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Mapping: Diasporas

ISSUE:  Winter 2014

Mapping by Reif Larsen

I recently visited Cleveland, where a resident boasted to me that his city had the largest population of Slovenians anywhere outside of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital. It was a dubious claim, not least because there are several other cities in Slovenia filled with Slovenians, but also because immigrant demographic data is notoriously difficult to quantify given the vague ethnic categories on census surveys, the often underreported populations of immigrants, and the shifting definition of what it means to be of a certain national or ethnic origin. But what interested me more than the truth of this man’s claim was the impulse behind it—we want our hometowns to be destinations, to be diverse, to have the most of something. And indeed the US is filled with such remarkable diasporic hot spots, where immigrant and refugee communities have sprung up, most often due to secondary migration patterns. Sometimes these hot spots can be in unexpected places.

Tehrangeles (Los Angeles, CA)

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian immigration to the US skyrocketed. Many opponents of the Ayatollah regime, including a large concentration of urban elites and non-Muslims, sought refuge in Los Angeles, a city which topo-graphically resembled Tehran. Estimates vary, but between 200,000 and 500,000 Iranian Americans now live in greater Los Angeles, with the largest concentration along Wilshire Boulevard in what has been dubbed “Little Persia” or “Tehrangeles.” The Iranian-American population is well-educated, with six times the national average of doctoral degrees, and well-off, with 40 percent higher per capita income than the national average. Certain studies estimate that nearly 20 percent of Beverly Hills is of Iranian descent, a phenomenon gratuitously depicted in the Bravo reality TV show Shahs of Sunset.

Little Bosnia (St. Louis, MO)

During the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, a large number of Bosnian refugees sought resettlement in the US. After several successful university scholarships were established for Bosnians in the St. Louis area, news about the city’s welcoming attitude toward refugees quickly spread through Bosnian familial networks. The initial 7,000 refugees sponsored by the International Institute of St. Louis has now become a flourishing Bosnian community estimated at 70,000 people. This stands in contrast to St. Louis’s recent difficulty attracting non-refugee immigrants through more normalized channels.

Little Cambodia (Lowell, MA)

The primary influx of Cambodian refugees to the US occurred after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, when about 110,000 Cambodians were resettled across the country. Lowell, a postindustrial mill town on the Merrimack River, had fewer than 100 people from Southeast Asia as of the 1980 census. But as the Massachusetts tech economy began to thrive, word about employment opportunities in Lowell and its surroundings spread among the Cambodian communities scattered across the US, initiating a large secondary migration to the area. The town now boasts nearly 20,000 Cambodians—the highest per capita concentration in the country—​and hosts the annual Southeast Asian Water Festival, which draws more than 60,000 people from all over the world to the area.

Ellis Island of the South (Clarkston, GA) 

Clarkston was once a seat for the Ku Klux Klan and was still over 90 percent white a little more than twenty years ago. Refugee-resettlement programs began targeting the town in the 1990s because of its ample affordable housing and its location on the outskirts of Atlanta’s public-transport system. Today a third to one half of the town’s 7,500 residents are foreign born, including Sudanese, Burmese, Bhutanese, Eritrean, and Somali, earning Clarkston the nickname “Ellis Island of the South.” Several of the town’s historically white churches, which saw a dramatic decrease in attendance, have had to reinvent themselves as international congregations. The town’s diverse youth soccer team, nicknamed the “Fugees,” became a minor cause célèbre after a New York Times article (and, later, a book) was written about them. Still, the town’s resources have struggled with the population influx. In 2013, 20 percent fewer refugees were resettled in Clarkston, at the request of local officials.


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