Archive for February, 2010

Gateway Suburb

February 28, 2010

I propose thinking of Randolph – and other places like it –  as a “gateway suburb”.  These places are post-WWII suburbs that allow people to take their first step into suburban America.  They are gateways both to the suburbs and to the nation.  In the interviews I completed for this project and in all the conversations I have had over the years, it struck me how almost every family has the same story about how they first came to Randolph.  Randolph has offered an opportunity for upward mobility for Irish and Jewish families in the 50s and 60s to Vietnamese and Haitian families in the 1990s and everyone in between.  In the last couple decades, it has also provided a place to first land in America for many immigrant families whose relatives were already in Randolph.  This suburban immigration is a growing trend across the country, and more immigrants in America now live in suburbs than in the traditional urban ethnic enclaves.

These are the characteristics that I believe make a place a gateway suburb.  The combination of these physical and social characteristics are what make these places special, and what necessitates new approaches for managing and aiding them.

  • Physical characteristics: middle suburban location, reliance on auto with some public transit options, largest period of growth in mid-20th century, diversity of housing stock
  • Governmental characteristics: independent of central city, often struggling municipal services
  • Demographic characteristics: broad diversity of ethnic groups, racial diversity, significant percentage of foreign born, economic diversity but especially presence of low- and moderate-income families, constantly changing ethnic demographics

The concept is related to but distinct from several other recently defined places.  It is like the ‘gateway city’ (think Lawrence, Brockton, Fall River), but suburban and often more multi-ethnic.  It is like the ‘first suburbs’ or ‘inner suburbs’ (think Somerville, Chelsea, Roslindale) but newer and farther from the city core.  It is like the ‘edge gateway’ (think… well MA doesn’t really have any but if you’ve been some of the outer suburbs of DC) but acts not just as a gateway for immigrants but as a gateway to the suburbs for people from the city.

Other than Randolph, few gateway suburbs are currently in Massachusetts.  However, several Massachusetts towns may be posed to become gateway suburbs in the future.  For example, Framingham and Waltham already match many of the characteristics of a gateway suburb.  The same groups that initially moved from Mattapan and Dorchester to make Randolph a gateway suburb have now moved on to other further out suburbs.  Do Easton, Sharon, Canton, or Bridgewater – each of which house many former Randolph and Brockton residents – hold the potential to be tomorrow’s gateway?  Do other current gateway suburbs or potential future ones have anything to learn from Randolph’s experiences?



February 25, 2010

I put this question to you last week.  Is Randolph a city?  A town?  Urban?  Suburban?

My advisor Tunney Lee said, “The problem is suburb”  When we say city, people more or less know that New York, Boston, Buffalo, and Brockton are all cities but are all different.  Now, think of a suburb.  Do you see the lawns, single family homes, and picket fences?  Leave it to Beaver and American Beauty?  There are hundreds of different kinds of places that are suburbs, yet our culture is enamored with this stereotypical white bread image of a suburb.

This is a real problem for Randolph – for the way people in Randolph see themselves and in the ways they are seen by others.

Socially and culturally, it’s a problem for our young people who are trying to figure out and express their identity.  They (we?)  resist being labeled suburban because we know we are different from the suburbia we all think of when we think suburb – all those places that call Randolph “Mattapan-dolph.”  Yet at the same time, there is a reason some people in Hyde Park and Mattapan call Randolph “Scram-dolph.”  In comparison to dense city neighborhoods, Randolph really is suburban.

Politically, this is a problem because nobody knows what to do with a place like Randolph.  Eight years ago, Randolph was not even on the map for most state policy makers.  I know because I was one.  Most of the kinds of programs, grants, initiatives, and services that typically help with the kinds of social and economic issues that Randolph faces would pass over Randolph because of its size and location.  Randolph is a suburb of only about 30,000 people, which is too small to get it noticed for many forms of aid.  Randolph is a suburb on the edge of not only the Boston metro area but also the smaller Brockton metro.  Randolph is a suburb, but it faces most of the typical “urban” issues.  By and large, no one really knows how to handle “urban” issues outside of a city setting.

