A culture shift
Think the suburbs are homogenized? Think again. More and more, they’re looking like the city they surround
Children raced bikes in a circle and dogs ran underfoot as adults gabbed, ate pancakes, and sipped coffee in clusters on a Lexington cul-de-sac. The scene at my neighborhood’s annual pancake breakfast could have been from a Norman Rockwell painting of suburbia - the 21st century version.
Some of my neighbors chatted to each other in their native languages of Hindi, Chinese, or Korean. Our hostess, who is white, flipped pancakes and turned sausages, while her husband, who is black, led our children in games, including a water balloon toss. Religiously, ethnically, and racially, my neighborhood is diverse and a prime example of what is happening in many of the suburbs that ring Boston - and in suburbs throughout the United States.
Two decades ago, most of the nation’s suburbs were 81 percent white. Today, on average, they are 65 percent white, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of 2010 Census data. With each decade, the line that used to separate city and suburb in terms of race and ethnicity has become blurrier. In Massachusetts, the growing diversity of the suburbs is a splintered story. A look at 134 of the communities closest to Boston shows that 60 percent of them remain more than 90 percent white, while the rest range between 39 and 89 percent white.
Lexington, a town of roughly 31,400 where the percentage of Asians rose from 11 percent to 20 percent between the 2000 and 2010 Census, tells one slice of the story. With a median family income of $150,389 and a median home value of $677,600, according to 2010 Census data, Lexington and similar towns are increasingly becoming a draw for highly educated immigrants, especially those from China and India. Residents as well as demographers say several factors drive the growth in Chinese and Indian populations in towns like Lexington and, notably, Acton. Most come to the United States with graduate degrees and look for towns that boast schools with high test scores, as Lexington does, according to census data and interviews with demographers. Some come because friends or relatives already live in those towns and because as a population of one group grows, more services and social organizations form, too.
Randolph, a town of roughly 32,000 and traditionally working class, shows another slice of the story: Gateway suburbs, those closest to a city, are becoming nearly as diverse as the city next door. In the last decade, the South Shore town became a suburb where no racial or ethnic group was in the majority. In Randolph, whites accounted for more than half of the town’s population in 2000; now, they make up 39 percent; blacks 37 percent; Asians 12 percent; Hispanics 6 percent; and others 5 percent.
But broad numbers like those barely scratch the surface of Randolph’s diversity, says the Rev. Wallace Brown, pastor of the town’s Greater Vision Tabernacle Church and a resident of the town for 12 years. The 150 members of his church are predominantly black, but most are not African-American. Some come from Haiti, others from the Dominican Republic or Cape Verde. His neighbors include a diverse group of blacks as well as whites, Hispanics, and Asians.
“That’s the beauty of Randolph,’’ Brown says. “There are no pockets. It’s all diverse.’’
Brown, his wife, and the two youngest of their three children moved 12 years ago from Dorchester to Randolph. So did a cousin of his. “Our dream as young African-American males was this one suburb,’’ Brown says. “It was just more of the mobility and chasing the American dream, to have your own home and have a decent life, backyard for the kids, not abutting on the neighbors.’’ Randolph, where the median family income is $77,326, was attractive, too, for its affordability, Brown says. Now, according to census data, the median home value is $292,000.
Randolph is “probably the most diverse city in Massachusetts,’’ says Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. With demographics that more closely mirror Boston’s, Randolph has faced some of the same challenges. Randolph’s schools, declared underperforming in 2007, are on the upswing but still must deal with an increasing number of students whose first language is not English and who may not have been literate in their native languages.
Lexington schools have not flagged, largely because the relatively affluent immigrant population choosing to settle in the town is so well-educated, says schools Superintendent Paul Ash. Many are literate in their native languages, making it easier for them to pick up English, he says. While state data show that 21 percent of Lexington students have a first language other than English, only 5.5 percent are considered limited English speakers.
In both Randolph and Lexington, town government and committees, as well as parent-teacher groups, and the teaching ranks, are not nearly as diverse as the town’s population, Ash and others say. Roughly 30 percent of Lexington public school students are Asian, for example, while only 3.4 percent of the teachers are, according to school district data. In both towns, nonelected town officials have been working with minority groups to try to increase the diversity in town and school positions.
Lack of Asian representation in elected office is a complicated issue, says Yu-Chi Ho, a retired Harvard math professor who moved to Lexington with his wife 45 years ago. Both Hos were born in China. “If it happens naturally, it’s fine,’’ says Ho of Asians running for office. “I don’t want to force some people to run. Asians culturally, particularly the immigrants, don’t touch politics.’’
Dan Krupka, a member of Lexington’s demographic change task force, says he “personally would love to see the Chinese, Indians get much more involved in town affairs.’’ Getting involved is one way for residents of different ethnic and racial groups to understand each other,
In recent interviews, members of the Indian Americans of Lexington, founded in 2008, said they are encouraging Indian-Americans to run for office. Time to participate, not cultural resistance, is the issue, they say. The association’s biggest goal is to raise awareness about the town’s growing Indian population, says Bhumip Khasnabish, the group’s liaison to the town’s Lexington 2020 Vision committee. The Indian population, now estimated at 850, makes up roughly 3 percent of the Lexington population, the second biggest minority group after Chinese, according to census data.
The reputation of the schools, the town’s history, and its atmosphere wooed the Khasnabish family to Lexington in 2001 from Waltham. Khasnabish’s daughter, Srijesa, now a 16-year-old junior at Lexington High, says she’d like to add an Indian culture club to the school’s list of clubs. “There’s an awareness issue. When I say, ‘Oh, I speak Bengali,’ People are like, ‘What is that?’ ’’ says Srijesa, whose parents are both originally from Bengal.
In the 1970s, when Puran Dang came to Lexington straight from India, the town had only three Indian families. “The future looks good because there’s receptivity on both sides,’’ says Dang, chair of the town’s Indian group. “Slowly, slowly, we are becoming a part of the whole.’’
Linda K. Wertheimer, the Globe’s former education editor, can be reached at linda@lindakwertheimer .com. Follow her on Twitter @lindakwert.