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Changing geographies of the immigrant city

By Brian Doucet
May 23, 2009

North American cities were founded on immigrants. As such, they have a rich and vibrant history and geography of immigration. It is a pattern that has been repeated over the decades and centuries, and by dozens of different ethnic groups: settling in the some of the cheapest housing, close to jobs and each other, then gradually climbing their way up the economic and social ladder and moving to greener pastures, thereby making way for the next group to repeat the same process. Indeed, many of us whose parents and grandparents were immigrants can see this exact process in our families’ histories.

If this pattern has been oft repeated, the geographies behind it have changed in recent decades. In much of the Twentieth Century, the main settlement areas for immigrants were older inner-city districts. Good examples of these are New York’s Lower East Side, or Toronto’s Kensington. There were many very good reasons to settle in these neighbourhoods. Firstly, they were cheap; as the middle-classes suburbanised throughout the Twentieth Century, the devalued properties they left behind in the inner-city were often the only accommodations available to new immigrants, particularly those arriving with little or no money. Older, larger properties were subdivided to create smaller, more affordable units. Second, these neighbourhoods were close to many of the low-wage and low-skill jobs which were available to new immigrants: textile or industrial jobs, which were, at that time, located in city centres. Another factor were the transport links that enabled those needing to work further away the ability to do so on public transit. And of course, as more immigrants arrived, they tended to cluster together, creating what Herbert Ganz called ‘urban villages:’ taking certain elements of the old and adopted countries.

As the immigrants settled, they opened businesses, social clubs, houses of worship and so on in their neighbourhoods, giving them a distinctive ethnic flavour. But as one group advanced up the social ladder, they would move out, making way for new arrivals. Over time, the process of changing not only the residents, but the shops and services, would follow suit. Toronto’s Kensington Market, for example, has been a Jewish, Portuguese and Chinese neighbourhood since World War II, with significant Italian and Ukrainian populations thrown in the mix too. It is interesting to note that it is often the population that leaves first; businesses are more difficult to relocate, so even after many of the Portuguese residents have left in the 1980s, their stores remain; many of the upwardly mobile Portuguese returning to the neighbourhood to visit the shops and churches. Religious institutions are often the most difficult to relocate; there are still several synagogues in Kensington, yet the area has not been heavily Jewish since the 1960s!

However in recent decades the factors which created these immigrant settlement areas have also changed. Gentrification, and the transformation of the inner-city to a desirable, high-income playground, has meant that downtown areas have become both more desirable, and more expensive. Most immigrants, particularly those coming from poorer backgrounds, have been largely excluded from settling in these neighbourhoods as they become trendy and yuppified. This is partly a product of the rise of city-centres as places of office-based employment, as well as leisure and entertainment. In addition, the manufacturing jobs which used to be situated in the inner-city have either disappeared entirely, or relocated to industrial estates in the suburbs, where space is more plentiful, and land not so scarce. As a result, the old factories and warehouses where so many of the earlier immigrants found gainful employment have now been turned into upmarket lofts or high-end offices for industries such as media, advertising or design.

The same factors which drew immigrants to settle in the inner-city still exist today; but they are more likely to be found in the suburbs, particularly the inner-suburbs. These once-middle class areas, like the Kensingtons of their day, have filtered down the housing ladder, and are now affordable for new arrivals to settle in. Likewise for the jobs with lower barriers to entry; they too are found in the suburbs as the inner city professionalises itself. The type of immigrants arriving has also impacted on their settlement patterns; more immigrants are arriving with better skills and more money than their predecessors. Many with a choice chose to settle in a large suburban home, rather than a smaller inner-city dwelling.

The suburbs, which were once the exclusive spaces of the white middle-classes, are now becoming as diverse and multicultural as the city itself. And just as Kensington’s character reflected the nature of its diverse population, so to do areas such as Markham, or Flemington Park around Toronto, or parts of Queens or New Jersey around New York today. Suburban ethnic shopping centres abound, and mosques and temples now share the suburban religious sphere with more traditional churches.

This is an example of how changing forces such as the globalisation of production and the rising importance of service-based jobs, have impacted, at the neighbourhood level, where immigrants settle within the city. Large cities are, and will continue to be, destinations for new immigrants. And the changes geographies of immigrant settlement patterns, are in essence, a reflection of the broader changes occurring in today’s society and its major cities.


Kensington Market, Toronto. Housing such as this has been lived in by many different ethnic groups upon arrival in Canada. Today these small homes are being sought by young urban professionals. (September 2007, photo by Brian Doucet)


Kensington Market, Toronto. In the 1950s, this area was known as the Jewish Market. While most of the Jewish population has moved to other parts of the city, three active Synagogues still operate in Kensington. (September 2007, photo by Brian Doucet)