- Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America
During the first half of the twentieth century, sociologists from the University of Chicago promoted an urban model that described the city as comprised of concentric rings of human settlement. According to this model, new immigrants settled in working-class enclaves near urban and industrial centers while native-born middle classes and assimilated second generations moved outward into the suburbs. Decades later, scholars such as Herbert Gans continued to see innercity “ethnic enclaves” as the norm and called them “urban villages”—territorially bound neighborhoods with a self-sustaining society, culture, and economy. In the period preceding and during the civil rights movement, redlining practices and segregation laws kept suburbia middle-and upper-class and white. Assimilation into the American mainstream and moving into the suburbs was not a possibility for non-white immigrants.
Since the 1960s, immigration has dramatically altered American cities. Following changes in immigration laws, more non-white immigrants entered the country. This period also saw the decline of restrictive housing practices and the opening up of suburbia to non-white minorities. The increasing affordability of automobiles helped disperse populations across distances, producing new settlement geographies. Writing in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), Reyner Banham celebrated this automobile-generated, posturban sprawl. This settlement pattern generated what later came to be known as the “L.A. School” model, which proposes [End Page 104] an urban morphology of “a polyglot, polycentric, polycultural pastiche that is somehow engaged in the rewriting of the American social contract,” as Michael Dear and Steven Flusty put it in their 1998 article “Postmodern urbanism.” Immigrant residential, institutional, cultural, and economic sites appeared in suburbia, in commercial strip malls, and in exurban developments.
Wei Li’s Ethnoburb describes a new urban ecology that has emerged from three decades of geopolitical transformations since the publication of Banham’s treatise on Los Angeles. Li writes, “Suburban ethnic clusters of residential areas and business districts in large metropolitan areas, ethnoburbs are multiethnic communities in which one ethnic minority group has a significant concentration but does not necessarily constitute a majority” (1). Although the book focuses on the development of the San Gabriel Valley Chinese ethnoburbs, similar ethnoburbs have sprung up in other North American cities.
Much of the evidence used in this book comes from quantitative data found in U.S. census sources and microdata samples from the 1990 census. The author culls statistics from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and ethnic telephone directories. In addition, Li uses ethnographic information from participant observations and interviews with business and community leaders, elected officials, and Chinese bank executives. The latter is part of a larger National Science Foundation–supported ethnic banking survey project in which a transnational team of scholars studied the role of minority banks in the economic and social development of Southern California. Secondary sources include ethnic journals and newspapers. Li’s personal story is important, too, for she was able to conduct multilingual and multisited research with a transnational focus and to have direct access to the community. Ethnoburb combines the methods and theories of political and economic geography with a cultural focus emanating from ethnic and race studies scholarship.
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, a general introduction to the “ethnoburb model,” compares this geographical concept to other forms of ethnic landscape. Chapter 1, “Ethnicity and Space,” begins with a discussion of the various theories of race, ethnicity, and identity emerging from the American academy. Li compares the older assimilation-acculturation-amalgamation theories and melting-pot theories with newer ideas emerging out of the so-called powerconflict school, “which seeks to explain the persistent inequality of power and resource distribution that is associated with racial, ethnic, and gender relations” (14). In chapter 2, Li shows how economic restructuring, transnational networks, new forms of work and labor, immigration patterns, and geopolitical events of the past decades have transformed the physical form of residential and work environments...