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High-rises may be solution to migration

Noting the vast new housing developments sprouting like crabgrass in eastern Gwinnett County, one might be tempted to ask, "Where did all these people come from?" The answer is, by and large, from Gwinnett County.

Enter the new suburbanite, the sub-suburbanite, fleeing not the city but the "old" burbs. The fact that I have socks older than some of those neighborhoods is irrelevant. In a culture perpetually geared toward the next big thing, certain zip codes have become unfashionable, no longer fit for the upwardly mobile.

Talk to people who've recently moved to Hamilton Mill and you'll find many from Lilburn, Norcross and Duluth. People who for years called Lawrenceville home now boast Hochston and Auburn mailing addresses - along with 90-minute commutes.

In part, this eastward migration is fueled by a uniquely American restlessness, modified for the 21st century. Instead of setting out on the Oregon Trail, we head toward Dacula on 316, eyes alert for cardboard signs advertising new subdivisions, just as our forbearers once scanned the wilderness for sustenance.

The sub-suburbanite is also motivated by his determination to escape the gravitational pull of Atlanta, which, like some gaseous flaming planet, consumes all that enters its ever-expanding atmosphere. Parts of Gwinnett that, within recent memory, supported family farms are now unmistakably "the city," virtually indistinguishable from DeKalb and Fulton. That's not what people had in mind when they moved here 20 years ago.

But there's more to this phenomenon than simple "white flight." Among the sub-suburbanites are many blacks, Asians and Hispanics, all seeking the same things as their white neighbors: good schools, safe streets, a better life, a master on the main.

Whatever its causes, this sub-suburban migration has profound implications. Once-thriving communities are now little more than slums. Abandoned strip malls form miniature ghost towns, cut off as if by a veil from the bustling commerce around them.

Meanwhile, Gwinnett's well-to-do stack up on the county's eastern rim like logs against an earthen dam. Eventually, the dam must give way, spilling tax dollars into neighboring counties. Seepage has been constant for some time.

Into this milieu comes a proposal to rezone portions of western Gwinnett for high-rise office and apartment complexes. I say bring in the bulldozers. Traditional attempts at "renewal" don't seem to be working, as signs along I-85 advertise a "Gwinnett Village" that looks suspiciously like the same old seedy sprawl - proving once again, to paraphrase Hillary, that it takes a village to, well, be a village.

If Gwinnett is going to become part of Atlanta whether we like it or not, it might as well look more like Buckhead than Bankhead Highway. Perhaps an Atlantic Station-type development, aimed at young professionals, is exactly what we need to reverse the eastward trend and restore economic balance.

E-mail Rob Jenkins at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.