AT HOME

America’s “little Indias” are high-tech hubs, working-class neighborhoods, and everything in between

Quartz india
Quartz india

Not four miles from where two of the authors of this book live and work is the borough of Millbourne, Pennsylvania. It is a small community, one-third mile along Market Street stretching west from central Philadelphia. On these four or five blocks of Market Street are two stores that sell halal meat (specialising in goat), a Sabzi Mandi, Sonia’s Beauty Place that does eyebrow threading for $3 (Rs204), and a Malayali-run insurance franchise. One block off Market Street, behind a Dollar Tree store, is a gurdwara and center of the Philadelphia Sikh Society. One could visit Millbourne on any warm evening and see families sitting on their porches and chatting with their neighbors in Punjabi or Malayalam or Bengali, or strolling along Market Street with their children, wearing salwars or saris and dupattas or turbans. It could be a neighborhood in Delhi. One could visit Millbourne, Pennsylvania, on any warm evening and… It could be a neighborhood in Delhi. 

Millbourne had a population of slightly over 1,100 in 2012. Over 400 of them were of Indian origin, of whom over 300 were born in India; another 110 were born in Bangladesh. It is a working-class community; many of the Indians, as we shall see later, were taxi drivers. The median household income in Millbourne in 2011 was under $34,000, significantly lower than the nationwide level of $53,000. Millbourne is bordered by Upper Darby, one of Pennsylvania’s oldest industrial cities. With almost 83,000 residents, Upper Darby is much larger than Millbourne. Over 3,000 of Upper Darby’s residents were of Indian origin in 2012, and there were another 600 to 700 residents each of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin.

Millbourne is one of dozens of “little Indias” in the United States. However, it is atypical in at least three ways. First is the very small size of the community, though, if Upper Darby were added, the community size would be more in line with “typical” Indian settlements in the United States. Millbourne’s small size leads to the second oddity—the very large proportion of the community that is of Indian origin, close to 40%. This is unusual because there are only a limited number of communities—seven, to be exact—in which Indian-Americans constitute more than one-fourth of the population. The third feature that makes Millbourne unusual is its low-income level. This is low relative to US standards… it is far lower than Indian-American standards. Millbourne, therefore, is a cluster of Indians of a specific type—uncommon, but as we show later, not rare.

There are different ways of identifying the varying concentrations or clusters of the Indian-origin and India-born populations in the United States. For instance, in 2008—2012, the New York—Northern New Jersey—Long Island metropolitan region, with an overall population approaching 19 million, had over 540,000 people of Indian origin, of whom over 300,000 were born in India. These Indians were not spread evenly through this large region. There were some big and dense clusters, such as in and around Edison and Jersey City in New Jersey, and in Queens in New York City and Hicksville on Long Island, the latter both in New York State.

Similarly, in California, the region stretching from San Francisco into Silicon Valley had about 245,000 Indian-origin inhabitants, of whom 165,000 were born in India. There were especially large concentrations in Cupertino, Santa Clara, Fremont, and Sunnyvale, all in Silicon Valley. Elsewhere in California, there were concentrations of Indian-origin populations in communities ranging from Yuba City and Fresno and Bakersfield (all agriculture-based, low-income settlements), to high-tech, high-income communities like Cerritos/Artesia and San Ramon in southern and northern California.

These large and micro clusters differ greatly with respect to income, educational attainment, and occupation. For instance, in Glen Cove/Oyster Bay, communities on Long Island in the New York metropolitan region, the average family income of the 1,800-odd India-born population was about $273,000. At the same time, in a community in Fresno, California, the average family income of the 3,200-odd India- born was under $24,000, an eleven-fold difference. In a cluster of about 2,500 India-born people living in San Diego, about 70% had advanced, postgraduate degrees; another cluster in Yuba City, also in California, had a population of over 5,900 India-born, of whom less than 4% had advanced degrees, a 19-fold difference. In terms of occupation and industry, too, there were large differences at the state level (and, of course, clusters within states); California and New Jersey had a preponderance of India-born computer-sector workers, while in New York and Illinois, the India-born specialised in the healthcare sector. New York City, specifically the borough of Queens, had concentrations of both India-born taxi drivers and medical sector workers. India-born pharmaceutical workers were concentrated in the suburbs of Philadelphia. And so on. Punjabis were concentrated in California and New York, Gujaratis in New Jersey and Illinois, and Telugus in Virginia and Texas. 

