View Full Version : 'First' Suburbs Growing Older and Poorer

February 16th, 2006, 04:59 AM
February 16, 2006
'First' Suburbs Growing Older and Poorer, Report Warns

An abandoned house and an empty lot on Main Street in Hempstead, N.Y., typify one of the issues facing older suburbs: deteriorating housing.

Half a century ago, millions of young white couples left America's central cities for greener places to build homes and rear families. Their move created booming commuter communities and a new way of life.

But that idealized picture has been transformed and the future of those pioneering suburbs is in jeopardy, according to a study issued yesterday by the Brookings Institution, a research group in Washington.

Now home to 52 million people, the early suburbs — like Nassau and Westchester Counties in New York, Bergen and Hudson Counties in New Jersey and Fairfield County in Connecticut — are struggling with unexpected and often unrecognized problems that demand new solutions and leadership, the report said.

"Neither fully urban nor completely suburban, America's older, inner-ring 'first' suburbs have a unique set of challenges — such as concentrations of elderly and immigrant populations as well as outmoded housing and commercial buildings — very different from those of the center city and fast-growing newer places," the report said.

Echoing an earlier era's worry that the decline of cities threatened entire regions, the report said, "A recent survey of urban scholars ranked the deterioration of first suburbs as one of the most likely influences on metropolitan America for the next 50 years."

Solving the problems will not be easy, said Bruce J. Katz, a vice president of Brookings. "First suburbs are caught in a policy blind spot," ignored by traditional urban assistance for cities. Also hurting them is "the new attention lavished on fast-growing outer suburbs," he said at a forum on the report in Washington.

Those newer suburbs include Rockland, Orange and Suffolk Counties in New York, but many of the newer and healthiest suburban communities are in the Sun Belt.

The first suburbs once led the nation in population growth. But now the growth of many has slowed to a trickle. Some have even lost population, while newer suburbs are galloping ahead.

The traditional married-with-children family now accounts for only 27 percent of the households in the aging suburbs. The average household size was 2.7 people in 2000, down from 3.2 in 1970.

Once-youthful suburbanites are graying. On average, they are now older than the rest of the country. The 65-and-over segment in the original suburbs has been growing at nearly double the national rate. The housing they live in is also older now than the national average.

The face of the early suburbs, which to some were initially a retreat from increasingly multiracial cities, has also changed. Those suburbs are now more racially diverse than the nation as a whole. From 1980 to 2000, the percentage of minority residents in those suburbs doubled; black, Asian and Hispanic residents now make up a third of the population there.

The first suburbs are also drawing more immigrants than the cities, the historic destination for the foreign born, the study said. Those suburbs had 9 million immigrants in 2000, eclipsing the 8.6 million in the adjoining primary cities.

"The enormous inflow of foreign-born residents is literally transforming many first-suburban communities," the report said. "First suburbs are just now starting to come to grips with these new trends."

By many measures, the older suburbs remain strong — some are among the nation's richest communities — with employment, education levels, income and home prices all exceeding national averages. But even those indicators show the older suburbs lagging as the competition catches up, with New York and many other cities in revival mode and newer suburbs flourishing farther out.

Median income stagnated in the older suburbs in the 1990's, while rising elsewhere. A troublesome 45 percent of Hispanic students are dropping out of suburban high schools.

"Alarming" pockets of poverty have emerged, counter to national trends, the report said. Among all first suburbs, the number of census tracts where 20 percent or more of the residents lived below the poverty line more than tripled from 1970 to 2000.

The report, titled "A Fifth of America," focused on 64 counties where suburbs bloomed before and after World War II. They include communities around New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Los Angeles and Seattle. "Think the Levittowns or, from television, Robert Petrie's New Rochelle, N.Y.," the report said.

Just as city problems prompted urban renewal, the report called for efforts for older suburbs. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Representative Peter T. King of Long Island have introduced a bill for federal assistance of $250 million to older suburbs for economic redevelopment programs. Speaking at Brookings, Mrs. Clinton said, "Most first suburbs don't qualify for existing federal programs."

The report urged first suburbs to provide more apartments and assisted living for the elderly, integrate the influx of immigrants, promote business development and combat poverty and blight.

