Subdividing a stereotype: Elders, singles join Cleavers

Something has changed in America's suburbs. It's as if the casts of "Friends" and "Golden Girls" moved next door to June and Ward Cleaver.

Once the bastion of the nuclear family, suburbia has diversified. Non-family households - singles, seniors, and non-traditional households - have edged out the iconic Cleaver family - 29 percent to 27 percent, according to a new study of Census 2000 figures by the Brookings Institution.

And by the looks of things, the trend will continue - challenging planners, politicians, and employers to adjust to the new reality.

Culturally, too, the suburban "ideal" - if it ever existed - seems to be fragmenting.

"Back in the 1950s, when you told someone you lived in the suburbs, you were telling something very special about your life story," says William Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute and coauthor of the Brookings study. Diversity renders it almost meaningless today.

"Maybe the term 'suburb' will disappear," he adds.

The tipping point, as it turns out, occurred during the 1990s. Several demographic factors have pushed the change. For example, the rise in the divorce rate since the 1960s has created far more single-parent households. Households with children under 18 make up the same share of suburban households as they did in 1990. But now nearly a quarter of them are not headed by a married couple, according to the study, up from less than one in five a decade ago.

Another factor: Young singles fresh out of college are moving to suburbs because housing in the cities costs too much.

From dorm to subdivision

"You are getting lots of young people," says Kenneth T. Jackson, author of "Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States" and a history professor at Columbia University in New York. "They're moving there not because they prefer Hoboken to Manhattan. But they can afford it."

Meanwhile, retiring baby boomers - the first truly suburban generation, according to Dr. Frey - are staying put after wrapping up their careers. Such changes are most noticeable in the suburbs of the slow-growing cities in the Midwest and Northeast: places like St. Louis and Providence, R.I.

The shift can be seen tucked in the neat grid of single family homes in Warwick, R.I., just south of Providence. Here, the Pilgrim Senior Center - a pink and turquoise echo of Sun Belt retirement life - bustles with activity alongside the Pilgrim High School. While school enrollment has remained static for a decade, the senior center's enrollment is booming.

"It's pretty stunning," says Carol Panos, supervisor of health and social services at the center. In the late 1980s, she says, it took only four employees to run the center; now 27 workers operate this and a second new facility, and the program's five buses criss-cross town bringing clients to get cheap meals and social services, and attend support groups like one themed "Learning to Live Alone."

For Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, the changing population means more demand for the kinds of transportation, meal services, and programming that the Pilgrim Senior Citizen offers. Though the past three bond issues have passed easily, the static school-age population suggests it might one day be difficult to enact new local education taxes.

Of course, many suburbs continue to attract young families with children, especially in fast-growing areas of the Southeast and West. Some suburbs continue to post strong growth even here in St. Louis, which lost a bigger share of its population than any other major city in the US during the 1990s. But whatever homogeneity suburbia once had has disappeared in the city's Missouri suburbs. For example: the share of households with nuclear families ranges from 4 percent in tiny Kinloch, close in to St. Louis, to 47 percent in recently-incorporated Wildwood, more than 25 miles away. And the overall trends look clear. During the 1990s, 83 of the 95 Missouri communitiessaw their share of married couples with children decrease.

Sprawling up, not out

Even that mainstay of suburbia - the detached single-family home - faces rising competition from condominiums and apartment buildings as inner-ring suburbs fill in and developers begin to build up instead of out. The Census Bureau already counts such suburbs as part of the urban core, but in the popular mind - as well as the Brookings study - they remain suburbs.

"Maybe we should start thinking of a new term for the inner suburb," says Lee Bouvier, a demographer at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. "It's really the outer city."

The changing suburbs now offer similar opportunities as cities, such as transportation, affordable housing, and health care.

"There's a real potential for coalition-building between the cities and the suburbs," says Amy Liu, deputy director of Brookings' Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. On the other hand, Frey foresees a coming clash of interests that will prove more difficult to resolve in suburbs than in the cities. That's because suburbs have few government institutions to mediate those interests, he says. School districts cut across community borders. County boards may not have the jurisdiction to deal with the diverging interests of increasingly varied suburbs.

Also, he adds, "the politics of suburbs is becoming much more complicated." Where once Democrats concentrated on cities while Republicans wooed the suburbs, increasingly both parties will comb suburbia looking for unexpected pockets of votes.

• Seth Stern contributed to this report from Warwick, R.I.

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