Census: The new U.S. neighborhood defined by diversity as all-white enclaves vanish

October 29, 2011

This is the first of a two-part series on residential segregation. (Read Part 2.)

McGovern Drive looked like the sanitized slice of suburbia presented on television in 1965, the year Wayne and Virginia Cole moved into a tidy brick ranch home just outside the Beltway in Montgomery County. The Coles, and everyone else who lived in the neighborhood back then, were white.

Today their Silver Spring community of Hillandale is home to people of every race and ethnicity — the epitome of what one sociologist calls “global neighborhoods” that are upending long-standing patterns of residential segregation.

Around the region and across the country, the archetypal all-white neighborhood is vanishing with remarkable speed. In many places, the phenomenon is not being driven by African Americans moving to the suburbs. Instead, it is primarily the result of the nation’s soaring number of Hispanics and Asians, many of whom are immigrants.

The result has been the emergence of neighborhoods, from San Diego to Denver to Miami, that are more diverse than at any time in American history.

As the nation barrels toward the day, just three decades from now, when non-Hispanic whites are expected to be a minority, these global neighborhoods have already begun remaking the American social fabric in significant ways. Their creation and impact have been especially pronounced in the Washington area, where minorities are now the majority.

A Washington Post analysis of 2010 Census data shows a precipitous decline in the number of the region’s census tracts, areas of roughly 2,000 households, where more than 85 percent of the residents are of the same race or ethnicity — what many demographers would consider a segregated neighborhood.

In the District, just one in three neighborhoods is highly segregated, the Post analysis found. A decade ago, more than half were.

In the Maryland suburbs, one in five neighborhoods is dominated by one race or ethnicity, down from almost a third in 2000.

The biggest drop has been in Northern Virginia, where only one in 20 neighborhoods is a racial or ethnic enclave. No suburb is more diverse than Fairfax County, where just 2 percent of neighborhoods are segregated.

Almost everywhere, McGovern Drive is becoming the norm.

The Coles have witnessed the changes from their picture window. The three-generation Nguyen family from Vietnam lives next door to them. On the other side are the Crawfords, an African American couple who moved to Hillandale after he retired from Howard University and she stopped teaching in District schools. A house cleaner from Mexico, Raquel Jackson, who brings the Coles dinner on holidays, is across the street.

From one end of McGovern Drive to the other, and on adjacent streets, a boundless diversity continues: immigrants, or their offspring, from Jamaica and Haiti, Egypt and Israel; African Americans who have lived there for 20 years; and whites who bought their homes when Lyndon Johnson was president.

“I think we’re lucky with our neighbors,” said Virginia Cole, ticking off acts of kindness shown to her and her husband, who are both 89.

Throughout the region, the scope of change has altered everything from the mix of businesses in suburban strip centers to the number of English-as-a-second-language teachers being hired by public schools. In some places, it has triggered clashes over street parking, housing regulations and day laborer centers.

The emergence of global neighborhoods is most pronounced in the jurisdictions that are growing most quickly, particularly Loudoun County.

Two decades ago, more than three-quarters of Loudoun’s neighborhoods were overwhelmingly white. Now just 14 percent are.

Black and white

But some of Washington’s black communities are being bypassed as diversity sweeps through the region.

Wards 7 and 8 in the District are virtually all African American, and many of the neighborhoods have become even more segregated. As a result, more than half the city’s black residents live in segregated neighborhoods, while almost no whites do.

More striking is what’s happening in Prince George’s County, one of the few places in the country that is simultaneously growing in size and growing more segregated as whites leave and the black middle class shifts to the suburbs.

The District and Prince George’s underscore how differently whites and blacks experience diversity on their own streets.

As recently as 1990, whites in the Washington area were more likely than blacks to live in enclaves. Now the positions are switched.

Washington’s two contradictory trend lines are playing out nationwide.

“It’s a glass-half-full-half-empty story,” said the Urban Institute’s Margery Turner, an expert on housing patterns. “Predominantly white neighborhoods are no longer as homogeneous as in the past. They’ve opened up tremendously. And yet, white people are, in general, not moving into neighborhoods that are predominantly black. Majority black neighborhoods are remaining majority black, or becoming more majority black, at the same time white neighborhoods are opening up.”

Demographers contend that Americans still live primarily among people who are like them. Much of their evidence comes from places such as Milwaukee and Detroit that have stopped growing or are shrinking. These places, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast, have not attracted the Hispanics and Asians fueling growth and diversity elsewhere.

