Suburbanites in wealthier areas are not all wealthy and can be Democrats and identify as working-class

The recent victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th House District has led some to question her background:

Ocasio-Cortez was born in 1989 to parents Sergio Ocasio-Roman, who was born in New York City, and mother Blanca Ocasio-Cortez, a native of Puerto Rico.

Her father, who tragically died from lung cancer in 2008, was an architect and the CEO of Kirschenbaum & Ocasio-Roman Architects, PC, which focused on remodeling and renovations…

Initially, the young family lived in Parkchester, a planned community of 171 mid-rise brick buildings in the Bronx.

When she was about five, Ocasio-Cortez’s family moved to the house in Westchester County, a detail that the bio omits.

The timing of the move is confirmed in a New York Times interview with mother Blanca Ocasio-Cortez, but the report does not address the discrepancy.

The home, a single-story with a finished basement, most recently sold for $355,000 in 2016. The median annual income in the area is $116,741, compared to the median annual income of $48,315 in Parkchester’s zip code, according to the latest Census data…

Her father’s death came amid the financial crisis and he left no will, putting their home on the brink of foreclosure, she has said.

The house was sold and Ocasio-Cortez now lives in the same Bronx apartment where she lived until age five.

I do not know all the details of Ocasio-Cortez’s background. The goal of the article above seems to be to suggest she is not quite the person she presents herself as and instead grew up in relatively privileged settings. Yet, her own descriptions are not necessarily out of character with what actually is taking place in suburbs today:

  1. Not everyone who lives in the suburbs is wealthy or even middle-class. Westchester County is historically a wealthy county outside of New York City. Yet, like many suburban counties that have experienced increased populations of poorer residents and non-white residents, there is more variety in social class and race and ethnicity in Westchester County than people might think. According to the Census, the county is only 53.4% white alone, 24.9% Latino, and 16.5% black. The median household income is over $86,000 but 10.0% of residents live in poverty. In other words, not everyone in Westchester County is a wealthy white person and some residents are more working-class (by certain measures or by self-identification).
  2. A common argument in the postwar suburban boom was that residents of cities would move to the suburbs and become staunch Republicans. This may have been true in some locations, particularly wealthier suburbs. However, the suburbs are now more diverse politically with numerous political battles depending on suburban voters. Suburbs closer to cities now lean toward Democrats while suburbs further out lean toward Republicans. Good numbers of American suburbanites are Democrats.

In other words, suburbs are now often diverse. Long-standing understandings of wealthier and whiter counties, whether Westchester County or DuPage County, might take time to change.

Now that the dandelions are almost gone, how lawn owners of different social classes can set themselves apart

I argued nearly two months ago that how different households treat dandelions in their yard could be a sign of their social class. Now that dandelion season is mostly over in our area, how might homeowners continue to exhibit their social class through their lawns?

  1. Green grass. Significant patches or brown spots are not good signs of a higher social class. This reminds me of celebrities and leaders in California caught with very green lawns even during a severe drought.
  2. The lawn should be cut to a good height regularly and meticulously trimmed. And this should probably done by someone else to indicate a higher social class.
  3. Sprinkler systems, soaker hoses, and elaborate ways to water the grass and plants indicate both caring more about the lawn as well as additional money to pull it off.
  4. Attractive plants, bushes, and trees. Many a real estate listing says yards are “professionally landscaped” but the implication is that more professionalism in this area – presumably related to expertise, thought, and effort – improves the quality of the property. A nice house with a sizable yard that is only the greenest lawn is likely not going to be as desirable as the greenest lawn complemented by other natural features.

Now that I have listed these options, I wonder at what point these different measures must be done in certain neighborhoods and communities. Imagine having a brown lawn in a less desirable neighborhood versus a ritzy one or being the one with a million dollar home who still cuts the lawn and trims the edges on their own. Perhaps there is a baseline of lawn care expected in most American locations and then extra features accrue depending on local practices and social class.

Suburban residential segregation and ongoing effects on voting and prejudice

A long New York TImes op-ed summarizes the findings of the 2017 book The Space Between Us by political scientist Ryan Enos:

Enos then looked at results from 124,034 precincts, almost every precinct in the United States. Again:

“A white voter in the least-segregated metropolitan area was 10 percentage points more likely to vote for Obama than a white voter in the most-segregated area.”…

These voting patterns, according to Enos, reflect what might be called a self-reinforcing cycle of prejudice.

