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.

“McAnger” over new big homes in New York City suburbs

Some new large homes in Westchester County have drawn some “McAnger”:

“This is really stupid,” wrote Laura Kerns. “No one needs this much house.”…”It’s sad, really,” David Raguso wrote. “This county just doesn’t care about the average person.”

Said Dana Doyle, “Bye bye, middle-class! The rich folk are taking over!”…

Like others, Daphne Philipson questioned the need for so much square footage. “The Gilded Age is back – and we know how well that went for everyone.”…

“Wretched excess,” he wrote. “There is nothing wrong with being financially successful, but why then not be reserved about it? How much house does a man need? Find meaning in meaningful things.”…Some were not so much annoyed but still critical of the new homes, critiquing the exterior appearance specifically as a hodgepodge of conflicting architectural styles. “Looks like it was thrown together at different times by different moods,” wrote Erika Kislaki-Bauer.

Eileen Healy Rehill lamented the addition of “more overly priced McMansions” in Westchester rather than “nice yet affordable housing for the middle class.” She was far from the only one, with housing for seniors and the disabled also mentioned.

Some familiar comments when McMansions are involved. Three quick thoughts, with the first two mentioned briefly in this summary of feedback:

1. Westchester County already is a wealthy county. It was known as the home to many wealthy estates as New York City was growing. A number of high-profile companies moved there post-World War II, including IBM. It is home to “Hipsterurbia.” In other words, McMansions are just symptomatic of a wealthy county where many communities would not welcome affordable housing and builders see ongoing opportunities for wealthy buyers.

2. These new homes are indeed large and luxurious. But, the conversation about “who needs this” can get sticky. How much do Westchester County residents consume? How many suburbanites buy a home that is too small for them? How many people don’t seek through the exterior of their home or the things inside to provide some markers of their social status? On one hand, Americans have historically tended to frown upon opulent wealth (hence, everyone wants to be middle class) yet consumption is rampant and the American middle class is very well off by American standards (though there may be a big gap between them and many Westchester County residents).

3. The critique of the architecture might seem class neutral. After all, people could build both big and small houses that match the local styles or are done in good taste. Yet, architectural styles and design are likely class-based tastes, a la Bourdieu.

What happens to “hipsturbia” when the wealthy start building 30,000 square foot homes?

The “hipsturbia” of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York may never be the same with the pending construction of a 30,000 square foot home:

In this comfortable Westchester County community, many residents like to think of their village as the anti-suburb, jokingly calling it the Upper Upper West Side.

With painters, writers, jazz musicians and web designers liberally represented among the population of 8,000, the village displays an arty, slightly irreverent ethos. Subarus with bumper stickers that say “Make Dinner, Not War” outnumber the BMWs with vanity plates. Teenage rock groups are overshadowed by their parents’ bands; Housewives on Prozac is a local favorite. Residents are more likely to play down their wealth than to flaunt it.

So it came as a surprise when residents learned that a house was rising in their midst that was not only over the top for Hastings, but also called for superlatives even for Westchester, one of the richest counties in the entire nation.

The contemporary structure and accompanying pool house together measure more than 30,000 square feet. The underground garage is 3,572 square feet, larger than most of the Tudors and Colonials in town. On the application for a building permit, the construction costs were estimated at more than $40 million.

Maybe we could think of waves of gentrification: hipsters and creative types (think Richard Florida’s “creative class”) can represent a first wave that is willing to move into edgier (grittier, more authentic, cheaper) areas. However, what happens when these increasingly wealthy and educated areas start to attract the uber-wealthy? How does that big money fit with certain hipster values? The article ends by noting that the wealthy couple are Democratic and the big home features alternative energy, so perhaps it is less about money than it is about having the right progressive values. Big homes might be okay as long as the owners have the right morality about such homes.

The other interesting dynamic is that this all is taking place in a suburban setting, specifically in wealthy Westchester County. Hastings-on-Hudson is fairly suburban in its demographics: 85.2% white, the median household income is over $114,000 (the US median is around $50,000), and over 66% of adults have bachelor’s degrees. In other words, this suburban location may be hipsterish but it is certainly not that diverse in terms of race or social class.