Changing Neighborhood: Ethnic Enclaves and the Struggle for Social Justice

By Liu, Michael; Geron, Kim | Social Justice, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Changing Neighborhood: Ethnic Enclaves and the Struggle for Social Justice


Liu, Michael, Geron, Kim, Social Justice


ONE OF THE LEGACIES OF THE ASIAN-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE IS THE FORMATION OF distinctive ethnic neighborhoods. Today, new forms of enclaves have taken shape distant from the downtown locations of the traditional urban enclaves of Chinatown and Japantowns. Yet, since the late 1960s, it is within urban sites that Asian Americans have most intensely mobilized and built their organizational resources for social justice. This article will focus on Asian-American activism in urban communities, particularly traditional Asian ethnic enclaves, around land use, affordable housing, and labor and community preservation. In doing so, we explore the reasons struggles unfolded in these enclaves, drawing and building on activism within Asian-American communities, as well as the continuing relevance of ethnic enclaves to Asian-American efforts to achieve social justice.

To understand the role of ethnic enclaves in the economy and politics of the Asian-American community, we provide a brief history and description of the types of Asian ethnic enclaves. We examine the historic intersection and evolution of enclaves and social justice organizing, the role of community activists in ethnic enclave-based struggles, the contemporary state of enclave activism, and the prospects for continuing activism.

Ethnic enclaves are specific localities where ethnic minorities congregate, and possess three common features: co-ethnic owners and employees, spatial concentration, and sectoral specialization (Logan, Alba, and McNulty, 1994). Viewed instrumentally, enclaves provide protection from hostile elements in society, aid in the retention of cultural norms (including language), offer work in, and sometimes the option of owning, an intra-ethnic business, and allow for participation in community, religious, and cultural organizations and residence with members of the same ethnic group.

Changing Character of Enclaves

Since ethnic enclaves have evolved from locations in central cities to suburban sites, it is necessary to develop a taxonomy of Asian-American enclaves that illustrates the four distinctive types:

Traditional enclaves are neighborhood communities forged before World War II by Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants. Housing segregation and discriminatory laws forced Asian immigrants into urban ethnic enclaves. They created their own institutions and their own internal labor markets (Pascual, 1996). These communities evolved into centers for residential housing, community and religious organizations, ethnic shopping, and employment. Enclaves were a means for protection and survival; as such, members of the ethnic community defended them from extinction. Traditional Chinatowns, Japantowns, and the International District in Seattle are current examples of this form of enclave.

Satellite enclaves developed after the 1965 Immigration Act brought new immigrants in large numbers to urban centers. Traditional enclaves were already overcrowded, and the new immigrants formed these new enclaves to provide residential space and easy access to the traditional enclave for goods and services. The Richmond District in San Francisco, Sunset Park in Brooklyn, and Quincy in Massachusetts are representative of this type of enclave. For example, Quincy is described as a "One-Step-Up" enclave; in the 1980s, Asian Americans began to settle in this town, which is located adjacent to Boston. The residents are mostly families, with middleclass incomes, who maintain close ties to Boston's Chinatown (Chung, 1995).

New Enclaves formed as new economic enclaves for the newly arriving immigrant and refugee population. Ethnic entrepreneurs first create stores that provide goods and services to the ethnic community. These enclaves may or may not have a residential component. South Asians, Koreans, and refugees from Southeast Asia have all built new enclaves. Many cities have encouraged the development of these enclaves, for the new immigrants have revitalized blighted or underutilized land. …

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