John Logan, a sociologist at Brown University who coined the phrase “global neighborhoods” to describe the changes he has been studying for three decades, said the typical pattern is for Asians and Hispanics to move into white neighborhoods, paving the way for white acceptance of more blacks.

“It’s a pathway that eventually could lead to a much higher level of integration” in many parts of the country, Logan said. “There’s some self-selection. The kinds of people who don’t create barriers for Hispanics and Asians to move in as neighbors may be the kind who don’t move when African Americans move in. But the numbers are so large, it’s not like they’re unusual white Americans. They’re becoming the norm.”

Logan noted that it is still rare for whites to move into minority neighborhoods, and white flight continues to shape many communities.

Washington is a case study in how the arrival of Hispanics and Asians is altering the country. The number of immigrants in the region has skyrocketed — nearly one in four residents is foreign-born. Meanwhile, non-Hispanic whites and blacks are aging and having fewer children. Whites have slipped to roughly 49 percent of the area’s population.

There are more minorities than whites in Montgomery and Prince William counties, and minorities are on track to surpass whites by the next census in Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

Nine out of 10 whites in the region still live in neighborhoods where they are at least a plurality, if not a majority. But the neighborhoods where more than 85 percent of residents are white are growing rare.

In Prince William County, for example, just 4 percent of neighborhoods are that homogenous. Fairfax, Montgomery and Charles counties have even fewer neighborhoods that are almost all one race. Frederick is the only county in the region where more than half of all white residents live in homogenous clusters.

Logan said the rest of the country will catch up to Washington eventually.

“As whites are a smaller share of the population, inevitably what it means is whites are more and more going to share communities with other groups,” Logan said. “The all-white neighborhood is being re-created on the far periphery of metropolitan areas. But aside from that, it’s becoming a thing of the past.”

Loudoun’s new mosaic

Erika Hodell Cotti lives in the kind of neighborhood she could not have imagined while growing up in Reston.

Born in South Korea and adopted by an Irish Catholic military family, Cotti remembers being the only Asian in her elementary school. A part of her yearned to look like the little white girls around her. Being American, to her, meant being white.

“When I was naturalized at the age of 9, I asked if it meant I’ll have blond hair and blue eyes,” Cotti said. “My mother said, ‘Honey, no. You’re still going to be you, just an American citizen.’ ”

Today she and her husband are raising their preschooler in the Broadlands, a planned community in eastern Loudoun County that has become a magnet for people of all races and ethnicities.

Once rural and overwhelmingly white, Loudoun has experienced the region’s fastest growth and its quickest demographic transformation. In just two decades, as the population nearly quadrupled, Loudoun went from 90 percent white to 69 percent white. The number of Hispanics and Asians living in Loudoun almost equals the county’s entire population in 1990.

“I feel like our street is a United Nations of colors,” Cotti said.

When her son, Langdon, turned 4 this summer, the children attending his birthday party at Sport Bounce of Loudoun posed for pictures standing on a giant red chair. The hodgepodge of black, white, Asian and Latino children had names such as Ethan and Rayvin, Nolan and Sami, Emily and Kriti, Peter and Skai.

“Langdon doesn’t notice race,” and neither do his friends, Cotti said. “The kids look at a person as a play buddy. They don’t notice the color or ethnic background.”

What this means for a country long divided by race is not yet clear, said scholars of race relations. Most are careful to avoid any grandiose predictions of a post-racial world.

“Children are being thrown together in ways that are unprecedented,” said G. Reginald Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has examined race and ethnic relations. “But being integrated is just the beginning of the possibility of coming to terms with differences. We should not confuse opportunity with actualization.”

In Loudoun, the degree to which diversity is a phenomenon of the past decade is apparent at the cul-de-sac level. Developments created in the 1990s are still largely white. People who moved into developments built in the first decade of the 2000s are predominantly minorities.

But their children attend the same schools, which have become laboratories for diversity.

A decade ago, the students attending Loudoun public schools were 78 percent white. With twice as many students today, the schools are 58 percent white.

The multiculturalism is shaping the way children interact in ways that even their older siblings did not experience.

When Lisette Pozo, 25, was in high school, most of her friends were Hispanic, like her. Her 12-year-old brother, Michael, hangs out with neighbors in Ashburn who are Middle Eastern and Indian. They have sampled his mother’s arroz con pollo and lomo saltado, and he has been to their houses for flat bread and chicken, and other spicy dishes whose names he doesn’t quite remember.

Parents, however, often do not mingle as much as their children.

