Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lost In Exurbia

Here in Arlington, Texas, we’re known for little more than the original Six Flags amusement park, and luring two national sports franchises to town: the Dallas Cowboys, and the Texas Rangers.

We sit midway between Fort Worth and Dallas in one of the country’s hottest corporate relocation centers. And by hot, I don’t just mean the temperature. Millions of people have moved here since my family did in 1978, and millions more have been projected to join us in the coming decades.

Compared to the rest of the United States, north Texans enjoy moderate taxes, low housing costs, healthy employment rankings, and considerable lifestyle amenities, like the aforementioned amusement park here in Arlington, world-class museums, and national teams for virtually every sport you can think of. Except curling.

Maturing Gracefully?

Not that Arlington has ridden the wave as well as other cities in our region. We’ve attracted over 300,000 people and virtually every chain restaurant known to mankind over the past 40 years, but about two-thirds of us have to commute elsewhere for work. As the city has aged, the cheap housing that developers conned former city councils to green-light has created wide swaths of now-dumpy subdivisions. Into those prematurely aging neighborhoods have come minorities from south Dallas and across the Mexican border, giving birth to our own subtle version of white flight to even newer towns like Keller, Southlake, and Mansfield.

Instead of suburbs, these new boomtowns are called "exurbs," and the trend has swept across America. As what had been highly-desirable suburbia during the 1960's through the 1990's ages into a new type of urbanism, upper-middle-class residents continue to seek the newest and more stylish developments in exurbia.

Except this time, the migration attracts not only middle class whites, but also blacks and other minorities of similar income levels. Race doesn't seem to be as significant a component now as the white flight which took place in the New York’s and Detroit’s of urban America forty years ago. These days, it's fair to say that a class of people, not a race, is fleeing to the outliers of urbanity.

Having so much mobility by so many people with good incomes for such subjective reasons hasn’t just created problems in places like Mansfield, Burleson, and Keller, which haven’t been able to build new schools fast enough. It’s created a vacuum in established neighborhoods across Arlington – neighborhoods that themselves were only built as recently the Clinton administration!

Ecru Flight?

But, as usual, I smell a rat.

Families who have left Arlington for the Mansfield's and Keller's of north Texas tell me with a straight face that it’s so their kids can be in a desirable school district. Which, if Arlington had become like Detroit, I could understand. But Arlington isn’t like Detroit, or Dallas, or Fort Worth. Arlington has the same state education ranking as Mansfield, and considering the size of its student body compared with the smaller exurb districts, manages to do quite well as a whole. What many white parents pretend to ignore, however, is that well over half of the Arlington student body is now minority, which means white kids are the minority in some schools. Oh, the horror!

Of course, it’s not being racist to point out that a disproportionate number of children benefiting from school nutrition programs in Arlington are minorities – although, surprisingly, few are Asian or Middle-Eastern, two significant minority groups in town. And state testing numbers dip significantly when it comes to black and Hispanic students. Yes, Arlington is home to too many illegal immigrants who get to send their kids to public school, but that is a state-wide problem that needs a federal fix. It is true that exurb districts have much fewer illegal immigrants, but where is the data saying the weight they place on school districts actually results in lower educational attainment for the entire student body?

Illegal immigration aside, the fact that Arlington has a robust minority population should be a selling point for white families who want their children to grow up in a community which is representative of what the United States will look like when they’re college-age. Arlington boasts the 15th-largest Vietnamese community in the country, as well as Indians, Pakistanis, and immigrants from numerous African countries who were initially drawn here by our local university and its well-regarded engineering department.

I can’t claim to be a supremely tolerant, non-racist person myself, but living as I do in one of the most racially diverse parts of Arlington, I don’t find sharing our local streets, stores, and restaurants with all different sorts of people intimidating or alarming. As long as they’re quiet, respectable, law-abiding, and code-compliant, I don’t see why my neighbors’ race or ethnicity should mean I have to move someplace else. Maybe that’s not an unqualified affirmation for diversity, but how many middle-class minorities would feel the same way if a bunch of noisy, rude, and sloppy whites lived nearby?

It's Why They Go

I’ve admitted before that I have a weakness for new cars. For some people, their weakness is new houses. I got to watch a friend’s house being built from the raw prairie into a three-bedroom tract home in Mansfield, and even though it ended up looking like many of the others in the brand-new neighborhood, it really was cool having the house built from scratch.

With millions of people moving here, new subdivisions will obviously be part of the development picture in North Texas for decades to come. It’s not illegal for people in older homes to want a new one. And I wonder how many empty-nesters will be leaving Mansfield and it’s skyrocketing taxation for the comparatively low taxes of Arlington in coming years? Look at all the people moving back into center-city Dallas – something only dreamers were predicting would happen a few years ago. Tides do turn, and exurbia will one day be aging, too.

Some of Arlington’s middle-class is also leaving because jobs are too scarce here, and they may be among the two-thirds of residents who have to commute elsewhere for work. Considering the miserable traffic conditions on most of our local freeways, I can’t blame anybody for wanting to move so they can live closer to where they work. If Arlington’s business leaders would get on the ball and cultivate more local companies while wooing the big relocations coming to North Texas, then maybe our city’s middle-class population could stay here and work.

But if, as I suspect, a considerable number of folks are leaving places like Arlington because more and more non-whites have also made Arlington their home, then I say “shame on you” for perpetuating the stereotypes that will continue to warp the generation you’re purportedly wanting to raise in a better environment.

And part of me also says “good riddance” as you leave Arlington a city whose remaining populace appears willing to at least try this new era of diversity. How much stronger a community might we become without you?

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