Ethnic Neighborhoods

When you are an immigrant, where do you find a place to live? For many, the answer is "wherever I can find things that remind me of home!" Plunked down in an alien culture, which may not be too friendly and may speak a language you know about nine words in, your road to success is probably going to be tough. First, maybe try an ethnic neighbourhood, populated by people similar to you. Later, once you know the ropes (language, cultural mores, job skills, education), you can move to the 'burbs and have a yard and a picket fence. But for now, welcome to the world of single-occupancy room hotels!

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Table of contents

    Ethnic Neighborhoods Definition

    The term "ethnic neighbourhoods" is typically applied by the broader national culture of a country to certain urban spaces where cultural traits of a distinct ethnic minority culture are evident.

    Ethnic Neighborhoods: Urban cultural landscapes in which one or more ethnic groups predominate.

    Characteristics of Ethnic Neighborhoods

    Ethnic neighbourhoods are culturally distinct from whatever is considered the "norm" in a given urban area.

    In Poland, an ethnically Polish neighbourhood would not be distinctive, but in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a Polish American enclave would likely stand out from non-Polish American neighbourhoods enough that it would be characterized as an ethnic neighbourhood.

    The most obvious outward cultural markers of ethnic neighbourhoods are the cultural traits of language, religion, food, and sometimes dress, followed by commercial activities, schools, and so forth.


    Neighbourhoods inhabited by ethnic minorities where there is commercial activity are easily recognizable by signs on businesses and other buildings in a language other than the dominant language of the region. Streets signs may even be bilingual. Residential neighbourhoods may be harder to discern if there are few signs. However, the predominance of the spoken ethnic language is another typical marker.


    Places of worship are usually prominent features of the landscape and often the first indication to the outsider that they are in or approaching an ethnic neighbourhood. A mosque in a neighbourhood inhabited by people from ethnic groups that practice Islam; a Hindu, Sikh, or Buddhist temple; a Christian church: these may be centrally important anchors of an ethnic neighbourhood.

    In a predominantly Catholic or Protestant Christian region, an Eastern Orthodox Christian church with a gold-coloured "onion dome" and cross is a clear marker of ethnic distinctiveness and is likely to indicate that people of Slavic, Greek, or other ethnic Eastern European heritage inhabit the area.

    Ethnic neighborhoods Ukrainian church StudySmarterFig. 1 - Ukrainian Orthodox church in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada


    In many countries, outsiders visit ethnic neighbourhoods to sample distinct cuisines. Larger and more cohesive neighbourhoods don't just contain "ethnic restaurants" but also grocery stores and even farmers' markets. People of the same ethnicity as an ethnic neighbourhood's inhabitants will often travel hours from their homes to shop for groceries there.


    Many ethnic neighbourhoods are inhabited by people who dress the same as people in the dominant culture outside the neighbourhood. However, the dress of particularly religious people, such as Orthodox Jewish rabbis or Muslim imams, may be characteristics that reveal a neighbourhood's identity.

    In cities with a high percentage of ethnic minorities, including many recent immigrants, it is also common to see older people from places where non-Western dress still predominates, such as many countries in Africa and the Muslim World, wearing non-Western clothes such as colourful robes and turbans. Meanwhile, younger people may be wearing jeans and t-shirts.

    Some styles of dress in the cultural landscapes are highly conflictive in ethnic neighbourhoods. Probably the most famous in the West are the burqa, hijab, and other coverings that women wear. While some Western countries allow all forms of clothing, others (e.g, France and Belgium) discourage or ban their use. Similarly, ethnic neighbourhoods in conservative, non-Western countries where immigrants from outside the region live may not be exempt from laws banning certain styles of women's clothing or even prohibiting the appearance of women unaccompanied by men in public.

    Purpose of Ethnic Neighborhoods

    Ethnic neighbourhoods serve many purposes for their inhabitants. Though they are not, of course, solely limited to specific ethnic groups, these may comprise, in some cases, over 90% of the residents.

    The overarching purpose of ethnic neighbourhoods is to reinforce cultural identity and protect against cultural erosion and loss. They allow diaspora populations to recreate in some form the most important aspects of the cultural landscapes of their homelands.

