From Tight Ethnotowns to Dispersed Ethnoburbs

The latest issue of Southeastern Geographer (on Project MUSE) has an article by Paul N. McDaniel and Anita I. Drever that examines Immigrant Businesses in a New South City (Birmingham, Alabama), asking: Do they form an Ethnic Enclave or International Corridor?

Here’s the abstract and a bit of the introduction that I found interesting. I have eliminated most of the in-text citations and cross-references in the extracts that follow.

Abstract: Immigration is changing the U.S. South in unprecedented ways. First and later generations of Latinos and Asians comprise increasing portions of the population in towns and cities across the region. Some of these newcomers have started entrepreneurial business ventures rather than going to work for someone else. This research examines the forces driving the spatial patterns of and civic leader response to immigrant-owned entrepreneurial establishments in Birmingham, Alabama, a middle-tier metropolitan area. The paper answers the following questions: (1) Why did immigrant businesses begin moving into Birmingham during the last decade and a half? (2) Where are ethnic entrepreneurs opening up retail shops and why? (3) What are the attitudes of city officials towards these multi-ethnic business enclaves? These questions are addressed using a mixed-method approach that includes census data analysis, archival research, personal observations and semi-structured open-ended interviews….

Historically, ethnic businesses have been spatially concentrated…. Ethnic neighborhoods in gateway cities developed at a time when city inhabitants traveled on foot or by streetcar. Ethnic businesses and residences therefore had to be located in close proximity. The ethnic businesses that have opened up in the U.S. South during the past ten to fifteen years largely cater to a clientele within driving rather than walking distance. Many of the recent arrivals to the South have also lived in other parts of the U.S. and are therefore less dependent on ethnic intermediaries to find employment or housing. Research on the residential settlement of new arrivals to the South reveals minimal spatial clustering…. Walcott (2002) did find that ethnic businesses were spatially concentrated along the Buford Highway international corridor between the northeast Atlanta suburbs of Chamblee and Doraville; however she saw minimal evidence of spatial clustering by nationality within this area.

Contrary to the findings in studies of several other southern cities (see Mohl 2003), Asians and Hispanics appear to be settling largely in white neighborhoods …. Dissimilarity index calculations by the authors based on data from the 2000 U.S. Census indicate that one-and-a-half times as many Asians and Hispanics would have to move to evenly distribute their population among blacks as among non-Hispanic whites.

What attracted these immigrants to Birmingham?

The shift in the locus of U.S. economic growth from the Rustbelt in the Northeast to the Sunbelt in the South brought biotechnology firms, large banks, and multinational corporation headquarters to the Birmingham metropolitan area. These global companies—along with Birmingham’s universities—recruited talent from around the United States and the rest of the world…. Like in other locales, Birmingham’s expanding well-paid, highly educated workforce has demanded better housing and more services. This has helped to fuel job growth in construction and basic services and the foreign-born have arrived to fill these jobs (Mohl 2003). And as a result, like in many parts of the country Birmingham has attracted a foreign-born population that is both more and less educated than the metropolitan area as a whole: 19 percent of immigrants have a graduate degree as compared to 9 percent of the total metro population and 27 percent of immigrants have less than a high school education compared to 16 percent of metro Birmingham’s population as a whole….

Where are they living and working?

First, although the residences of the foreign-born are fairly dispersed …, new immigrant businesses in Birmingham are clustered…. A second important characteristic of Birmingham’s ethnic business concentrations are that they are multiethnic in contrast to the Chinatowns, Little Tokyos, and Latino barrios that evolved before the automobile era in gateway cities…. Third, ethnic businesses in Birmingham are located along suburban corridors rather than in neighborhoods per se. In the walking cities of the past, ethnic businesses were located on contiguous neighborhood blocks to accommodate customers traveling on foot or by streetcar to do their shopping. In addition, immigrants often lived in the dwellings above the street level shops. By contrast, Birmingham’s ethnic businesses are moving into a suburban, automobile dominated landscape where zoning ordinances have purposely separated residential and commercial landscapes….

And what kinds of attitudes do they encounter?

The interviews with Hoover and Homewood city officials suggest immigrant business owners receive more verbal support from city officials in Homewood. The fact that the international corridor in Homewood is larger and more complex than in Hoover may in part be the result of the warmer welcome it received from the local government. It is also likely that city officials’ positive attitudes toward ethnic businesses make it easier for immigrant businesses to acquire permits and influence local ordinances.

The author of a key work cited in this article recently published a book titled Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America, by Wei Li (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2008).

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Filed under Asia, economics, Latin America, migration, U.S.

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