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City Shaped Churches: Ethnic Enclaves

I have always loved cities.  I have been simultaneously fascinated by how different peoples choose to group themselves together and repulsed by how they are forced to live together in particular urban ethnic enclaves.

Forming Ethnic Enclaves

These are geographical areas with particular ethnic concentrations of residents and businesses whose identity is different than that of the surrounding city. New York City is home to at least nine Chinatowns, each a little different than the other. Manhattan is also home to barrios (the Spanish word for neighborhood) such as Spanish Harlem. The 1.3 million people of Japanese descent in Brazil gather mostly in the San Paulo region, with the Liberdade district of the city serving as their cultural center. In Singapore, Peranakan people, who are a mixture of Malay and Chinese descent and have their own foods, customs, and traditions, live in the Joko Chiat enclave of Singapore’s Katong neighborhood. Katong Phahurat, the Little India of Bangkok, Thailand, is home to many South Asians of Hindu, Muslin, and Sikh religions. Los Angeles’s Koreatown is home to more Koreans than any place outside of Korea.
Tarry Hum, professor of urban studies at Queens College in New York, researches immigration and community economic development. She studied the Sunset Park neighborhood, located along Brooklyn’s dense majority-immigrant industrial waterfront. It is known for its small businesses such as home construction suppliers, contractors, metal fabricators, food manufacturers, and auto repair shops. In Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn’s Sunset Park Hum observed, “Immigrant ethnic enclaves serve as a stepping-stone or port-of-entry communities, providing necessary social, economic, and cultural resources to help facilitate the settlement and integration of new immigrants and subsequent generations” (18).
At the same time, those who live in ethnic enclaves, especially among large groups who experience ongoing waves of immigration into a city, sometimes find it unnecessary to assimilate into the region’s dominant culture. For example, Linda worked with Southeast Asian refugees in both Fort Worth, Texas, and San Diego, California, in the mid-1980s. Many Cambodians who had initially settled in Texas later moved to California, where there were not only many more Cambodians, but also more extensive social services available to them for longer periods of time. When Linda had been in San Diego for a few years, she visited the refugees she had known in Fort Worth and noted the differences. Of those living in San Diego, most had not found work, still lived in all-Cambodian apartment complexes, shopped mostly local Southeast Asian grocers, and wore sampots (sarongs). She discovered that the Cambodians still in Texas had found jobs, begun wearing Western clothing, were buying homes, had learned English, and were generally more assimilated than the Cambodians in San Diego.

Gravitating around Particular Businesses and Industries

The idea of ethnic enclaves can sometimes overlap around business and industry. According to Margaret Chin (2015), author of Sewing Women: Immigrants and the New York City Garment Industry, in the 1990s, Chinese and Korean-owned factories produced 70% of all clothing manufactured in New York’s garment district; at its peak, the community boasted 20,000 garment industry workers and 500 Chinese-owned sewing shops. Most lived in the surrounding neighborhood (23).
Have you ever noticed how sometimes local businesses seem dominated by particular immigrant groups? One familiar example is Vietnamese women working in the nail salon business. This trend began 40 years ago when actress Tippi Hedren visited a Vietnamese refugee camp near Sacramento, California, hoping to help women find ways to support themselves in America. They were enthralled with her fingernails, and the rest is history (Hoang, 2015).
The 2013 Bay Area Muslim Study, produced by Muslim intellectuals, notes that people from Yemen own or manage 80% of the corner markets in Oakland, California. They also claim that 30% of the members of the San Francisco Unified School District janitor’s union are from Yemen (Farid Senzai and Hatem Bazian, 2013). The latter type of occupation seems to have begun when one man, who also purchased the property for San Francisco’s Yemeni mosque, began teaching new immigrants how to work at a trade that required little English.
Other workplace enclaves are businesses that hire large numbers of H-1B visa holders or other temporary work visas. In the United States, Infosys (headquartered in Plano, TX) is the number one employer of persons with H1B visas, Tata Consultancy (headquartered in Rockville, Maryland) is number two, and IBM (headquartered in Durham, North Carolina is number three. Helping new immigrant groups to start businesses that are easily reproduced in their networks is one potential way to help make a difference and perhaps impact a community for Christ.”


Learning to engage an ethnic enclave can be interesting, fun, challenging, and surprisingly easy. For one thing, when you return to a place you have visited before, you are remembered. You stand out. Last year on the last day of Ramadan I wished an Afghan shopkeeper “Eid Mubarak,” and she immediately invited me to the celebration at her local mosque. Another mosque I visited was environmentally sensitive, and within minutes I was conversing with leaders about the biblical mandate of creation care and the ultimate plan of Christ to restore all things. It is not necessary to be a paid, professional minister to love on and reach out to residents and business owners in these neighborhoods. How can you, your family, and your church learn to welcome and love the stranger in your midst, while building relationships and finding opportunities to share the good news?  How can you lead others to grow and develop a heart and relational skills for the various people groups all around us in our cities, neighborhoods, and right across the street?

The above excerpt is taken from City Shaped Churches: Planting Churches in a Global Era co-authored by Linda Bergquist and Michael Crane. (pg. 96-98)