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USA Rise Of The Ethnoburbs


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004

SAN GABRIEL, Calif. — Just east of the still-seething volcano that is Charlie Sheen a visitor finds The Great Mall of China, so-dubbed, 12 acres of new-century America in the midst of an ethnic makeover far more compelling than the Twitter bursts of a raging celebrity.

Its formal name is San Gabriel Square, a crowd of restaurants, bubble tea shops and high-fashion footwear boutiques in a prosperous middle-aged suburb with a majority-Asian population. You can walk around for an afternoon, as I did, and hear nothing but Cantonese and Mandarin. But what stands out about the Great Mall, in this part of the West, is that it no longer stands out at all.

The fastest-growing ethnic group in the nation’s largest state, the Census reported this week, is not Latinos, but Asians — up 31.5 percent over the last decade, to about 5 million. There are more Asians in California than the total population of any American city but New York, and the group is larger than 28 of the states.

You don’t see any of this in Congress, where there are 50 percent fewer Asians in the House than in the population at large, and 66 percent fewer Latinos than the numbers nationwide. But you will. Soon. And California, though it failed to add a congressional seat for the first time in nearly a century, will be at the head of the parade of new political power.

During other mash-ups in the country’s makeup, the Irish clustered in Boston and Butte, Italians found like-minded communities in Philadelphia and Baltimore, Germans transformed Milwaukee and Cincinnati.

Asians, who faced openly racist exclusion laws for nearly 80 years, huddled in Chinatowns, most of them on the West Coast. One was in Washington State, where the grandson of a house-servant would be named the first Chinese-American ambassador to China — Gary Locke. But his story is already one for the textbooks, the old route to the Asian-American Dream.

The new narrative comes from the ethnoburbs, a term coined in a 2009 book by Arizona State University professor Wei Li to describe entire cities dominated by a nonwhite ethnic group. They are suburban in look, but urban in political, culinary and educational values, attracting immigrants with advanced degrees and ready business skills.

Monterey Park, just to the south of here, is considered the first suburban Chinatown. And with 61,571 people, it’s much more than a “town.” Now there are eight Asian-dominated ethnoburbs sprawling through a 25-mile stretch of the San Gabriel Valley. Here, you’ll find one of the largest Buddhist temples in the hemisphere, and a string of Boba drink shops, often called the Starbucks of the valley. (Boba is a drink flavored with small tapioca *****.)

Ethnoburbs are not limited to California. Bellevue, Washington, long dismissed by Seattle residents across the lake as a series of white bread cul-de-sacs and high-end malls, is now Washington State’s most diverse big city, primarily because Asians make up 27 percent of its 122,363 residents. Quincy, Mass., is going through a renaissance, driven in part by the 22 percent who are of Asian descent.

Well to the east of San Gabriel is the urban laboratory of Riverside County, the fastest growing in California, expanding by 41.7 percent in the last decade to 2.2 million people. In Riverside, where Home Depots are seeded throughout the land, whites are now a minority, at 36 percent of the population, and Latinos, with 45.5 percent, are the largest ethnic group.

Riverside County is a Latino version of Li’s smaller Asian ethnoburbs. Forget the stereotypes emanating from small-minded places like the Phoenix statehouse or any right-wing talk-radio station: In Riverside County, more than one in five businesses is Latino-owned, and median family income is well above the national average.

Now, as to the political power question: with every census count comes redistricting. This time around, following a rare showing of common sense, California voters took the task of sketching fresh congressional districts out of the hands of political hacks and created an independent citizen panel. By law and court decisions, they will have to draw districts that reflect the new demographic reality of the state.

This should mean that Asians and Latinos, the dynamo forces of virtually every fast-growing Western state, will get their seat at the political table, at least in California. And since nearly one in eight members of Congress come from this state, Congress should soon look more like the new America.

As a general rule, I don’t think it’s good for any democracy to see itself, much less vote, strictly along ethnic lines. But the arc of American history is encouraging on this count. What were the suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s, especially in California, but all-white ethnoburbs?

Immigrants start out seeing the world through the lens of their parents, then move on to a broader view. Those Little Italys, Germantowns and Gaelic-speaking neighborhoods have largely disappeared. The diasporas have spread and diffused, coming together around a dish or drink or sainted holiday, with gauzy recollections of a past when they were kicked around and shunned.




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