By JONATHAN TILOVE
May 9, 2001
c.2001 Newhouse News Service
FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. _ The scene at Sharon Springs Park is a timeless American idyll. The sky is blue without end. A gentle evening breeze bears the fragrance of popcorn, hot dogs and cut grass. Eight Little League games are being played simultaneously on eight perfect diamonds. The air is alive with the buoyant clatter of delight and encouragement, rising to the hollow pinging of aluminum bat on ball.
It is 2001, but, apart from the aluminum bats, some of the clothing and the very occasional dad with a cell phone, it could be the 1950s. And like the suburban American dream, circa 1950, the scene at Sharon Springs Park, 2001, is entirely white.
The population of Forsyth County, north of Atlanta, more than doubled in the 1990s, making it the second fastest-growing county in the country. Hewing to the central story line of the 2000 Census, Forsyth also registered dramatic percentage increases in its minority population in the 1990s.
But Forsyth 2000 is still 92 percent white and its growth is mostly explained by the droves of white folks moving in. For every single black person and every 10 Hispanics new to Forsyth in the 1990s, there were 100 new white residents. And Forsyth is but one example of a less-told census story: Many of America’s fastest-growing places are very white, and booming on account of white population growth. They could be called white meccas.
“Ozzie and Harriet keep moving farther out _ first to the suburbs, then to the exurbs,” says William Frey, a demographer with the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan.
The fastest-growing county in America is Douglas County, Colo., located between Denver and Colorado Springs. Its population nearly tripled in the 1990s. It is 90 percent white. To its east and west, Elbert and Park counties in Colorado _ the third and fifth fastest-growing in the country _ are even whiter. In all, eight Colorado counties are among the 20 fastest growing, and all but one are more than 80 percent white. In Georgia, in addition to Forsyth, four counties are in the top 25, and all are between 80 and 97 percent white.
America in aggregate is now 69 percent non-Hispanic white, down from 76 percent in 1990. But nobody lives in aggregate, and of the 157 counties that grew by 40 percent or more in the 1990s, more than two-thirds were at least 80 percent white, and more than a third were at least 90 percent white.
Some _ like those in Colorado, Utah and Idaho _ are in very white stretches of America’s fastest-growing region, the Mountain West, which is attracting newcomers from all over the country.
Others of these meccas, like those outside Atlanta, are distinctly whiter than the states or metro areas of which they are a part.
Those include Loudoun County, Va. (number six nationally and 80 percent white) in metro Washington, D.C., and Louisiana’s fastest-growing parish _ St. Tammany (85 percent white) _ across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, which is 27 percent white.
They include the two fastest-growing counties in Alabama _ Shelby (89 percent white), outside Birmingham (24 percent white), and Baldwin (86 percent white), outside Mobile (50 percent white). In Ohio, the pace for growth is set by Delaware County, which is 94 percent white, and located just north of the city of Columbus, which is 67 percent white. The state of Florida is 65 percent white, but Flagler County in the north, its hottest county for growth, is 84 percent white.
The fastest-growing suburb of New York City was also the fastest-growing county in Pennsylvania _ Pike County in the Poconos _ which grew by two-thirds and is 90 percent white.
For some Ozzies and Harriets, the search for a nicer climate, a good job and affordable peace and quiet means moving from the older suburbs of the Northeast and Midwest to what Frey, the demographer, calls a New Sunbelt of freshly minted suburbs in the South and West _ places like Douglas and Forsyth counties. They are searching, Frey says, for “some glimmer of what the suburbs were like in the 1950s.”
And their search, says Robert Bullard, a sociologist who directs the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, has recast white flight on a broader canvas. It’s called sprawl.
“It’s not rocket science,” says Bullard, the lead editor of “Sprawl City: Race, Politics and Planning in Atlanta.”
“It’s driven by the same things that led whites to leave the central city. Now they are moving farther and farther out and the counties that are now the growth machines are the ones that people know, `that’s not where people of color are.”’
