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What Really Drew Asian Immigrants to the Suburbs?

What Really Drew Asian Immigrants to the Suburbs?
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Within the last decade, there has been growing interest in the “browning” of post-WWII suburbia. A slew of academic articles and social commentary on the "rise of the ‘ethnoburb'" focus on how these spaces are now landscapes of transnational Chinese import-export firms, Mexican bakeries, and Filipino supermarkets. The outlying communities of traditional immigrant gateway cities like New York or San Francisco continue to attract Asians and Latinos, but so do the bedroom communities of "unexpected" cities like Atlanta, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. Immigrants are not necessarily establishing roots in cities. Rather, they are immediately planting seeds in the hinterland.

As Timothy Egan noted in a 2011 New York Times op-ed, the trope of the immigrant needing to settle in an urban ethnic enclave and later, moving on "up" to suburbia is a dusty narrative of the past. There are many reasons for this - affordable housing, immigrants joining other established acquaintances or families, and class mobility (the Asian immigrants who arrived after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act were largely educated and skilled workers). But these conclusions leave out a fairly simple explanation as to why immigrants move to suburbia.

Of course, the suburban "master-planned community" spoke to home-buyers looking for a respite from the perceptions of urban decay and decline of urban Cold War America. But more importantly, many immigrants came to America in part to experience "country living" and the privileges it conferred. Los Angeles’ "ethnoburban" east San Gabriel Valley, in particular, illuminates the intersection of immigration and the American Dream.

Like much of Southern California in the early twentieth century, the east San Gabriel Valley was mainly comprised of agricultural properties until the 1950s. Towns touching major rail arteries like Covina and San Dimas were home to more citrus trees and cattle than people. For instance, Diamond Bar Ranch was once among the highest producers of beef on the West Coast, but ceased operation in 1956, when Transamerica Development Company bought the ranch from owner William Bartholomae.

Transamerica devised a plan to turn bucolic Diamond Bar into Los Angeles County’s largest master-planned community. According to a 1970 promotional brochure, Diamond Bar was meant to be a collection of "country villages where open space was the rule, not the exception. All of this near the city, yet isolated – and protected – from the suburban sprawl that was blighting much of Southern California." Early on, developers boasted its rural charms, distinguished schools, commuters’ proximity to downtown Los Angeles, and easy access to Orange County’s leisurely beaches and Disneyland as major elements for balancing a fulfilled family-friendly lifestyle. Stables, high and wide vistas, wildlife, and carefully crafted "rugged" roads complete with minimal street lighting provide a rural effect. Developers also banked on another selling feature of Diamond Bar: Los Angeles’ first large-scale gated equestrian community sanctimoniously called The Country Estates. The Country, which opened in 1970, is equipped with a championship riding arena and clubhouse.

Initially, this community drew upper class whites. But that began to change in the 1980s. Affluent immigrants from Hong Kong, India, and Taiwan soon displaced the typical upper middle-class Anglo resident. Non-white bankers, doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs with global capital were buying up property and reshaping the meaning of “country living.” Rap artist Snoop Lion (formerly known as Snoop Dogg) and a multitude of star athletes reside in the exclusive community. The changing face of The Country was not the exception, but the rule in the region. Like their white counterparts who moved to the east Valley in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the mushrooming Asian population that settled in the 1980s and 1990s also wanted a slice of American pastoralism, but what did “country living” mean to them and who was part of this formulated notion of suburbanism?

The mystique of “country living” and the frontier has always played a prominent role in the American imagination of "community."  Sociologist Laura R. Barraclough recently noted in her work on LA’s San Fernando Valley that homeowners were "claiming and performing their identity as characters in the drama of the frontier experience," seeking out and replicating their idea of small town living.

The homeowners I spoke to who settled in the now-Asian ethnoburbs of Diamond Bar, Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, or Walnut, said that they were drawn to the country lifestyle. As one white interviewee says, "our house was backed into the wilderness… Diamond Bar looked like a ranch… a nice place to live, to raise children, (and) a clean healthy environment." Asian American interviewees – many of whom originate from dense metropolitan areas in East and Southeast Asia, and settled in the east Valley in the mid-1980s and beyond – also sought the east Valley’s country lifestyle since the term implied wholesomeness, the setting suggested order and harmony, and the image accompanied with a single-family home connoted the actualization of the American Dream.

While scholars and researchers rightfully problematize political economies, migration patterns, and social dynamics between different racial and class groups in the contemporary ethnoburb, oftentimes post-1965 Asian immigrants moved to these neighborhoods for tangible and banal reasons. Interviewees provided various mundane and frank motives as to why the east Valley sold them twenty or thirty years ago: inexpensive new housing, reputable school districts, easy access to work, distance from urban crime and racial “others,” and by the late 1980s and 1990s, conveniences to ethnic commodities. Though classism, neatly planned neighborhoods, and country living were pivotal aspects in residents’ decisions to settle, “everyday” matters and concerns also informed how a community grew, struggled, and changed. The Asianization of the greater San Gabriel Valley is not slowing down anytime soon as Merlin Chowkwanyun and Jordan Segall demonstrate.

The contemporary emergence of California’s majority-Asian suburb, then, is not solely about Pacific Rim capital, immigrant family reunification, or Asian Americans’ “Model Minority” status allowing them to enter these formerly elite white neighborhoods. It is deeply linked to how immigrants and non-immigrants imagine, absorb, construct, and reinforce popular discourse and imagery of the American Dream, rosy suburbia, and the U.S. West. The salience of these themes influences how individuals or groups envision and build community throughout the U.S. and across generations.

Top image photo credit: Richard Susanto/Shutterstock

All photos courtesy of the City of Diamond Bar.

James Frank Dy Zarsadiaz is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Northwestern University. He has written for Amerasia, Journal of Asian American Studies, Journal of Social History, and Journal of Urban History. All posts »

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