    This maintenance of cultural identity may be particularly necessary where high degrees of discrimination exist outside ethnic enclaves. People may not be allowed or at least encouraged to practice certain key elements of their culture elsewhere. Ethnic neighbourhoods allow people to express themselves freely without fear of discrimination. People of non-English-speaking cultures will not be reminded to "speak English!" when they are in areas where their own culture predominates.

    The preservation of identity happens through the sheer concentration of people. A few people do not make an ethnic neighbourhood, so the more people an ethnic enclave can attract, the more vibrant it can become.

    Hispanic neighbourhoods in New York City are inhabited by members of numerous ethnic and racial groups from across the US and Latin America. Those with the largest numbers, such as Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans, may occupy identifiably separate areas, but these are not at all exclusive of people from Honduras, Peru, Bolivia, and many other countries. The overarching Latin American identity, including the use of Spanish as a first language and the practice of Catholicism, makes such neighbourhoods welcoming to many cultures.

    Ethnic neighbourhoods can lose population over time as new immigrants accrue wealth and younger generations assimilate or simply move away to more desirable locations such as the suburbs.

    Many distinctive European-American ethnic neighbourhoods in the US (e.g., Hungarian, Slovak, Czech, Polish, Italian, Greek, etc.) have lost prominence in this fashion but are still identifiable through their churches, a few ethnic restaurants, and a handful of people left from the original culture that still inhabit the enclave. Some have been revived to an extent by tourism.

    Ethnic Neighborhoods Importance

    Ethnic neighbourhoods are critically important for their preservation of diaspora cultures as well as the opportunity to expose people from the dominant culture to cultural diversity.

    Ethnically Jewish neighbourhoods of Sephardic, Ashkenazim, and other Jewish groups have existed in a diaspora for up to two millennia, and their preservation of Jewish culture there has been critically important. Until the mid-20th century, they were found across North Africa, much of Asia and Europe, and the Americas. The "ghettos" of Europe were depopulated during the Holocaust, and in 1948 the founding of the state of Israel as a safe space for Jews from across the world meant that Jews could escape anti-Semitic conditions overseas and return to their homeland. While Jewish enclaves still exist and are growing in some parts of the world, in the least tolerant places, such as Afghanistan, where Judaism survived for over 2500 years, they have been completely abandoned.

    In addition to the maintenance of cultural identity, ethnic neighbourhoods also serve important economic and political functions.

    Economically, ethnic neighbourhoods are where businesses that might have little success in the broader landscape are able to thrive. These range from places to send money to loved ones back home, to travel agencies, grocery stores, convenience stores, private schools, and indeed any other specific, niche economic activity that might not be possible elsewhere.

    Politically, the demography of ethnic neighbourhoods means that concentrations of people of the same or similar minority culture serve as a voter base that may be large enough to attain representation and, at the very least, will serve as a much better source of political pressure than a scattered group of people would. That is to say, people of any affiliation can come together online or lobby a government as a group, but the possession of a cultural landscape in a certain place provides strength in numbers and visibility that is difficult for decision-makers to ignore.

    Ethnic Neighborhoods Examples

    Two storied ethnic neighbourhoods from opposite sides of the US bookend one country's experience.

    Chinatown (San Francisco)

    Chinatown is a near-legendary ethnic neighbourhood with some perhaps surprising statistics. Though not as large or as densely populated as Chinatown in New York City, where up to 100,000 people reside, San Francisco's oldest (founded 1848) concentration of people of Asian ethnicity is one of the world's most important Chinese communities outside China.

    Ethnic neighorhoods Chinatown San Francisco StudySmarterFig. 2 - Celebration attracts tourists in Chinatown, San Francisco

    Chinatown is not the only place in the Bay Area where Chinese live by any means. But ethnically Chinese people, as well as hordes of tourists, descend on the 24-block neighbourhood in such numbers to shop and eat that congestion is nearly a 24-hour-a-day problem.

    Chinatown has always been a safe haven for Chinese, who, particularly in the 1800s, suffered massive racism and discrimination in the US even though their labour was critically important for the growth of the country.

