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Equity & Diversity

Remodeling Suburbia

By Alan Richard — October 18, 2000 6 min read
Changing Face

Sure as the sun rises on every shopping mall and soccer field, America’s suburbs will continue to grow and evolve, just as they have since someone paved the first cul de sac.

Where the suburbs are fast-expanding and new, fight as they may, communities may one day encounter the same shifts as their older suburban cousins: shuttered businesses, neighborhoods of increasing poverty, and new challenges for their schools.

Remodeling Suburbia

Remodeling Suburbia
Paying for Prosperity
Beyond Black and White
About This Series

Older suburbs—already common victims of postsuburban blight—will continue to inherit the same qualities and hurdles as the cities they were built to outshine. They will become even more ethnically diverse than they are now, experts say, and some may empty of school-age children. Some may see revival and reinvestment.

If history teaches today’s suburban school leaders anything, it’s to expect vast change in their communities, no matter how bright or cloudy their current situations may be.

One trend seems certain: The homogeneity once associated with the suburbs will become increasingly a relic of the past, spurred by a new diversity of wealth among various racial, ethnic, and age groups.

And though the word “suburban” has carried with it the idea of a close relationship with a central city, Americans show signs of fanning out into new areas and ways of living not dependent on geographic ties, says the journalist and researcher Joel Garreau, who wrote the 1991 book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. Advances in technology, for example, are making it possible to shop, live, and learn in new ways.

“I’m anticipating the biggest revolution in how and where we live since the arrival of the automobile,” Garreau says.

The suburbs of metropolitan Atlanta provide a snapshot of issues that experts say are likely to confront suburban school leaders in the years to come. Districts in Georgia are for the most part organized along county lines, giving administrators there a broader picture of demographic change.

Atlanta’s suburban boom has been comparatively recent and rapid—the population of the metropolitan area grew 85 percent between 1970 and 1990. At the same time, developed land area increased 161 percent, creating vast new suburban areas and leaving older ones behind.

For school leaders in Fayette County—where only a few thousand people lived 30 years ago in small towns amid thick woods and farmland—the challenge is keeping up with the influx of families drawn by the schools’ top-notch reputation.

In DeKalb County, an older suburb on Atlanta’s east side that lost thousands of white students when busing for racial integration began, the story is considerably different. The population of foreign-born residents in the majority-black county has soared, presenting administrators with new challenges. In the remaining rural areas, meanwhile, expensive houses are sprouting as the South’s black middle class grows.

The stories that follow take a closer look at these two districts.

Decline and Sprawl

Part of the growth of suburbs, to be sure, is fueled by the desire of many Americans to live near people who look the same as they do.

“We spend an awful lot of time and money moving away from each other,” says Myron Orfield, a critic of suburban sprawl and the director of the Minneapolis-based Metropolitan Area Research Corp., a nonprofit organization that studies population shifts and how they affect services such as schools.

Whether race is the most important factor in people’s choice of neighborhoods or not, their spreading out shows no sign of slowing, Orfield says. He argues that such sprawl—which is increasingly becoming a national, and not just local, political issue—is to blame for the decline of American cities.

When minority groups approach a majority of a school district’s or county’s population, Orfield says, property values tend to drop and test scores decline.

Some municipalities in DeKalb County typify that pattern. People who could afford to leave did so. Those who couldn’t stayed behind and were joined by poorer families, creating rapid economic decline.

Once thought of as bland, suburbia is becoming more and more racially, ethnically, and financially diverse.

“It’s a very sad story,” Orfield says of such older suburban communities. “Houses go down in value, and as that happens ... they’re back into the same situation as they were before. The people who moved into this community have to move again. There’s no sign that it’s changing.”

Not everyone who studies demographic changes agrees with Orfield’s pessimistic assessment. Garreau, a reporter for The Washington Post, says it’s also important to examine where African-Americans, in particular, are moving, and how all sorts of people are choosing to live.

In the newest suburbs, he says, change may come in strange and unexpected ways. The population may begin to move out to more remote or smaller metropolitan areas, since many people will be able to work at home by computer, or commute to suburban offices only when they must.

Already, Americans have undergone profound changes in work and shopping patterns, Garreau points out, as they first moved their homes, and then their shops, to the suburbs. Now, an increasing numbers of jobs are located far from city centers, most often in the 183 places he calls “edge cities"—economic and social centers that have sprung up and flowered in the suburbs.

“Most of the explosive growth in new home construction is not in the traditional suburbs,” Garreau says. People are moving to “the old country of the California Sierras, or the Big Sky country of Montana, or the Piedmont of North Carolina.”

This fanning out also is spreading racial and ethnic minorities more evenly, Garreau argues. Rising income among African-American families and other minority groups will allow them access to the suburbs as never before, blending a school-age population that in many areas might have been almost entirely white.

“Two-thirds of the black population in America are not poor,” Garreau emphasizes. “Whoever the hell thinks the suburbs are still white enclaves has not been to the mall lately.”

‘Leapfrogging’ Professionals

What the future holds for the typical older suburb and its school system is up for debate.

“The level of racial and social segregation that’s happening in the school system is going to put it at a disadvantage in terms of competition,” Orfield warns.

But suburban areas also could forge entirely new identities, Garreau says. Just as central cities have again become cultural and entertainment stops for many suburbanites, older suburbs could see new uses for down-at-the-heel shopping centers and other commercial and public buildings.

International populations will continue to increase, demographers say, and it’s a mistake to assume all of the newcomers will be poor and undereducated.

Harold L. Hodgkinson, the director of the center for demographic policy at the Institute for Educational Leadership, based in Washington, speaks of a “leapfrogging” of social classes and neighborhoods by some foreign-born professionals. Families’ first entry to American society may be in middle- or upper-class neighborhoods, he says.

Certainly some immigrants, though, will be among the poorest of the poor, presenting schools systems in older suburban areas with more challenges than ever—without the tax base to support additional resources for students who need the most help.

Experts also disagree about how far the sprawl of development will reach and whether it will taper off in the foreseeable future.

“We keep on trying to repeat the past in a place that’s as dynamic as the American suburb,” Garreau says, “where the majority of us now live and work and play.”

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