Suburbs' New Anatomy: What 25 Regions Show

Article excerpt

In a 1993 column, I featured the breakthrough inspiration of Myron Orfield, a then-barely 30 Minnesota legislator getting ready to upset the apple cart of how Americans think about suburbia.

Exhibiting brightly colored maps he'd generated on his desktop computer, this brash young politico was using the Twin Cities example to show how profoundly different U.S. suburbs were becoming.

On the one hand, he noted, old blue-collar suburbs close to the major cities were in peril of serious decline after losing 38 percent of their manufacturing jobs in the '80s. By contrast, a "fertile crescent" of fast-growth suburbs on the Twin Cities' southwest flank was attracting a flood of wealthy taxpayers, businesses and investment--even while using exclusionary zoning practices to bar affordable housing.

Nine years later, Myron Orfield has become the most influential social demographer in America's burgeoning regional movement. Major national foundations, regional activist organizations, universities, business groups, local governments and Catholic archdioceses have commissioned studies on their regions from the Metropolitan Area Research Corp. ( that Orfield founded and heads.

Now the Brookings Institution has published Orfield's second book--"American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality"--analyzing the disparities among the suburbs that surround America's 25 largest metropolitan areas.

The new analysis shatters any notion of a monolithic "suburban America." Forty percent of the big regions' people live in the "at-risk" suburbs--places suffering the same social stress and often the same racial tensions familiar to center cities. Some are inner-ring places like close-in Long Island or Chicago's south and west sides. Others are regions' low-density suburbs with relatively high poverty rates. All tend of be even worse off than urban centers because they lack typical big-city resources--strong center business districts, university and medical campuses, high-end housing areas, handsome parks, expert social services.

Racial segregation, Orfield's studies indicate, often expands rapidly in "at-risk" suburbs. He cites the NBC "Dateline" report on Matteson, Ill., a community of large, attractive suburban homes and good schools 20 miles south of the Chicago Loop where middle-class black families started to arrive in the early '90s.

By education and income, the arriving blacks were at least the equal of Matteson's whites. But the fear mill ground fast. A sudden home sell-off occurred among whites who sensed school decline and rising crime--though neither, objectively, was true. Yet eventually, there weren't enough black middle-class families to sustain market demand for Matteson residences. Net result: the schools turned overwhelmingly black. "White flight," writes Orfield, "invariably means poverty"--an alarming deprivation of opportunity for arriving minorities. …