To this range of income, education, and occupation variables can be added the linguistic diversity of the Indian-American population. According to the PUMS 2012 data, Punjabis were concentrated in California (Yuba City, Bakersfield, Merced) and New York (Queens), Gujaratis in New Jersey (Edison-Iselin, Jersey City) and Illinois (Schaumberg, Aurora), and Telugus in Virginia (Reston-Tyson’s Corner) and Texas (Irving). Punjabis specialised in the transportation and retail trade sectors; Gujaratis specialised in retail trade and entertainment (hotels, restaurants); Malayalis were strong in the healthcare sector (specifically nursing); Bengalis were disproportionately employed in the education sector; and the computer sector, the most significant one, had a high concentration of Telugus and Tamils. Since these different sectors require different education and skill levels, there were significant differences between Indian language groups by education and income. This is a rich and varied tapestry.

The India-born came to the United States in three phases: the Early Movers (1965-1979), the Families (1980–1994), and the IT Generation (1995 onward)… Early Movers and the Families cohorts can be combined into a single group, Settlers 1.0 (1965– 1994), composed primarily of Punjabis and Gujaratis (and to a lesser extent, Urdu and Malayalam speakers). The IT Generation (1995 onward) can be called Settlers 2.0, and they were primarily Telugus, Tamils, and Hindi speakers (and to a lesser extent, Kannadigas, Marathis, and Bengalis). These two groups were distinguishable by age, tenure in the United States, educational attainment, industry and occupation, and income.

At the extremes—such as Punjabis and Telugus—the group outcomes were so different that one could argue they shared a country of origin, but little else. Settlers 2.0… were increasing in demographic dominance at this writing, and driving the key characteristics of settlement, education, and income for the overall Indian population. At the same time, the educational attainment and income differences between Settlers 1.0 and Settlers 2.0 raise serious questions about fragmentation in the Indian-American population and the long-term effects of such divergent paths.

What spatial strategies do immigrants use to assimilate in their host country? Where do they find work? Where do they live? Do they cluster and why? Are these strategies to enhance security, or to sustain ethnic businesses, or to create a sense of community, or generate social capital through proximity and thereby overcome a lack of access to formal capital that is typically available through “old boy” networks? Or is it all of the above? Do these clusters persist over time? Are the spatial strategies used by Indians part of an overall or generalisable immigrant strategy, or is there something distinctive about their settlement patterns? We show that the Indian American in the 2010s could be seen in multiple settings, from “ethnic enclaves” (in areas of inner cities, as in Queens County, in New York City), to “ethnoburbs” (like Santa Clara County, in California), to “invisiburbs” (in hundreds of interchangeable suburbs, the “geographies of nowhere,” in which they were numerically so insignificant as to be invisible). Therefore, unlike older immigrant groups from Europe (the Italians, Irish, and Russians, for example), but like other newer Asian immigrant groups (the Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Vietnamese, for example), Indian-Americans were less likely to be bound to inner-city enclaves and ghettos. The India-born were spreading to new states and new suburbs and forming new “little Indias.” 

On the face of it, they had more spatial choices. We question, however, whether the new Indian immigrant working in the computer technology sector had any more ability to live in a “community of choice” than did the older Indian immigrant who gravitated to ethnic enclaves in the old urban centers. The techno-immigrants of the 2000s had little choice, we argue, about their place of settlement; they had to live where their industry was located, which happened to be, for reasons discussed extensively in the literature in economic geography, in the suburbs of a handful of American cities. They lived, we suggest, in a new kind of space: what we call—awkwardly, for lack of a better term—the: “ethno-techno-burb.” They responded, as they had to, to the new geography of work in America. As a result, the India-born were spreading to new states and new suburbs, and forming new “little Indias” at the same time that they were concentrating in larger numbers in some special and specialised locations and forming bigger “little Indias.”

Excerpted with permission from Oxford University Press from The Other One Percent. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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