Living Las Vegas: Sun Belt cities offer new take on race

Younger locales in the South and West have lower segregation levels in residential communities

The Shops at Summerlin, left, under construction, and the Red Rock Casino, right, in Las Vegas, east of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Andrew Spivak’s academic research comes to life every time he drives by the school bus stop on Sunset Road and Durango Drive near his new home on the city’s west side.

“I have never lived some place that was so diverse,” said Spivak, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “Probably half the kids are black or Hispanic. That’s nothing that I’d experienced, especially when I lived in New England and Oklahoma.”

People of different races and ethnicities are more likely to live side by side in the fastest-growing parts of the Sun Belt — areas that are constantly sprouting housing developments on desert or farm land without the pre-civil-rights legacy of segregation still ingrained in many older cities in the Northeast and Midwest.

These new subdivisions and master-planned communities — all built after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — have no history of racial separation. They didn’t start out as white or black because no one lived there before. As a result, they offer a clean slate of opportunity to anyone who can afford to live where they want to live and a glimmer of a postracial society.

Research, including Spivak’s, shows that among the largest metropolitan areas, Las Vegas and other booming areas, such as Riverside, Calif., and Phoenix, have the lowest levels of black segregation from other groups. Nationwide, residential segregation has consistently declined since 1980, and the 10 least segregated metro areas all grew faster than the national average of 11 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to Kelvin Pollard, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau. By contrast, some of the most segregated (Detroit, New Orleans and Milwaukee) lost population.

“The ghettos of the Northeast and Midwest are not being reconstituted in the fast-growing areas of the South and West,” said demographer John Iceland, head of the sociology department at Penn State.

The most striking reason for the lower rate of segregation is that most of these newer places have few remnants of a pre-civil-rights society and fewer established racial enclaves. When a suburb or neighborhood gets a reputation for not being welcoming to blacks or other minorities, the perception can linger for decades, and it has in many older cities. But not so in much of the Sun Belt.

The rapid growth brought on by a constant influx of newcomers from all parts of the U.S. and the world has shattered the vestiges of racial separation so deeply rooted elsewhere. Younger migrants are less likely to harbor discriminatory attitudes and are more likely to be in mixed-race relationships.

The most striking reason for the lower rate of segregation is that most of these newer places have few remnants of a pre-civil-rights society and fewer established racial enclaves.

Cassandra Smith, an African-American agent with Realty One Group, estimates half her clients are black. But black or white, most of the newcomers who are house hunting care about the same things: safety, schools and services. “Most of them are educated and working,” she said. And because housing is cheaper here, they can afford to buy in more upscale subdivisions.

Everyone sets their sights on Summerlin, an affluent sprawling master-planned development west of the city where a brand-new, four-bedroom, two-bath home can be had for less than $350,000 and where schools are top-notch. Homes are about half the price of a three-bedroom, 50-year-old, ranch-style home in middle-class areas of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.

If Summerlin is too expensive, they may settle north or south or just east, an area often referred to locally as Not Quite Summerlin. That’s where Derek Duncan, 37, lives — on a cul-de-sac that presents the ultimate in diversity, with homes for less than $200,000.

Duncan, who works in sales for lighting supplier DecoLights, is black and Italian. His wife is white. His stepson is a quarter Puerto Rican, and his half-brother is black.

The neighbors? Two families are Hispanic, one is white, one is mixed-race Hawaiian, and one is Filipino. Occupations? A musician, a casino worker, a tow truck company operator, a retiree. “My neighborhood is a complete mixed bag,” Duncan said. His memories of living in Boston as a kid are very different. “My family was from a black area of Dorchester, and everyone was … black or Jamaican,” he said. “Just down the street, across two major streets, you had one neighborhood that was primarily Hispanic and then one that was primarily white. My dad lived in South Boston, where it was primarily Irish. The school I went to was primarily black.”

But Duncan is well aware of Las Vegas’ history of segregation. His mother, Katherine Duncan, founded the Westside’s Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce. In the time of segregation, blacks were pushed to the west side of what is now I-15, a line they crossed only to go to work as maids and servers in the glitzy hotels and casinos on the Strip. The area was dubbed the Black Strip and eventually, just Westside.

“Even that community is far more diverse than it used to be,” Smith said, driving past the boarded-up apartments that housed hotel workers.