“Prejudice may have helped cause segregation, but then the segregation helped cause even more prejudice.”

In other words, it is not just problematic that people of different racial/ethnic groups and social classes choose to (possible more often for whites and those with more financial resources) or are pushed to live in different places from each other. The residential segregation then has a feedback loop where those differences reinforced by spatial arrangements are perpetuated and perhaps even amplified.

As more of the op-ed explains, simply putting people together (such as suggested by Allport’s contact hypothesis or in the train experiment described in the essay) is not a silver bullet for forging relationships, networks, and reduced prejudices. Even as attitudes toward other groups have improved over time, what would push wealthier whites to sacrifice or put themselves into uncomfortable positions when they do not have to?

Not needing “for sale” signs in wealthy suburbs

The Connecticut suburb of New Canaan is testing banning “for sale” signs:

The “trial ban” on real estate signs will run from July 1 to Jan. 1, according to Janis Hennessy, president of the New Canaan Board of Realtors.

The decision was made by members of the Board as well as the New Canaan Multiple Listing Service, “to further improve our already beautiful town,” Hennessy said in a release…

“Millennials and other potential buyers shop for real estate online and we believe they will be able to find New Canaan homes without these signs. We have seen how eliminating the signs has improved the look of other towns in Fairfield County without impacting the real estate markets. New Canaan Realtors believe it is worth a try here in the ‘Next Station to Heaven’ as well.”

The question of whether to implement a ban, such as a longstanding one in Greenwich, has been battered around New Canaan for some time. Saying the sheer number of ‘For Sale’ signs undermines the town’s attractiveness and ability of some property owners to sell, advocates for the change are cheering the decision.

There are four explanations provided or hinted for why “for sale” signs will not be allowed for six months:

  1. Younger homebuyers do not go driving around looking at homes; they look online.
  2. Other suburbs nearby already have a ban in place. New Canaan needs to keep up.
  3. Not having the signs makes the properties more attractive.
  4. There are too many “for sale” signs.

There may be a single underlying reason behind these explanations: the higher social class of residents in New Canaan. “For sale” signs may be gauche in a community that is one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States (with Greenwich also as one of the wealthiest zip codes). Selling and buying property in a wealthy community does not have to be such a public event. The crass exchange of money for property is essential to American life but may be too prosaic to acknowledge in a place where residents could live in a myriad of places. Not making the sale as public (no signs plus pocket listings and listing only in certain places) may just add to the cachet of the community.

In a place where there are no “for sale” signs and where there may be limited community interaction (one of the findings of The Moral Order of a Suburb), there may be few indications that a property has changed hands. The cars in the driveway may change a bit and home repairs may happen here and there but the single-family homes may be more permanent than residents.

Seeing the real America at the ER Saturday at 10 PM and Walmart Sunday at 8 PM

I visited both of these locations in recent weeks and was intrigued to see the mix of people at each. I’ll make a quick case for why these locations could provide as good cross-section of America as any other location:

  1. Limited options. For the emergency room on a Saturday night, there are few other medical options available at that time. If anyone has a medical issue, they will end up here. As for Walmart on Sunday evening, there are limited brick and mortar shopping options and the work week is about to start.
  2. People need medical care and grocery/home items. Both locations have people trying to meet basic human needs. Even as online shopping may allow people to avoid other shoppers and online medical consultations are now available, there are inevitably moments where running out to a store or medical professional is necessary. It is hard to imagine either of these facilities disappearing completely (even if the number of retailers is severely reduced).
  3. Connected to #1 and #2 above, people of differences races, ethnicities, and social classes are at both locations. In many other locations, whether due to residential location, the location of jobs, ill will toward others, or access to resources, not all groups are represented. Sociologist Elijah Anderson wrote a book about such rare urban locations.

While these may not be the best locations in which to conduct research, they could offer insights into typical American life.

Wealthy Americans: “Zip code is who we are”

I would argue this is not just true of “the new American aristocracy“; where people live has a significant impact on their lives.

