Posted on February 20, 2008

Straight Outta Compton

The Economist, February 14, 2008

NEXT month the Burning Bush Baptist Church will hold its first service in a converted Sears department store. When the church was founded, in 1995, it had a congregation of 12. About 750 now attend Sunday services, and more are joining all the time. One reason for the church’s growth is the oratorical skill of David Denson, its pastor. Another is that Burning Bush is a mostly black church, and there are a lot more blacks around these days.

Between 2000 and 2006 the black population of Victorville and Apple Valley swelled from 11,900 to 24,500. Two hours’ drive from central Los Angeles and surrounded by Joshua trees, it is an improbable black haven. Victorville is a former military town on the edge of the Mojave desert to which Orson Welles exiled the writers of “Citizen Kane” to ensure they would finish the film without distractions.

Yet Victorville is typical. Other sprawling exurbs, such as Palmdale and Lancaster, are also seeing an influx of blacks looking for cheaper housing and safer streets. They reveal a dramatic shift in southern California’s population, and provide clues to how America is changing.

Victorville’s gain is Los Angeles’ loss. Since 1990 the city’s black population has dropped by a quarter, from 488,000 to 364,000, even as the overall number of residents rose. The exodus is most noticeable in areas where blacks were once concentrated, such as Compton and Crenshaw. The population of the 35th congressional district, over which the old-fashioned race warrior Maxine Waters holds sway, is now less than one-third black. “It’s becoming hard to find black neighbourhoods,” says Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California.

It is not easy to find them in Victorville, either. The city has black apartment buildings and the odd black street but no black districts. Nor do the other cities to which blacks are moving. So far, at least, southern California’s ghettos seem to be disintegrating, not relocating. Price alone seems to determine where the new arrivals settle. “If you’ve got the money, you can move wherever you want,” says Eloise Gibson, a retired teacher in Victorville.

A similar drift is evident in northern California, where blacks are leaving the Bay Area for inland spots such as Stockton and Sacramento. Across America blacks are leaving inner-city areas. William Frey, a geographer at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, calculates that the black population of suburban counties increased by a startling 26.5% between 2000 and 2006. They seem to be moving farther out of the city, and faster, in southern California than anywhere else.

A big reason is immigration. New arrivals from Latin America and Asia have pushed up rents in the metropolis. Until recently they pushed up house prices, too, benefiting the roughly 40% of black householders in south-central Los Angeles who own property. They could afford to move on. Immigrants have also blurred racial lines, producing a kind of confused tolerance. Boundaries that might be stark if there were only two races are a lot harder to police when there are more, especially since the groups are gradually blending.

Most of all, Mr Myers says, high house-prices have forced different groups together. In southern California people will happily trade ethnic homogeneity for an extra bedroom. It helps that most of the places blacks are moving are fast-growing, with little sense of history. Victorville has no traditionally white areas because it has no traditional areas of any kind.

Black churches are the clearest sign of Victorville’s changing demography. These do not, however, resemble the community edifices that one finds in more established neighbourhoods. Many meet in shops or living rooms. Mr Denson’s attracts the biggest black congregation in the area, he says, largely because he caters to commuters who want to spend precious hours with their families. He can get worshippers in and out in an hour and a half—quick for a black church.

Other changes are more worrying. Ken Jones, a high-school dropout who is learning construction skills, says his family moved from Los Angeles to get him away from gangs. It worked—he describes his life in Victorville as a “retirement”. But he says gangs and crime are becoming entrenched. Between 2000 and 2006 the number of robberies in Victorville increased by 62%. “They bring their lifestyle with them,” says Jim Melton, a youth worker.

At the moment, one of the engines that has driven this migration is stalling. Victorville and Apple Valley are mired in a housing crisis: San Bernardino county had 22,000 foreclosures last year, compared with 7,800 in 1996. Fewer people are moving as house prices fall. Yet this seems to have slowed, not stopped, the black exodus from Los Angeles. The pull of the suburbs is strong.