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Why Suburbs Are Siphoning Away the Immigrant Vitality

By James L. TysonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 1996


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.

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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.

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.