized area, his wife, Nancy, experienced a miscarriage. While it’s impossible to attribute any single case to environmental causes, their home is just a few miles from a Superfund site, active landfills, major polluting highways, and major industrial plants. Studies show that pregnant people are more than 10% more likely to lose pregnancies when exposed to high pollution levels. After the miscarriage, Rashaad Thomas published an editorial in the Arizona Mirror. He argued that Phoenix was responsible for “negligent homicide” for “willfully ignoring the impact of environmental racism” and its health impacts. His editorial was referenced by numerous journalists but Thomas said it was never acknowledged by city officials. 

In July, Thomas summed up the bind to me in a question: “When a community is forced to live on hazardous land, what do you expect?” 

Taking Action

On a Saturday morning last August, 50 Black South Phoenix residents gathered at the South Mountain Community Center for an event organized by a local nonprofit. As a small group of children played in the center’s daycare, the adults huddled over grits, eggs, and sausage. The center was a refuge from the 106-degree heat, but that day it was even more: The aroma of sausage and syrup hung in the air, mingling with the black, red, and green banners that decorated the space to celebrate Black August, an annual celebration of activism by Black political prisoners. 

The event was arranged by Mass Liberation Arizona, an advocacy group focused on decarceration and divestment from the U.S. criminal justice system. In recent years, the group has brought people together to fight the inequities facing the residents of South Phoenix. It sees the issues as connected — the high rates of incarceration in South Phoenix are entwined with the staggering poverty and pollution, the rising heat, and the lack of tree canopy to shade the area’s majority Black population. And it believes the residents who are most impacted are the ones best able to forge a path forward: “The people closest to the problem are the people closest to the solution,” the group’s website reads. Increasingly, Mass Liberation has been organizing to build an equitable and sustainable home for South Phoenix’s Black residents, both the legacy community members and the relative newcomers. 

People at the event called for criminal-record expungement, community-owned grocery stores, housing protections for renters and homeowners, and increased funding for environmental cleanups. At one table — backdropped by a poster that read, “Where are all the Black people?” — unregistered voters were helped through the registration process as other locals signed up to volunteer to take action against the city’s notoriously underfunded and increasingly privatized school district. Others signed a pledge to join an upcoming movement against displacement and housing violence. 

Ongoing construction on central ave and MLK, looking towards South Mountain.Credit: Matt Williams
Ongoing construction can be seen at Central Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the heart of South Phoenix. As the area’s population has ballooned, community investments have been slow to follow. (Matt Williams)

Decades of redlining and racist housing policies have deepened the inequities that Mass Liberation is fighting. Until the 1960s, city policies banned Black residents from living or visiting parts of Phoenix north of Van Buren Street, located just south of downtown. Lack of investment in South Phoenix meant that its homes were less sought after and less expensive, and as a result many Black residents moved there. 

“No matter where we are, Black people will always be forced to live in the worst parts of the city,” said Rashad Shabazz, a professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.

But today, the lack of investment no longer translates to a low cost of living. From 2016 to 2019, Phoenix jumped from being the 91st most expensive city in the U.S. to the 40th, and as of 2022, it has become one of the top 10 most expensive cities for first-time homeowners. Shabazz said the city has become a “stopping point,” a place where Black residents come to flee economic, social, and environmental instability, only to find they still cannot put down roots for the same reasons they left.

This phenomenon also complicates Black residents’ ability to protect themselves from climate change: The precarious nature of daily life makes it challenging for neighborhoods to build the collective response networks that are necessary during times of crisis. This makes Black Americans more vulnerable to natural disasters as they move between climate-impacted communities. 

“Black people are living in a valley where it is getting hotter and toxins have been settling for decades, but the problem isn’t only the air quality,” Shabazz said. “The problem is that the place was never developed for any kind of livability or stability for its Black and brown residents.”

Building a better future, members of the Mass Liberation collective concluded, requires a Phoenix that values its people as much as its real estate prices. “It’s difficult because property values are doing extremely well, but I’ve noticed that Arizona’s not consistent with what they do versus say,” said Afiah Antwi Walsh, a South Phoenix resident who attended the August community event. Walsh moved to the area in the late 2011, initially drawn by its historic community. Now she is concerned about maintaining it. “Whether here, in Harlem or Detroit, we need to protect our Black communities in the face of all the things meant to plague us.”  

A Harsh Environment

As the years ticked by and Brian and Collette Watson settled down in South Phoenix, their lives became interwoven with the local Black activist community. Groups like Mass Liberation, the Arizona Coalition for Change and the local chapters of the Urban League and NAACP — vibrant organizations with memberships in the hundreds — work to address the inequities that Phoenix’s Black residents experience. In 2016, the Watsons, both artists, founded Black River Life Media, a production company that publishes films meant to lift the voices in their community. They produce content for local organizations and some of their work has appeared in film festivals.

“Living in this type of environment really deepened my understanding of how structural oppression shapes our lives,” Collette Watson said. “The forces that shorten our lives as Black people still take the people that you love away, even if you have a few more coins in your pocket. To create the healing environments we deserve, it’s not something any of us can do by ourselves.”

A new housing community sits in front of South Mountain Park in South Phoenix.Credit: Matt Williams
A new housing community sits in front of South Mountain Park in South Phoenix. Since 2015, the average home price in Phoenix has increased by 145%. Across South Phoenix, home prices have jumped 220%. (Matt Williams)

Still, the patterns created by historical segregation may worsen in the coming decades as the extreme heat and pollution worsen. On average, 80% of homes in Phoenix are at risk for extreme heat, but in North Phoenix, where the city’s white population is concentrated, the share is 58%. In South Phoenix, it is 99%

“Our lives are determined by a harsh environment — environmentally and politically,” Collette Watson told me last summer.

The challenges continue to rebuff a generation of Black Americans searching for economic, social and environmental stability. “Black people should not feel forced to stay in a place that does not serve them,” she told me. “Black people have been trying to build something beautiful here, but developers are the ones calling the shots.” 

She still dreams of a Phoenix where she and her neighbors have access to health care and fresh food and don’t face displacement. But she is worried about the future. “It pains me to say it, but we are actively considering long term being somewhere else,” she said. “We worry about the heat, and we worry about water.”