The Restless Search for America Produces Three
Jonathan Tilove, c.2004 Newhouse News Service, Feb. 4
In countless separate acts of restless searching, America is perpetually remade. Pilgrims, colonists, immigrants and pioneers. Settlers, seekers, rovers and retreaters. We are a nation of movers whose manifest destiny is to keep at it until we find what we are looking for, forever changing both the places we are headed and the ones we leave behind.
From East to West. Farm to factory. Rural South to urban North. City to suburb. Rust Belt to Sun Belt. And, at the turn of the 21st century, from one America to three — three Americas that look, feel and think less and less alike.
It is a national metamorphosis, epic in scope, profound in its implications. Yet it is mostly uncharted and unrecognized, obscured by the persistent tendency to look at how America changes in the aggregate, even though no one lives in the nation as a whole.
Beginning in the 1980s and with surging speed in the '90s, it became plain that people moving within America choose different destinations from those moving to America, and that in the interplay of these movements, one America was coming to more nearly resemble three. They are:
— The Melting Pot. Two decades and counting of record immigration has transformed the places most newcomers settle into a multicultural America without precedent anywhere in the world. It is in this tumultuous America — the large metropolitan areas and states on both coasts, plus Texas and Chicago — that most immigrants arrive. With their arrival, increasing numbers of existing residents leave. In the '90s, 25 percent more immigrants poured into the Melting Pot than in the '80s; at the same time, the exodus tripled.
— The New Sun Belt. Unlike most immigrants, most people moving within the United States are relocating to an entirely different America — a New Sun Belt with the feel and allure of a vast, immaculate suburb. This ascendant America of fast-growing states in the Southeast and non-California West accounts for about a fifth of the U.S. population as a whole, but was home to 79 percent of all the growth in the white population in the '90s. In all, these states gained twice as much population in the '90s as they did in the '80s.
— The Heartland. The third America is less touched by arrivals, either from the rest of America or abroad. It is made up of the Midwest minus Chicago, New England minus Boston, and the parts of the South that are still more William Faulkner than Ted Turner. America’s Old Country, it is becoming different from the other two Americas not because it is changing, but because it is not.
Look at the United States as three Americas and the nation’s changed reality comes into focus. It is a new way of understanding, founded on analysis of 20 years of census data by demographer William Frey of the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution. He is the nation’s leading expert on the movement of people across America.
“These migration patterns are not happening willy-nilly,” says Frey. “They are directed, they are persistent, and they are self-perpetuating, with each flow bringing together more people with similar backgrounds and interests and common goals.
“They will indelibly shape the future of our politics, our relations between the races and generations and, in the end, our sense of nationhood. People in each of these Americas will have a different idea of what America is.”
“I think of Lewis and Clark. The American tradition. To start anew,” says Gary Spuller, who left his hometown of Niagara Falls, long in decline, to move to Holly Springs, the fastest-growing town in North Carolina and a quintessential New Sun Belt community.
Spuller, who is in the building supply business, knows it’s a bit of a conceit to compare moving to a well-manicured golf course community to blazing a trail through an uncertain wilderness. But that’s how people in Holly Springs talk, as if they’ve discovered a new America, or perhaps rediscovered one they thought was lost. In 1990 Holly Springs was a community of fewer than 1,000, mostly poor and black. Now it is home to 14,000, mostly white and affluent, and expects to double in population by 2010.
“We are pioneers,” says Spuller.
With the Three Americas, the familiar pageant of American demography has been recast, on an even larger stage.
The Melting Pot plays the role perfected by “the city.” It is big, dense and diverse, and that goes for Orange County as surely as Los Angeles, Skokie as well as Chicago, and not just New York but New Jersey.
Enter the New Sun Belt as “the new suburb” writ very large, the place you go to get away from the city, the place you go to raise a family. It is less diverse, less dense, less big.
In the past, you could chart the flight from city to suburb by simply drawing concentric rings around whatever city you were looking at. To comprehend what’s going on now you need a map of the nation, of the world, with lines and arrows arcing across oceans, borders and whole regions of America.
Instead of leaving Los Angeles for Orange County or the Inland Empire, more and more people just keep on going. In the 1990s, for the first decade in California’s history, many more people left the state than arrived from the rest of America, which explains why the five fastest-growing states in the nation were Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada.
Phoenix, the quintessential New Sun Belt city, will soon pass Philadelphia as America’s fifth largest city. This is thanks to the influx of expatriates — first from California, and second, from Illinois, a state that now has more Mexican immigrants than Arizona and New Mexico combined. Both the mayor and past mayor of Phoenix were born in Chicago. Meanwhile, Philadelphia has lost more than a quarter of its population in the last half-century.
For New Yorkers who want out, the Carolinas are the new Long Island, the new New Jersey. Why move to some aging suburb built for GIs returning from World War II, or some far-flung exurb practically, maybe actually, in Pennsylvania, when you can move to a brand-new community in the Carolinas or Georgia or Tennessee that’s cheaper, cleaner, safer, prettier, less clogged and crowded, with maybe a golf course, tennis courts, swim club, better weather, and neighbors who just made the same move you did, neighbors just like yourself?
