ESCAPING THE CITY — AND THE SUBURBS

By Published on .

The “white flight� from America's big cities to the newly established suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s was almost a social movement, as the massive migration of whites to the suburbs led to an explosion of tract housing outside large, established cities on the coasts and in the Midwest. For the most part, this movement arose from a quest for a new lifestyle. The flight was related to suburban pulls as much as to city pushes. Exiting the city meant leaving behind congested neighborhoods, aging and costly housing, mediocre schools and services, rising crime and growing nonwhite populations, which felt threatening to many Northern whites. In pre-Civil Rights America, racial discrimination kept minorities from joining this movement, which remained a largely white phenomenon.

Yet among these white parents of the Baby Boom, the allure of newly constructed suburban housing and communities was just as important in motivating the move as the desire to escape the city. Returning war veterans and young couples planning families helped to create a suburban lifestyle conducive to child-rearing, neighborhood outings and the achievement of the American dream of more space and a single-family home. Back then, all of this could be accomplished in close proximity to the city, which still represented the primary center for employment, shopping and entertainment.

Fast-forward to Census 2000, which reveals another wave of white flight under way. Like the earlier white flight, the new one is a search for a better lifestyle, but the geography is quite different. Now it's the suburbs surrounding established coastal and Midwest cities that are expensive and cramped. Housing has aged, and more urban populations have spilled out to form a maze of shopping malls, freeways and office parks that make it difficult to equate this suburbia with a distinct lifestyle. What both examples of white flight have in common is a quest for living in a low-density environment, with neighbors of similar demographic profiles, and a desire for a safe, community-oriented suburban lifestyle. Indeed, as with the first round of white relocation, the new white migrants seek a lifestyle shift. The difference is that now they are escaping both the cities and the suburbs of these densely populated metropolises. As cases in point, the Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Areas (CMSAs) of greater Los Angeles and New York rank Nos. 1 and 2 in white declines — losing 843,00 and 680,000 whites, respectively, during the 1990s (see chart below). These and other major metropolitan areas now rely on minorities to sustain their demographic gains.

The white relocation away from these metros does not reflect a flight from immigrants or minorities per se, but rather an escape from the increases in economic costs and decreases in quality of life of rampant urbanism. While there is evidence that the moves of some low-skilled whites are in response to job competition, much of this white migration is a response to the high cost of living and the dense, congested metropolitan areas, which are also attracting new immigrant minorities. No longer composed primarily of young couples, the new white flight also includes empty-nest Boomers and recent retirees.

White Flight to the New Sun Belt

White relocation for lifestyle reasons is no longer an exclusively local phenomenon. Recent white growth is regionally directed to more suburban-like metropolitan and nonmetropolitan communities in the South and West. This movement is primarily to a constellation of growing cities and towns in the New Sun Belt — a stretch of territory removed from the big cities and inner suburbs of the urbanized Northeast, Midwest and West Coast.

While white movement to the Sun Belt might seem like an old story, the recent white dispersal is directed to growing parts of the region — those with low density, family-friendly or senior-friendly development patterns and locations far from the more densely populated South metropolitan areas. In fact, much of the allure of the New Sun Belt for both employers and residents has to do with quality of life considerations, such as less congestion and pollution, greater neighborhood safety and proximity to natural amenities. The highest rates of white growth are occurring in territories of the South that lie outside of the major immigrant metros (Miami, Dallas, Houston and Washington, D.C.) and West (Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego). Much lower rates of white growth can be seen in the North, and in territories that lie outside the major immigrant metros, such as New York and Chicago (see first chart below).

White Flight to the Exurbs

The local aspect of the new wave of white flight involves a push toward the metropolitan periphery, including communities that lie outside of metro areas and have a rural feel. One of the most startling statistics from the 2000 Census shows that there are now more whites living in our nonmetropolitan territories (23.3 percent) than in central cities of metropolitan areas (22.6 percent). This is a sharp contrast to the more urban nonwhite population (see second chart below). This increase in white residents in nonmetropolitan areas, compared with central cities, represents the reversal of a long-term trend: In 1990, 24.6 percent of whites lived in central cities, compared with 22.8 percent in nonmetropolitan locales. For many decades, whites moved from nonmetropolitan (rural) areas to big cities, then began to reverse direction from cities to their surrounding suburbs. We have now come full circle as a result of significant white movement to the communities that lie beyond metropolitan boundaries.

As with the regional movement, the white shift to “SUV America� represents a desire for less congestion and smaller communities that enable citizens to have greater input in local government decisions. This movement is prevalent in the New Sun Belt and the outlying areas of older Northeast and Midwest regions. The impact of these peripheral white growth patterns can be seen, in different ways, in metropolitan Atlanta and the greater New York metropolitan region. The Atlanta metro area exemplifies the New Sun Belt pattern of generally high white growth throughout the metro area but accentuated growth on the periphery. In Atlanta during the 1990s, the white population grew by more than 10 percent in more than half the metro area's counties, but the fastest-growing counties (white growth exceeds 50 percent) tend to be on the outer reaches of the area — including Forsyth, the second fastest-growing white county in the nation. Forsyth's new migrants come from within the Atlanta region and from the suburbs of Northern metropolitan areas. They include families and empty nesters in quest of a traditional suburban lifestyle. This growth pattern mirrors those in other fast-growing New Sun Belt areas.

By contrast, the greater New York metro exemplifies a region of pervasive suburban white decline. Almost half of the region's counties lost white population during the 1990s, and all but two of the remaining ones gained less than 10 percent. Yet whites continued to move farther outside the city. Two counties on the area's most distant periphery, Ocean County, N.J., and Pike County, Pa., showed white growth rates of 14 percent and 55 percent, respectively. Within these counties, one finds counterparts to the classic 1950s suburban “Levittown� developments.

Continued White Dispersal

Both aspects of the new wave of white flight — its regional shift to the New Sun Belt and its exurban shift to the far reaches of the metropolis — represent a continued dispersal of the white population away from America's largest, most dense urban settlements (see map, page 21). The participants in this new white movement — Gen X couples, empty-nest Boomers and recently retired seniors — are lured by some of the same lifestyles and creature comforts that attracted post-World War II city dwellers to the original suburbs. Yet as with the earlier white flight, the new version also serves to separate its participants from more urban-bound minorities. In fact, the physical distance separating these new white suburbanites from the more densely settled metropolitan areas has increased considerably, extending to different counties and regions rather than just different neighborhoods.

This increased separation may be due to the changing nature of work — the telecommunications revolution and the detachment from the work force of a growing retiree population. Yet this separation also serves to create more geographically distinct “urban� and “suburban� areas in America that share far less overlap than in the past, when suburban commuters, shoppers and theatergoers interacted with big-city dwellers at least part of the time. While new immigration flows are reinvigorating city populations, and traditional suburbs are looking more like cities of the past, the dispersal of whites to yet another frontier is transforming new, fast-growing regions and communities in ways that once again redefine the lifestyles and geography of white suburbia in America.


William H. Frey is a demographer and Senior Fellow at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., and is on the faculty of the University of Michigan Population Studies Center. He can be reached at www.frey-demographer.org.

In this article:
Most Popular