Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

The Suburb Perfected: America Moves to the New Sun Belt

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Third of four articles

With eight photos, of shopping center and cows (NNS13), Joe Utley (NNS14), John L. Frye (NNS15), Noemi Rodriguez, daughter Rubi Rodriguez and priest Father Jose Galvez (NNS16), Antonio Doria singing to his family (NNS17), Esbeida Depaz, Diana Hernandez, Anan Depaz and Naye Ramirez preparing to dance at Mexican Independence Day celebration (NNS18), Parrish “Ham” Womble with Joe Utley (NNS19) and Vincent DeBenedetto with Confederate re-enactors including Fred Burt and Joe Rand (NNS20); and with biobox, logo, map and two graphics showing metro areas with greatest white migration gains and education levels of Hispanic and white newcomers to New Sun Belt


c.2004 Newhouse News Service

(UNDATED) The New Sun Belt shimmers with utopian promise. It is the suburb perfected, the America in which most Americans on the move are settling, home to four-fifths of the growth of the white population in the 1990s. But the New Sun Belt is also increasingly a destination for immigrants, especially less well-educated Hispanics, who come in pursuit of their more humble American dream and who have become increasingly indispensable in ensuring that more affluent Americans can continue to live in the style to which they are accustomed. These are very different migrations. They are symbiotic, but in the yawning gap between two recognizable classes of newcomers, they also contain the makings of a new American dilemma.


In 1990, there were 920 people living in the town of Holly Springs, N.C., and 970 in the city of Robbins. Robbins, an old mill town in rural Moore County, was 85 percent white and fading fast. Holly Springs, little more than a scruffy crossroads at the edge of Raleigh-Durham’s Research Triangle, was 76 percent black. No restaurant. No grocery store. When folks came in to pay their water bill, they put the money in a Tampa Nugget cigar box.

That was then.

Holly Springs now has some 14,000 residents, most of them white, and a new family arrives every day. It is the fastest-growing town in North Carolina. The cigar box is in a glass case beneath a genuine antique portrait of George Washington in the gorgeous new town hall that looks like it ought to be in Colonial Williamsburg.

The town is run mostly by newcomers from the suburbs of New York and Chicago and Los Angeles.

Last year, with studied urgency, they rushed development of Holly Springs Crossing, a new shopping center with a Blockbuster, brew pub, Lowes Supermarket, Chinese takeout, Vietnamese nail salon, Quiznos Sub, Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices (imported direct from Staten Island), and _ in the most auspicious sign that this has become a place you can call home without apology or regret _ Assagio, Holly Springs’ first white tablecloth restaurant.

There, Vincenzo Doria from Bensonhurst serves up homemade gnocchi, fresh mozzarella and warm and generous portions of Brooklyn personality: “People ask me what brought me down here? I say, `Witness protection program.’ Who the hell’s going to look for me in Holly Springs?”

Robbins, meanwhile, lost a third of its white population in the 1990s but actually grew a little thanks to an influx that made it proportionally the most Hispanic community in all North Carolina _ 583 non-Hispanic whites, 578 Hispanics, 22 blacks.

Robbins is still strapped _ last year a Perdue chicken plant joined its impressive inventory of lost jobs.

But the signs of life are in Spanish. There are four Spanish-language video stores and the inviting neon of the homey Mexican restaurant, Taqueria Los Charritos. There’s the Aztec Christian Center led by the Rev. Jose Avila, a charimastic preacher out of Laredo, Texas. And there is Robbins’ first Catholic church, San Juan Diego, pastored by Father Jose Antonio Galvez, a Salvadoran who was posted in Honduras when his bishop asked if he would go to North Carolina. His reply: “I don’t have any idea where is North Carolina, so I say, `OK.”’

Here, in these two communities, is the unfolding story of what William Frey, a demographer with the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution, calls the New Sun Belt.

