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Suburban Spies Among Us

The revelation that suspected Russian spies have been hiding in the suburbs of major U.S. cities has been regarded by some as a throw back to postwar Cold War novels replete with money drop-offs, hidden identities, and old school technology. 

Perhaps the most telling aspect of these Russians’ retro status is their attempt to “fit in” with a suburbia that no longer exists. At least eight of these alleged spies were classic suburbanites replete with dogs, families, or suburban jobs which could be part of any 1950s “welcome wagon” contingent. Yet these stereotypes are hardly representations of today’s suburbs.  

To be sure, most Americans (about 52 percent) are now suburbanites in the statistical sense. But these suburbanites are far from the mostly white “Ozzie and Harriett” families, living in Levittown-style tract housing that is still the image that many Americans (and apparently Russians) hold about suburbia. 

In fact, within the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, only about 18 percent of the population resides in the low density, high growth suburbs and exurbs that were common in the fifties. The rest is really a patchwork of inner ring suburbs, edge cities, gated communities, and the like. 

Moreover, less than a quarter of these suburbanites are married with children households and almost half are either persons living alone or headed by single, divorced or widowed adults. Among large metros, more than half of minorities, the poor, and immigrants live in the suburbs.

So who are the best kinds of spies to send to 21st century suburban America? It depends heavily on the locale. Hispanic spies would fit in well in Los Angeles where largely Mexican Latinos comprise more than 40 percent of the suburbs. In fact they wouldn’t be out of place in the suburbs of Phoenix, Austin, Houston or San Diego where more than a quarter of all residents are Hispanic.

If the target area were Cape Coral-Fort Myers Florida, it might be good to send a senior citizen to the suburbs where more than a quarter of the population is over age 65. On the other hand, if covert information is desired in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, or Albany, a single secret plant would probably go undetected in these suburbs where roughly three out of ten households are comprised of singles living alone.

Of course, if the Russians are oversupplied with generic “married with children” families, there are still places they can fit in better than the suburbs of New York City, Boston, or Washington, D.C. America’s new “retro family” suburbs  (click on the suburbs tab) are now located in the nation’s growing West and South Regions as well as parts of the Midwest. 

A traditional family spy would go virtually undetected in suburban Provo, Utah where 43 percent of all households are of the “Leave it to Beaver” variety. Suburban Ogden Utah, Raleigh, N.C., and Colorado Springs would also be good places to settle in. And if the covert operators were Hispanic traditional families they would blend in well in suburban El Paso or McAllen, Tex., as well as a slew of metros in California. 

The nation’s demographic landscape has changed considerably since the early Cold War period. Savvy spies in the 21st century need to pack a census volume along with their other bags of tricks if they wish to go undetected in America’s suburbs.