With the old flight to the suburbs there was frequently the sense that it was sucking the life out of the city. But, because of the steady stream of new arrivals daily from around the world, it is possible for Arun Peter Lobo, a demographer with the city of New York, to say of those leaving that city (“as we say, exiting through death and migration”), that “they are making room for our immigrants.”
In the '90s, the Richmond Hill neighborhood in Queens went from mostly white to mostly not, and Liberty Avenue, its main commercial thoroughfare, came alive with shops, mostly opened by Indian immigrants from Guyana, selling saris, and jewelry made from Guyanese gold, and roti, the flatbread wraps that have supplanted the sandwich along this bustling block of the American Melting Pot.
Businesses on Liberty come and go, but no storefront stays empty for long, says Raymond Ally, an Indo-Guyanese banker active in economic development along the avenue. And, he says, “What you’re going to find here is, as the Guyanese move out, there is always a next community coming in.”
When Vincenzo Doria was growing up in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, “the neighborhood was all Italian.” These days the Italians are leaving, for Staten Island or beyond. Doria just opened Assagio, Holly Springs’ first real Italian restaurant. Meanwhile, back in Bensonhurst, new immigrants from Pakistan and China and Russia are moving in. When Doria visits New York, he is amazed.
“Now it’s like a melting pot,” he says. “There are people there from all these countries — you didn’t know these countries existed.”
In the old city-suburb divide, there were still ties of crossed paths and shared political, cultural and social space, of watching the same news, rooting for the same teams, and fighting over the same turf — of being, ultimately, in the same boat.
In the new Melting Pot/New Sun Belt divide, people inhabit distant and alternate Americas, vividly different in complexion and context. They are in different boats.
Hank Dickson, who has been on the Holly Springs town board since 1997, spent most of his life in the aging New York suburb of White Plains, which is now about half white and nearly a third foreign-born. By the time he and his wife flew South in 1994, their old hometown felt both crowded and cold to them.
“You could spend the whole day running errands around the city of White Plains and never run into anyone,” says Dickson. But in Holly Springs, he says, “you end up making very quick, very close friendships because there are a lot of people in the same boat as you.”
The Dicksons have since been joined in North Carolina by his parents, his sister and his wife’s mother, who moved down from northern New Jersey. If they were immigrants, this would be called chain migration.
Completing the casting of the three Americas is the Heartland, which, while it includes communities of every size, inhabits the spirit of rural America. Older, whiter and more rooted in the very sense of place that so many of those moving say they are searching for, it is shadowed by the pall that settles over communities becalmed, places so many of its home-grown best and brightest choose to leave.
Sue Fentress and three of her four sisters live in Battle Creek, Mich., that comfort food of communities that has been home to their family for generations. But Fentress’ three grown sons have all left Battle Creek and moved to North Carolina, in and around Holly Springs.
Last fall, Fentress was one of the organizers of her 40th high school reunion — Battle Creek Central Class of '63. “Really, when you look at the people who came, they came from out of town,” she says. “The people who live right here, a lot them didn’t come. I think it’s got something to do with the fact that people would say, `Well, what are you doing now?’ And people don’t like saying, `Oh, I’m still here in Battle Creek.”’
The Heartland became more Hispanic and Asian in the '90s. That comports with the pre-eminent national narrative of race and immigration in the last decade, in which the dispersion of immigrants across the country brought new diversity virtually everywhere.
But that view is misleading. After two decades of record immigration that has made the nation altogether more diverse — that is, more Latino and Asian — three-quarters of Hispanics and two-thirds of Asians still live in the Melting Pot, where the tumbling proportion of whites leaves it completely out of whack with the racial makeup of the other Americas.
The truth is that many, if not most, of the last decade’s headlines about race and diversity really tell one America’s story.
Interracial marriage. Multiracial identity. English no longer the one and only language. Mostly Melting Pot phenomena.
Whites facing the prospect of losing their majority? Old news in the immigrant meccas of America’s four largest cities — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston — the whitest of which is New York at 35 percent. In California, according to the Census Bureau, non-Hispanic whites ceased to be a majority sometime in 1999. But in the other Americas, except for some majority-black cities, whites remain nearly as much as ever the racial norm.
Hispanics overtaking blacks as the leading minority? True enough as a national statistic. But, while Hispanics outnumber blacks 2-to-1 in the Melting Pot, in the other Americas blacks are nearly three times as numerous. Twenty-two of the 24 Hispanic members of Congress are from six Melting Pot states, while black members of Congress hail from all three Americas.
Look at America as three nations and not one, and suddenly, three very different dimensions and dilemmas of diversity become apparent.
The Melting Pot becomes the lone harbinger of an America with no racial center.