In the decade before the last census, nearly 80 percent of white population growth nationally was concentrated in this band of states in the Southeast and the non-California West. The whites moving in were better educated and more affluent than the whites already there. And they were moving to places much like Holly Springs _ state-of-the-art suburbs springing up whole across what was once rural and Main Street America, fresh with utopian promise, a back-to-the-future blend of small-town virtues and bourgeois pleasures, all new and, for the 21st century pioneers laying claim, all theirs.

“It’s like a blank canvas,” says Peter Atwell, who has been on the town board in Holly Springs since 1999, a couple of years after he moved here. Atwell grew up in the northern New Jersey town of Kinnelon, a place, he says, where nothing was new.

Linda Hunt Williams, a New Orleans native and founder of the Holly Springs Kiwanis, shares Atwell’s excitement: “It’s a rare chance in America to create a community.”

And that is the particular allure and the peculiar logic of the New Sun Belt _ millions of Americans are leaving home in search of community. As it was put in the slick brochure for Sunset Ridge, the golf course development that transformed Holly Springs, “we all want to be part of something, to have that sense of belonging.”

Unmoored from local geography or shared history, the new Holly Springs seems genuinely bound together by the similar habits and values of its can-do, post-ethnic, post-regional, middle-class Americans, by shared pluck and predilections.

“There’s not one person from North Carolina in my neighborhood,” says Gary Spuller, who four years ago moved his family from his lifelong home in Niagara Falls, N.Y. And yet, he says, “We’re all the same.”

People arrive to the pleasant shock of recognition.

Vincent D’Agostino, who had lived his whole life in the same house in Syracuse, N.Y., discovered a place where young people still “look like the way I felt I was when I was a teenager. It’s the best place in the world to raise kids.”

“It’s California 30 years ago,” says Chet Van Fossen, an architect from Newport Beach, Calif., who serves on Holly Springs’ town board and whose family history tracks a nation’s migrations.

His mother moved to California from Ohio, his father from Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl. Van Fossen surfed California’s golden age, and when it began losing people to other states in the ’90s, journeyed with his wife across the New Sun Belt in search of a new home _ Walla Walla, Wash., Mesa and Scottsdale, Ariz., Pagosa Springs, Colo., and, finally, North Carolina.

Daniel and Maria Rodriguez, owners of Taqueria Los Charritos, also moved to North Carolina after a couple of years in Newport Beach, Calif., where Daniel was a cook.

Making it was a struggle. When Maria first saw Robbins, her heart sank. Not much to look at, “no lights.” But for seven years they have had their restaurant, and their children, Daniel, 11, and Daniela, 8, have the glint and bearing of confident American children. “I like it now,” Maria says.

There is no mistaking Robbins for utopia. Hispanics come to North Carolina _ to the New Sun Belt _ for work. At first they came to Robbins because, with all those white folks leaving, housing was available and cheap. They kept coming because word spread that here you could pursue the American dream and still sleep at night.

“It’s a nice place, quiet, pacific. A small town. Nice to grow a family,” says Jose Lopez, who with his wife, Gabriela, a teacher’s aide at the now half-Hispanic elementary school, are considered the first family of Robbins’ Mexican community. Lopez lived in Texas when he scouted out Robbins 15 years ago. He liked what he saw. He wanted their son, also named Jose, to grow up learning English, not “Spanglish.” It worked out. The son, now grown, speaks five languages, including Japanese, and teaches English to executives in Mexico.

“They want the same things we want,” says Daniel Brown, Robbins’ police chief, who refers to fellow whites in his hometown as the “indigenous population.”

In the realm of desire, the newcomers to Robbins are much like the newcomers to Holly Springs. But in the aggregate, these two migrations are as different as have and have not, and contain the makings of a new American dilemma.

Nearly two-thirds of Hispanic immigrants to the New Sun Belt in the 1990s had less than a high school education, more than half spoke little or no English, and 30 percent lived below the poverty line. According to the 2000 census, per capita income for Hispanics in Robbins was $7,200 and for whites, $21,000. For whites in Holly Springs, it was $33,000.

