Why Suburbs Are Siphoning Away the Immigrant Vitality

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sitha Chhor and other Asian immigrant shopkeepers on Chicago's Argyle Street have a problem that many other low-income neighborhoods across America would trade their sidewalks for - too much business.

On a recent Saturday morning, Taiwanese immigrants hawk 30-pound bags of litchi fruit from the back of a truck. Deliverymen weave through a crowd, shouldering sides of pork into a Vietnamese butcher shop. And a pack of customers at a Thai fish store haggle over live blue crab.

"Business is good but the parking is no good, and so I lose some business," says Mr. Chhor, an ethnic Chinese from Cambodia, standing amid the statues, scrolls, and other curios in his store.

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Since fur traders put down stakes on the banks of the Chicago River in the 18th century, the gumption and upstart prosperity of immigrants like Chhor have shaped the story of Chicago. Over the decades, new arrivals have remolded the city by settling in distinct ghettos, providing factory muscle, and flocking to voting booths, regularly shaking up City Hall.

Today, Chhor and many other immigrants still enliven Chicago with political ferment and ethnic and racial diversity. But most immigrant neighborhoods cannot match the boom on Argyle Street. Foreign newcomers to the area are increasingly spurning Chicago and finding work and homes in the suburbs, say social scientists. Their movement underscores the erosion in this city and others in the United States of well-paying, low-skill jobs.

The emergence of a suburban melting pot denies Chicago many steady taxpayers and hard workers. It highlights the imperative of City Hall to revive Chicago's poor schools, housing, and vital services, say social scientists.

A turnaround by Chicago is something the city must pull off largely by itself. The Democratic Party, which built many of the welfare programs at the foundation of urban aid, kicks off its quadrennial convention this week, bringing plenty of high-pitched speeches but scant new financial help for troubled cities.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers promoting austerity at both the state and national level have cut funding for cities.

Since taking office in 1989, Mayor Richard M. Daley has reached for the cures other big-city mayors have tried, including a push to privatize public services and incentives for business investment in designated "development zones."

The mayor has made Chicago a more hospitable place for the comparatively affluent. Within the Loop, or city core, job opportunities in management and well-paying services like finance have expanded. Sales of new homes are booming, especially in new upscale developments in and around the Loop. Chicago still offers the region's finest night clubs, shopping, music, drama, and collections of fine art.

The city has also become friendlier to residents of modest means. After a surge in murders earlier this decade, violent crimes have subsided in line with a nationwide trend. The number of manufacturing companies in Chicago has begun to expand, although total manufacturing employment has yet to turn around. Joblessness is at a comparatively low level. The six-county metropolitan area has logged an unemployment figure below the national average for more than two years.

Still, Mr. Daley must cope with several sizable challenges: a shrinkage in population partly caused by an exodus of the middle class to the suburbs, erosion of the tax base, and the disappearance of thousands of high-paying manufacturing jobs.

Chicago lost 370,000 jobs between 1960 and 1990, with manufacturing employment shrinking 60 percent. Many of the remaining factory jobs are comparatively low paying and the trend this decade shows no signs of reversing, says Paul Kleppner, director of the office for social policy research at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, Ill.

"Migrants coming to Chicago today, unlike those who came in earlier this century, don't have open to them the same avenue for upward mobility," Mr. Kleppner says.

Chhor, who arrived in Chicago in 1979 with just $100, earned the capital for his store by working for 13 years stripping and rebuilding walls for a construction company.

Small, family-owned shops like Chhor's line the streets in many neighborhoods. But the stores, traditionally stepping stones for immigrants to the middle class, are increasingly less common because of competition from larger, more efficient enterprises. "By and large, the mom and pop store is dead," Kleppner says.

Immigrants have apparently found greater opportunity in the suburbs. In the northwestern and western areas beyond Chicago, the number of semiskilled jobs has grown this decade by 7 percent, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

Consequently, the Latino population in these areas has jumped since 1990, now representing nearly 9 percent of the population. In the northern suburbs, the Asian population this decade has ballooned by more than 30 percent, according to an analysis of data from Claritas Inc., a market research firm, by The Chicago Reporter.

Despite the appeal of the suburbs to immigrants, Chicago remains very much the "city of neighborhoods," a tag that bespeaks the warmth of some communities but also the stubborn lines of racial and ethnic division. The city has attracted people from at least 25 countries, according to city statistics. Although a few neighborhoods have become highly integrated, Chicago remains a patchwork of diverse languages, traditions, and skin tones.

As the population shifts, Chicago is losing its mainly black and white profile of ethnic whites and African-Americans. The Asian and Latino populations this decade have expanded 20.8 percent and 17.2 percent respectively.

Daley has so far finessed a vital political challenge and reconciled the rising aspirations of Hispanics with the demands from his traditional base among ethnic whites, whose power is ebbing. His weakest footing is among black voters, who have seen their power erode with the recent arrival of immigrants. Daley has gone out of his way to court Hispanic voters, who, in turn, have given him a swing vote in his three successful campaigns since 1989.

The growing Asian community is also on the political ascent. But, like many immigrants, Chhor views politics with a certain ambivalence.

"I vote," Chhor says with a slight grin, "but my life is just work, eat, sleep, and then more work."

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