Howie Nguyen and his wife, Tina Kim, have gotten to know few neighbors in the 10 years they have lived on Navajo Drive in Ashburn.

Nguyen, an engineer, works 12-hour days. He socializes with office colleagues. Neighbors on one side speak Spanish; on the other side, Russian. He does not know them.

Kim, a postal clerk, said she has met a few other parents while watching her daughter swim at the Ashburn Village Sports Pavilion.

“Sometimes when I go to the playground, I feel, ‘Am I in America?’ ” she said. “I hear so many different languages — just not English.”

Conflicts and flight

The rise of global neighborhoods can create upheaval and tension.

Herndon, for example, was embroiled in acrimony when it opened a site for Latino day laborers in 2005 after neighbors complained of men hanging out on the corner, only to close it two years later rather than follow a judge’s ruling that it be open to illegal immigrants.

Often, though, the flare-ups are not over hot-button political issues but over mundane matters such as parking, trash and the language of newsletters.

“We have a cultural gap,” said Maria DaSilva, who immigrated to the United States in 1965 from Brazil and is active in her civic association in Wheaton. “We have people who have been in the community for 40 to 50 years — and a wave of new people — who practice the way they lived in their country of origin.”

Residents complained to county officials about houses overflowing with too many residents and five or six cars. Some people paved over their front yards for parking, but even then not all residents could park in their accustomed spaces.

“We had to explain to people, you don’t own the street in front of your house,” said Susan Rich, who lives in a working-class neighborhood called Connecticut Avenue Estates that is heavily Hispanic. “It caused a lot of tension. People almost came to fisticuffs arguing over parking issues.”

The county has mailed leaflets in Spanish and English outlining trash pickup days and explaining when homeowners are supposed to put their trash on the curb, easing another source of conflict.

But residents say few Hispanics attend their homeowners association meetings, even though they started having an interpreter on hand and post bilingual notices of meetings.

Neighborhoods off Connecticut Avenue and Viers Mill Road were melting pots 20 years ago. Whites were the biggest group, and blacks outnumbered Hispanics and Asians. Today, Hispanics outnumber whites and blacks combined as the changes have prompted many whites and, to a lesser degree, blacks to move away.

Demographers have found that there are still tipping points, where the increasing presence of one ethnic group makes the other groups feel uneasy, though much of the research focuses on the dynamics of whites and blacks.

Roderick Harrison, a Howard University sociologist and former head of racial statistics at the Census Bureau, said studies show that whites start to abandon a neighborhood when blacks exceed 30 percent. That’s the same point, however, where blacks start to feel comfortable in a neighborhood.

“They feel vulnerable” when it’s less than 30 percent, Harrison said. “You want to see people like you at the supermarket.”

Peter Tatian, who studies the District’s demographics for the Urban Institute, said the housing boom boosted the number of whites, Asians and Hispanics living in neighborhoods such as Shaw and Columbia Heights. But he worries that minorities will be priced out.

“It could be a transition,” he said. “If prices start going up, is that going to push the change to more whites and more upper-income folks and fewer minorities? Soon those neighborhoods would look more like Dupont Circle.

“It’s diversity. It can be a good thing. But I don’t know if it’s sustainable.”

Hillandale’s transformation

A dream job lured Wayne Cole to Washington: teaching the history of U.S. diplomacy, at the University of Maryland. In 1965, he and his wife, Virginia, paid $29,500 for their house on McGovern Drive, almost double what they got for their old house in Ames, Iowa.

They moved into a county that was 95 percent white, a neighborhood where half the residents were Jewish. Their son, Tom, now an elementary school teacher in Ellicott City, recalls attending Cresthaven Elementary School with only two black children.

In the past school year, Cresthaven was 45 percent Hispanic, 35 percent African American, 13 percent Asian and just 5 percent white.

Wayne Cole said the change was so gradual that it was barely noticeable.

“People moved away after their children were done with high school,” he said. “Or they moved to a bigger house. People moved to a place rather than away from here. And the people who moved in have, for the most part, stayed.”

Tom Cole said that when he goes to his childhood home to visit his parents, what he is struck by is not the diversity of the neighborhood. It is the way the generosity of their neighbors has made it possible for his parents to age in their home.

“The lady across the street brings them dinner,” he said. “The couple next door help them all the time. It’s a tiny little street, and almost everyone on the street looks after them. All of their neighbors have been good.”

A region remade

This is the first of a two-part series on residential segregation. For expanded coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/PostLocal

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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