The white and Hispanic movements to the New Sun Belt are not coincidental. They are symbiotic. Put plainly, you can’t create new golf course communities without roofers, gardeners, housekeepers and busboys.

“This is upward mobility for the Hispanics coming to Robbins, to the New Sun Belt,” says Frey, the demographer. “But in the bigger picture they are simply tagalong migrants. The only reason they can get jobs is because of the bigger movement of middle-class white suburbanites to places like Holly Springs.”

America’s middle class has come to depend on low-wage workers, 20 percent of whom are immigrants, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute. Two in five of these low-wage immigrant workers are undocumented.

And they are politically more powerless than any group in America since the end of Jim Crow.

In the 2000 presidential election, one-third of North Carolina’s Hispanics of voting age were citizens, 12 percent were registered to vote and 8 percent _ a mere seven-tenths of 1 percent of the active electorate _ voted. The result is that the most vulnerable people in the New Sun Belt are the least represented _ in local government, on school boards, in jury pools.

In contrast, like Caesar, the newcomers to Holly Springs came, saw and conquered.

By 2002, the town board was all white, none with local roots. This past fall the candidates included Vincent DeBenedetto, from Bensonhurst by way of Parsippany, N.J., and Rye, N.Y., who arrived in 2001, and Vincent D’Agostino of Syracuse, who arrived in May.

“I think the leadership needs to reflect the changing demographics,” says DeBenedetto.

Most Hispanics in Robbins get only as close to politics as the adult English as a Second Language students standing at the crowd’s edge last September when Sen. John Edwards, a hometown boy, announced his candidacy for president before the idled textile mill where his father had toiled. The students were there because their teacher, Luci Prazeres, a missionary to Robbins from Brazil, had brought them.

At another ESL class that night at First Baptist Church, Prazeres writes “Oprah Winfrey” on the chalkboard. “Quien es ese mujer?” she asks. Who is that woman?

The class is quiet. Here in the middle of nowhere, a rich array of Latin American television is available by satellite. “I need you to watch 10 minutes of English language television two times in a week,” Prazeres says sternly.

That Saturday is Mexican Independence Day. In the past, Robbins celebrated in a suffocating, windowless building. But in 2003, for the first time, Jose and Gabriela Lopez lead the dancing in the beautiful new Catholic church built in the mission style, “like the Alamo,” Lopez says.

No one from Robbins’ “indigenous” community is there.

Mayor Mickey Brown, first cousin to the police chief, is out on his riding mower trying to keep Robbins kempt. Brown, re-elected without opposition in 2003, says he stays in touch with the Hispanic community through the Lopezes and the Rodriguezes, as well as another guy named Jose whose last name he is not sure of.

“No, it’s not the place I grew up in,” Brown says. But without the Mexicans, he adds, Robbins would only be emptier.

And even as it seems the Mexican community in Robbins has arrived, some are leaving. The chicken plant’s closing hit hard. John L. Frye, who, in his 80s, works six days a week at the sparsely stocked department store in the location his grandfather chose in 1896, says some of his Mexican customers have closed out their accounts.

“In the late 1970s we had roughly 2,000 jobs in Robbins. Today there are less than 300,” says Frye, who for many years was mayor, as was his son until he got called to preach and left to pastor a church with more parishioners than Robbins has people.

Gerald Holleman, who in 2001 ended 17 years as Holly Springs’ mayor, brought his little town into the modern age. But Holleman, whose family has been in these parts since England granted them land, warned locals that once they got water and sewer (in 1980, one in four families still used an outhouse), the place would change: “I told them, `They’re coming over the hill, and these folks ain’t going home when they get through. They’re buying homes. They’re going to live here.”’

Holly Springs old-timers tend to be philosophical about change.

Debbie Whittaker, who has worked for the town since there were only four employees, whose business card now calls her senior customer service representative in the Water Department, says it is nice to be able to go someplace for lunch where “you can chew your food and not just swallow it.”

