BELLEVILLE • John Carpenter has been a co-owner of the Main Street Market in Belleville's west end for 40 years.
The market has long been considered a higher end grocery store for the city's Signal Hill enclave. But Carpenter says demographic shifts have changed his business.
"There's no doubt about it," he said. "There's white flight."
Census figures released Wednesday confirm that.
Belleville saw its population jump by 3,068, to 44,478, due to a sharp increase in African-Americans. While the black population increased by 6,421, the number of whites decreased by 2,725.
The city's black population now stands at 25 percent, compared to 16 percent a decade ago.
The Census Bureau tracks where people live, not where they moved from. But the census does offer clues about Belleville's growth and influx of blacks.
Both trends likely can be attributed, at least in part, to a loss of population in Belleville's neighboring city, East St. Louis.
The predominantly black community lost 14 percent of its population since 2000, or just more than 4,500 people.
"We recognize we are much more diverse," said Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert. "But that can be a good thing." He said the focus should be more on growth than the race of those who are fueling it.
The shift in demographics, while most dramatic in Belleville, is consistent throughout the Metro East.
The three largest counties — St. Clair, Madison and Monroe — owe most of their growth to increases in blacks and Hispanics. The three counties combined gained nearly 30,000 people. Of those, less than one-third were white.
Carpenter said the changes have altered his customer base and expectations. He said his new customers are lower-income, though the census data released Wednesday do not include income data.
"Our clientele has changed somewhat, so we've had to change some of the products we sell," Carpenter said. "I never used to carry generic brands, but we've started putting some on our shelves and they are selling."
For example, Carpenter said he added a generic brand of Oreo cookies.
"They're cheaper, and people are buying them," Carpenter said.
About 15 miles north, in the unincorporated area of State Park Place near Collinsville, a different transition is under way.
The census tract including State Park Place saw its population rise by 5 percent — all due to Hispanics moving in. The white population of 2,422 stayed the same. Blacks decreased by 123 to 1,240. But Hispanics increased by 578 to 760 — a jump of 318 percent. Hispanics now make up 18 percent of the tract's population.
Some residents say the growth is owed in part to a desire to live within the Collinsville School District.
Martha Barrio, who lives in State Park Place with her husband and works in Granite City for a company that produces Chinese foods, said she likes where she lives but plans to return to Mexico to be with her two young children.
Hispanic enrollment has spiked in the Collinsville School District since 2005 to nearly 15 percent, Superintendent Dennis Craft said. Most of the Hispanic students are doing well in school and come from families who value education, he said.
"It has just been a very good transition," he said. "We've been fortunate enough to have a wonderful bilingual staff."
Officials in the region say they believe more African-Americans than whites had moved across the Mississippi River from St. Louis city and county. Census figures expected to be released this week for Missouri counties could offer hints as to whether that is, in fact, happening.
What is clear from the Illinois census data is that the region has experienced a shift of white populations within the Metro East.
Their numbers decreased dramatically in places below the bluffs, in and near Alton, and around the east side of Belleville. And they congregated around Fairview Heights, Swansea and O'Fallon.
Blacks had their own eastward progression, away from East St. Louis and into some neighborhoods — such as Dupo — that were once white enclaves.
About the only place that saw a major influx of white residents was Monroe County, which added 5,008 whites, more than its larger neighbors St. Clair and Madison counties, which gained 4,438 whites combined.
O'Fallon — one of the area's fastest-growing cities — gained whites and blacks. Its white population grew 21 percent, to 21,872; its black population grew 68 percent, to 4,404.
The Belleville elementary school district has seen its white population go from 70 percent in 2000 to 55 percent last year. Blacks, meanwhile increased to 33 percent, from 27 percent. Superintendent Matt Klosterman said diversity is a natural progression in the Metro East. He said the way school districts track race changed in 2005, when parents could identify children as multiracial. At that time, 1.7 percent marked that category. In 2010, it increased to 7.6 percent.
"We're not naive enough to say we don't see color with kids," Klosterman said. "But we try not to look at that. We look at their willingness and ability to learn and what their needs are. We try to celebrate difference as much as possible."
A look at Metro East census tracts does show diversity.
In the 47 census tracts that gained at least 100 black residents, the white population declined in 30 of them. And in the 44 census tracts that gained at least 100 white residents, the black population declined in just three of them.
City and school leaders are consistent in saying they embrace the changes that come with having more minorities in their communities.
And Carpenter, the Belleville market owner, says the changes are working for him, although stocking the shelves is a balancing act. The members of St. Clair Country Club, which is located nearby, remain part of his customer base. But the wealthy are no longer Carpenter's sole clientele, he said.
"We're just a more diverse neighborhood now, so you have to respond to the changes or go out of business," Carpenter said.
Terry Hillig of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.