Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Older, Poorer And More Brown: The Burbs Are A-Changin’?

A new Brookings Institute report came out on the suburbs and while the region remains majority white, there is a big shift going on — partly due to the housing foreclosure crisis and the rapid influx of young people moving to the cities their parents once fled.

Historically, from the 1940s to well into the 1990s city life in much of America was marked by “white flight,” of middle class and affluent white people leaving the city to move to the sprawling suburbs. But in this new report it found that there is a shift taking place in the 200s as young white people abandon the suburbs and move to large cities where they have better access to jobs and transportation. (Gentrification anyone?) What they leave behind are their aging parents (Boomers mostly) and a glut of unsold, foreclosed houses — now being gobbled up by minorities who are leaving the cities for more affordable housing in the suburbs. (Again, gentrification. The one of the reasons why some minorities are now leaving the city is that they are being priced out of their old neighborhoods due to gentrification and can’t afford to live there anymore.)

This, of course, this could lead to some serious problems as one of the main reasons why I, like many other young people, left the suburbs was because:

1) You have to own a car to survive there.

2) You almost never live anywhere near where you work, so you have to commute. If you live in St. Louis, the commute is a joke as the Metrolink is a tinkertoy train that goes no where. People in the ‘burbs primarily use it to get to Cardinals games and back without having to park in the city.

3) Services are often far away. It’s usually a 20 minute drive to a hospital, any hospital, from my parents’ home in Florissant.

4) And … let’s face it, while the suburbs spawned me and countless others, it’s a blindingly dull place marked by chain restaurants, strip malls, big box stores and fast food joints that look undistinguishable from any other suburb anywhere in the United States.

When my parents got married back in the early 1970s they lived in St. Louis’ mostly black north city region. Back then, the neighborhood was growing rapidly and a hub of activity, but as soon as my parents started having children they quickly realized they wanted not only a home of their own, but better opportunities as many upwardly mobile African Americans were leaving north city in droves — partially due to the city cutting services and problems with the school system.*

We ended up in unincorporated parts of North St. Louis County, with me spending the first 13 years of my life in what would become a mostly black suburb called Hathaway Manor and then spending my teen years in a snooty pants suburb near my high school of Hazelwood Central.

Both neighborhoods I grew up in were relatively safe. The worst that ever happened in Hathaway when I lived there was some graffiti and the occassional car break-in. In the community where my parents live now, I believe the most common problems are the theivery of garden hoses and the destruction of lamp posts. These are sleepy, dull places people move to simply because nothing really happens there. While there were probably more folks cruising down Landseer Drive in Hathaway, bumpin’ their stereo systems, interrupting our dinner — Snooty Pants Land where the parents live now — is primarily a place where you go to quietly retire while your flowers bloom and Sportscenter drones on peacefully in the background. Still, because of the nature of St. Louis, any neighborhood in North County that “goes black” is declared some sort of no man’s land even though I’ve never seen a war zone with manicured lawns, well-kept houses and children playing in the street.

But this is the sort of place where if you see a group of black teenagers together they must, MUST be a gang. Even if their baggy jeans are designer with rhinestone studded belts and they all have the well-pampered, well-fed look of your typical lush county brownie and yack, excitedly of how they plan to attend Mizzou in the fall.

I’ve been to “rough” neighborhoods and I’m convinced that some black people (and a ton of white people) in St. Louis County are absolutely clueless as to what a truly “bad” neighborhood looks like. Last time I checked Dellwood and Berkeley (the latter where my uncle’s family has lived for decades) were not Blue n’ Crip, drive-by land. Just working class. But, dear Lord, nothing but black people live there so it MUST be bad! If it’s got a ton of churches and a Churches Chicken (world’s greasiest chicken chain) it must be “hood.”

All snark aside, the St. Louis County suburbs were seen as a better option for myself and my sisters as the schools were, for the most part, above and beyond what the city schools had devolved into as their funding dwindled. My mother used to teach in St. Louis City schools and watched as the rent went up on many of her co-workers in the city, forcing them out of their homes and apartments. She was also watched tons of services get cut, everything from school lunches to textbooks. Most of her peers wound up just like her, moving to North County to live and work.

What happened to the inner city in St. Louis played out in similar fashion in other cities across the United States. Services went down, hospitals were closed, rents were raised, crime increased and many black and brown families turned their eyes to the suburbs for better opportunities. But while the decline of the American city was loud, ugly and in many cases, violent, I imagine the suburbs will go much more quietly.

As in, most people will largely just ignore it (unless it happens to their neighborhood) and under-report what happens there in the media.

(NOTE: The above is about half of the article. To read the rest, go to:

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