But Gloria Heggie, her Water Department colleague, acknowledges that sometimes she looks around Holly Springs and wonders, “Who are these people, where did they come from, and when are they going back?”

Of course, this is now those people’s town.

These days, Barbara Koblich is the face of Holly Springs, the first person you meet when you enter town hall, sitting behind a welcome desk and looking _ “bless her heart,” a now favorite phrase _ like she was born here. In search of opportunity, Koblich left Lancaster, N.Y., for North Carolina in 1993, and chose Holly Springs because, like Lancaster, it was a real small town. She became Holly Springs’ first chamber of commerce director. She founded the Historical Society. In 2000, she was citizen of the year.

Vincent D’Agostino lives on the same street as his brother and a lifelong friend from the street they all grew up on in Syracuse.

Peter Atwell tells a similar story: “My best friend from high school lives 2,000 feet from me. His father moved down four months ago and his in-laws a month ago. It’s scary.”

Vincent DeBenedetto and Vincenzo Doria went to the same elementary school in Bensonhurst.

Days before Assagio opens, people poke their noses in expectantly.

Doria is there with his oldest brother, Salvatore (Brooklyn Sal’s Pizza, nearby); Giuseppe Viola, a South Brooklyn boy who imports espresso machines, and Tony DeVita, who moved from Ozone Park, Queens, to distribute Boar’s Head Brooklyn deli products among the Tar Heels. Antonio Doria, father to Vincenzo and Sal, is there looking fit in a black T-shirt and gold crucifix, smoking a cigarette and loudly missing Bensonhurst the way he used to miss Naples. “Fuggehddaboudit!”

The father sang professionally, and here at Assagio he will sing table to table _ “O Sole Mio,” anything you want. “We’re bringing the culture,” Vincenzo Doria says.

Holly Springs held its second annual SeptemberFest even as Robbins marked Mexican Independence Day. There used to be a free barbecue on Labor Day. But the feeling was Holly Springs had outgrown that, so the Chamber puts on something bigger and better, with a professional barbecue contest, a 5k run, arts and crafts booths, tents, music.

“It’s play-play,” says Gloria Heggie, wincing.

Doris Robinson is selling drinks at the Lions Club stand. She and her husband, Bernest, grew up in Holly Springs but went to Harlem when they were young. They achieved a comfortable middle-class life in the Bronx and then East Orange, N.J., before returning to Holly Springs to retire.

At first, they couldn’t stand the quiet. And now, well, she says, running her hand down her bare arm to indicate her color, “There’s nothing for black people here.”

She wants to sell their house and move back north, though she notes wistfully, the last time they drove by their old place in East Orange, the once-velvet lawn was overgrown and some people from somewhere _ “Haiti? Hades?” _ lived there.

The festival is being held at Parrish Womble Park, named for the last black to serve on the town board, now waging an uphill campaign to get back on the board. Womble is proud of the progress Holly Springs has made, but bothered that so many newcomers date the town’s history to their own arrival.

When the votes are counted, Atwell is re-elected and Womble narrowly beats DeBenedetto, with D’Agostino trailing behind.

Mayor Dick Sears, a retired Sears, Roebuck and Co. executive who arrived in 1995 after years on Long Island, in Bucks County, Pa., and suburban Chicago, figures Holly Springs will double in size by 2010, and that’s OK. “We want to be a big small town,” he says. But, he insists, “We never want to be a small big town. Never, never, never.”

Former Mayor Holleman, rumpled and wily, is amused by all this.

“They don’t know what they’re trying to describe for you because they’ve never been there before,” he says. “They’ve read about it in a magazine.”

Holleman knows where he and his wife Margaret, who is black, are headed. They got married on the Big Island of Hawaii and have bought a house there _ better weather, less traffic, and, although he doesn’t mention it, more interracial marriages than anyplace in America.

“The next ticket I get,” he says, “won’t have a return on it.”

(Jonathan Tilove can be contacted at jonathan.tilove(at)


Written by jonathantilove

November 6, 2011 at 2:31 am

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