    Infamous for crime and human trafficking, the neighbourhood burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1906 but was rebuilt in situ in spite of protests by many anti-Chinese San Franciscans.

    Tourism...and Poverty

    With many ups and downs over 175 years, Chinatown's fortunes have seemed better in recent decades with the boom in tourism. However, Chinatown remains one of the most impoverished locations in San Francisco, made worse by the steep cost of living in the city. Its 20000 primarily elderly residents, 30% living below the poverty line, are overwhelmingly monolingual and do not speak English. The median yearly income for a household is just US$20000, a quarter of the average for San Francisco. How can people possibly survive here?

    The answer is that close to 70% live in single-room-occupancy hotel rooms. This is the sole way for low-income people to enjoy and contribute to a sort of miniature China, with its social clubs, foods impossible to get elsewhere, places to practice T'ai Chi and play Chinese board games, and all the other activities that help preserve authentic Chinese culture.

    Little Italy (New York City)

    Little Italy may always endure as an open-air theme park of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European immigration to the Lower East Side ... But you'll spend a long time in the neighborhood [sic] before you hear anyone speak Italian, and then the speaker will be a tourist from Milan.1

    The influence of Italian culture on the US cannot be understated. Italian cuisine, remade into American forms, is a mainstay of popular culture. Italian-American culture, stereotyped in myriad movies and TV shows from Jersey Shore to The Godfather, has survived and even thrived in households and neighbourhoods across the country.

    But if you go looking for it in Little Italy, you may be quite surprised at what you find. As the quote above suggests, Little Italy is a bit disappointing in that respect.

    Ethnic neighborhoods Little Italy StudySmarterFig. 3 - Italian restaurant in Little Italy

    Here's what happened: Mulberry Street in Lower Manhattan was where the poorest and most disadvantaged European immigrants landed after getting through Ellis Island in the late 1800s. It was never the area with the most Italians in New York City, but its lawlessness and poverty were legendary. Italians were discriminated against by the broader white population of the US, but nevertheless, managed to prosper economically and assimilate rapidly. They got out of Little Italy as fast as they could!

    Now, the original Little Italy is part of Chinatown, which thrives as an ethnic enclave. Very few ethnic Italians are left; it is more than anything a tourist trap designed as a stereotypical Italian neighbourhood. The vast majority of residents are not Italian.

    Ethnic Neighborhoods - Key takeaways

    • Ethnic neighbourhoods are urban cultural landscapes characterized by enclaves of minority cultures distinct from the broader culture of a region.
    • Ethnic neighbourhoods function to preserve diaspora cultures.
    • Ethnic neighbourhoods contain many distinctive cultural traits, from places to worship and street signs to distinctive cuisine and dress.
    • Ethnic neighbourhoods are strengthened by the arrival of new immigrants but are weakened by out-migration and assimilation of residents to the broader, surrounding culture.
    • Two famous ethnic neighbourhoods in the US are Chinatown in San Francisco and Little Italy in New York.


    1. Tonelli, B. 'Arrivederci, Little Italy. New York. September 27, 2004.
    2. Fig. 1 Ukrainian Orthodox church (,_BC).jpg) by Demetrios is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    3. Fig. 2 Celebration in Chinatown (,_San_Francisco_01.jpg) by Mattsjc ( is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    4. Fig. 3 Little Italy ( by Kidfly182 ( is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ethnic Neighborhoods

    What are ethnic neighborhoods called?

    Ethnic neighborhoods are also called "ethnic enclaves."

    What is the purpose of an ethnic neighborhood?

    The purpose of an ethnic neighborhood is to protect the cultural identity of ethnic minority populations.

    What is an example of an ethnic neighborhood?

    An example of an ethnic neighborhood is Chinatown in Manhattan, New York City.

    What are the benefits of living in an ethnic neighborhood?

    Some benefits of living in an ethnic neighborhood include lack of discrimination, inexpensive housing, sense of belonging, availability of goods and services that might not be available outside the neighborhood, and availability of cultural activities such as religion, social clubs, and music that might be difficult to impossible to find elsewhere.

    What are the negatives of ethnic enclaves?

    Some negatives of ethnic enclaves include diminished opportunity for assimilation to the majority culture and even ghettoization.

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