Today, the fields around the prison, which closed in 2001, are filled with upscale houses and apartment buildings. At the newly built town center, many residents gather on summer nights near a courtyard gazebo to hear live jazz before wandering into a restaurant or wine bar.
Non-whites no longer stick out in a crowd. Lorton is one of the most diverse places in the entire country, according to a new study of census data by two sociologists from Pennsylvania State University. The 19,000 residents are roughly a third white and a third black, and there are significant numbers of Asians, Hispanics and multiracial residents.
“I’m in awe of what’s happened,” said Clarke, 37, who left for college and didn’t move back until a year and a half ago, settling in an apartment complex with her husband and daughter. “I love living here.”
What’s happened in Lorton is typical of a demographic sea change that is transforming the Washington area and much of the country. Non-Hispanic whites are a minority in a growing number of metropolitan areas, including Washington. Predominantly white neighborhoods are a relic of the past. New developments that appeal to young families are among the most diverse, drawing Hispanics and Asians who, on average, are much younger than the whites.
Although metropolitan areas are the most diverse, small towns and the countryside are also attracting more minorities. The Penn State researchers found that whites are the predominant group in barely one-third of all places of 1,000 residents or more, compared with two-thirds in 1980.
“Racial and ethnic diversity is no longer a vicarious experience for Americans,” said Barrett A. Lee, one of the study’s authors. “It used to be something that was recognized and debated at the national level. But now even residents of small towns and rural areas are coming face to face with people of different races or ethnicity in their daily lives, not just on the evening news.”
The Washington area stands out for its broad demographic mix. The Penn State researchers ranked the top 25 most-diverse metropolitan areas, and only three metro areas — all in California — had greater diversity than Washington.
The researchers compiled a separate list of the nation’s top 25 most-diverse communities. In addition to Lorton, Germantown and Glenmont in Montgomery County made the list, otherwise dominated by California.
One reason behind Washington’s diversity is that it is what the Penn State study called a “company town,” this one where the government and the military have a large presence.