Hurdles include the fragmented, parochial and often competing local governments, the report said. Suburban leaders need to cooperate, devise solutions and maximize their political clout, it said. The report praised coalitions like the First Suburbs Development Council in the Cleveland area, state efforts promoting planning in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and multigovernment alliances in Los Angeles.

The report also cited the "new suburbia" proposals from the Nassau County executive, Thomas R. Suozzi, who spoke at the forum. He has called for reviving Long Island's small downtowns and creating a high-rise hub in Uniondale.

Suburban leaders at the forum agreed that older suburbs need to build housing that more people can afford, a challenge because of diminishing vacant land. Beyond the common problems, the study found that "first suburbs are also often quite different from each other."

Immigrants were generally rare in the Midwest but common in California. Suburban Dade County, outside Miami, had the highest Hispanic population, 56 percent. Hudson County, N.J., was next at 47 percent. Nearly half of the Asians in first suburbs were clustered in four California counties. Blacks were 62 percent of the residents of Prince George's County, Md.

But the report cautioned seekers of the suburban dream: "The experience of today's minorities in first suburbs may not represent the same upward mobility transitions that it did for whites in earlier decades."

Fernanda Santos, in Washington, contributed reporting for this article.


Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

February 16th, 2006, 07:49 AM
Is it just me, or do others miss the absence of discussion on transportation issues here?

February 16th, 2006, 08:54 AM
I don´t drive. Never have. I´m a dead man in the suburbs.

February 16th, 2006, 11:44 AM
It is simply something they do not want to consider, in Nassau or Suffolk anyway. These places want to be everytrhing they were 50 years ago, but with more roads, bigger houses, more parks, more open spaces, and lower taxes. The answer really is to just "move."

As Sim City shows us, the next step for these areas is increased density and a shift from suburban to urban. Or else, the area dies.

February 16th, 2006, 12:21 PM
Since when is my county, Hudson County considered a suburb? This is one of the most urban and densely populated counties on the East Coast.

February 16th, 2006, 12:58 PM
^ You should see what Parisians regard as a suburb.

February 16th, 2006, 03:48 PM
I have a friend from Putnam County with whom I frequently discuss this phenomenon. He says exurban growth there and other second ring suburban counties is explosive, and that a lot of the larger cities and towns, even in Westchester, are beginning to show very visible signs of decay.

The irony is that the population (and problems) of the Bronx may be pushed into Yonkers, White Plains, and New Rochelle if the gentrification of that borough ever takes off.

February 21st, 2006, 12:22 PM
The report cited by the article: http://www.brookings.edu/metro/pubs/20060215_FirstSuburbs.htm

February 25th, 2006, 12:19 AM
very interesring. i dont like suburbs if i have to live far from a city i rather it be a farm.

February 25th, 2006, 12:03 PM
An experiment to try in these places, since they're not doing too well as suburbs: why not suspend the zoning that keeps them suburban to begin with, with its setbacks, land-use categories, parking requirements, etc.?

At least those areas served by rail transport (and maybe others as well) would spontaneously morph into urban places, and there'd be a lot of profit to be made in providing the newfound density and mixed-use.

February 25th, 2006, 12:54 PM
I think the death of New Rochelle and the like have been greatly exaggerated. Whenever I hear that a neighborhood is struggling with unafforability, it reminds me of the old Groucho Marx quote, "nobody goes to that restaurant anymore, its too crowded."

February 25th, 2006, 01:34 PM
Though there are as many exceptions as examples, the article does describe a trend that's identifiable.

March 5th, 2006, 06:05 AM
March 5, 2006
Questions for Bruce Katz
Battle for the 'Burbs

Q: As the resident expert on housing at the Brookings Institution, you recently completed a study that found that the American suburbs, perhaps our most evocative symbol of postwar prosperity and comfort, are falling into decrepitude.

You have towns that are now 60 or 70 years old, which means that the roads need repair, and the homes in many cases need repair. I am thinking of places like Hempstead on Long Island. Or the suburbs of Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Detroit or Philadelphia — that's where you see the real decay.

So suburbs are the new cities, with all the problems that implies.

It's no longer city versus suburb. As we go forward, the first suburbs are going to look more and more like cities in terms of their density.

