A little pocket of Los Angeles County tucked into the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains reflects a crucial facet of suburban life. There’s tiny, wealthy Bradbury, a town that prides itself on having one of the richest ZIP codes in Los Angeles, where a house is on the market for $68.8 million. A couple of miles to the east is Azusa. This modest suburb is more than two-thirds Latino, a town of working families whose incomes and home values are a sliver of the wealth nearby.
These towns represent extremes of social inequality, but in Los Angeles and other areas, they reflect a defining pattern of contemporary suburban life. Nationwide, rich and poor neighborhoods like these house a growing proportion of Americans, up to 31 percent compared with 15 percent in 1970, according to a recent study by Sean F. Reardon and Kendra Bischoff. Meanwhile, iconic middle-income suburbs are shrinking in numbers and prospects.
Today’s suburbs provide a map not just to the different worlds of the rich and the poor, which have always been with us, but to the increase in inequality between economic and social classes.
From the historian’s perspective, these patterns also reveal another truth about suburban places: their tendency to sustain and reinforce inequality. Bradbury and Azusa have maintained their spots in the top and bottom tiers of the Los Angeles suburbs for decades. The sociologist John Logan described this “stratifying” feature long ago, noting that localities held on to social advantages and disadvantages over time. Patterns are established, and successive waves of pressure — fiscal, political, social — tend to keep things moving in the same direction.