Whites still fleeing cities in Mass.

Crime fears, schools are probable factors

By Peter Schworm and Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / March 24, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Whites are abandoning Massachusetts cities at a rapid clip, continuing well-worn paths to the suburbs or out of state, according to new demographic data from the US census.

In Lawrence, the white population plummeted by more than one-third over the past decade, while Chelsea’s dropped 34 percent. Springfield lost some 17,000 white residents, Brockton and Worcester dropped more than 14,000, while Lynn lost 12,600.

Overall, 43 of 45 large communities examined by the Globe saw declines in white population, with only suburban Peabody and Franklin countering the trend. Fourteen — including Everett, Lowell, Malden, and Watertown — dropped by double digits.

“It continues to be a challenge for cities to hold middle-class families,’’ said Joseph C. O’Brien, the mayor of Worcester, who said schools continue to be the “biggest driver’’ of white flight to the suburbs. In Fall River and Holyoke, for example, where the state is threatening to take over the schools if they do not improve, the white population fell off considerably.

O’Brien noted that strong rates of immigration allowed the city to grow briskly in recent years, in keeping with his city’s history of drawing newcomers in search of a new life.

“The story really hasn’t changed,’’ he said. “The only thing that’s changed is where they come from.’’

In all, the communities examined by the Globe lost 190,000 white residents, or 9 percent, even as surging numbers of minorities in many cases boosted their overall populations. For example, the state’s five largest cities — Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Lowell, and Cambridge — all grew despite losing whites, underlining the relative growth of minorities compared with whites.

The exodus reflects the continued move of whites to suburban and rural communities and the overall drop in the white population in Massachusetts. A Globe analysis of census data found that the number of whites statewide dropped 4 percent since 2000, the result of migration to other states and declining birth rates.

The Globe reviewed the state and local numbers of non-Hispanic whites, since some people of Hispanic origin identify themselves as white.

Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, said the number of white children dropped sharply, suggesting that families were leaving and that whites were having fewer children. With such a steep drop in the number of young whites, he said, the proportion of white residents is likely to continue falling.

“The decline was almost entirely concentrated in the child population,’’ he said. Johnson said many states had shown a similar pattern, and the rate of minority growth nationally far outshadowed that of the white population.

In Massachusetts, the number of Asians and Hispanics rose 46 percent, and the black population climbed 26 percent.

Frank Moran, president of the City Council in Lawrence, said yesterday that he was startled by the extent of the departure of whites from his city, where the Hispanic population grew 31 percent. He speculated that fears of crime, which he described as exaggerated, have driven many white families away.

“There is crime, like a lot of cities,’’ he said. “But it’s more the perception. That’s the reason people are scared and leaving the city.’’

The migration of whites out of communities has also left many public school districts in cities made up overwhelmingly of minority students. In Lawrence, just 6 percent of this year’s public school students are white. In Chelsea just 8 percent are, according to state Department of Education figures.

The trend was strongest in lower-income communities plagued by violent crime and struggling schools. Yet wealthier communities like Beverly, Gloucester, Melrose, and Salem also saw declines, as did wealthy ones like Newton.

Compared with other Massachusetts cities, Boston and Cambridge showed only slight declines, which demographers credited to the cities’ economy. Because the cities weathered the recession better than most, many workers moved here for job opportunities, and others were effectively frozen in place.

Charlotte Kahn, who directs the Boston Indicators Project, said Boston and Cambridge have become a “knowledge economy’’ that attracts highly educated, predominantly white workers.

Alan Berube, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, said cities such as Atlanta, San Francisco, and Washington have seen increases in 30-something professionals, typically whites, who prefer the urban lifestyle and being close to work.

Boston’s white population had dropped steadily in recent decades, but rebounded more recently because of surges in the numbers of young couples and empty-nesters settling in the city, realtors said. “You’ve seen a huge expansion in the condo market, and many more younger couples are wanting to live in the city than in the past,’’ said Michael DiMella, managing partner at Charlesgate Realty Group.

Some older couples are trading in their suburban homes for condos downtown or in the Back Bay, realtors said, reliving the city experience they had in their youths.

Some observers cite the transformative effect of the Big Dig, a more vibrant night life, and other quality-of-life improvements for holding on to more white residents. “It’s a different city,’’ said Melvin Vieira Jr., a real estate consultant. “They want to be close to the action. You’re seeing things totally change.’’

Schworm can be reached at, Carroll at