Dispatches From Suburbia: “The Important Thing is That You're not White”
One rainy summer evening a couple of years ago I found myself in an office building in the outskirts of Washington, DC looking for a regional planning meeting. I was directed to an unlocked conference room.
Inside were a handful of men and women seated around a conference table. They were all white; they all appeared over 50 years of age. They welcomed me in. I asked if they were expecting more attendees. I suggested they might have a low turnout because of the weather. The leader shrugged and said that anything was possible. But who was I?
I introduced myself, and explained that I was representing my neighborhood civic association, and told them a little bit about it. I asked them to confirm who they were, but they wouldn’t immediately answer.
I suggested that I may have been at the wrong meeting. A woman finally confessed that they were the local food co-op. The man who had welcomed me said, “But maybe you’re in the right room after all.” He went on, “We have been saying that we needed to get some Hispanic members on our board.” “I’m not Hispanic,” I said.
“That’s ok, what I mean to say is, the important thing is, well, you’re not –”
I didn’t end up staying. But later, I thought to myself, they’re right. They understood the changing cultural and ethnic landscape of where they lived, and the inadequacies of existing organizations such as theirs in representing the needs of all residents.
I bought a single-family home in the DC suburbs in early 2014. Rent in this metro area is high, and it made sense at the time to pay a mortgage on a house a little further from downtown, and have a bit more room as well as a garden. I’d be closer to parks and trees. I was expecting that I’d drive a bit more and that home and yard maintenance would be hard work. I was self-conscious that, as a single (at the time) woman I might be an outlier. Maybe I’d be the friendly, quirky cat lady.
I didn’t think much about race, then, though I deliberately looked for neighborhoods with a degree of racial and ethnic diversity. It’s a fact that my skin is significantly darker than the typical European-American. I was born in India, to Indian parents. I’m not white. I grew up in Canada, and I’ve lived in the United States most of my adult life. I’m used to being one of the few brown faces in a room.
As an Asian woman, I occupy this liminal space. My neighborhood is roughly one-third first- and second-generation Latin American immigrants, chiefly from El Salvador and nearby countries. I interact mainly with other college-educated, white-collar neighbors, which makes sense, as I am college-educated and white-collar myself. Those neighbors also mostly happen to be non-immigrant whites. I go to community meetings populated almost entirely by college-educated, white-collar, white people. I go to happy hours for transit and bicycle advocates that are largely composed of college-educated, middle-class white people.
I prefer not to drive my car, and this sets me apart from many of my middle-class, college-educated white neighbors. When I walk to the store, when I wait at a bus stop, or take a bus that crosses suburbs and county lines, I’m moving in a different demographic space than my neighborhood events. I see fewer white faces and more black and brown ones. However, unlike me, most of these people are commuting to and from non-white collar service or domestic jobs.
I live in an inner suburb on the Maryland side of Washington DC that was built after WWII to serve the needs of returning GIs. These neighborhoods are comprised of modest Cape Cods and ranch style houses on generous lots. Early on, many of these neighborhoods formed restrictive covenants to keep out Jews, blacks, and other unwanted groups. Some around me bucked this trend; I live a mile from the old Indian Springs Country Club, now Montgomery Blair High School, which welcomed Jewish members from the beginning. As a result, many of the subdivisions in my immediate area have a significant, well-established Jewish presence. In other parts of suburban Maryland, particularly in parts of Prince George’s County, neighborhoods with less restrictive covenants eventually attracted a middle-class African-American population.
These mid-century suburbs segregated leafy single family neighborhoods from shopping and job centers, often through zoning codes that explicitly blocked high density or mixed-use development. They also deliberately accommodated the easy use of private automobiles. Wide multi-lane roads slice up neighborhoods, with long blocks, high design speeds, and minimal signal lights. Mandatory parking minimums enshrined by law ensured that businesses are easy to get to by vehicle, with the unintended consequence that they are less pleasant to access on foot. Some subdivisions feature curvy, non-gridded streets, and lack sidewalks, shoulders, or curbs. Longtime residents often block infrastructure improvements, citing their desire to live on a rural country lane. Since these homes are often less than a ten-minute walk from shops, public transit, and busy roads and freeways, and less than 10 miles from the US Capitol building, this claim of living in a country idyll is laughable. However, this myth has real consequences for infrastructure development. It means that affluent longtime homeowners who prefer to drive everywhere have real emotional investment in the status quo, and therefore speak the loudest at community forums and can block transit and other infrastructure improvements. I’ve attended meetings where white-collar middle-aged men argued that “no one takes transit” and that “everyone will telework in the future.” But the buses I take, only blocks from where these anti-development activists live, are always full, and the majority of the people on them can’t telework to their child care, general contractor, or retail jobs.
