Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The chasm between urban and suburban/rural North Carolina

I mentioned this on Twitter the other night (you can find me @Matt_Lail, by the way) and I may be WAY off base, but it seems to me the chasm between urban North Carolina and suburban (or rural) North Carolina has grown wider during this most recent General Assembly session. Or maybe the gulf is just as wide as before. But either way, the gap doesn't appear to be closing.

North Carolina is a state in the midst of demographic change. On one hand, this change has been called the urbanization of the state as populations grow in the "urban" counties like Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham and Guilford (among others). And it has political implications, no doubt.

Over the past four decades, North Carolina has grown from a state of 5.08 million to 9.54 million people.  Along with that near-doubling in population has come a decisive shift in the state’s societal landscape. Once a spread-out state of small farms, small factories and small cities and towns, it is increasingly defined and driven by a metropolitan economy and culture. A robust “metropolitanization’’ increasingly shapes state politics, too.
From 2000 to 2010, North Carolina had a net gain of approximately 1.5 million people. One-third of that population increase came in only two counties – Wake grew by 273,000 people, Mecklenburg by 224,000.  No other county had population increase of six digits. ...
To help assess the political implications of those population shifts, the Program on Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill recently looked at the 15 counties with the highest voter-turnout totals in the 2008 presidential and statewide elections. Those 15 counties accounted for 53 percent of the total votes cast in the state.

But to others, the trend is more suburban in nature -- North Carolina is becoming the land of cul-de-sacs and will remain that way, according to a John Hood piece from a couple of years ago.

After the U.S. Census Bureau released more of its 2010 data last week, including the counts that will serve as the basis for congressional and legislative redistricting, some politicians and pundits observed that population growth in Wake, Mecklenburg, and a dozen other counties will make North Carolina politics more urban.

I think it would be more accurate to say that state politics is about to become more suburban.

The distinction isn’t merely a semantic one. While North Carolina’s metropolitan areas accounted for a disproportionate amount of the state’s growth over the past 10 years – as they have done for many decades, by the way – the truly urban business districts and neighborhoods in the downtowns of Charlotte, Raleigh, Wilmington, and other cities weren’t a major part of the population story. 

Contrary to the marketing claims of condo developers, the flow of young people and seniors into downtown residences has remained a trickle. The vast majority of the population growth has occurred in suburban neighborhoods, some within the core counties such as Mecklenburg, Wake, and New Hanover but many others across the border in counties such as Union, Cabarrus, Iredell, Johnston, Harnett, Chatham, Brunswick, and Pender.

And later ...

In reality, North Carolina’s emerging suburban politics will reward state and local officials who keep taxes low, tackle traffic congestion primarily with new highway capacity, and prioritize spending on public safety and education. Suburban voters tend to view most other government plans and programs with skepticism, if not disdain.

Disdain is what many urban elites have felt for suburbs. Their sentiments are duly noted, and irrelevant.

It just seems to me like the dozen or so "Moral Monday" protests this year have shined a light on this gulf. And I'll admit: I'm basing this completely on gut feeling and anecdotal "evidence" such as posts on my Facebook and Twitter timelines. As I tweeted recently, my urban friends "are impassioned, and my suburban ones balance between ecstacy [about recent political developments] and not caring any less."

How this plays out over the next election cycles remains to be seen. Some think the Republicans have lost their swagger. From where I'm sitting, I don't see a great shift away from the conservative momentum. (Though I will fully admit that the clamor of teachers' pay may just turn the tide when it's all said and done.) But just as we have finally become a two-party state, the places we call and the people we live with and around have become polarizing factions as well.

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