Phill Bettis, an attorney and community leader in Cumming, the only town in Forsyth County, explains the appeal of Forsyth and other white meccas in a slightly different fashion.
“Instead of celebrating differences,” says Bettis, “I think it’s a search for commonalities of beliefs and priorities, for the way America used to be.
“I think everyone is hunting for Mayberry,” says Bettis, whose family has been in Forsyth for five generations and really felt, growing up, like Opie. “They want stability.”
There are still some traces of Mayberry in Forsyth. From 3 to 11 every morning Bettis’ aunt, Lunell Robb, bakes some 1,300 breakfast biscuits _ 20 per cookie sheet _ at Mr. Swiss, a tiny eatery and local hangout in Cumming. It was just another hamburger joint until the first McDonald’s arrived in the early 1970s and Robb and her husband went retro to survive.
But Aunt Lunell just turned 61 and everywhere vestiges of the old, poor, rural Forsyth are disappearing, making way for lush residential developments like Windemere, with its verdant golf course, grassy amphitheater and fitness center. Or “an equestrian community” called the Chattahoochee River Club. Or,coming soon to Forsyth, The Vickery, a “new urbanism” community designed by the same man who created Seaside, the planned Florida village modeled on small Southern towns from the turn of the last century where “The Truman Show” _ a movie all about a faux small town _ was filmed.
People moving to Forsyth may like the small-town ideal, but that does not mean they want to live like hicks. What they seem to want is a sort of New Mayberry, where Floyd’s barbershop is now a Starbucks and Goober is working at the Home Depot.
“I would love to live in a town like Mayberry, but it’s not going to happen in the modern world,” says Anna DiGiorgio, who moved to Forsyth six years ago, buying a home in the Polo Golf and Country Club community. “I’ve heard so many people say, `I can’t wait until we get Target.”’
DiGiorgio was born in Italy. She moved to Forsyth with her husband, Louis, their three children and her mother (who speaks only Italian) from Port Chester, a suburb in New York’s Westchester County, where she had grown up and lived almost all her life.
In Forsyth they could afford a 2,800-square-foot home twice the size of their house in New York with about half the property taxes. Her husband was able to start an auto body business. She manages the office. But, more than that, in Forsyth, she says, they found “a more family-oriented, better way of living.”
The DiGiorgios left the Catholic Church and joined the Pentecostal Assemblies of God Church where their children are in the Royal Rangers and Missionette youth programs. Her children are on the country club swim team. Her son plays football through the county recreation department. Her husband is taking up golf.
By the 2000 Census, for the first time, Hispanics outnumbered whites in Port Chester. “The Mexicans have taken over,” DiGiorgio says. It is no longer her hometown. “From when my son was born, I just had a feeling Port Chester was not for us,” she says. He could have gone to a nearby magnet school there but, “I felt they were accommodating the foreign-speaking children more than they were accommodating the English-speaking children.”
Instead, the DiGiorgios moved to Forsyth where her children go to state-of-the-art public schools so well wired that parents will soon be able to go online to see if their children turned up for class and passed their exams and what that night’s homework assignments are.
“The public school system operates like a de facto private school system,” says University of Georgia demographer Douglas Bachtel. “You can’t help but have a good school system with all those affluent, college-educated people. The people moving into Forsyth are giving their kids computers and Carl Sagan coloring books for Christmas. They have time for the PTA.”
Before she moved to Forsyth, DiGiorgio says, one of her brothers (two brothers moved to Georgia ahead of her) who was already living nearby in North Fulton County tried to talk her out of Forsyth, warning it was Klan country.
She says the concern was unwarranted, and her brother now lives in the same Forsyth development she does. “It’s not like that anymore. Blacks are welcome here,” says DiGiorgio.
But there was a time _ not all that long ago _ when few would have made that claim.
