Fear and loathing in diverse suburbia

Last week, I fell into the vortex of suburban fear.

There was a pair of shootings on the other side of town, that left one man dead.  The neighborhood discussion boards went bonkers, residents voicing all kinds of opinions and fears – it was the fault of renters, it was the fault of inequality and low-paid work which forces people into desperation, it was a call to action for a community response.  Then, the home across the street from us was burglarized.  In the 45 years our neighbors have lived here, they told me, this was the first time this sort of thing had ever happened.

Something was simmering, a feeling of desperation maybe. It unsettled my sense of calm and confidence in our neighborhood.  Our suburb and maybe even my home, all of a sudden, felt threatened.

So I did what all fearing suburbanites do.  I fixed the locks and secured the gates around the perimeter of our home.  And then I called a home security company.  They sent their guy out.  But what this unsuspecting salesman didn’t realize is that he’d be dealing with me – a person who thinks A LOT (and even writes about) the idea of suburban fear, community, and social well-being. When he launched into his usual schpiel about all the crime and threats out there – and I recoiled slightly – he seemed to pick up on it and dialed it down.  I’m not a security freak, I wanted to tell him, I don’t even like that I’ve called you.  But I shut up and let him do his inspection, to identify all of the unsecure portals of our house, all of the ways someone could break and enter into our domestic peace.


Then like a wrecking ball, a series of articles appeared in my in-box on how resegregation is plaguing more and more diverse suburbs. This struck home.  We live in a diverse suburb in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. As of 2010, it was 40.3 percent white, 26.9 percent Latino, 23.7 percent black, and 5.4 percent Asian.  While the majority of households are families with kids, nearly 50 percent of households have one parent or a single person in charge.  About 72 percent of residents are homeowners, 28 percent renters. And 11 percent of the population lives in poverty (including 12 percent of local children).  Our suburb has achieved stable racial diversity in this profile. But it is a town of haves and have nots.

Myron Orfield’s eye-opening work on resegregation in diversifying suburbia, put into some context what I’m living here right now.  He noted, first, that 44 percent of American suburbanites in fact live in racially integrated suburbs – this is an astounding statistic right off the bat.  And he noted that for the most part, “This is where race relations in the United States are the best. . . . They are maybe the closest thing that there is to the beloved community that Martin Luther King was talking about.”  But he went on to decry the persistence of housing discrimination – through practices like racial steering, mortgage lending discrimination, and the shenanigans of the “poverty housing industry” – which ultimately perpetuates patterns of segregation in and across suburbia. He ultimately calls for metro-wide solutions that ensure across-the-board equity – in terms of the benefits and burdens of metropolitan life, like where affordable housing is located and how taxes get distributed – to snuff out those escape-hatch suburban islands that hoarde wealth, resources, and remain hyper-segregated.  His is a macro perspective on things.

But here we are, back in my suburban town, where the integration is in place and we’re trying to figure this all out.  From my unscientific perspective on things, the segregation has happened at the micro-level too.  Yes, we have ethnically and racially diverse neighbors, but the class divisions are pretty stark.  It’s most evident in the school system that segregrates public and  private school families – a deep and profound class divider if there ever was one – that has the effect of fragmenting a sense of community unity.  And it’s happened in the social geography of neighborhoods, where roughly speaking, certain areas are deemed “safe,” others not so much.  But even in those marginal areas, there’s a fair amount of race and class mixing.  You can’t help that in a metro area like Los Angeles, where out-sized housing prices means even the “poorer” areas boast ridiculous rents and home values.  There’s a fiscal squeeze on everyone, and it’s surely put extra pressure on low-income residents struggling to survive in this ridiculous housing market.

Our particular town is unincorporated, and from what long-time residents here tell me, it’s always been a real attraction to the quirky, libertarian-minded folks who gravitate to this area – who don’t want the hassle and interference of local government.  But when you mix together the lack of a true civic hub – a meaningful center of local governance – with the fragile dynamics of diversifying suburbia, the end result can be total fragmentation and community alienation. We don’t have the forums and venues for total community interaction, the sense of a shared, unified fate.  Everyone goes off in their own direction.  Our kids travel a dizzying array of separate routes.  And it makes falling into defensive mode, a sort of easy response when things get dicey.

I’m trying to fight this, in my own small way.  I’m talking to people.  I go to what local meetings I can.  And I have yet to call that guy back about installing a security system in our home.  Mind you, I still have his estimate right near our phone.  I just hope I can somehow restore that sense of calm and confidence in our town, so I don’t have to make that call.


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