In Southwest, more whites find big-city life appealing

Ray and Libby Cook had the quintessential suburban life: two kids, a two-car garage, a manicured lawn. But the Cooks, who grew up in Houston, found themselves lured more and more by the lights of the big city- and the siren sounds of its opera and symphony.

So, when their daughter graduated from college and their son got married, the couple chucked their "dream home" for life in a downtown loft.

Moving back to the city, Mrs. Cook says, "just felt like home to us. Ray and I like being in the middle of the activity. We just felt like out there was really out there."

The Cooks typify an unusual trend in the American Southwest. While whites elsewhere continue to flee to the suburbs, the Southwest is experiencing a kind of reverse "white flight," as Anglos join the ever-growing numbers of African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics that have turned the region into one of the fastest-growing in the US.

In fact, of America's 10 largest cities, the only ones whose Anglo populations rose were Southwest stalwarts Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and San Antonio, according to newly released Census data.

Some of that is attributed to urban revitalization efforts, which are finally kicking in in these younger cities. And part of the reason for the unusual growth pattern is that Sun Belt cities are growing, period - both in population and geography. Another reason for the increase in white urbanites is simple city hegemony: Many urban areas are gobbling up more white residents as they annex unincorporated land.

For example, Houston, at roughly 620 square miles, is often described as the blob that ate east Texas. Within its city limits, you could fit the cities of Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. And in Phoenix, which continues to expand by annexing huge tracts of land, "we now have suburbs within the city limits," jokes Mark Hughes, director of public information with the city.

These cities are gigantic because there are no geographical boundaries to hem them in. The flat, barren terrain of the Southwest makes it easier to grow out than to grow up.

"You could be seeing the same exodus of whites from the old city centers but you wouldn't pick it up because of the growth on the outskirts," says Tom Rex, research manager at the Center for Business Research at Arizona State University in Tempe.

In addition, the cities of the Southwest never had the dense downtowns that New York and Chicago had. Thus, they didn't experience an emptying out of the center the way many of the eastern cities did, says Mr. Rex. They simply had no population to move.

In Houston, for example, a quarter of the land within the inner loop still sits empty.

Because their downtowns were never fully developed to begin with, the revitalization trend - which tends to draw more Anglos back - arrived much later here. Most cities were completing their downtown redevelopment projects by the 1990 census, while projects in cities such as Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix are just now gaining real momentum.

Minnette Boesel saw it happen in Houston. She moved to the city almost 20 years ago and today is one of the leaders in downtown real estate - though it took a lot of patience. She didn't begin selling newly renovated lofts until 1998 - the first time they'd been sold in Houston's central business district since the late 1960s.

The majority of her customers are white, Ms. Boesel says. Most are single or married without children. A growing number are empty nesters.

"These are the people who've had the house, the yard, the commute," she says. "And now their kids are grown and they want a whole new look. So they say, 'Let's do this. Let's have some fun.' "

Indeed, as Southwestern cities grow farther out, longer commutes, traffic jams, and air pollution are wearing on many people.

In addition, the price of suburban life continues to rise while inner-city crime rates are falling, making a move back to the city ever more appealing.

While downtowns are beckoning Southwesterners for the first time in decades, get used to seeing whiter downtowns all across America, says Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston. The majority of baby boomers are Anglo and many will be moving back into the cities to be closer to theaters, sporting venues, and museums. That means gentrification will continue in traditionally poor inner-city neighborhoods.

"So the greater danger for cities like Houston is that they will become very rich and very poor the way New York has," says Dr. Klineberg. But it's important to keep in mind that "white flight" continues throughout much of the United States, says Klineberg. "So we don't want to exaggerate too much the reverse pattern."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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