Urbanizing the Sunbelt

From “Dallas” to “Designing Women,” from “Baywatch” to “Miami Vice” to “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” images of sunbelt cities have been prominent on prime time television for the past generation. With their depictions of a cities full of fast-paced, colorful, sophisticated and sometimes dangerous city people, they offer powerful correction to that other television Sunbelt inhabited by Andy Griffith and the folks of Mayberry, by the “Dukes of Hazzard,” and by “Walker: Texas Ranger.”

No matter which measure you choose, sunbelt cities now dominate urban growth in the United States. If we look at simple size, five of the twelve largest metropolitan regions in 2000 were located in the Sunbelt states of California, Texas, Georgia, and Florida.[2]

Deeper economic changes lie behind the regional rebalancing: the defense economy, globalization, the leisure economy, and industrial innovation. These are points that I develop for western cities in The Metropolitan Frontier, but they apply as well to the Southeast.

During World War II and after, the Sunbelt became the most military-dependent part of the United States. Military planners concentrated bases and training facilities in places with warm climates. Between 1940 and 1990 it contained three of the nation’s premier military cities with Honolulu, San Diego, and San Antonio.[3] Military bases and employment were a powerful presence in many smaller cities such as Corpus Christi, Texas, Pensacola, Florida, or Fayetteville, North Carolina. War production brought new workers to Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, New Orleans and confirmed the importance of sunbelt cities in airframe production. Nuclear weapons production fueled the growth of Albuquerque, Las Vegas,and Denver.

A second factor has been the internationalization of the United States. Sunbelt cities have been leaders in reintroducing the United States to the world. Caribbean, Mexican, and Asian immigration soared after the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 effectively ended the national quota system that had favored immigrants from Europe. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, approximately 40 percent of documented immigrants have come from Asia and another 40 percent from Latin America. For both groups, southern and western cities have been the major points of arrival. Mexicans constitute the largest immigrant group in the cities of Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California. Temporary workers, shoppers, visitors, legal migrants, and illegal migrants fill neighborhood after neighborhood in El Paso, San Antonio, San Diego, and Los Angeles, creating bi-lingual labor markets and downtowns.

The same cities have been in the forefront of changing patterns of foreign trade and investment. The value of American trade across the Pacific passed that of trans-Atlantic trade in the early 1980s, with impacts felt especially by the vast port complex of Los Angeles-Long Beach. Maquiladora manufacturing in northern Mexico since the 1970s has created “twin” cities divided by the U.S.-Mexico border, such as El Paso-Juarez and San Diego-Tijuana, a pattern that has been accentuated by the North American Free Trade Act of 1993. Sunbelt cities have also engaged the world economy as the sources for industrial expertise (Houston and the petroleum industry) or locations for foreign investment in production for the American market (Spartanburg, South Carolina).

Third, the impact of the American leisure economy is obvious in many sunbelt cities. Family tourism, business and fraternal conventions, and retirement all contribute. Disneyland helped to transform Orange County, California into a vast urbanized region; Walt Disney World has had a similar effect on Orlando. Good introductions to the creation of the two Disney complexes are John Findlay, Magic Lands, and Richard Foglesong, Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando. No developer would build a “Blizzard City” retirement town outside Buffalo and expect to compete with places such as Sun City outside Phoenix. Meanwhile, the sometime forgotten sunbelt city of Honolulu looked to Asia as well as the continental United States for business and tourism

Finally, the sunbelt has benefited from the expansion of manufacturing in two ways.[4] On the one hand, American corporations began to shift the routine production of standardized products from the expensive northeast core to alternative locations: smaller sunbelt cities, northern Mexico, and overseas. On the other hand, sunbelt cities were innovation centers for new high technology aerospace and electronics industries. The U.S. space program has been a sunbelt program centered in Melbourne-Titusville, Florida, Huntsville, Alabama, and Houston, Texas. Efforts to devise weapons control systems triggered the takeoff of the postwar electronics industry in the “Silicon Valley” between San Francisco and San Jose in the 1950s. As the industry moved on to civilian applications, advanced semiconductor and computer production diffused to new industrial complexes around Austin, Phoenix, Dallas, and Albuquerque. Because the Pentagon has been the single best customer for the aerospace, nuclear, and electronics industries since the 1940s, this final point brings us full circle to the importance of the defense budget for sunbelt cities.

