The idea of suburbia is so deep-seated it’s become almost a foundational myth: The suburbs are prosperous, tidy, homogenous, and boring. Upwardly mobile families move there to escape urban disorder, crime, and congestion, leaving the inner cities to spin in a downward cycle of disinvestment. In particular, the suburbs are where white people fled in reaction to the Great Migration of Southern blacks to the cities of the North and West in the early and mid-20th century.
It’s an idea that began taking root more than a century ago, when improved transportation made it possible to commute from what had been hardscrabble boondocks; “streetcar suburbs” became beachheads of metropolitan expansion. The post-World-War-II auto suburbs followed, reinforcing the status of suburbia as middle-class enclave; to live there you had to be able to afford a car. The idea of suburbia was so strong it expanded beyond suburban borders: As late as 1991 Joel Garreau could write, in his influential Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, that some in-city neighborhoods were so “beautiful, affluent, quiet,” with their “trees, lawns, and single-family detached homes” they could be called suburban. “For all practical purposes, they look and function like suburbs.”
Maybe. But more and more, across the country and in the suburban rings around Seattle, many actual suburbs do not look and function that way. In once-redlined urban neighborhoods like the Central Area and Columbia City, white flight has long since reversed itself and gentrification has succeeded decay as a prevailing neighborhood anxiety. High housing prices have pushed the poor and near-poor out further, into outlying neighborhoods and suburban towns. Where “suburbanization” summed up America’s social changes in the 1950s, “suburbanization of poverty” has become the new buzzword — nudged along by surprising findings in the 2010 U.S. Census and a much-discussed study from the Brookings Institution.
That term suggests a bleak devolution: Just as hard times are putting the squeeze on everybody, those who most need access to transit, jobs, and public services are getting pushed out to new suburban ghettoes where, as Brookings co-authors Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube note, "the safety net is patchy and stretched thin to begin with.” If so, then the holes should be gaping in Southeast King County, the local epicenter of this new suburbanization.
But a closer look at the situation in Kent, the largest city in the south county, and at the ways both public officials and church and nonprofit service providers are responding to changing economics and demographics, tells another story as well — one not just of need and hardship (which are indeed severe) but of ingenuity, inclusiveness, and community coalescence. Furthermore, the growth in poverty in Kent and neighboring cities in South King County reflects not just push-out but pull-in: South King County and its counterparts in the suburban rings of other American cities have become magnets for a different sort of Great Immigration that may ultimately enrich them.
The changes in the suburban population are certainly dramatic. Between 2000 and 2010, according to census data crunched by the Brookings researchers, the number of poor people living in the suburbs of major cities grew 53 percent, while the number in the cities themselves rose just 23 percent. By 2010, the suburbs were home to a third of all Americans living under the official poverty level — more than the numbers living in cities, smaller towns, and rural areas. The changes have proceeded even faster in Pugetopolis than elsewhere in the country; 68 percent of the poor in the three counties surrounding Seattle now live in the suburbs. And they’ve proceeded fastest of all in South King County.
As the Brookings maps show, the poverty rate rose in 27 South King County census tracts between 2000 and 2010; of the 21 tracts in all of King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties where it rose more than 10 percent, 13 are in the south county. The poverty rate fell, more modestly, in just 11 tracts there. By contrast, it fell in 25 Seattle census tracts during the same period, and rose in just 11.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!