And the exurbs that lie beyond the suburbs are flourishing in the meantime?

The places that are growing at the faster rates tend to be towns at the fringe of metropolitan areas. People looking for a starter home for $250,000 have a hard time finding it in the older suburbs, so they push out. In New York, the metropolitan area has now been extended as far as eastern Pennsylvania.

Isn't that a long commute for people who work in the city?

Jobs have followed people to the suburbs, and suburban residents now commute to other suburbs. It's no longer the "Leave It to Beaver" model, which is let's send commuters back into the central business district, or let's send commuters from Westchester to Manhattan.

Is "Leave It to Beaver" the correct reference? I don't think of Ward Cleaver as a commuter.

We never knew exactly where Ward Cleaver went.

True. He lived in Mayfield, but where is Mayfield?

It's completely made up. Maybe Ward Cleaver was in the C.I.A.

Bingo. What about Rob Petrie of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" fame? He commuted into the city from New Rochelle, N.Y., although, by your description, today he would be commuting into an adjacent suburb, perhaps White Plains.

Yes, today Rob Petrie might be in a satellite office, working at home a day or two a week. That is the growing trend. If you look at commuting patterns, about 40 percent of commuters go from suburb to suburb.

You could see why people prefer not to commute from suburb to city. Sitting in traffic for 50 minutes seems bad for the spirit, not to mention the back.

Well, you might learn another language. Or listen to NPR.

It's odd to hear you defend commuting, not to mention first-generation suburbia, because the suburbs have traditionally been cast by novelists as sterile refuges from experience.

Suburbs have an identity, they have assets, and many of them have town centers.

I take it from your boosterish tone that you live in a suburb.

I live in a first suburb, Arlington County, Va., which may be the poster child for suburban development in the 21st century. It's very transit-oriented. It developed as a quintessential suburban county along urban lines. I live around the corner from a decent shopping center and can walk to the store to buy groceries.

What else do you think is missing from the new exurbs?

It's the loss of our cultural identity. Everyone just retreats into their homes, turns on the television and doesn't engage. It's a loss of democracy on some level. Communal life is limited to church and school.

On the other hand, won't the exurbs, given enough time, acquire the density of the first American suburbs?

Not necessarily. I'm doing work in Maine right now, and I can tell you that most of the older cities and towns in Maine are depopulating, and people are moving out to fringes. I can go to parts of Maine, and it doesn't look like anything but New Jersey.

It's such a clichι to pick on New Jersey. What does that mean?

It's so spread out, it's so dispersed across the landscape. The critical mass of a downtown, of a city center, that's all been lost.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

December 29th, 2006, 12:44 PM
This trend is a no-brainer. First of all, as cities slowly become safer than they were, say, ten or twenty years ago, crime does not only disappear, but a large share of its elements gets pushed away to other communities. It's only natural that organized crime makes its move on the inner suburns as it gets pushed out from the city.

Another reason is quality of construction. City buildings, especialy those of older construction, are usually known for their solid build. Many complain about poor condition of inner city rowhouses, but they forget to mention that most of those rowhouses were build over a century ago, and are, for the most part, still holding out very well for their age and continue to house residents while requiring minimal structural repairs. Suburban construction, on the other hand, is often induced by sprawl and other factors that encourage fast and cheap construction. A developer would simply make more money off his land if he is required to demolish and rebuild a hours every twenty years rather than once in a century. Thus, even today many suburban houses are built of materials that can be put together very quickly, yet in the long run are not that sustainable. Its only natural that now, about 40-50 years since inner suburbs were first created, many of the more neglected ones are in pretty bad condition.

December 29th, 2006, 10:10 PM

December 30th, 2006, 05:17 AM
That cartoon in the link above is hilarious.

I think LeCom hit on a good point. A lot of those ranch homes and split levels are 50 years old by now and look like crap.... they are homes dont wear a even slight patina of age very well.

May 15th, 2009, 10:51 AM
I know I'm about 3 years late in on this conversation, but I think if you're going to talk about the safety of cities (and New York especially), a planning writer from NYC who is really interesting is Jane Jacobs, who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She talks about eyes on the street, as in people watching, as being the main thing that makes a city safe. This is a key reinforcement of why high density living is worth while.

Cheers! :)