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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

How immigrants are revitalizing America’s fading suburbs

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 23, 2010

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The Urbanophile, Aaron Renn, has an interesting new post about how American suburbs, particularly inner-ring suburbs, are being revitalized by immigrant populations.  signs of the times in suburban Indianapolis (by: Aaron Renn/Urbanophile, creative commons license)His focus is on his home region of Indianapolis, but the photos he presents and the stories he recounts could just as easily be set in Wheaton, Rockville or Annandale near my own home turf of Washington, DC.

Aaron’s photo-essay suggests that, although the types of suburban retrofits urged by new urbanist thinkers such as June Williamson, Ellen Dunham-Jones and Galina Tahchieva would in many cases be appropriately holistic and elegant, they are also hard to establish and fund.  As a result, what is happening in many vulnerable suburban communities, instead, is a sort of organic economic revitalization driven by immigrant communities, establishing new, often thriving small businesses (as well as residential communities) within the existing suburban fabric.

Aaron explains:

“Indianapolis was traditionally one of America’s least diverse cities, featuring only the classic black-white split. But it has seen a large influx of immigrants in the last decade. Its metro foreign born population is only 5.19%, which is small, but the Indianapolis Star reported last year that this represented a 70% population increase since 2000. Unlike some towns which have seen immigration driven almost entirely from Mexico, Indianapolis has seen a very diverse set of immigrants, that come from all over the globe, including 26,000 Asians and 10,500 Africans. The Indian population has doubled to 6,000, the Pakistani and Nigerian populations have tripled to 1,000 each. There are 5,600 Chinese and 1,500 Burmese. These aren’t huge numbers today, but given the network effects of international immigration and the lead time to build a large community (remember the example of the large community from Tala, Mexico, which has its roots in the 1970s), this represents a potential future tsunami of immigration, provided the economy stays strong, the local climate welcoming, and a bit of pro-active marketing takes place. Again, I’m sure we’d see similar diversity of immigrants in other cities, ranging from Detroit’s Arab community to Bosnians in St. Louis to Somalis in Columbus, Ohio.

Peruvian next to Mexican next to Ethiopian (by: Aaron Renn/Urbanophile, creative commons license)

“The most diverse area in Indianapolis is Pike Township on the northwest side. Though technically part of the city today, it is originally an inner ring suburban area. Its schools have children from 63 different countries speaking 74 different languages. The Lafayette Square area on the southeast boundary of Pike Township is a classic struggling inner ring commercial zone, complete with a dying mall.

“Yet the presence of all of those immigrants has led to a spontaneous renewal of parts of this struggling area in the form of businesses catering to local ethnic populations . . .”

This definitely rings true for the DC area, and I can’t help but wonder how many other regions it also fairly characterizes.  To the extent it does, I think an immigrant-driven resurgence may represent the latest flowering of a longstanding American tradition, one that is really at the heart of our country’s identity and of the American Dream, using enterprise to make a better life and community here.

The Cairo Cafe in an Indy suburb (by: Aaron Renn/Urbanophile, creative commons license)I can’t say that it is a tradition that was close to me in my formative years.  I did grow up in a community that was religiously diverse for a southern town: although raised as a Protestant, I went to a Catholic grade school, my mother worked for a Jewish-owned company, and my high school friends were very mixed.  I’m also part Cherokee and have always been proud of it.  And, of course, we had the usual black/white racial divide that unfortunately was typical of much of America at the time.  But we had very little of the ethnic diversity or identity that friends who grew up in, say, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia or the Southwest had.  My forebears were just too far removed from their ancestry to identify as anything but American and Southern.

So the wave of immigration that many of our communities have experienced in the last couple of decades, and the multi-cultural mix that has come with it, are somewhat new from my perspective.  But my sense is that it is working out for America, much more than not.  And one of the ways is the regeneration of what might otherwise be seriously fading suburban communities. 

True, the presence of new populations in a relatively unchanged suburban land use pattern leaves lots of environmental problems still to be addressed.  But economic revitalization could prove to be a precursor to the changes needed for sustainability.  Read Aaron’s entire article and photos here

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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erifnamApr 23 2010 02:12 PM

I knew a University of Maryland student from Brazil who thought the area along University Boulevard in Adelphi/Langley Park was the closest thing to being back home, crowded with Latin American shops and food trucks and so on. You get a lot of pedestrians claiming the street there too, which unfortunately is seen by local officials as a reason to step up efforts to keep pedestrians out of cars' way instead of an opportunity to welcome some organically driven pedestrianization that isn't top-down planned but can be nurtured. I did once see a guy get killed trying to run across University between the Safeway and the Rite Aid just west of New Hampshire Avenue, so obviously this isn't working well for anyone right now...

Ken FirestoneApr 23 2010 10:32 PM

@erifnam-The shops are still in Langley Park, along with many low income immigrants. But the food trucks, alas, are gone, thanks to the county government. After reviewing the sector plan for Langley Park, Prince George's county edition, I have come to the conclusion that the county would like to get rid of the poor people too. The Montgomery county plan is a little better. It's a shame. Mass transit is finally, hopefully coming, which would be a great benefit for the low income folks who live there now. But the better off middle class wants to snatch it away from them, and make the area upscale. As someone who lives very nearby, I hope we can somehow preserve Langley Park as a place where really affordable housing, and good transit, is available for the hard working folks who need it the most.

DanielApr 27 2010 06:53 PM

First of all, I think Renn is absolutely right about this phenomenon. Everyone knows the best ethnic restaurants are in inner suburban strip malls, exactly because that's where the immigrants are now moving.

However, and maybe this is just me being jumpy, I do sense a subtext here - that authenticity and diverse populations are linked to auto-based suburbs and the elites prefer the expensive and contrived environment of new urbanism centered around transit, walkability, etc.

This argument mixes up the causation. Immigrants are moving to these places because they offer low rents, specifically because there is such an oversupply of them and they are older. Older buildings are where the innovative action has always happened. But I see no reason to assume that immigrants are attracted to these places for the inherent qualities of the place itself.

This repurposing (I wouldn't call it redevelopment yet) is something to be celebrated, but there is a sadness to stories like the death mentioned above by Erifnam. The scraps of places like these we leave behind for newcomers are not particularly suitable for their lifestyles. I think of this every time I see someone bicycling along a dangerous arterial and through a parking lot. Many immigrants strongly value community and extended family, so they have to double up into a suburban housing stock that was built for individual autonomy (and often butt up against zoning codes while doing so). These conditions are far from ideal.

I'm not insinuating that Renn is saying any of this, but I have heard others make this critique before. He is right that immigrants are the hope of the inner suburbs, and that any physical changes will happen incrementally. I just hope we give these burgeoning communities the flexibility and empowerment they need to transition the places in these photos into something more than just a strip mall.

Kaid @ NRDCApr 28 2010 10:25 AM

Excellent points by all of you. Thanks for commenting.

June WilliamsonApr 30 2010 07:28 PM

While I appreciate both posts (this one and The Urbanophile's -- great photos!), I would like to add that the research and writing on retrofitting suburbia that Ellen Dunham-Jones and I have done acknowledges the vitality and economic energy that immigrants have brought to inner suburban areas, reinhabiting apartment complexes and retail strips, and we discuss several examples (though, admittedly, they are not our main case studies). We caution about a risk of gentrification and call attention to a need for public realm investments in these places when they lack basics such as sidewalks, playgrounds and transit. Fostering and supporting diversity in suburbia is absolutely essential.

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