Does it become post-ethnic America or most-ethnic America? As the white proportion of the population shrinks does the color line fade? Or will the fact that whites continue to have political and economic clout way beyond their numbers reveal an even more obvious racial hierarchy?
In the New Sun Belt, freshly minted communities of middle-class suburbanites from across America find themselves living in stark juxtaposition with a burgeoning new Hispanic lower class.
During a decade of declining national poverty rates, the poor population soared by more than a quarter in Charlotte and Atlanta, by more than a third in Raleigh-Durham and Phoenix, and by 86 percent in Las Vegas as fast-growing Hispanic communities became more and more segregated.
While their history and circumstances are very different from those of African-Americans, the fact remains that in the New Sun Belt, the growing Hispanic population is largely identifiable by color, by accent and by its presence in what are so bluntly and without apology called “jobs Americans won’t do.” Hispanics are also conspicuous in their general absence from the voting booths, jury pools or councils of power in the communities where they live and work.
The Heartland, meanwhile, displays symptoms of diversity envy. Cities losing people contemplate makeovers to become more appealing to immigrants. Every jot of change is met with fanfare.
In the spring of 2001, Michael A. MacDowell, president of College Misericordia, a small Catholic school in Dallas, Pa., delivered the baccalaureate address at Wyoming Seminary, a Methodist boarding school in nearby Kingston.
The 2000 Census, MacDowell said, would prove a “turning point in the history of this country. Multiracial citizens are now the norm. The racial, ethnic and religious diversity in our country and even in this community has changed more rapidly in 30 years than since the founding of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre.”
Well, not exactly. Dallas, Kingston and Wilkes-Barre are all in Luzerne County, which was 96 percent white in 2000, and getting less white at the rate of about a percent per decade. At that pace, whites in Luzerne will no longer be in the majority right around the year 2470, and it would take another century and a half to get where Queens is today.
Yet it is true that little Dallas, Pa., is infinitely more diverse than it was. In 1990, every last one of the borough’s 2,606 residents was white. By 2000, Dallas, now home to a smattering of blacks, Asians and Hispanics, was only 97.5 percent white.
But 100 miles away, in the Melting Pot of New Jersey, Passaic County went from 63 percent to 51 percent white in the same decade. It is now more than a quarter foreign-born. The school district in the city of Clifton (which in 1999 declared English its “official language”) reported its students spoke some 65 languages at home — from Bangba, Bemba, Bengali, Bikol, Bulgarian and Byelorussian to Tagalog, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tswana, Tulu and Turkish.
In the last half of the '90s, New Jersey gained 320,000 new immigrants, 75 percent not white, while losing nearly 200,000 people, net, to other states, 85 percent of them white. People like Ron Margiotta, who grew up along the Hudson River in Weehawken, N.J., and spent a lifetime in northern New Jersey, 40 years in the window treatment business and service on the school board in Bergen County’s Ridgefield Park, a village now about a quarter foreign-born.
In 2000 Margiotta retired and moved to a home on Secluded Acres Road in Apex, N.C., a town bordering Holly Springs. Apex grew from 5,000 to 20,000 in the '90s thanks to the arrival of what Jim Turner, a Wake County real estate agent, affectionately calls “New Jersey-Americans.”
This past fall, they helped elect Margiotta to the Wake County school board. “Can you believe that a 65-year-old Yankee with a vowel at the end of his name gets elected in North Carolina?” Margiotta asks.
In fact, in his campaign Margiotta supported abstinence education and opposed busing to achieve diversity. He handily defeated Jeff York, a more liberal, native-born incumbent. In its candidate survey, the local News & Observer asked the candidates to name their favorite movie. In this race, it was “Patton” vs. “Bull Durham,” and “Patton” won.
Back in Jersey, Republicans missed the likes of Margiotta last fall. Democrats swept to control of both houses of the Legislature, icing their hold on a state once considered swing.
Nor was it coincidence that, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election notwithstanding, California has grown more Democratic as the Mountain States have grown more Republican — the repelling poles of immigration and migration yielding a redder red America and a bluer blue, with the balance of power resting in the Heartland.
In Orange County, Richard Nixon’s hometown of Whittier, Calif., and Disneyland’s Anaheim became less than half white in the '90s, not just because the numbers of Latinos roughly doubled, but because so many whites left. Whittier’s white population declined by 29 percent, Anaheim’s by 22 percent. Anaheim is now represented in Congress by Loretta Sanchez, a Mexican-American who had lost years earlier in a run for city council but in 1996 defeated Republican Robert Dornan, one of the loudest conservatives in Congress. Meanwhile, Whittier is part of a new Hispanic-majority congressional district that in 2002 elected Sanche’Zs sister, Linda.
From Nixon and Dornan to the Sanchez sisters. New Jersey-Americans electing Ron Margiotta to the school board in Wake County, N.C. Bangba, Bemba and Bikol amid the new Babel of Clifton, N.J. The breaking heart of Battle Creek.
In countless separate acts of restless searching, America is perpetually remade.