Manhattan’s Little Italy was once a microcosm of its mother country, replete with Genovese, Neapolitan, and Sicilian enclaves, a frenzied amalgam of Italians conversing in their native tongue while vending homemade porchetta and piadini. But after a slow, inexorable decline, Little Italy has become a neighborhood of nostalgia rather than a neighborhood of existing immigrant culture. While one can still find a few dozen Italian restaurants, the vast majority of this dying ethnic enclave has been gobbled up by the neighborhoods of SoHo, Chinatown, and Nolita. Now, contemporary Little Italy does not take up any significant piece of geographic territory, nor is it particularly Italian in nature: the latest census revealed there to be zero first-generation residents, and in any given restaurant within its boundaries, the wait-staff is much more likely to hail from the Dominican Republic than the Republica Italiana.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that all contemporary ethnic enclaves are anathemas. As the encroachment of New York’s Chinatown into Little Italy reveals, some ethnic enclaves are indeed growing. The case of Little Italy is indicative of a larger trend, however, in that immigrant communities, even those that are experiencing growth, are de-concentrating, culturally and spatially, making the concept of the urban ethnic enclave increasingly obsolete.
To expound upon the Chinatown example, between 2000 and 2010, the Chinese foreign-born population of New York City increased by 86,000, while over the same period, the Chinese population of Chinatown itself decreased by 17 percent. Several authors, including Bonnie Tsu of The Atlantic, have pointed to these statistics as a sign of the decline of Chinese enclaves altogether. Upon examining these numbers more closely however, one notices that the adjacent districts of the city, such as SoHo and Tribeca, have experienced an influx of Chinese residents, such that a lower concentration of Chinese-Americans is distributed over a greater geographic expanse.
As Donna Gabaccia, one of America’s foremost experts in immigration history, explained in an interview with the HPR, wealthier immigrants tend to arrive in a more scattered geographic pattern than those of a lower socioeconomic status. The modern composition of Chinese migrants, for example, is more economically diverse than has historically been the case, resulting in an outmigration from the traditional boundaries of tenement-laden ethnic enclaves.
This increase in economic diversity among immigrant groups has led to an entirely new phenomenon in ethnic settlement: the “ethnoburb.” A term coined by University of Arizona sociologist Wei Li, an ethnoburb is in many ways a group of immigrants that have abandoned the urban enclave in search of more suitable housing. Ethnoburbs differ from ethnic enclaves, as explained Li in an interview with the HPR, in that they are suburban rather than urban, they are “demographically much more diverse,” their economies are significantly more “intertwined” with surrounding communities, and their residents, as a whole, tend to be wealthier and better educated than those of traditional immigrant neighborhoods.
Furthermore, in addition to these ethnoburbs, an increasing number of “invisiburbs” have sprung up in suburban areas. Invisiburbs are ethnoburbs with even lower concentrations of a given ethnic group and practically no outwardly visible signs of a collective ethnicity. As ethnic communities de-concentrate, Gabaccia adds, ethnicity “tends to become more private and domestic,” as everyday interaction within an ethnic group lessens. Traditional food and religion are often the last vestiges retained as a symbol of one’s heritage.
Many European-American ethnic groups underwent a similar process earlier in the twentieth century: ethnic enclaves based on western European migrant groups shrunk severely, as ethnic identity was privatized or abandoned altogether. This has been a continuous, predictable process as socioeconomic disparity has decreased to the point of irrelevance. Perhaps more importantly, while foreign-born Chinese still immigrate into the United States at the tune of 70,000 per year, western European immigration has slowed to a trickle. Residence in ethnic enclaves, Gabaccia asserts, does not tend to be a multigenerational affair, and, thus, when migration stops, the ethnic identity of enclaves disintegrates, whether it be through the disappearance of Manhattan’s Italian Harlem or the outflow of German residents from a panoply of Germantowns. Thus, there is reason to believe that on the whole, the traditional North American ethnic enclave is losing its distinct flair, either through decreasing concentration, as in the case of Chinatowns, or increasing irrelevance, as in the case of Little Italies, Germantowns, and the like.