On West Bonanza Road, she points to the dilapidated remains of the Moulin Rouge, billed as the first interracial casino resort when it opened in 1955. (Boxer Joe Louis was the only black owner.) The resort mysteriously shut down after a few months. The casino was gutted by a fire, and the hotel is just a shell, but it remains Las Vegas’ best-known black symbol.

Smith is a Las Vegas native; her parents moved from the Deep South, as many blacks did over the decades, to work in the flourishing hotels and casinos. Her mother was a hotel maid, and her father helped set up trade shows. They settled in North Las Vegas, not in Westside, Vegas’ only historic black area, where black churches are still clustered. There were riots there in 1992, after four white police officers were found not guilty of beating black motorist Rodney King in Los Angeles. The violence sparked millions of dollars in local and federal investment and efforts to improve relations with police.

“That community is still very much still there but with a lot of Latino families,” Smith said.

The Moulin Rouge, the first racially integrated casino in Las Vegas, in 1956.
7927/Gamma/Getty Images

But that’s not where the thousands of African-Americans who joined the hundreds of thousands who migrated to the Sun Belt live now. Some are teachers, business professionals, and many are younger. “Las Vegas is one of the most diverse areas of any part of the country that I’ve been in,” said Gene Collins, director of the local chapter of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization. “Segregation is not an issue here. If you can afford to live someplace, you can move in. As soon as the Fair Housing Act passed, blacks could live wherever they could afford to live and chose to live.” African-Americans are in smaller numbers in these Sun Belt boomtowns, which contributes to increased diversity and less clustering. “We do see this correlation between the size of the black population and segregation,” Iceland said. “At the same time, some of the Sun Belt cities that have lower and declining black segregation have growing black populations.” Blacks made up 10.5 percent of the 2 million people living in Las Vegas’ Clark County, compared with 12.6 percent nationally, according to the 2010 Census. But the county’s African-American population jumped more than 50 percent since 2000, compared with a 12 percent increase nationwide.

Even among metro areas with the nation’s largest black populations, black segregation is lower. Houston ranks 21st and Atlanta 24th, according to research by John Logan, a segregation expert at Brown University.

“There are two Americas,” he said, “the America where segregation stays high … then there’s the part of the country where African-Americans have not been as segregated, are present in much smaller numbers and have incorporated into neighborhoods. These are areas where things are really changing.”

Iva Harris, 71, a retired high school counselor and sometime actress, and her husband, Ermon Harris, 72, a military retiree, moved after 30 years in Stockton, Calif., to a guarded gated community on the southwest side of the city. They bought a home with a casita, or guesthouse, for $400,000. At the peak of the housing boom, it was worth $1.2 million, but it has since tumbled to about half a million.

“We didn’t know an awful lot about Las Vegas,” said Iva Harris, who also runs a cosmetics company. “I didn’t know the makeup, but I knew I was going to a somewhat affluent neighborhood. I knew I was going to be a minority.” That was 11 years ago. Now, a third of the 18 homes on her street are occupied by African-Americans.

That’s not to say that racism and discrimination have vanished, said Collins, a Louisiana native who has been in Vegas 56 years.

“I’ve been a part of the changes as they occurred,” he said. “I chose to live in West Las Vegas to make sure the community is safe … It’s really not black anymore.”

He and other community leaders raise questions of equity in police treatment of blacks and say there continues to be a lack of investment in what’s left of the city’s historic black area. “We’re very represented in most neighborhoods if you can afford them,” said Katherine Duncan. “It’s based more on income than skin color, but most of the disparity is in other parameters … the workforce, and blacks overly represented in the prison population.”

Even Harris sometimes wonders why there are so many black families on her block and whether some agents intentionally steered black buyers to that corner of the upscale community.

The Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce is organizing a weeklong event this month to remind residents of the role the Emancipation Proclamation played in helping Nevada become a state 150 years ago. “When I arrived in Las Vegas, I thought it was the best place in the world for African-Americans,” said Derek Duncan, whose family moved here more than three decades ago. “There were black headliners [at the casinos]. I never experienced any segregation. There were no mosquitoes. The weather was beautiful. And there were African-American businesses that were thriving.

But, he added, no one — regardless of skin color — is immune from economic downturns. “But now all that is gone, and it seems like while the city has become more and more integrated, the black community has lost its economic base,” he said.

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