Ever since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, America has been viewed as the land of opportunity. In the early 20th century, immigrants to America chose to live in cities and on farms—where the opportunities existed. Today’s immigrants increasingly are choosing the suburbs—for the same reason.
“Suburbs are on their way to becoming the most common place of residence for Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans, the groups that make up most of the country’s foreign-born population,” writes Brad Edmondson in Preservation (Jan.-Feb. 2000). Between 1990 and 1998, the number of suburban blacks increased 41 percent to 9 million; the suburban Hispanic population increased 58 percent to 11.7 million; and suburban Asians increased 76 percent to 5.2 million. Meanwhile, the non-Hispanic white share of the suburban population declined from 81 percent to 77 percent. The bottom line: The days of the homogenous suburb are numbered.
Part of this changing face of the suburbs can be attributed to sprawl. Former bedroom communities have grown large enough to support a job-creating suburban economy. And immigrants with marketable skills and a working knowledge of English can often bypass the urban core and land directly where the jobs are. “A big segment of the immigration wave is college-educated and ready for a good job, especially those from certain regions, such as Asian Indians, Japanese, and many Europeans,” writes Edmondson. “The most integrated suburbs often cater to middle-class buyers with strong shared interests in nearby employers, convenient recreation, or good schools. They are often new subdivisions along the sprawling outer edges of big metro areas.”
Citing studies by University of Michigan demographer Reynolds Farley, Edmondson notes that racial segregation declines most quickly in new subdivisions. Those sparkling new developments, however, are only one piece of the suburban puzzle, says John Powell, executive director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. While certain immigrants have been able to establish themselves in some of the poorer, inner-ring suburbs, they will always find obstacles to their entry into more affluent developments. “Today, metropolitan regions are divided racially and spatially into largely white and affluent suburbs and largely nonwhite and poor urban centers,” he tells Designer/Builder (Jan. 2000). “This pattern is caused by white middle-class and upper-middle-class people fleeing to the edge of the region, taking important resources and opportunity with them and erecting barriers to low-income people of color.”
Edmondson argues, however, that where immigrants of color are likely to locate depends less on race and more on educational background. “Today’s group [of immigrants] includes millions of illegal immigrants who live in poverty, but also thousands of physicians, engineers, computer programmers, and other well-trained professionals,” he writes. “In other words, an immigrant is more likely than a native-born American to be either a Ph.D. or a high school dropout.”
Barriers do exist, Edmondson allows: “Immigrants with lower incomes and difficulty speaking English are still likely to settle in less expensive, more ethnic urban neighborhoods.”
And how well will some immigrants assimilate in America’s new suburban melting pot? In New Orleans’ Versailles Village, for instance, 25 years of American culture have had little impact on the Vietnamese community, writes Marc Leepson in Preservation: “Among young and old, in neighborhood groceries and restaurants, the language you are most likely to hear is Vietnamese.” While it’s no longer shocking to encounter a veiled Somali woman at a Fargo mall, racial tensions are not uncommon. Locals are known to grumble about social service spending on newcomers, and the shooting of an Anglo woman by a young Hispanic man four years ago sparked tensions citywide. But an alleged attack on an Iranian woman recently brought 400 people out to a rally against hate crimes. “It was a clarifying moment,” says Yoke-Sim Gunaratne, director of the local Cultural Diversity Project.
It is in those “clarifying moments” that the collision of cultures in America’s suburbs is likely to be played out in the years ahead.