Academic journal article The Geographical Review

New Immigrant Geographies of United States Metropolitan Areas*

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

New Immigrant Geographies of United States Metropolitan Areas*

Article excerpt

Immigration and urbanization in the United States have always been deeply intertwined. It is impossible to understand the evolution of American cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without reference to immigration, which fundamentally shaped the economic, social, political, and spatial structure of metropolitan regions. At the same time, the nature of these cities and their surrounding areas had a deep impact on the experiences of immigrants. These experiences, in turn, influenced subsequent waves of immigrants and injected further dynamism into the cities. The links between immigration and urbanization not only are empirical but also speak to how we fundamentally understand these processes.

The contextually rich and sensitive articles in this special issue explore the interplay between contemporary immigration and urbanization. Although they focus on different ethnic groups and metropolitan areas, they critically engage two important themes central to understanding immigrant geographies: spatial assimilation and social networks.


Spatial assimilation is generally conceptualized as the process by which immigrants and their children move progressively out of ethnic concentrations, usually in the heart of a city, into "mainstream" American neighborhoods, usually conceived of as the suburbs (Massey 1985). This process is thought to go hand in hand with the broader process of assimilation, traditionally regarded as the linear, staged process through which successive immigrant generations become culturally, socially, politically, and economically integrated into mainstream society (Park and Burgess 1921; Gordon 1964). The concepts of assimilation and spatial assimilation grew out of the era of European immigration, during which newcomers to the United States populated vibrant ethnic neighborhoods, such as "Germantowns" or "Little Italys," in central cities. These ethnic concentrations served as vital spaces through which and from which the immigrants were drawn and ultimately launched into the economic, social, and cultural fabric of American life.

Recent literature suggests that the straightforward application of the assimilation concept to post-1965 immigrants is problematic. Contemporary immigrants are more diverse socioeconomically, and many of them are highly educated professionals for whom economic integration is not an issue. Acceptance of multiculturalism is greater in today's society than it was a century ago, so pressures for immigrant assimilation may thus be weaker or more fragmented. And, in some contradistinction, the majority of immigrants today are "nonwhite," which complicates considerably the degree to which they are "allowed" to assimilate by the host society (Alba and Nee 1999).

Empirical and theoretical challenges to conventional assimilation theory have also prompted reexamination of the spatial assimilation concept (see, for example, Wright, Ellis, and Parks 2005). At the national scale, immigration destinations are increasingly shifting from the few, large "gateway" cities--for example, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles--to midsize cities such as Atlanta and Washington, D.C. The metropolitan landscape encountered by post-1965 immigrants is also vastly different from that which existed in the early 1900s. Sprawl, deindustrialization, and gentrification are among the processes that have reworked the old link between inner-city residential location and the ample supply of blue-collar, low-skill jobs that supported the "old" immigrants. The old presumed endpoint of spatial assimilation in predominantly white residential suburbs is also increasingly problematic, because of the increasing diversity of suburban locales. And the greater heterogeneity of immigrants in terms of education, English-language facility, and income means that many have access to financial capital that can support the creation of ethnic businesses and residences away from the central cities. …

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