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Keeping up with the Dosanjhs

The Rise of North America’s Ethnoburbs

Suburbs are bland, right? They’re boring, monotonous, devoid of life and culture: homogeneous.

Nope. Not on the last count, at least. Suburbia is becoming increasingly diverse. More and more middle-class immigrants are skipping traditional ethnic enclaves and heading straight for the boonies, where strip malls are now filled with ethnic businesses, bubble-tea parlours dot the landscape and schools fill up with kids from any number of different backgrounds. Forget suburbia; this is ethnoburbia.


Aberdeen Centre, Richmond



The term “ethnoburbia” was first coined in the 1990s by Wei Li, a geographer who is now an associate professor of Asian Pacific American studies at Arizona State University. Li’s research began in Los Angeles, where—her curiosity piqued by mentions of a suburban Chinatown—she set out for the San Gabriel Valley to see what was up. What she found wasn’t a Chinatown at all: “The more I experienced the differences between the two Chinese communities in Los Angeles,” she wrote in a 1998 article, “the more uneasy I felt about such a labelling.” Unlike traditional ethnic neighbourhoods, ethnoburbs are affluent and diverse, home to a wide variety of ethnic groups and income levels. Residents are white-collar and well-educated.

As innocuous as that might sound, ethnoburbs are changing the social, cultural and political fabric of our cities in a profound way. Since Li’s first article on the phenomenon appeared in 1997, ethnoburbs have mushroomed. There are plenty in Canada: for instance, Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, is 40 percent Chinese and also has a significant South Asian population. Chinese banks, shops and large Asian malls, including the stunning new Aberdeen Centre designed by Bing Thom, line No. 3 Road, the city’s main artery. In Toronto, Richmond Hill and Markham are similar in form and ethnic makeup. Ethnoburbs aren’t necessarily Chinese, either: Ville St. Laurent in Montreal could be considered an Arab ethnoburb, while Fremont in the San Francisco Bay Area is home to large Afghan and South Asian communities.

Instead of diluting the ethnic presence, the rise of the ethnoburb has actually made ethnic minorities more visible. Over the phone, Li points to the controversy over “monster houses” in Vancouver and the Bay Area—giant and often ostentatious new houses that replace the postwar bungalows torn down by Chinese immigrants—as one way the ethnoburb has altered our city landscapes. In Richmond, one of the malls hosts a weekly night market in its parking lot, transplanting a popular Asian tradition to a very North American setting. Big-box Chinese supermarket T&T now has locations across Canada, while banks like HSBC invest in ethnic communities and help erect the financial scaffolding of the ethnoburb.

One parallel between the old ethnic enclaves and the new ethnoburbs is the way immigrants can shop and do business entirely in their native language. Many ethnoburban immigrants come for the sake of their kids’ education. While they want to see their children succeed, they don’t want to lose their culture or language. Conveniently, new means of communication make it extremely easy to stay in touch with countries of origin. Thanks to the Internet, far-flung relatives are just an email away; meanwhile, ethnic video stores, music shops and newspapers abound. Wander west along Bloor Street in Toronto, for instance, and you’ll see blocks of businesses catering to young suburban Koreans who come downtown to hang out in cafés to chat and play computer games.

Thanks to this kind of social and economic security, ethnoburbs are changing the political landscape. In Los Angeles, notes Li, many suburbs now have Asian-American school board trustees and municipal councillors. “I think one of the big reasons [for this] is class difference,” she says. While the residents of traditional urban enclaves were hindered by poverty and lack of education, ethnoburbanites have both the time and the means for politics. The physical vastness of ethnoburbs gives ethnic minorities more clout across different political jurisdictions, too. Most of Canada’s visible minority members of Parliament, like Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh or former Bollywood star Ruby Dhalla, represent ethnoburbs. “We’re starting to see these kinds of power dynamics change,” says Li.


Suburban supermarket, Calgary

That said, everything is not as rosy it may seem. In the case of Toronto, the rise of the prosperous ethnoburb has been accompanied by the appearance of the suburban immigrant ghetto. Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Globe and Mail, points to Malvern, an area on the far northeastern side of the city, as a prime example. Wente sees the culturally diverse but very poor Malvern as part of an alarming trend of ghettoization and systemic poverty. “You can meet kids who’ve grown up in one housing project and have never been downtown. They expect to stay there for the rest of their lives,” she says. “We’ve unwittingly created large pockets of suburban underclass.” Middle-class immigration, she continues, is a huge positive, but “some immigrant groups are vastly more successful than others in this society. That’s not a very popular thing to say.”

Suburban ghettoes like Malvern suffer from all sorts of thorny problems that ethnoburbs don’t share, like crime and poverty. But there are some common problems, not the least of which is how schools cope with students from many different cultures who speak any number of different languages. School boards are forced to dig up more and more money to fund English as a Second Language programs, and teachers need to be trained to deal with a diverse student body. This has occasionally led to a backlash: in the United States, conservative politicians have successfully attacked bilingual education and starved ESL programs of funds, tossing immigrant students into a cruel sink-or-swim situation.

The changing physical landscape also incites controversy. Long-time local residents sometimes question whether new ethnic businesses, institutions and places of worship fit into the surrounding area; not everyone is comfortable living next to a new mosque or Buddhist temple. Immigrant cultural activities also pose problems, sparking conflict over some fairly mundane issues, as when people in suburban San Francisco complained about the parking and traffic problems caused by an Asian festival. In Vancouver, the debate over monster houses lasted for years, eventually resulting in design guidelines that limited what could be built in established neighbourhoods.


Inside the Yaohan Centre, Richmond

It would be facile to dismiss these episodes of conflict as nothing but racism. But anti-immigrant sentiment is definitely stirred up by ethnoburbs and suburban immigration. After Cameroonian-born actor and Bloc Québécois candidate Maka Kotto won a suburban Montreal seat earlier this year, an aide to Kotto's opponent came out with a racist slur. The rise of these new ethnic areas is part and parcel of the radical diversification of our cities, from city streets to suburban strip malls, from the corner stores and local schools right up to the upper echelons of business and politics. Canada, with thirty years of multicultural policies behind it, is particularly well poised to acknowledge this new diversity, but its government and people must go further. When the neighbours are more likely to be named Lau and Dosanjh than Jones and Smith, there are issues that need to be considered and dealt with. Thanks to ethnoburbs, ethnic minorities are more visible and influential than ever, but that’s not worth much if poor immigrant ghettoes develop alongside those communities.

One thing’s for sure, though: the suburbs will never be the same.

When not wandering our streets, Christopher DeWolf is the editor of The Urban Eye appears every second Wednesday.