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The Call of the Mall

From The Economist print edition
02/01/2009

The Economist print edition

LOS ANGELES AND QUEENS
Americans of all ethnic groups are increasingly living and going to school together. Shopping is another matter.

IN THE H-Mart supermarket at the new Diamond Jamboree shopping centre, customers can peruse more than 60 shelf-feet (18 metres) of kimchi. A heavily Asian clientele buys seaweed, dried pollock and live catfish. A few doors down, the new 85ºC Bakery churns out the soft brioche rolls beloved by the Taiwanese-up to 700 of them every day.

A common enough sight in an inner-city ethnic ghetto, perhaps. But this is Irvine, a scrupulously tidy suburban city south of Los Angeles that is only about one-third Asian. The shopping centre is surrounded not by overcrowded tenement buildings but by light manufacturing firms. It is a new kind of ethnic community, and an extremely popular one.

Martin Luther King once described Sunday mornings, when people go to church, as the most segregated moment in American life. That is probably still true. But, particularly for groups other than blacks, Saturday mornings are not far behind. A century ago ethnic-minority groups clustered for self-defence, or because they were forced to. Half a century ago they were bound together by language and poverty. Now they congregate to eat and shop.

Despite the housing-market crash, immigrants and ethnic minorities continue to leave inner-city ghettos for more mixed suburbs. That movement has forced other changes. Research by Gary Orfield of the University of California at Los Angeles shows that in 1988 the average white public-school pupil went to a school that was 83.4% white. That proportion had fallen to 76.6% by 2006. In the West more than a fifth of white children attended mixed-race schools, with at least 10% of students from three or more ethnic groups.

Every year California's schools cope with fewer children who cannot speak English. The proportion of Los Angeles Latinos who are fluent in the language has risen from 52% to 58% since 2000, according to the Census Bureau. Some 660,000 of them (16% of the total) speak no Spanish at all. But assimilation has not eradicated differences in taste.

The Diamond Jamboree centre's customers are among the most affluent Asians in Irvine. Many of the teenagers sipping sweet iced coffee are students from the local outpost of the University of California. Women push mixed-race children in prams. Eddie Lam, whose Chinese restaurant had its grand opening this week, reports that at least four-fifths of his Asian customers order their food in English.

Much English can also be heard at Plaza Mexico, a shopping centre in south Los Angeles. There, men photograph their children in front of ersatz Mayan fountains and what looks like a Baroque church (actually a market where you can buy shoes, basketball shirts and pet rabbits). It is an odd sight. But many of these urban Latinos have never seen a real Mexican village.

José Legaspi, who has turned several dying malls into thriving Hispanic shopping centres, says the appeal of such places goes well beyond their Mexican flourishes. The shops often have wider aisles for big family groups, as well as more entertainment for children. The sales patter is different, especially acknowledging men's pride in providing for their families. (English-speaking shoppers, by contrast, are "independent Marlboro men".)

More surprising than the rise of ethnic shopping centres outside traditional neighbourhoods is what has happened to those neighbourhoods. Most are no longer the population centres of their communities, and many now play host to other groups. Los Angeles's Koreatown is largely, and increasingly, Hispanic. Yet businesses catering to Koreans are thriving, and the district has even expanded. Suburban visitors explain how one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Los Angeles can sustain expensive shoe shops and diamond jewellers.

Or take Queens in New York. The home of the fictional bigot Archie Bunker is now one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the country. More than 140 languages are spoken there, and more than a third of the population is foreign-born. Many apartment buildings are "like the United Nations", according to Joseph Salvo of New York City's planning department. A steadily rising number of subdivisions, he says, contain no racial majority.

What seem like ethnic enclaves in Queens are often something else. Leaving the 7 subway line, the "immigrant express", at the 74th Street stop, the visitor finds himself in what appears to be a South Asian neighbourhood. There are shops selling saris and Indian jewellery, a Patel Brothers supermarket and Indian restaurants. Yet nearby flats are mostly occupied by immigrants from Central America. The shops are patronised by South Asians who travel into the neighbourhood.

Ethnic communities that are based on shopping are, of course, not nearly so monolithic as ones rooted in language and neighbourhood. Latinos also go to Gap, as well as to Asian supermarkets like 99 Ranch. And Mr Legaspi points out that another change is quietly afoot. Gradually, he says, central Americans are assimilating into the broader Hispanic culture-a process he labels "Mexicanisation".

A similar trend can be seen in Irvine's new shopping centre. The shelves in H-Mart contain Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese foods, as well as American breakfast cereal. The menu in Mr Lam's restaurant includes Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes as well as Chinese ones. The people who frequent centres like this one are not so much clinging to their parents' and grandparents' ways as creating a new culture that is both pan-Asian and American. King would probably not have objected.

Copyright © 2009 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

 

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