The Sunbelt Catches Up

From the 1950s into the 1970s, scholars understood the growth of sunbelt cities in terms of the “catch up” thesis. That is, the West and South were viewed as regions whose development had retraced that of the Northeast, but with a time lag of a generation or more. Their rapid growth beginning with the 1940s suggested that they were finally closing the gap and catching up to the rest of the nation.

For the West and Southwest, the lag was described in economic terms. In the 1930s, writer Bernard DeVoto had called the West a “plundered province” that was little more than a colony of New York and Chicago, shipping out raw materials from mines, farms, and forests and buying them back from eastern factories. Since the 1940s, however, western cities, and especially those of California, enjoyed a steady shift of economic power. By developing local production of manufactured goods and accumulated their own sources of capital, they catching up with the industrial core.

For the South, the catching up was seen more broadly as a process of modernization. The South in 1930s had been poor and culturally different, but rapid urban growth would help the region become richer, more middle class, less isolated, more ‘American.” This interpretation stressed the ways that World War II had reduced regional differences by mixing people from all regions in the military and in war production work. The civil rights era of 1950s and 1960s, during which South dismantled racial segregation by law and thus became more “northern,” also supported the idea of convergence. So did the moderating voice of the business community in many southern cities (for example, Atlanta’s reputation as a “city too busy to hate). The interpretation helped to shape much scholarship on southern politics and society and framed some early efforts to look systematically at the history of regional urbanization (see volumes from the later 1970s and early 1980s by Jacoway and Colburn, Goldfield and Brownell, Abbott, and Bernard and Rice).

Continuity as Well as Change

In more recent years, scholars have emphasized continuity as well as transformation in the development of sunbelt cities. World War II and the postwar boom may have accelerated economic changes, for example, but the changes built on foundation from previous decades. In the South, postwar economic development efforts extended work already underway in many states and cities, as examined in James Cobb, The Selling of the South. For the Southwest, Roger Lotchin in Fortress California demonstrates that city leaders had long courted military bases, and that the militarization of a city like San Diego crowned efforts begun in the 1910s Los Angeles had similarly emerged as a major manufacturing city early in the twentieth century, creating deep roots for its postwar boom.

David Goldfield’s important summary of southern urbanization, Cottonfields and Skyscrapers, notes the continuities of southern culture and values that keep southern cities distinct from northern counterparts. He finds that southern cities have been marked by continuities of a rural life style, by the prominent role of religion, and by racial division. He shows how urban social institutions were adapted to preserve a biracial system and argues that the neglect of public services in many southern cities has reflected the influence of evangelical religion and rural values.

Students of racial and ethnic relations in cities across the Sunbelt increasingly emphasize continuities from before to after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ron Bayor, Howard Gillette, and Chris Silver and John Moeser have all shown the ways in which decisions about black-white relations made in the early twentieth century continued to shape the politics and society of southern cities until its end. Similarly, political and economic gains of Mexican Americans in Texas and California cities in recent decades have built on long years of institution-building at the community level, political organizing, For Los Angeles, for example, see George Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American and Edward Escobar, Race, Police, and the Making of an Ethnic Identity: Mexican Americans the Los Angeles Police Department.

In short, the Sunbelt did catch up, but in their own ways. Its cities have converged economically and demographically. But they remain culturally distinct. Los Angeles is not Boston, New Orleans is not Chicago, San Antonio is not Cleveland, Tampa is not Baltimore.

Special Places/Leading Edges

Several sunbelt cities stand out as representing important trends in contemporary urban growth.

Atlanta shows the classic themes of American city-building with a sunbelt twist. The power of business leadership in U.S. cities is a well-told story, but Atlanta adds the twist of a delicate balancing act between growth politics and racial politics. Its patterns of development are a model of urban sprawl–indeed, one of the most extreme in the nation. And its economy demonstrates the continuing power of transportation. If nineteenth century Atlanta was a city make by railroads (one reason it was such a prize during the Civil War), the city of the later twentieth century has prospered because it is the hub for Interstate Highways in the Southeast and because it has become a national and international air travel center. It has thus consolidated its role as the center of a fast-growing region (a sort of new Chicago) and used direct European air routes to become a headquarters center for international businesses and organizations (an alternative to New York).[5]

Across the continent, the Los Angeles city region elicits strong loyalties and excites deep antipathies. It is variously viewed as emblematic and exceptional, as the pattern for twentieth century urbanization and the model for the urban future. As featured player in scores of movies and backdrop in hundreds of others, Los Angeles takes much of its imagery from the film writers and directors who call it home. Critics who don’t like what they see in Los Angeles “prove” their point with references to the dark dystopia of Bladerunner, the violent alienation of Falling Down or Pulp Fiction, and old and new noir of The Big Sleep and Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Those of who are taken by the metropolis find the choice a bit more strained: Speed as a parable of social cooperation, Clueless as a more appealing vision of everyday life.