More attention is being paid to Randolph since it bottomed out in many ways in 2007.  The school turnaround has been impressive.  The state now pays attention to Randolph from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s help on the turnaround to the Department of Housing and Community Development’s grants for foreclosure prevention.  All the same, there is a long way to go.  As Superintendent Silverman noted in an interview with me, Randolph still falls into a strange no-man’s land on the edges of catchment areas for many services such as the YMCA, community health centers, state legislative districts and other things.

Randolph – and other places like it around the country – will be hard to handle until we can work with some reasonable definition of what it is.  We can’t just label it city or suburb because the categories as commonly defined just don’t fit right.  In my thesis (and this blog!) I plan to propose a new framework for thinking about what kind of place Randolph is.  I am going to call it a gateway suburb.

Stay tuned to find out what the hell that is.

Film Premiere Friday

February 25, 2010

I spent the past week diving back into the tougher parts of my thesis writing, and I’ll have some new material for you to pore over soon.  In the meantime, this is much more interesting.

Children of Invention – a fantastic movie filmed in Randolph and Boston – finished winning awards on the festival circuit and is beginning a limited theatrical run.  The Boston premiere is Friday the 26th at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge to be followed by a premiere party with the director and Randolph native Tze Chun at Om Restaurant.  You can get tickets to the movie here  More info on the film and the New York and LA premieres is here

Eviction scene from Children of Invention on Christopher Rd

School Enrollment Data

February 18, 2010

Following up on the census data below, here are the changing demographics of the Randolph Public Schools over the last few years.  These numbers are a useful complement to census data for two reasons.  First, they are more frequently and recently updated.  Second, in a modern American suburb where people have very few places to come together the schools are the center of the community.  All these data are taken from the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

This first chart shows the change in school enrollment since the 2002-03 school year (prior years data is available in percentage form, but DESE reports counts from 02-03 on).  This time period is also widely noted (in my interviews and in the press at least) as the period of greatest struggle in the Randolph Public Schools.  Note the declining overall enrollment, lead primarily by a drop in the white student population.

RPS Enrollment #

School demographic data is also useful for highlighting the complex work that the Randolph Public Schools must undertake.  Randolph’s population of students whose first language is not English and of students from low-income families is comparable to what we normally think of as urban school districts.  (Have we figured out whether Randolph is a city or suburb yet?)

% Low Income

Data on the 1995-96 and 96-97 school years was not available on the DESE website.  Also, I am not quite sure what happened in the 2002-03 school year that the percent of students whose first language is not English jumped like that.  It was the same year that the Unz Amendment ballot initiative outlawed bilingual education in Massachusetts.  Perhaps the schools started categorizing students differently after that.  In any case, Randolph today has the 9th highest percentage of students whose first language is not English of all school districts in the state.  That provides a challenge to a school system, but it also speaks to the tremendous linguistic talents present in the Randolph schools.  Wealthier suburbs and private schools go to great lengths to try to expose their students to a multitude of languages to prepare them for a global economy.  Randolph students get that for free from each other.

Top 20 FLNE Districts
1 Chelsea
2 Lawrence
3 Holyoke
4 Somerville
5 Lynn
6 Lowell
7 Revere
8 Everett
9 Randolph
10 Worcester
11 Malden
12 Boston
13 Waltham
14 Framingham
15 Brockton
16 Watertown
17 Fitchburg
18 Brookline
19 Quincy
20 Cambridge

Some thoughts on Haiti

February 17, 2010

I grew up in the Bittersweet Lane Apartments surrounded by the sounds of Haitian Kreyol.  On my first trip back to Randolph after leaving for college, I remember sitting on the 240 bus catching a wisp of the sound over my headphones.  I muted my cd player because I missed that sound at college.  I remember what Haitian independence day was like at RHS, all the flags and all the pride.

I think most of us in Randolph have some connection to and love for Haiti.  Fortunately, most of the people I’ve talked to in the month since the quake have accounted for their families.  The situation there is stabilized but still desperate.  Here, we are all wondering what to do.  I’m proud to say my brother is there with the 82nd Airborne.  He gets to help directly with relief efforts.

Today at MIT, I attended a couple panels and meetings about what our response to Haiti should be.  There is a tremendous amount of knowledge and resources here for various aspects of rebuilding efforts – we did it in New Orleans, Peru, and elsewhere.  What there is not here is much knowledge about Haiti.  More than that, there are few connections to the Haitian diaspora here in the Boston area – the 3rd largest behind Miami and NYC.  It’s a shame that I can’t walk the halls at MIT and hear Kreyol like I did in RHS or the 240 bus or my old apartment building.

