The New Look of the American Suburb


If you want an easy demonstration of the unsustainability of the classic American suburb, just take a drive around the inner ring suburbs of almost any city, starting with the ones that have a classic branching, winding streets, not traditional grids or those that grew up along transit lines. It is easy to find untold miles of decay, of “dead malls”, “grayboxes”, and subdivisions that have seen better days. If most of today’s new suburbs think they’ll fare any better, they are going to be in for a rude shock in 30 years or so.

Some have argued that what we need are “suburban retrofits,” where older areas are redeveloped along new urbanist lines. While this is certainly an attractive option in some places, particularly in town center areas, the sheer quantity of decaying older suburbs means this isn’t a viable option across the board at the moment. Retrofits are hard to pull off and expensive to boot. There simply isn’t enough planner/political bandwidth or TIF dollars to make it happen on a wholesale basis. So we have to find some method to renew most of these areas in place.

Enter immigrants. In older cities, immigrants were historically crammed into near downtown ghettos like the various “Chinatowns” and the like we see. Today, in cities that have them, those districts might still have a cultural role, but they are no longer the demographic core of their communities. Also, for cities without longstanding histories of immigration, these ghettos never developed. Instead, today immigrants disperse throughout metro areas. You find them everywhere from inner city neighborhoods to the most posh suburbs. One of the places along that spectrum you can find them are these inner ring suburbs.

I want to share some pictures of immigrant driven revitalization of inner ring suburbs through some facts and photos from Indianapolis. But I think you’d find similar things in many cities across the nation.

Indianapolis was traditionally one of America’s least diverse cities, featuring only the classic black-white split. But it has seen a large influx of immigrants in the last decade. Its metro foreign born population is only 5.19%, which is small, but the Indianapolis Star reported last year that this represented a 70% population increase since 2000. Unlike some towns which have seen immigration driven almost entirely from Mexico, Indianapolis has seen a very diverse set of immigrants, that come from all over the globe, including 26,000 Asians and 10,500 Africans. The Indian population has doubled to 6,000, the Pakistani and Nigerian populations have tripled to 1,000 each. There are 5,600 Chinese and 1,500 Burmese. These aren’t huge numbers today, but given the network effects of international immigration and the lead time to build a large community (remember the example of the large community from Tala, Mexico, which has its roots in the 1970’s), this represents a potential future tsunami of immigration, provided the economy stays strong, the local climate welcoming, and a bit of pro-active marketing takes place. Again, I’m sure we’d see similar diversity of immigrants in other cities, ranging from Detroit’s Arab community to Bosnians in St. Louis to Somalis in Columbus, Ohio.

The most diverse area in Indianapolis is Pike Township on the northwest side. Though technically part of the city today, it is originally an inner ring suburban area. Its schools have children from 63 different countries speaking 74 different languages. The Lafayette Square area on the southeast boundary of Pike Township is a classic struggling inner ring commercial zone, complete with a dying mall.

Yet the presence of all of those immigrants has led to a spontaneous renewal of parts of this struggling area in the form of businesses catering to local ethnic populations.

One of them is a 62,000 square feet international supermarket called Saraga:

Saraga is run by Korean brothers Jong Sung and Bong Jae Sung and features hundreds of spices and 40,000 products from around the world, ranging from house made kimchi to a halal meat department. Lest I stir up too much suspicion I didn’t take many photos inside the store, but wanted to share one shot of some of the contents from a Middle Eastern aisle:

The owners are planning to open a second location on the South Side. They are facing a lot of competition from an array of new specialty markets in their current location, and also want to be positioned closer to the burgeoning immigrant community on the South Side and south suburbs. Not long ago the South Side of Indianapolis was stereotyped as the “redneck” side of town, but as American Dirt chronicled, this has changed a lot. While not part of the favored quarter, the South Side has increasing diversity both ethnically and in terms of incomes. Notably the South Side has become epicenter of the Indianapolis Sikh community.

Saraga should be careful. There are already two Indian groceries and a Mexican grocery in Greenwood. Here is part of the competition in Lafayette Square:

This, and many of the other establishments, might not look like much. But imagine what it would look like if they weren’t there.

Here’s one of my favorite signs from a nearby strip center, showing the diversity of establishments rubbing elbows:

The facade of Cairo Cafe shows a typical Indianapolis pattern, where an ethnic restaurant does double duty as a small scale specialty grocery.

It’s the same thing at the Vietnamese restaurant Saigon and Guatelinda. Saigon is beloved of hipsters, but I’ve got to confess I don’t think it is very good.

Another nearby strip mall always blows my mind for the diversity of restaurants and stores it contains. You might need to enlarge this one to see, but it’s a Peruvian restaurant next to a Mexican restaurant next to an Ethiopian restaurant:

A pastry shop next to another oriental market:

Some type of Latino shop:

A Cuban sandwich shop:

Hopefully this gives you a flavor for how immigrants can be a force of renewal for older, struggling suburban area. I’ll admit I focused on food establishments, since that’s what’s most interesting to me, but there are plenty of others. This also shows the increasingly multi-cultural face of America, even in an interior city in the middle of Midwest corn country. If I were a city with lots of these struggling areas – and let’s face it, that’s most cities – I’d sure want to get me a lot more immigrants pronto.

In the interest of completeness, I should also note that the Lafayette Square area has also become home to large number of independent black-owned businesses. In addition to being Indy’s immigrant heart, Pike Township has also emerged as a key hub for the region’s black middle class. That will have to be the topic of a future post, alas.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.

This article is re-posted from The Urbanophile.