Rodriguez: White flight — to the city


For nearly half a century, the term “inner city” has been code for poor and minority. But now white flight — the decades-long trend of affluent Anglos leaving the urban core for leafier suburban cul-de-sacs — has run its course. And “inner city” is about to take on a whole new meaning.

New census data reveal that Washington, where the population has been more than 50% black since the early 1960s, has lost its black majority. Likewise, due to a decline in the presence of blacks, Latinos and Asians, for the first time since the 1970s a majority of Manhattan’s population is white. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, which prided itself on being overwhelmingly African American (remember Mayor C. Ray Nagin and his “chocolate city” speech?), has seen the percentage of black residents drop precipitously. Even Atlanta, long a stronghold for the African American middle class, is projected to lose its black majority this decade.

And in Los Angeles, after half a century of decline, the city’s white population has stabilized and even increased in the central city. Over the last 10 years, for instance, the white share of the population of Echo Park grew from 13% to 23%.


Thus far, news stories on these shifts have focused on individual cities or the inevitable bruised feelings inherent in the process of demographic change. In San Francisco, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom lamented that the city’s declining black population meant that Babylon by the Bay was losing its soul. One commentator called the decline of diversity in Manhattan a sort of “benign ethnic cleansing.”

But no one seems to be connecting the dots and concluding that American cities are on the verge of big change. On one level this is a story about race and class, but the more profound shift in the U.S. urban experience will be cultural.

Once upon a time, a newcomer to the big city was most likely a country bumpkin obliged to make his way among the sophisticates. But the in-migration today is coming from the suburbs, whose denizens are relatively well-off and capable of wielding cultural power in their new neighborhoods.

Whatever is making them leave the suburbs, they appear to be bringing their suburban tastes with them, and remaking the city in their image. Demographers find that these urban newcomers are split between suburban-raised upwardly mobile professionals and empty-nesters.

The urban experience was once characterized by serendipity and the clash of high and low — in both class and culture. Whereas the suburbs promised a soothing homogeneity and a predictable middle-of-the-road sensibility, the city was all about the clash of differences and the tension between the extremes of skid row and the opera house — which, as in L.A., might be only blocks apart.

By contrast, today, to satisfy the tastes of suburban newcomers, developers seek to tame stark differences and impose some standardization on the city. The primary example is the remake of Times Square in Manhattan. Once the epitome of the juxtaposition of grime and glitz, Times Square is now, in the words of geographers Neil Smith and Deborah Cowen, “dense with suburban, clean, white middle-class faces and bodies with the odd ‘exotic’ mixed in.” Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin once called it a shift from hookers to Mickey Mouse. But it’s really about the tendency to turn cities into what Smith and Cowen have called “suburbs with pizzazz.”


In L.A., the latest example is L.A. Live, with its manufactured promenades and brand names. In Washington, it’s a massive new apartment complex atop a big-box Giant grocery store on once-scruffy, quickly gentrifying H Street. The calculation is that this is what the newcomers want.

Will suburbanization dull cities’ liberal edge or dampen the spirit of tolerance that diversity demands? That would diminish our cities. But better-heeled residents might also demand improved schools, broaden the tax base and require cities to become more family friendly.

The demographers can document the numbers shifts and identify the trends. It’s harder to predict the exact nature of the impact. For now, such analysis is mostly reduced to bitter rhetorical struggles about winners and losers and who “owns” a neighborhood.

But here’s what to hope for in the midst of inexorable change: a way to transplant the benefits of the suburbs without undermining the essential complexities and contrasts of the city.