Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The end of the middle-class neighborhood

Countless words have been delivered about the ever-shrinking American middle class, caught in a vise between our élites and the burden of supporting that half the population who can't or won't support themselves. It's not that obvious in the blessed Virginia suburbs of Washington that politicians, federal employees, lobbyists, and similar call home. But you don't have to drive very far beyond the charmed circle and the picture is ever so different.

My wife and I are reluctantly looking to move because we can no longer afford the house we rent in our attractive northern Virginia burb. For 10 years we have watched the surroundings morph into a 'hood fit for Washington grandees, signaled by a wave of tear-downs and building of bonsai castles. 

We have been checking out a couple of other locations closer to where my wife works as a reference librarian two counties south. Let me tell you about one of them. I won't name it, but anyone familiar with the War Between the States would instantly recognize it as a famous battle site.

Like so many towns in this region, it is sharply divided between a historic district and suburban development stretching quite a way from the historic bit. The old town has considerable charm, with many Victorian and early-20th-century houses and few apartment buildings or townhouses. It went downhill for a while but seems to be undergoing a revival, which I suspect is due to an in-migration of rather well-off people, some of whom are willing to make the hour commute to Washington.

Then there's the rest. All in all it probably encompasses three times the area of the historic district. The main commercial drag is typical of contemporary America -- indoor malls, strip malls, car dealerships, gas stations, fast food restaurants. The chain stores, Macy's, Best Buy, Starbucks, the usual. Uninspiring but what you would expect.

And then the new-old suburban residential streets ("new-old" because, by appearance, most of the houses date from the '50s and '60s). Originally, these areas were almost certainly considered desirable and even prestigious. It was probably a sign you were on your way up in the world when you moved there from the patchy old downtown.

Today the houses present a mixed aspect. For the most part they aren't decrepit, but many offer clues that they are inhabited by a much lower socio-economic class than they were designed for. Some need painting and repair. You see a lot of Kmart furniture through the windows at night -- a time when nobody seems to be about walking anywhere. Maybe it was the cold weather, or maybe there are other reasons as well.

Some house owners were clearly determined to keep up the looks of their properties. My guess is that they would sell and move out in a blur if they could get the price they want. Which they never will.

As we got to know this famously named town better on subsequent visits, it became clear what was going on. It has gone Hispanic in a big way. Most of the restaurants other than the chains serve Mexican food. In the Denny's where we had lunch, all the waitresses spoke to one another in Spanish, although their English was fine when dealing with gringos like us. They were perfectly pleasant; I have nothing personal against them, but they represent an alien culture that is rapidly taking over from the indigenes. 

Store signage was, naturally, in English and Spanish. Most of the Anglos we saw were well into their later decades, with a backstory of life in a traditional southern town and a future, for whatever time is left them, as part of a dwindling minority.

It's kind of like a border town on the U.S.-Mexico line (although the Virginia influx is probably from many Spanish-speaking countries). I was reminded of Nogales, Arizona, next to Nogales, Sonora. Nogales (AZ) still flies the stars and stripes on the post office flagpole, dollars are recognized as currency, and a few other vestiges of the American nation survive. The inhabitants are good at sussing out whether to speak to you in English or Spanish.

The point: where is a middle-class, middle-income family to live in the Virginia burg I was describing? Chances are they can't buy into the gentrifying island, and few (however they may claim to favor diversity) would choose to settle in a neighborhood now occupied largely by immigrants and minorities. The dilemma repeats itself, in varying degrees, all over the United States.


Bill said...

I hope you're not talking about Fredericksburg. I'm a Northeasterner who's been there a couple times, in 2004 and 2005, spent an entire day each time, seeing the downtown, suburbs, exurbs, hinterlands, and the F-burg/Chancellorsville battlefields, and everything you say seems to fit that area to a T, except for the part about foreigners: I didn't notice any at all, and I was being pretty observant. Assuming it is F-burg, that's a huge change in just ten years.

Rick Darby said...


It is not Fredericksburg, which is where my wife, cats, and I may move to.