Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Newcomers come to Cary, N.C., in search of themselves and an America they thought was lost

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May 5, 1996

c. Newhouse

CARY, N.C. – It’s a little after 10 on a bright Wednesday morning as the 100 white women take their seats for the monthly meeting of the Cary Newcomers Club. It’s time to elect new officers, hear about volunteer opportunities at the hospital, listen to a last pitch for the upcoming gourmet dinner and the spring picnic and, as usual, meet the newest comers to what almost anyone here will cheerfully tell you is a suburban utopia.

They are all, of course, from some other place – typically an aging suburb of New York or Chicago or Washington. But collectively, they also seem from some other time.

“Cary is Long Island 50 years ago,” explains Seth Effron, a local political observer and native of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

“It’s a retreat into the 1950s, into the world of the family, into a world of little ethnic diversity,” agrees Chris Scott, who spent his 1950s growing up in Long Island’s all white and manicured Garden City. He is now president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO.

The exponential growth of Cary – it has multiplied by three since 1980 and by 10 since 1970 – and the Raleigh-Durham metropolitan area in which it is nestled is a prime example of an accelerating pattern of national demographic Balkanization.

People in increasing numbers are leaving most of the 10 large metro areas that are the destinations for more than two-thirds of all immigrants arriving from abroad. They are headed for other metro areas and smaller communities that are receiving relatively few immigrants. They are in search, largely, of people like themselves.

In the past, people tended to simply leave the city for the suburb or that suburb for a more distant suburb. Now they are increasingly abandoning wholesale the entire metro areas surrounding New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Boston and Washington, which are magnets for immigrants.

These days, when Americans pull out the Rand McNally to pick a place to make or remake their lives, their finger is most likely to land on the metros that surround Atlanta; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Denver; Seattle; Orlando, Fla.; Portland, Ore.; and Raleigh, or smaller metros like Greensboro, Boise City, Idaho; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Bellingham, Wash., or any of the innumerable little towns and rural communities in between.

“Let’s be honest,” says Robert DiDomenico Jr., who moved to Cary  from Long Island two years ago. Back in New York, “It’s immigrants in, Americans out.”

It is a pattern first observed in an analysis of the 1990 Census performed by demographer William Frey of the University of Michigan and now reinforced by Frey’s analysis of new Census estimates for 1990 through 1995.

The numbers are plain, and getting plainer.

As pertinent background, the 1980s and now the 1990s have seen the largest influx of immigrants in American history. At least three-quarters of the immigrants are from Latin America or Asia. And close to 70 percent of those immigrants are concentrated in one of just 10 metro areas.

What Frey discovered is that between 1985 and 1990, while 2.7 million immigrants entered those 10 metros, another 1.5 million existing residents left.

And now, Frey has found that between 1990 and 1995, another 2.6 million immigrants entered those same 10 metros, even as 3 million more existing residents left. That includes more than a million each out of metro New York (which includes suburbs in Connecticut, New Jersey and a tiny slice of eastern Pennsylvania) and metro Los Angeles (which includes Riverside and Orange County). The 1990-95 numbers do not include a racial breakdown of those people moving.

Frey’s research indicates that some, like many of those moving to Cary, are drawn to new locations that are warmer, less congested, safer, more affordable and growing economically. For example, corporate relocations to the booming Research Triangle Park next door to Cary bring many there.

But Frey found that the exodus from the metros with the most immigration is even more pronounced for the less affluent and less educated. The people who are moving are most vulnerable to competition for jobs, for scarce public resources and control of their community’s cultural symbols and who are most touched by sudden shifts in the racial and ethnic makeup of their neighborhoods and schools.

What’s more, Frey found that people choose a new location not only with an eye to the economy but also with an eye toward finding a community with a lot of other people, racially or ethnically, like themselves.

The danger, says Frey, is that if these trends continue, the longstanding chasm between city and suburbs may be supplanted by an even wider gulf. There would be a few huge multicultural Meccas, with great extremes of wealth and poverty even more coded by color. And there would be a host of distant and separate metro areas whose relative homogeneity, conservative politics and styles are more reminiscent of the suburbs.

DiDomenico moved to Cary  with his father and brothers and their families when his father expanded their computer office supply business, TDI, to the Research Triangle.

DiDomenico rhapsodizes about North Carolina, about the friendliness, the human scale, the lower taxes, the smaller, less lavishly paid public sector, the almost nonexistent commute, the lack of graffiti, the fact that he paid little more in Cary  for a house twice the size of the “shoe box” he owned back in Northport on Long Island.

“It’s family centered, safe for children, good for business.”

But it’s even more than that.

“This is America. I live in America. For my first 34 years, I lived on Long Island. Now, for the first time in my life I live in America.”

The history of his generation’s grandparents and great-grandparents was written in the ethnic neighborhoods of New York. But his suburban generation, he says, “grew up as Americans, and are now finding America in places like North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee.”

And if he and other expatriate New Yorkers tend to collect with each other in these new places, DiDomenico says, that is as natural as the Italians being together in Bensonhurst or the Irish in Woodside back in New York.

“Everybody does that, but when white middle-class Americans do it, it’s called white flight,” he says.

Joanne Douglas, an IBM wife and mother of four who lived much of her life in Union County, N.J., is active in the Cary Newcomers Club even though she lives down the road a bit in Holly Springs.

