The History of Minorities in New York City Suburbia

In the 1820s, Hezekiah Pierrepont created the first American suburb in Brooklyn Heights. Pierrepont—who simply developed sixty acres of land into individual plots—was soon followed by more ambitious architects and developers who created idyllic communities, complete with resort hotels and steamboat service to Manhattan. The communities catered to Manhattan elites who wanted a reprieve from the city life.

The outer fringes of New York City were still considered a land of the privileged few at the turn of the century. Widespread suburbanization had yet to take hold—in large part due to a lack of efficient transportation, as people still worked in Manhattan and needed a reliable way to get to work. The problem would soon be solved. In the early to mid-1900s, the expanding New York City subway system—coupled with the burgeoning automobile culture—stimulated a population increase along the periphery.

The Suburb of New Brighton (Staten Island) in Early Development

The growing New York City suburbs were still made up of white Americans. The cheaper and improved access to peripheral areas enabled middle-class families to join their elite counterparts, but this was predominately a white-only opportunity. It was during this time, however, that the story of minorities in suburbia began to take shape.

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New York City suburbs were still divided among class and racial lines after World War II. Many suburbanites were a new form of middle-class white residents—including Irish, German, and second-generation Jewish families who had found substantial economic prosperity in their new home. The lower class, largely African-Americans and recent Latino immigrants, were left in the tenements of the urban core.

This process of decentralization was evident throughout New York City, as rapid transit devalued the old tenement districts located close to, or in, the city center. These new subways, bridges, and tunnels removed barriers to the more ideal, outlying locations now making them available for residential use. White building owners in the city were reluctant to rent their spaces to the poor minorities who remained in the city, further magnifying the problem of impoverished groups in the city. This dynamic further enhanced the growing contrast between the growing poverty-stricken areas of the city center and the middle class areas suburbs arising on the periphery.

A New York City Tenement

The 1950s saw decentralization continue at a steady pace, as whites in New York City decreased by 7% and urban blacks rose by 46%. Much of this rise was due to three million blacks leaving the rural south from 1940 to 1960 hoping to find work in the Northeast. As middle class whites were leaving the city, these poor minorities filled the open spaces within the city, generating numerous urban districts full of crime and poverty.

The single most prevailing factor in New York City’s suburban growth was class distinction, as the few minorities who achieved middle class status had the means to move to a suburb, with many successfully obtaining a residence in the suburbs. As the 20th century progressed, the Civil Rights movement was giving black families new educational, health, and housing opportunities.

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From 1960 to 1976, the black middle class tripled, and these families with money sought the same schooling and housing their white counterparts were seeking. This new minority class largely consisted of older black males, with higher incomes and above average educations. In many cases, the black households moving into housing units had the same or even higher income than the previous white residents. For this small group of new middle class blacks, select suburbs of New York City such as Roosevelt and Freeport on Long Island offered suburban opportunities. The area of Freeport successfully integrated their schools in 1964, and across the area various communities saw a dramatic rise in middle class blacks.

A Suburban Home in Freeport

It must be pointed out, however, that practices of blockbusting—the immediate flight of white families from communities—and other signs of racism were present during this time. The ability to assimilate into a community was often met with resistance for these middle class black families, and more often than not a community turned predominately black over time. Roosevelt, for instance, consisted of an 80% black population in 1980, which only 23 years prior had been 80% white.

The racial characteristics of various suburban areas in New York City during this time reflect the different successions into the suburbs, from the 1960s onward. Data from the 1960 and 1970 census show those found in suburbs closer to the city center were generally clustered in high black concentrations, typically rentals, and reflected a younger black population with above average educations, yet lower incomes.

Manhattan notwithstanding, the other four boroughs illustrated this trend, as the areas were denser than outlying suburbs and offered much more rental opportunities. The second type of minority renters was found in white neighborhoods further from the city center, in more prototypical suburban neighborhoods.  These individuals usually had a family, and were middle-aged with above average education and incomes. In these areas a growing amount of black homebuyers existed as well, and reflected the same characteristics as the renters, but with an even higher income, with over one-third attending college. Again, the data emphasized income, and thus social class, as the true determinant in the housing opportunities for blacks, much in the same sense as income was closely related to housing opportunities for white individuals.

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Throughout the 1980s, the rising socio economic status of minorities continued to allow some families into suburbia. From 1980 to 1990, the black population in America’s suburbs grew 34.4%, while the Hispanic population grew 69.3%. In the same decade, white suburban growth only grew 9.3%.  The fact remained, however, that most minority groups did not successfully maintain a presence in the suburbs of New York City.  The lack of minority groups in the suburbs directly correlated to income, and thus the ability to own a home.

In 1987, close to half of the Puerto Ricans in New York City were at or below the poverty line, as the average household earned 40% of their white counterpart. African-American households in the city earned 60% of whites, as both minority groups were also more likely to have only one parent. These factors forced most minorities in the city, mostly blacks and Latinos, into public housing projects, which were mostly in urban settings. In these high-density areas, once an area became 20-24% black, the increase of more blacks into the area increased substantially, and in turn lowered the area’s income and further reduced the overall income levels of the city area itself.

A further relationship in 1987 showed that while close to 40% of whites owned a home in New York City, only 25% of blacks and 11.5% of Puerto Ricans had that distinction. As suburbia was synonymous with home ownership, the lack of minorities in the suburbs was directly influenced by an overall lack of income by the majority of minority families.

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Minorities who did find their way into suburbia were often met with racism. Yet these families with an income similar to that of their middle class white counterparts had the ability to move out of the city, thus reinforcing the distinction of suburbanization as a middle class movement—regardless of race or ethnicity. As more minorities rose to middle class status, so too did their presence in the suburbs.

Rental tract data suggests that in many cases, blacks and whites simultaneously entered areas of new construction, and racial compositions could thus be established instead of altered as seen in earlier cases of race related discrimination.

In terms of housing, racism continued to diminish in the later years of the 20th century, and middle and upper class families of varying race continued to integrate into suburban communities with fewer conflicts, as many suburbs today are neighborhoods strictly set off by social class and wealth, with little racial divide.

The 2010 census shows that 41% of blacks living in large metropolitan areas opt to live in the suburbs. From a statistical standpoint, racial distinctions in the suburbs are becoming increasingly blurry. The former chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority, Vincent Lane, noted that “suburbanization isn’t about race now, it’s about class.  No [one] wants to be around poor people.”

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One Comment on “The History of Minorities in New York City Suburbia”

  1. brenda
    September 27, 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    That’s just one small (yet important) facet of the suburbs in New York. Overall, it’s a pretty fascinating story… from the early settlements to sprawling areas like Levittown.

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