Ethnic enclaves bloom amid city landscape

Posted on July 5, 2009 in Equality Debates, Inclusion Debates – Opinion – Ethnic enclaves bloom amid city landscape: Media and politicians too often see segregation and ghettoes instead of the vibrant expressions of community identity that most enclaves are
July 05, 2009.   Mohammad Qadeer, Sandeep Agrawal

Any noticeable clustering of ethnic groups, whether in neighbourhoods, college cafeterias, social clubs or shopping malls, raises fears about their segregation from mainstream Canadian society. For example, in recent statements Federal Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney has associated ethnic enclaves with “social fracturing.” The visibility of non-white groups makes them particularly noticeable in this regard.

This narrative of concern about segregation conflates ethnic neighbourhoods with ghettos, raising the spectre of dependency, alienation and riots. The media carry stories about life in Toronto’s “highrise ghettos” or Vancouver’s East End slums, suggesting that certain minorities are unable or unwilling to integrate. Examples of ethnic enclaves in Europe often are brought up to raise fears of social division and unrest, and to advocate policies that would inhibit the clustering of minorities.

Conservatives see ethnic enclaves as the downside of multiculturalism, namely the failure to compel immigrants to integrate fully or, better still, assimilate. Liberals view them as the evidence of discrimination and racism in job and housing markets. Both camps stereotype immigrants as dependent and static.

But ethnic enclaves are more than just residential concentrations of particular minorities. They also are areas where minorities build community life by developing places of worship, institutions, services and businesses. They are districts with vibrant cultural life, high social capital and robust economies.

Look at the various Chinatowns, Greek villages, Little Italies or India Bazaars of Canadian cities; they are among the high points for visitors. Ethnic enclaves must not be confused with ghettos, which are the product of poverty, exclusion and physical blight. Most Canadian ethnic enclaves are not burdened with such conditions.

There is a near consensus in Canadian academic literature that contemporary ethnic enclaves in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal are neither exclusionary nor blighted. Almost every geographer and sociologist who has studied Canadian ethnic enclaves concludes they are unlike American ghettos.

Canadian racial history is different. The country’s social safety net is stronger. And its multiculturalism policy values people’s identity and diversity. These conditions have prevented the formation of a Harlem, South Bronx or Watts in Canada. Even in the U.S. recent immigrant enclaves are not replicating the historical ghettos. L.A.’s Korea Town, New York’s Sunset Park or Jackson Heights and Miami’s Little Havana are a few of the many examples of thriving ethnic enclaves in the United States.

Living in enclaves does not isolate residents. In the Toronto area’s six enclaves, respective ethnic groups are dominant but not a majority. Their proportion ranges from 35 to 45 per cent. An ethnic resident is bound to have social encounters with those of different backgrounds in stores, parks, bus stops and so on. According to a comprehensive analysis of the geography of immigrants and visible minorities in three Canadian cities: “The isolationist narrative identified in recent media portrayal of enclave neighbourhoods is overstated.”

The surprise is that the rhetoric of enclaves being ghettos persists in the face of this evidence. And politicians as well as the media buy into it.

Our studies in the Toronto metropolitan area have identified six large ethnic enclaves. Three consist of white Canadians, namely Jewish, Italian and Portuguese, and the other three are visible minorities, two of South Asians and one large cluster of Chinese. There is no sizable black concentration. There are other small ethnic clusters in the central City of Toronto, such as the West and East Chinatowns, Greek Village and India Bazaar. All are anchored in respective ethnic institutions, services and community spirit.

The Toronto area’s enclaves include not only neighbourhoods of non-white immigrants but also long-established whites of European ancestry. The latter have not dissipated with time, rather they have been consolidating and growing. Undoubtedly immigration is driving the growth of Chinese and South Asian enclaves but they also are a reflection of immigrants becoming Canadian and finding a footing for themselves in the urban landscape.

Urban social life is organized along shared interests and institutional bonds. Ethnic identity reflects shared religion, customs, language, culture and history. Indeed, it likely is the most striking identity any individual has. Enclaves simply are an expression of this identity. They are not a threat to social cohesion. They are as attractive to ethnic groups as the phenomenon of discovering roots is among long-assimilated groups.

Enclaves offer many advantages – and some challenges – for the delivery of public services and in organizing cities. Clustering by ethnicity allows the building of a critical mass for the economical delivery of settlement, social, health and civic services in culturally and linguistically sensitive ways. It fosters an ethnic economy and helps incubate new economic activities. Ethnic enclaves also help break the monotony of suburbs.

The ethnic segregation of neighbourhood schools is the main challenge. It has to be countered by bringing children into contact with others through curricula, exposure and exchanges. It can be a difficult issue, as the U.S. experience of desegregating schools has shown.

There are no policy instruments that can compel people not live where they want to. On balance, enclaves are here to stay. They are becoming the anchors of our emerging polycentric and postmodern metropolis. We had better learn to appreciate them.

Mohammad Qadeer ( and Sandeep Agrawal ( are academics respectively at Queen’s and Ryerson universities. They have been studying the multicultural restructuring of the Toronto metropolitan area.

This entry was posted on Sunday, July 5th, 2009 at 6:51 pm and is filed under Equality Debates, Inclusion Debates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply