Searching for Whitopia

An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America

by Rich Benjamin

Hardcover, 354 pages, Hyperion Books, List Price: $24.99 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Searching for Whitopia
Subtitle
An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America
Author
Rich Benjamin

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Book Summary

Citing predictions that white citizens will no longer represent the American majority by the mid-twentieth century, a report on a growing trend through which white families are moving to small and ex-urban areas that are predominantly white offers insight into their motivations and growth as viewed by the author, who lived for several months in a sequence of three example communities. 50,000 first printing.

Read an excerpt of this book

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Searching For Whitopia

SEARCHING FOR WHITOPIA

An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America


HYPERION

Copyright © 2009 Rich Benjamin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4013-2268-7

Contents

INTRODUCTION...................................................................................1Chapter 1 UTAH'S DIXIE.........................................................................17Chapter 2 THE LATINO TIME BOMB.................................................................59Chapter 3 GOLF AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE...........................................................92Chapter 4 ALMOST HEAVEN........................................................................109Chapter 5 PRIVACY IS AN ATTRIBUTE OF GOOD LIVING...............................................145Chapter 6 THE GEOGRAPHY OF HOMOGENEITY; OR, WHAT'S RACE GOT TO DO WITH IT?.....................184Chapter 7 LAND OF THE FREE, HOME OF THE BRAVES.................................................199Chapter 8 EXURB NATION: FROM THE HARD RIGHT TO THE MARSHMALLOW CENTER..........................254Chapter 9 POTOMAC 20854........................................................................283CONCLUSION: TOWARD THE COMMON GOOD.............................................................303APPENDIX.......................................................................................321ACKNOWLEDGMENTS................................................................................333NOTES..........................................................................................337

Chapter One

UTAH'S DIXIE

* * *

Drive an hour and a half northeast of Las Vegas, through epic desert vistas, and St. George, Utah, a town of 65,000, glints on the horizon. Tidy St. George is tucked in a dusty crevice between the Black and Pine Valley Mountains and the Mojave Desert, near the point where Arizona, Nevada, and Utah meet.

The Virgin River flows through this rocky plain. St. George's recreational crown jewel, Zion National Park, is just an hour north. With wind-sculpted sandstone arches and jagged, color-rich canyon walls, the 150,000-acre park shouts "paradise" to rock climbers and other outdoorsmen. Picture the red mountains and plateaus of the Grand Canyon, and you'll begin to understand how color and topography beautify this Whitopia.

Just as the Civil War began in 1861, Mormon leader Brigham Young dispatched 309 families to this area to grow cotton and other crops conducive to the warm climate. This cotton mission was hatched from the Church's larger ambition to become self-sufficient. The Mormon settlers who dubbed this southwestern Utah canyon country "Little Zion" imagined a promised land.

But because of the warm climate and the fleecy white gold, settlers came to call the region "Utah's Dixie." Even after the nation officially declared the Utah Territory a state in 1896, the area kept its nickname, which remains to this day. The Dixie region is now the better part of Washington County, including St. George, its county seat and largest city.

Averaging at least 300 sunny days a year, Dixie is regularly cited by the press and consumer groups as one of the nation's best places to retire. Utah can't take credit for the weather, but the state can take credit for offering several property tax exemptions that lure retirees. In 2006, AARP conducted an intensive nationwide search for five cities that offer "culture, cachet, or, in some cases, just peace and quiet": St. George was among the top five choices.

The Mormons built this town from scratch on previously undeveloped land along the Virgin River. Utah's Dixie still has the whiff of unspoiled terrain, as waves of retiring baby boomers, young families, and second-home buyers settle it as their new Zion. Residents of Dixie saw their best-kept secret balloon from 11,350 people in 1980 to 28,502 people in 1990-a 151 percent leap in a mere decade. Later, between 2000 and 2006, St. George's population increased from 90,354 to 126,312, a 39.8 percent spurt. In the middle of my 2007 stay, the Census Bureau and USA Today both anointed St. George "America's fastest-growing metro area." Its growing pains continue. By 2035, Dixie is expected to triple in size to a ripe 450,000 residents.

Meanwhile, St. George ranks number one among metropolitan areas for the fastest white population growth between 2000 and 2004. Of its current estimated population, 90 percent are white.

* * *

Oh, how the retired old ladies of Dixie are sweet as taffy to me! They hug me without warning, scold me teasingly, invite me to lunch. I call these senior ladies the Clouds, classifying them according to the formation of their hairdos. There are the Low Clouds (with neatly cropped pageboys); the Medium Clouds (with modest curlicues and demure swirls); the High Clouds (with bouffants that poof up to five inches high); and the Cumulonimbi (with big, dense affairs, jetting up in bright, powerful bursts). I call their husbands the Q-tips (white hair, white orthopedic sneakers).

But Dixie is not just Cloud City, a retirement playground. Over the last five years, the region's fastest population growth segment has been twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds, followed by eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds, and then sixty-five-plus-year-olds. Attached to the married couples are gaggles of kids. It's impossible not to notice the abundance of families and the value St. George places on them, illustrated by the scores of kids who cram into story time at the public library, where the librarians dress up as book characters, or the hordes of boys who play baseball at my neighborhood Snow Canyon Little League complex on weekday nights, or the army of youngsters who zigzag the fields at the Kicks soccer leagues on Saturday mornings, or the crops of teens who compete in calf tying, bull-and-bronc roping, and steer wrestling at the rodeo arena. On my daily power walk after supper, before the sunset hits the colored canyons announcing dusk, I see teens bike the winding trails and parents holding toddlers' hands on family strolls, waving me "Hello."

I marvel at my good fortune in Dixie-so many kind people. Charlie and Jeannie, retired grandparents, invite me to stay at their Sky Mountain golf home while they are traveling. Lori, the head of the Sky Mountain community watch group, pops by the house and welcomes me with banana-nut bread. I invite her to sit on the porch, where we have an impromptu thirty-minute conversation, watching the golf carts dawdle by. Joe and Cathy, thirty-something parents of two boys, have me over for pork chops and mashed potatoes, insisting I leave with a doggy bag of leftovers. Dick and Audrey, retired high-powered attorneys from California, prepare me a home-cooked meal in their elegant million-dollar ranch house. Mike and Carol take me to dinner at a restaurant where the owner, a gregarious Hungarian immigrant, serves delights such as venison with blueberry sauce. The place is hidden off a remote dirt road, and misnamed the Cosmopolitan. Dean, a fourth-generation native and chairman of the county Republican Party-and pilot of a small, private plane-offers me an aerial tour of Dixie.

In these kind, sunny moments, this newcomer experiences firsthand what old-timers call the Dixie Spirit. "I ask new individuals and businesses, 'Why did you come here?'" says Dan McArthur, the mayor of St. George. "The answer always comes back to this feeling, this sense of community. I call it the Dixie Spirit. The Dixie Spirit, to me, is what it's all about."

In bursts of pride, Dixie locals like to clap a chant: "Red Rock, Blue Skies, God and Golf!"

* * *

I bound out of my car and thrust my hand at the Realtor, on one of those vibrant spring mornings that St. George is known for.

"Hi, Sarah? Rich Benjamin! Glad to meet you."

"Well, glad to meet you!"

"Are you ready to show me some homes?"

My undercover journey to find real estate in Utah's Dixie begins at RE/MAX, with a real estate tour by Sarah. I am posing as a home buyer for a thorough look into Whitopian homes. If a house is not just a piece of infrastructure, but a temple that tells the story of our pocketbooks and our souls, what better way to learn about Dixie, I figure, than to "hire" a Realtor?

I love Sarah instantly. She sports an impressive head of braids, none of which is out of place. Her smart pantsuit hints at the meticulous professionalism I will soon witness. She's all charisma and competence, tier smile is a grid of flawless white Chiclets, which complement her large, almond eyes and punctuate her dark espresso complexion. Her impeccable French-tip manicure cuts a nice contrast to her skin. This extroverted, thirty-something, statuesque Mormon is as cute as a bug in a rug and just as darling. As one listing agent tells her later on, "I could look at you all day."

I made my first appointment with Sarah over the phone from my Manhattan office. Given her name and her voice, chirpy like Kelly Ripa's, I assumed Sarah was white. Flow perfect. Normally, I am on the receiving end of Black Surprise: That is when I schedule an appointment by e-mail or phone and, never having seen me, the prospective employer, landlord, or loan officer stares past me and says, "Oh, I'm expecting Richard Benjamin."

"This is Richard," I say. I'm black. Surprise! Who knew that my encounter with Sarah would spark a double-reverse case?

On the way to our first showing, we chat about our experiences living in California, our families, and Utah's Dixie.

The first stop on our house search is a 4,226-square-foot rock-and-stucco home in the Stone Cliff gated community. Syrupy songbird Celine Dion bought a home in this gated community, so I'm a bit apprehensive about its "taste." Before we reach our destination though, a monkey wrench impedes us. We get lost in Stone Cliff. Even my seasoned Realtor has to stop and consult the internal gated community map to find number 1874. We drive lost for a good ten minutes, navigating the enormity of the neighborhood, its tangle of private roadways and driveways spidering from one another, according to no apparent rhyme or reason. "Where the beck is this custom-built home in the Paragon Cove subdivision of Stone Cliff?" I chuckle.

We finally arrive at the home, perched on a hill. Its "great room" offers floor-to-ceiling views of the town below and of the Pine Valley Mountains beyond. Cherrywood cabinets, granite countertops, and Sub-Zero appliances adorn the gigantic kitchen. This home features two amenities that are now the rage in Dixie: a "casita" and a "spool." "Casita" is fancy real estate speak for an attached guesthouse, where you can dump your mother-in-law and not get nagged. A "spool" is a spa-as opposed to a mere hot tub-adjoining the pool. A monolith to the owner's ego, the house leaves me feeling cold.

The second stop of today's home search is a 4,428-square-foot ranch house in the SCF-9 subdivision of the same Stone Cliff gated community. As we approach the house, Sarah notices me wrinkle my nose, and looks away. Oversized picture windows clash with stones, which then clash with brick (is it real?), creating an eyesore. I peek inside the front door. The great room is an even louder cacophony of faux building materials, uneven proportions, loud colors, garish fixtures, and mismatched "historical influences." This home looks like a casino tycoon tried to imitate the Bilbao Guggenheim on the strip in Vegas.

I ask Sarah that we immediately move on, because there's no point wasting time. Who would pay $999,990 for that?

As we ride in her Honda SUV on the way to our next stop, we happen upon one of the town's "bad" neighborhoods, Dixie Downs. "Put on your bulletproof vest," says Sarah. "Just kidding!"

"Manufactured home, trailer home, modular home, senior home, manufactured home, trailer home," she rattles, pointing to a siring of dwellings on Dixie Downs Drive. The mixed type and value of the houses, she elaborates, makes Dixie Downs "less desirable." More so than other St. George neighhorhoods, Dixie Downs has a higher share of renters, single mothers, single men, and Latino immigrants.

"Without being too rude, I guess," and here she grimaces, "you sometimes might not have the best quality, um-neighbor."

"I guess it's like Compton or Costa Mesa," she adds. "Does that analogy help?"

"Gotcha." I wink.

But to me, Dixie Downs does not look like the dicey community of gangster lore, it looks like your garden-variety working class neighborhood. I'd feel perfectly safe walking there alone after midnight.

The third and last stop of today's house hunt is a two-story custom-built home within the French Quarter subdivision of the Sunbrook golf community. This $1.2 million faux-French country home sits right on the Sunbrook Gold Course, which I later grow to love: while in Dixie, I golf there at least twice a week.

The home's seller, a well-tanned, courtly gentleman appearing to be in his late sixties, opens the door. Spotting Sarah's Realtor tag, Robert introduces himself to her and immediately objects, "I thought you were bringing a client."

"This is my client," she trills, gesturing at me. He assumed I was just her relative.

"Oh, OK. Great!" he smiles sheepishly.

A retired aerospace executive from Southern California, Robert offers us "the royal tour," describing each amenity in careful detail. "The custom paneling on the kitchen cabinets costs $60,000 alone," he says. He spends an entire ten minutes showing us two cavernous storage spaces with "built-ins." Seniors just love their storage, I come to learn.

After the lengthy tour, he invites us to sit in his living room for a follow-up discussion. A funny, affable retiree, Robert barrages me with lively questions. When I mention my interest in politics, his eyes light up. He scurries to his upstairs office and returns with a guest column he'd just published in the Deseret News. I begin to place it in my folder, but he insists that I read it on the spot. The Washington County Republicans are too bureaucratic and hierarchical, his article complains. For a full half hour, we chat about everything but the house!

Meanwhile, Sarah keeps looking at her watch.

* * *

In 2005, Phyllis Ann Sears decided to take an informal poll of the sixty or so people gathered for a meeting of the Citizens Council on Illegal Immigration, her brainchild. Seventy percent of attendees had arrived in Dixie from California and 20 percent from Arizona. "What this means to me is you know what's on its way here," Mrs. Sears said, as the refugees of illegal immigration and multiculturalism nodded their heads. "My point is, locals who have lived only here don't have a clue what's on the way if illegal immigration isn't stopped." Having lived in California, New Mexico, and Arizona before arriving in Dixie, she speaks from experience, she explains.

Phyllis Sears, born in 1927, is a bit of a lightning rod in Dixie. Public officials tell me she is a thorn in their side. The business plutocracy wishes she'd stop pressuring them to verify their employees' working papers. Todd Seifert, editor in chief of Dixie's main daily paper, the Spectrum, refuses to discuss her on record. A white filmmaker complains to me that she randomly stops Latino-looking people on the street asking to see their papers. (His wife is originally from Argentina.) But in Dixie's online forums, editorial pages, and even on its streets, ordinary citizens cheer her and her efforts on behalf of the Citizens' Council for Illegal Immigration.

One bright afternoon I ring the bell of Mrs. Sears's home in the Kayente residential community. Homes in this community blend harmoniously with the land. While spectacular, the houses barely stand out from the red desert. Strict design and zoning rules guarantee that every structure conforms to the color and texture of its natural setting. Kayente homes are expertly built and landscaped to appear as if floating among the red rock canyons. Mrs. Sears welcomes me in.

"Hi, Mrs. Sears." From the moment we meet, something about my Old World upbringing instinctively leads me to call this Medium Cloud, octogenarian Daughter of the American Revolution "Mrs. Sears."

Mrs. Sears is sporting all black, from her T-shirt down to her espadrilles. Her neatly coiffed bright white hair highlights her tan. Her blue-gray eyes stand out behind small, fashionable eyeglasses that appear to be wireless. Though she's toting a small portable oxygen tank, it's more like a handbag than life support. Mrs. Sears is fit, trim, and physically agile. That's likely because she and Mr. Sears swim daily before they sit to breakfast.

As you walk into the Searses' sand-brick home, the desert stretches out before your eyes. Sunlight floods the abode. The living room's floor-to-ceiling windows showcase an expansive view of a desert box canyon. The master bedroom, shrouded by glass, affords the same spectacular desert vista. In the couple's den sit "his and her" desks, a handsome abacus, and Mr. Sears's military medals in a glass case. An antique rifle hangs on the wall.

No tchotckes, banal landscape paintings, bulky throw rugs, or even window treatments clutter this home. Beautiful, twenty-four-inch, hand-scraped ceramic tiles grace the floors and the ceiling. Hunter green sofas and classic wooden chairs, upholstered in eggshell cream, are sprinkled throughout. A rustic, built-in wood bench sits in the living room, with a seat cover upholstered in fine afghan cloth. The objets accenting the living room include a gorgeous driftwood-and-leather Native American ornament hanging prominently, photos of the Sears children and grandchildren, and Aspen wood howls masterfully crafted by a local artisan.

Make no mistake: This is not a replica of the yuppified Southwestern "adobe" style infesting the region. This million-dollar-plus habitat is an original. An earthy, comfortable place, it does not scream money. It whispers serenity and refined taste, in its breezy effortlessness, the Sears home is a triumph of the sublime.

(Continues...)