What we’re seeing in our neighborhood is a what Alan Ehrenhalt terms a demographic inversion. As more and more people with means, predominantly white people, move into urban areas closer to jobs and desirable amenities, rents and home prices in those city neighborhoods become prohibitively expensive. Immigrants and less affluent people of all colors find themselves in the more affordable suburbs. Sometimes, this is not a grudging move. For generations, American television, including most family sitcoms, situated the American dream in a single-family house with a big yard, among trees and far from the bustle of the city. For many African-Americans and recent immigrants, success has meant moving to the suburbs and buying a house and a car. Yet for some, suburban rents may be affordable but buying a car is not an option. In my area, we often see Latin American immigrants walking down narrow sidewalks next to six-lane highways, carrying groceries from strip malls and box stores that are fronted by large, mostly empty parking lots.
These demographic shifts result in racial and cultural communities that often live in non-overlapping worlds. This disconnect manifests in message board threads expressing dismay at the proliferation of jaywalking, while not realizing that stop lights and safe crosswalks are often separated by a half-mile or more. After a spate of break-ins one winter, some of my neighbors expressed what they thought was an innocent desire for an increased police presence and neighborhood watch groups. This led to reports of suspicious individuals walking in front of their homes, in some cases described as doing nothing more suspicious than walking in the public right-of-way. As we have seen across the country, the combination of a pedestrian-hostile built environment, a car-centric culture, and racial profiling can result in tragic situations.
One morning, I was heading to the bus stop on the six-lane road near my home. There's an intersection with a signalled crosswalk. I saw a young brown woman approaching from the opposite side. She was clutching a little girl in one hand, and held a cell phone in her other hand to her ear. We began to cross with the pedestrian signal.
Just as we were about to walk past one another, a left-turning Jeep pulled into the crosswalk between us. The driver side window rolled down, and a white man shouted, “Get off your phone!” He then accelerated off. Astonished, I couldn't stop myself from yelling after him, but he was half a mile away, and in a car, and wouldn't hear. I was in the road, one of the pedestrian underclass. And yet, I'm also a homeowner and this man may be one of my neighbors.
And yet, this suburb voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, and most residents would consider themselves liberal, if not progressive. Most of my neighbors would agree on the theoretical need for supporting their neighbors, helping the poor, saving the environment, and promoting sustainable transportation. But almost no one is willing to make changes that impinge upon their lifestyle. Most would want transit to be available when they want to use it, but don't want to have to wait longer in their cars for an extra signal light or yield at a crosswalk so that others might safely access a bus stop.
Community members and political representatives often express pride in the racial and cultural diversity of our schools and communities. They acknowledge the importance of increasing representation of immigrants and racial minorities in decision-making and community-building. However, like the man who tried to trick me into attending his food co-op meeting, actual attempts may be clumsy, and mistake diversity in skin color for diversity in class, experience, or means. Some members of my own civic association tried distributing fliers in Spanish, but it hasn't increased Latinx representation at our events. People are busy with their lives, and only some can spare the time to get involved.
For those of us who have the mental energy and the will, the challenge is to do a better job of representing those who aren't attending town halls or writing their council member, but who might view that new transit route or signaled crosswalk as helpful rather than a hindrance. Forming a more integrated community will likely require zoning changes that make shopping and jobs more accessible to those who cannot or prefer not to drive. We must encourage neighborly compromise between walkers, cyclists, and drivers in our infrastructure policies.
In August 2016, there was a large fire in a modest, garden-style apartment complex a few miles away from my house. Several renters lost their lives and many more lost their homes. Most of those affected were low-income immigrants, and many were primarily Spanish speakers. Within hours, every neighborhood listserv in the county had lit up. By that weekend, relief and community organizations were begging neighbors to stop sending household goods, clothes, and toiletries. They had too much, and nowhere to put it all. Regardless of class and cultural differences, we accepted the displaced as our neighbors. A couple months later, after the November election, hundreds gathered in a local rally with political and police leaders to affirm protections for all our residents against vigilantes and federal government policies that might target based on ethnicity, religion, or immigration status. We bought yard signs and signed petitions.
Then most of us went home, in our cars, and went on with our lives.
Sanjida Rangwala is a geneticist living in Silver Spring, MD with her husband and two cats. She is passionate about infrastructure and ways to make her community better. Follow her on Twitter @adijnas.