Zip code is who we are. It defines our style, announces our values, establishes our status, preserves our wealth, and allows us to pass it along to our children.

On an everyday basis, living in a certain location could affect these aspects of life:

  • social networks and local relationships with different groups of people (race/ethnicity, social class, similar interests)
  • schools
  • access to jobs
  • other local amenities such as community services, recreation, shopping
  • health

Now, the upper class may use their zip code in unique ways. The full paragraph that includes the excerpt at the beginning of the post suggests the zip code becomes a way to keep others out:

Zip code is who we are. It defines our style, announces our values, establishes our status, preserves our wealth, and allows us to pass it along to our children. It’s also slowly strangling our economy and killing our democracy. It is the brick-and-mortar version of the Gatsby Curve. The traditional story of economic growth in America has been one of arriving, building, inviting friends, and building some more. The story we’re writing looks more like one of slamming doors shut behind us and slowly suffocating under a mass of commercial-grade kitchen appliances.

This has been happening for decades in the United States as residents of particular races and ethnicities (primarily whites) and social class (primarily the middle and upper classes) had various mechanisms, now some illegal and others more nebulous (such as exclusionary zoning), to keep those they did not like away from their residences. And this will likely continue for decades more, perhaps particularly for the top 10%.

The well-cultivated lawns of Levittown

The history of environmentalism in the suburbs Crabgrass Crucible includes this description of how Levittown encouraged good looking lawns:

Abraham Levitt, among others, remained keenly aware of the additional work and expense suburban horticulture demanded, as well as the collective benefits that could follow if all Levittowners took the time and trouble to cooperate. However well-chosen and planted, all their grass, shrubs, and trees would die, and the chickweed prevail, if new owners’ commitments and skills were not also fortified. Through a gardening column in the Levittown newspaper, Abraham opened up a weekly line of communication to bring home to Levittowners how “lawns, like all living things, require care.” He “used to come around in a chauffeur driven car” to check on his homeowners’ floral upkeep. If lawns went unmowed or unweeded, he sent his own landscapers to do the job and followed up with a bill in the mail. Most developers at the lower end, like the Romano brothers, were far less solicitous, especially once their homes had been sold.

As lawn cultivation was taken up by new as well as longtime homeowners, its collective benefits, reinforced by the pressure of neighbors’ peeled eyes, helped make it the most ubiquitous of horticultural practices on Long Island. Whether these residents were white or black, however, their memories downplayed the landscaping contributions of builders and developers. Early Levittowners recalled a “sea of dirt” or mud that surged with rain, an uneven respreading of the topsoil, and scrawny, “inexpensive” shrubbery and trees. Residents later remarked little about any lawn damage from roaming children or dogs, or the neglect of lawn care by a neighbor next door. Instead, whether they were Levittowners or lived in African American Ronek Park, their recollections revolved around a joint if rival pursuit of horticultural handiwork. “Everyone” took up the mowing and watering and often the fertilizing and weed killing. As with Levittowners, Eugene Burnett remember “a kind of competition goin’ with that” that made Ronek Park yards into “some of the most beautiful lawns I’ve ever seen anywhere.” Caught up in the lawn-making enthusiasm, even Robert Murphy tried to plant one outside his Crystal Brook home. Yet for large lot owners, the dynamic was less intensely communal – the Murphy’s lawn was not even visible from the road. For denizens of Old Field, but also for smaller lots of horticultural hobbyists, lawns drew less investment of emotion or energy than other vegetation they cared about. (77)

Three pieces of this stand out to me:

  1. The pressure to maintain a nice lawn was present in the early post-war mass suburbs. It may have been present in earlier suburbs but fewer Americans could access those communities.
  2. It appears some of this pressure was promulgated by Abraham Levitt, part of the company that founded the community. At the same time, the developers of Ronek Park did less to landscape new homes there and the pressure to have a nice lawn also was present there.
  3. There are some hints that social class matters here regarding lawns. Was the lawn an essential part of purchasing a single-family home which offered access to the middle class American Dream? Could a poor lawn reduce or invalidate the success of the new suburban homeowner?

It is hard to imagine images of postwar suburban homes, whether in magazines, film, or television shows, without lush green lawns.