America's melting pot spreads to the 'burbs

Upward mobility wins new ground for diversity

At the close of the 1990s, shifting immigration patterns and the rise of the black middle class have made suburbs the new crucible for issues of diversity and race in America.

For decades after the days of Ellis Island and Jim Crow, immigrants and African-Americans set their roots among the cracked pavement and steel shadows of the inner city while whites increasingly headed out of town.

Today, however, that model is changing as the energizer economy provides many African-Americans and Latinos with the money to move out of poor neighborhoods. In addition, a new kind of well-educated immigrant is arriving in 747s instead of cargo holds, bringing a level of wealth unseen in previous first-generation Americans.

From New York City to Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley, these emerging demographic realities are challenging long-held stereotypes about suburbs - no longer just the province of Gap-going white kids and boomer parents. The transformation - most apparent in suburbs closest to big cities - has even led experts to coin the term "midopolis" to describe the part suburban, part urban character of these communities.

Yet these enclaves of diversity are having to sort through problems as well, as new and old suburbanites clash over traditionally urban issues such as bilingual education, public transportation, and crime.

Already, towns here such as Carson, Calif. - the most diverse city in the US - are representative of how suburbs are California's new melting pots. In the next decade, researchers say, much of America will follow.

"What we're seeing in California is a harbinger of what we'll be seeing more broadly as immigration spreads out across the country," says William Clark, a demographer at the University of California at Los Angeles.

To some degree, this trend is already shaping other parts of the country as well - especially immigration centers including Houston, Miami, and San Francisco. Statistics from the US Census Bureau show that 51 percent of Asians live in the suburbs, along with 43 percent of Latinos and 32 percent of African-Americans.

In New York City, the borough of Queens - far from the madding crowd of Manhattan - has become the focus for African-Americans and immigrants. Almost half of the businesses there are owned by minorities.

Washington, meanwhile, has seen African-Americans flee the District of Columbia in huge numbers, moving to more-affluent surrounding counties. Thirty years ago, 75 percent of the area's African-Americans lived in the city, now less than 45 percent do. By contrast, only about 8 percent of the area's blacks lived in Virginia in the late 1960s. Today, more than 40 percent live in Virginia's Prince George County alone.

The reason is clear: When people make enough money to buy a home that's farther away from urban blight, they move - no matter if they are black, Korean, or any other ethnicity.

"It's a factor of how much they can pay for housing, because people who can afford to not live by poor people won't live by poor people," says James Allen, a demographer at California State University at Northridge. With immigrants, "a lot are coming in as middle-class citizens, and they are bypassing the inner city and the old model for how immigrants came to this country."

In many cases, these and other immigrants have chosen to move to suburbs closest to the city, not only for economic reasons - these cities are often more affordable - but also to be near ethnic and family networks that have been built up over years.

"Immigrants, like everyone else, want to move to nicer places, but many are anchored to an ethnic community," says Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy in Malibu, Calif.

For that reason, Mr. Kotkin points to the emergence of a new midopolis - suburban cities that will become increasingly diverse, caught between the fashionability of the outer suburbs and the grittiness of the inner city.

Carson is one such place.

Little more than a freeway away from Compton and some of the tougher parts of southern Los Angeles, Carson is a community of well-tended lawns, unlocked cars, and remarkable ethnic variety. At the am/pm convenience store on Avalon Boulevard, the clerks are Middle Eastern, the woman at Pump 10 is Latina, the smartly dressed young professional with shades and slicked-back hair is black, and the two bearded men in the drink aisle are white.

Such scenes aren't necessarily uncommon across Los Angeles. But even in a place where Cubans, Iranians, and Armenians are neighbors, Carson is perhaps the most extreme example of diversity.

Just down Avalon Boulevard at city hall, the mayor is Filipino, the city manager is African-American, and everyone else is just about everything in between - Samoan, Latino, American-Indian. Throughout Carson, 27 percent of the work force is white, 27 percent is African-American, 24 percent is Latino, and 22 percent is Asian. One census measure of diversity - ranked on a scale of 0 to 1, with one being complete desegregation - rates Carson at .876, the top number in the United States.

It hasn't always been that way.

"When I first came here 27 years ago, it was almost all black and white," says Kenny McKay, public safety services manager of the city and an African-American. "But as I progressed [in] school my classmates started changing."

Among residents here, there has been a concerted effort to deal with this emerging diversity in a positive way. It is mentioned in virtually every brochure the city hands out. Carson's Museum of Cultural Diversity stands a few blocks farther down Avalon. And the city Human Relations Commission frequently holds "unity rallies" to "promote understanding among cultures," says Olivia Verrett, commission chairwoman.

Yet other cities have had problems. Several years ago, the white mayor of mostly Chinese Monterey Park vented concerns about immigrants, saying they had changed the town so much that it no longer looked "American."

More broadly, suburbs regionwide are having to reconcile the desires of newcomers with the wishes of those who have lived there before. "Young new immigrants want schools, while aging whites and African-Americans want senior services," Mr. White says.

Indeed, the issue of education is potentially divisive even to suburbia's younger white parents. "There are large numbers of kids whose primary language isn't English," Kotkin says. "Do you want your kid going to a school where huge amounts of resources are going toward [bilingual education] and not toward moving your kid along?"

In the end, say Kotkin and others, the result might be a redefining of what suburbia is. During the past 30 years, the San Fernando Valley has gone from a place that is 95 percent white to one that is 41 percent Hispanic and 9 percent Asian. What was once a symbol of the mall-centric, moon-white suburb has changed, perhaps appropriately, to the symbol of the multiethnic suburb of the next century.

"The nature of suburbs have changed," Kotkin says. "The key urban issue today is not what we do with the inner city but what we do with the inner suburb."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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