State Reps Marie St. Fleur and Linda Dorcena-Forry keep hammering home the point that Haitians in Massachusetts have both the passion and a diverse set of talents to bring to recovery and rebuilding in Haiti.  How can MIT help Haitians in Boston fulfill that potential?  What does the Haitian diaspora here need to get working?

Where Haitians in live in the Boston area

So what is Randolph anyway?

February 17, 2010

Is Randolph a suburb?  Is it urban?  Town?  City?

How about this.  If you grew up in Randolph, do you admit to being from the suburbs?  Do you follow it up with some kind of explanation?

Randolph isn’t a city like Boston or even Brockton.  It’s not really a suburb like Canton or Sharon either.  So what is it?

This is one of the key questions to be answered in my thesis.  I’ll put up my answer to the question after I get some of yours.

Charts and Numbers

February 17, 2010

Like I mentioned yesterday, this data is what the most people requested from me.  And, I thought I was the only one nerdy enough to find this interesting.  All the same, I’ll be posting mostly charts here.  If you want the numbers they are based on, ask I and will send.

Randolph grew mostly as an automobile suburb in the mid-20th century.  Here are the total population numbers over time:

In the last 40 years, the racial composition of Randolph’s population gradually changed into the racially balanced town we know today.

Randolph’s racial diversity, while impressive, is far less interesting than its ethnic diversity.  I think in Randolph, we usually thought of ourselves as Irish, Chinese, Haitian, or African-American rather than White, Asian, or Black.  In Randolph, no one group forms a majority of the town.  No ethnic group even forms a majority of its racial group, as seen in the charts below based on Census 2000 data.

Of course, change did not stop in 2000.  Unforunately, this is the best data we have until next year.  It looks like the biggest changes include the growth of the Vietnamese and Haitian populations and the shrinking of the Chinese, South Asian, and Jewish populations.

Another way to look at Randolph’s diversity is to think about the number of different languages spoken there.  I’ve heard there are about 40 languages spoken in the halls of Randolph High School.  The chart below shows the languages spoken at home in Randolph according to Census 2000.

An Island of Diversity

February 16, 2010

Several Randolph residents I spoke with for this project asked me about demographic data.  What are the census numbers?  What is the makeup of the school population?  Who lives really lives here?  People are curious whether the numbers will match with what they see everyday around town or maybe with what they have heard others claim.  So, I’ll start there.  This post and the next few will be some maps, charts, and numbers trying to paint a picture of Randolph today.

This picture, I think, is one of the best.

Randolph Region Racial Density Map

This map attempts to show where members of different racial groups live from Census 2000 data.  Each dot represents ten people of a particular race living in a census block (note the lines shown are the larger areas called census tracts).  Randolph is outlined in the center.  The map is not labeled, but I’ll bet anyone who knows the area can pick out where Quincy, Brockton, Mattapan, and Dorchester are.

Notice that people of many different races live within Randolph, but that Randolph does not have easily identifiable white, black, asian or latino neighborhoods.  This stands in stark contrast to the region around Randolph and to the rest of Massachusetts (state map available upon request).

Nice to meet you

February 12, 2010


I’m a native of Randolph MA.  I have the amazing opportunity to spend several months researching and writing about my home, trying to figure out why this place is special and what exactly it’s done to all of us.  I’ll call it a thesis and at the end of it they’ll give me a very fancy piece of paper.


You probably have a lot of opinions and knowledge about this place.  You might want to see what I’m finding out about it.  And, I’m sure you’ll have opinions on what I say.  You will correct me, argue with me, and maybe even support me.

Theses are usually lonely endeavors, but from the start this has been a community effort.  People from in and around Randolph have strong opinions about the place, and so far no one’s been shy about it.  At all.  More than that, many of you who are reading this asked me about what I’m finding and are hungry for more information.

The project is coming together with huge amounts of help from people in the community.  This blog is a way for us to share information and discuss this unique place as I am in the process of my study.  I’ll be posting parts of my research and my writing as I go.  Please question, comment, and complain.