“I remember when a nigger wouldn’t cross the Forsyth County line,” says Edward Frachiseur. The word comes easily, naturally, without apparent rancor. Frachiseur’s family runs a roadside stand _ the P-Nut Patch _ where he boils peanuts over a wood flame in an ancient beer keg with an old cymbal for a lid. They sell “taters” and “maters” _ potatoes and tomatoes _ and old washboards and the like, and do anything, Frachiseur says, that a computer cannot _ hauling and spreading pine straw for mulch, selling Christmas trees and Halloween pumpkins, landscaping. Whatever. Growing up, Frachiseur says, he would hear stories about blacks being lynched in the mountains.
What is known is that in 1912, a young white woman was raped and, before dying from her injuries, identified three black men as her attackers. One was lynched and the other two tried and hanged before a crowd of 10,000. Homes and churches of blacks were burned, and the hundreds of blacks who had called Forsyth home were driven out of the county.
In 1987, Forsyth yet again became a symbol of racism when some 75 civil rights marchers were pelted with rocks and bottles in Cumming. A follow-on civil rights march a week later drew 20,000, Oprah Winfrey and, for Forsyth, it seemed, the opprobrium of the nation.
“I don’t think anybody was proud that this was a segregated community, but nobody took a great initiative to change it,” says Bettis, who, at some personal risk, chaired a Biracial Committee charged with studying Forsyth’s racial dilemma. (As a young man, he aspired to be Atticus Finch, the brave lawyer in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”)
Today Frachiseur knows there must be a few black folks living in some of the wealthy developments nearby. “Some of them are as nice as can be,” says his older sister, Brenda. What worries Edward Frachiseur now are all the trees that are being cut down, depleting the ozone layer, and the old waterfall he used to swim in that was paved over for the 1.7 million-square-foot Mall of Georgia in nearby Gwinnett County, with, as Bullard notes, its 8,600 parking spaces and not a lick of public transportation.
There is a green field across from the shacklike P-Nut Hut, but word is that it too will soon be paved over to put up a supermarket. Very occasionally, when the steady stream of traffic on Route 20 whooshing by the P-Nut Hut briefly ceases, the quiet recalls what this place must have been like not that many years ago.
Brenda Frachiseur is moving her family farther out, toward Chattanooga, Tenn., where the country is still, for now, country.
Back in 1987, some local boosters feared Forsyth’s hopes of growth might have been badly damaged by its reputation as some kind of redneck redoubt. It turned out instead to have been the starting gun for the Forsyth boom.
“Did that attract folks here?” asks Bettis. “I think that has been everyone’s question, the question nobody wants to answer.”
What is clear is that Forsyth’s old reputation is transmitted and received very differently by blacks and whites.
Blacks too are headed South and suburban. Frey, who is also a senior fellow at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., found that in the 1990s, the Atlanta metro area was the premier destination for blacks in the nation. And yet, while the black population in greater Atlanta increased by 62 percent in the decade, only a few hundred made their way to Forsyth.
Bullard, who is black, says an African-American moving in or to Atlanta will almost certainly be forewarned about Forsyth.
“There is a grapevine in the black community and people say out loud where the places are you don’t want to look at,” says Bullard. And Bullard says the pioneering desire to be the first black on the block has receded in recent years. There are plenty of other places in the Atlanta metro area that a black of means can move. “Today there are not many black families that want to be the first black or only black in the community.”
By contrast, for most whites, Forsyth’s history, even if they should happen to know about it, is not disqualifying.
Prescott Eaton, retired from the military and the Kennedy Space Center, who moved to Forsyth in the 1990s and is president of the Federation of Forsyth County Homeowners, may be an exception. “If I had known that there were only 14 blacks in Forsyth County (in the 1990 Census) I’m not sure I would have moved here,” he says. Why not? “Because of the racist implication.”
But Bettis, who at 46 is retiring to write a novel set in Forsyth, wonders, “Why a guilt trip? Nobody is closing the doors.”
Bettis liked what Forsyth was, and while he misses knowing everybody, he also likes what it is becoming, the new mix of people who are being drawn here. He thinks he understands the allure of Forsyth and other places like it. He coaches Little League at Sharon Springs Park. “I was there,” he says of the night of the forever blue sky. “It was a special night.”