For many scholars, Los Angeles has been the representative city for the twentieth century. Historian Sam Warner used it as such in The Urban Wilderness and geographer James Lemon in Liberal Dreams and Nature’s Limits. A readable but highly opinionated introduction to Los Angeles politics is Mike Davis, City of Quartz, which frames the city’s history as the work of an economic elite. Davis’s polemic can be balanced with the case studies of land development in William Fulton, The Reluctant Metropolis.

For other scholars, the city is the prototype for the twenty-first century. A “Los Angeles School” of urban analysis argues, essentially, that the vast southern California metropolis a new urban form and dynamic that is post-modern. Its cityscape, economy, and society all described as fragmented, flexible, and fluid. There is the political fragmentation, industrial flexibility, and racial variety that makes Los Angeles a laboratory for examining the complex interactions of Anglos, African Americans, Mexicans, Central Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, southeast Asians, and many others. Good introductions to these ways of thinking are the essays in Rob Kling, Spencer Olin, and Mark Poster, eds., Postsuburban California, and Allen J. Scott and Edward Soja, eds., The City.

Miami is another city that has been testing new international connections and patterns of ethnic relations since the 1960s.[6] The arrival of more than 800,000 refugees from Cuba (as well as large number of refugees from Haiti) fundamentally altered traditional patterns of black-white relations. In the three-sided tension of white, black, and Cuban, the latter group have achieved political dominance and substantial economic power, as explored in Alex Stepick and Alejandro Portes, City on the Edge. As transnational politics intrudes into daily life, Miami has become the major economic contact point between the U.S. and the Caribbean. Many Cuban Americans now argue that their presence and entrepreneurship have made Miami a global city that handles $6 billion of trade with nations to the south.

And then there is Las Vegas, fast emerging as the nation’s next supercity. Hal Rothman, Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century and Hal Rothman and Mike Davis, eds., The Grit Beneath the Glitter, trace the evolution of Las Vegas from sin city to diversified metropolis. Entertainment and real estate development for retirees and second homes have replaced gambling as the economic drive wheel; while major banks and pension funds rather than mob money finance the new fantasyland casinos. Far from a deviant sideshow, Las Vegas is increasingly a mainstream city wrestling with labor-management conflict, sprawl, and ethnic conflict. At the same time, it may be a precursor of a new pattern of urban growth in which isolated centers function together as a single dispersed metropolis (Las Vegas being in many ways a detached piece of greater Los Angeles).


[1] The figure is seven of twelve if we include San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose and Washington-Baltimore, both of which lie north of the commonly accept sunbelt boundary but which share many characteristics with other sunbelt cities. All of the statistics in this section are based on that same boundary that starts along the North Carolina-Virginia border and extends along the same latitude to Monterey Bay. A number of cities that lie north of the line share many economic and demographic patterns with sunbelt cities. Examples include Norfolk-Virginia Beach and Richmond in Virginia, Colorado Springs and Denver in Colorado, and Reno in Nevada.

[2] The total was fifteen for the two leagues, accounting for shared markets. MLB played in nine sunbelt cities.

[3] The fourth major military metropolis, Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Newport News, is contiguous to the commonly understood sunbelt boundary.

[4] Economists talk about the product cycle. A cluster of innovations creates a new set of products that stimulate a complex of new companies in a particular region, such as Detroit’s automobile complex or aircraft in Los Angeles. As new products gradually become standardized, their manufacture can be shifted to other locations for cheaper land and labor or better access to customers. In the last half century, sunbelt cities have benefitted both from the decentralization of older product manufacturing (such as automobile assembly) and the fortuitous location of new, fast-growing industries like electronics. In Texas, for example, El Paso has grown for the first reason and Austin for the second.

[5] A good source on Atlanta for classroom use is a set of eight half-hour videos made by historians Dana White and Tim Crimmins on “The Making of Modern Atlanta,” available from the Georgia Humanities Council.

[6] Comparisons between Miami and Los Angeles are pursued in a special “Orange Empires” issue of the Pacific Historical Review, 68 (May 1999), edited by William Deverell, Greg Hise, and David Sloane.


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_________. The New Urban America: Growth and Politics in Sunbelt Cities. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

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