Whether or not one approves of the slow settling of traditionally distinct ethnicities into the bottom of the American melting pot is a function of one’s belief in multiculturalism. This judgment is normative by nature, but to make a moderate assertion, most non-social-conservatives would likely approve of an America filled with spice and variation, an America that mixes into a congruous cultural jambalaya, rather than a homogenously bland rice pudding or an incongruous mix of inherently opposed cultural mores.
From this viewpoint of qualified multiculturalism, perhaps better described as pluralism, there is a faint, but existent, silver lining around the current condition of ethnic enclaves. First, and perhaps most importantly, while traditional enclaves are de-concentrating, other emergent, more marginalized ethnic groups are forming new communities. The “New Littles” project, headed by New York City sociologist Andrew Beveridge, illustrates that new ethnic groups, such as Somali-Bantus and Ghanaians, are slowly forming nascent ethnic communities. These are, by and large, far too small to be considered bona fide enclaves, and they tend, like most modern immigrant communities, to have relatively low levels of ethnic concentration. But recall that enclaves often are not multigenerational and, thus, if immigration from new migrant groups continues at a steady rate, Little Italies and Germantowns could slowly be replaced by New Accras and Addis Abbas. Furthermore, even in traditional ethnic enclaves, high immigration has led to revitalization in a few rare cases, a phenomenon that can be seen in the remarkable resurgence of Toronto’s Little Italy and the sustained growth of San Fransisco’s Chinatown.
Thus, there is hope for the continuation of modern ethnic enclaves, but if we desire to save the distinct patches of the American cultural quilt that are offered by these concentrated immigrant communities, we must arrive collectively at a series of realizations. First, and perhaps most obviously, without new immigration, ethnic communities cease to exist, as they are by and large a function of first and second-generation Americans. The rapid contraction of ethnic enclaves toward the middle of the twentieth century caused by a near-moratorium on immigration from 1924 to 1965 provides possibly the most poignant example of the harmful effects of sluggish migration on ethnic communities. Thus, the vitality of ethnic enclaves relies on our understanding that we are, and continue to be a nation of immigrants, hopefully a nation not to undergo any more painful bouts of xenophobia
Of course, as many immigrant groups become further assimilated and socioeconomically diverse, even high immigration levels might coincide with low levels of enclave growth. This, in many ways, is a good thing as traditionally marginalized ethnic groups have a greater diversity of housing options to choose from. But in order to avoid an unnecessarily rapid outflux of immigrants from traditional communities, we must take care to avoid steps that will make these communities less desirable in the long-run.
As a Bostonian, I lament a shrinking Chinatown that has been boxed in over time by two interstate highways and a remarkably bland, expanding medical center. Furthermore, I’m angered to see the attempts of the city’s redistricting commission to divide Chinatown between three councilmen, a measure that would effectively destroy the community as a political entity. On the other hand, I applaud a North End, now wedged between beautiful post-Big Dig green space and the Atlantic, a neighborhood that has grown hip and professional, but remained distinctively Italian even as Italian-Americans have grown wealthier as a whole.
As a last ditch effort, when ethnic enclaves slowly degrade, failing to follow the path of the North End, it is possible to artificially celebrate the ethnic heritage of an enclave even after the enclave has been demographically diminished. For instance, the Feast of San Gennaro in New York’s Little Italy, originally instituted as a celebration of Neapolitan immigrants in 1924, continues today. The festival seems to admit that if one can no longer celebrate the heritage of one’s country of origin in a collective way, he or she might as well celebrate the heritage of the enclave that was itself derived from that now distant country of origin.
On the whole, it is only by embracing new urban ethnic groups, avoiding the nativist slings of our past, and buttressing the integrity, cultural, architectural, and otherwise, of our existing immigrant communities, that we can avoid, or at least delay the disappearance of the Little Italies, Chinatowns, and host of other enclaves. I do not mean to imply that we should strive for ethnic compartmentalization, but a connection to one’s heritage has always existed in a nation of immigrants, and I would much prefer a spicy jambalaya model of living to a homogenous rice pudding culture of mush. Perhaps, it is time to take the required steps to protect the integrity of ingredients in this cultural jambalaya, not to stress our differences, but rather to protect the vibrancy of pluralism in a homogenizing American society.