“These are my people,” she says with a laugh, exiting the monthly meeting. “I just wanted generic neighbors like me.”

While Cary is overwhelmingly affluent, some are struggling to carve out their own leaner piece of it.

Patty Horton, expressing sentiments that almost precisely echo DiDomenico’s, has come to love Cary and North Carolina for more than its warm weather or convenience.

Horton grew up in Bethesda, Md., and was living in Gaithersburg, Md., not far from Washington, with her husband, who did computer drafting work. She worked nights at a supermarket deli counter so she could be home days with her two children.

Sometimes, she was upset when one of the women she went to high school with, now part of the “business-suit-pantyhose-and-Nike” set commuting to a job in Washington and leaving the children with a babysitter, would come in, and see her in her supermarket smock and deli hat. “It was degrading,” she recalls.

In Cary,  Horton says, she is not working (she was not about to get paid minimum wage for the same job she earned $13.25 an hour at back in Maryland). Her husband is working as a construction supervisor. Their income is about a third of what it used to be. They no longer own a home and are living in about the cheapest rental apartment in Cary.

And yet, she says, she is happier. She no longer feels defensive about being a stay-at-home mom. The teachers are strict. No one has had to send home a note with her primary schooler, as they did back in Maryland, warning against bringing guns or knives to school. Why Jenny Has Two Mothers is not on the school’s reading list, and “I don’t think that’s going to happen here in the Bible Belt.”

And, she says, “I love to listen to “yes ma’am’ and “no ma’am.”‘

Seth Effron, who is editor of both The Insider, a North Carolina politics newsletter, and, a newspaper on-line service, says white conservative Christians are drawn to North Carolina because they figure they will be comfortable there and when they get there they feel, perhaps for the first time, really at home and are drawn further out, augmenting existing conservative institutions.

Sometimes the newcomers even exceed local conservative sentiment.

“We have maintained a strong commitment to racial balance in our schools and the people we get the most grief from are not the hometown rednecks but the Yankees,” grumbles John Gilbert, a longtime member of the county school board. “It’s invariably true,” says Gilbert, adding, “they’re typically from New Jersey.”

The migration to North Carolina and the South more generally also includes a notable return migration of blacks with roots here. Bernest and Doris Robinson grew up together in Holly Springs, moved to Harlem as young adults in search of opportunity, married, got good lifetime jobs – she worked for New York Telephone in Times Square, he worked the runways at Newark Airport – moved to the Bronx and then to East Orange, N.J., before retiring back to Holly Springs. “We surprised ourselves t hat we returned here,” she says.

Repeatedly, transplanted Northern whites observe how much friendlier and easier race relations are here. Some chalk it up to longer, closer contact and the generally greater cordiality of the region; others to historical intimidation of blacks here.

Cary itself is close to 90 percent white and it has emerged as a Republican stronghold. It helped a conservative Republican, Fred Heineman, defeat the liberal Democratic U.S. Rep. David Price in 1994 (they are facing off again this year). Heineman still speaks in the Bronx accent of his birth, and was a New York cop 24 years before moving to Raleigh as police chief. Price is a political science professor and an active Baptist with a divinity degree. He originally hails from Tennessee.

A similar conservatizing of local politics has been noted elsewhere.

Frank Whitworth, the head of Ground Zero, a gay and lesbian advocacy group in Colorado Springs, Colo., says he was “totally out” as a gay man in Colorado Springs in the 1970s and it was not a problem in a live-and-let-live conservative town. But Whitworth left and when he returned a few years ago, “I was afraid to be out.”

What had changed was the huge influx of Christian conservative organizations, most notably Focus on the Family, which relocated from Pomona in Southern California a few years ago. Colorado Springs, which had always been a conservative military town, was now even more conservative as the so-called “Vatican of American evangelicalism.”

And in another mountain boomtown, Boise, Idaho, the head of the conservative Idaho Family Forum, Dennis Mansfield, only arrived in 1989 after a career as a contractor and political consultant in Southern California.

Among the places most experienced with receiving disgruntled Californians over time has been Oregon, and says Greg Selby, “I believe it has brought a new breed of conservative to the states.”

Selby lived in Escondido north of San Diego in the late 1980s before returning to the Portland area, an experience that contributed to his decision to help start a fledgling effort to put an anti-affirmative action initiative on the Oregon ballot.

And perhaps predictably, Selby’s partner in the effort, Michael Marselle, is a lifelong Southern Californian who only recently moved to Oregon.

“I refer to myself as a refugee,” says Marselle. “Do you think I wanted to leave my father, my brother, my sister, the Dodgers and the Lakers? But I got tired of the graffiti. I got tired of the bank robberies. I got tired of the rapes and murders and I just said, ‘I’m out of here.’ No one was in control anymore.” And, he says, anyone who tried to stand up to the chaos was “shouted down as a racist.”

Russell Sadler, an Oregon commentator and columnist, believes ex-Californians have undermined his (long-ago) adopted state’s genteel and progressive politics.

Of the newcomers, he says, “They are very close to being a minority race in Southern California and they don’t like it and they’re coming here for the wrong reason, they come up here to escape into Oregon’s vast sea of whiteness.



Written by jonathantilove

September 4, 2012 at 5:03 am

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