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'Immigrants have changed US cities'

Immigrants, especially Indians, have transformed the once-sleepy neighbourhoods into thriving commercial centres, says a US think tank.

india Updated: Feb 08, 2007 17:51 IST

Immigrant entrepreneurs from India and other parts of the world have emerged as key engines of growth for American cities from New York to Los Angeles. By opening businesses from food manufacturing, health care to jewellery, the immigrants have transformed once-sleepy neighbourhoods into thriving commercial centres, says a US think tank.

And with a little planning and support, the immigrants could provide an even bigger economic boost in the future, according to the Centre for an Urban Future (CFU), which is dedicated to research about critical issues affecting New York's future.

It says during the last decade, immigrants have been the entrepreneurial sparkplugs of major US cities - starting a greater share of new businesses than native-born residents, stimulating growth in sectors from food manufacturing to health care, creating loads of new jobs, and transforming the areas they resided in into thriving commercial centres.

It its just released report it says that as the stakes of economic competition grow ever higher in America's cities, mayors have sought to kick-start local economies by embracing everything from artists and biotechnology companies to sports arenas.

For many of the American urban centres, however, a more rewarding - if decidedly less glamorous - answer is hiding in plain sight: tapping their growing immigrant populations, said the report by Jonathan Bowles with Tara Colton.

And immigrant entrepreneurs are also becoming one of the most dependable parts of cities' economies: while elite sectors like finance (New York), entertainment (Los Angeles) and energy (Houston) fluctuate wildly through cycles of boom and bust, immigrants have been starting businesses and creating jobs during both good times and bad.

Two trends suggest that these entrepreneurs will become even more critical to the economies of cities in the years ahead: immigrant-led population growth and the ongoing trend of large companies in many industries moving to decentralize their operations out of cities and outsource work to cheaper locales, the CFU report said.

But despite this great and growing importance, immigrant entrepreneurs remain a shockingly overlooked and little-understood part of cities' economies, and they are largely disconnected from local economic development planning.

The incredible impact foreign-born entrepreneurs are having on New York's economy is most evident in neighbourhoods across the five boroughs with large or fast-growing immigrant populations, from Astoria and Elmhurst to Wakefield and Washington Heights, CFU said.

Here is a snap shot of the five with focus on Indians.

Richmond Hill: With the arrival of a large numbers of Trinidadian immigrants and more recently many Sikhs from India, Richmond Hill's immigrant population nearly doubled between 1990 and 2000. Fuelled by these immigrants and the businesses they started, the area is now thriving.

Sunset Park, Flushing: Over the last 30 years, entrepreneurs from Taiwan, Korean, China and India have opened hundreds of businesses in the neighbourhood, from groceries stocked with Asian foods and pharmacies selling herbal remedies to financial services firms targeting the community's fast-growing Asian population. Downtown Flushing now has more businesses than ever 74th Street In

Jackson Heights: When Vasantrai Gandhi opened his jewellery business here in 1978, the street was a low-key retail strip. Today, roughly 20 jewellery businesses and half a dozen Indian restaurants are located on and around 74th Street.

Additionally, numerous stores in the area owned by Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis sell South Asian groceries, spices, music, saris, religious products and sweets.

It has become an important cultural concentration, but only because of the businesses. People travel to it from different parts of New York City, from the tristate area, from other parts of the country and from the South Asian Diaspora around the world.

Just as in other cities, the majority of the businesses started by immigrants in New York are "mom-and-pop" retail stores and restaurants. However, immigrant entrepreneurs also boast a growing presence in other vital sectors of the city's economy, from emerging fields like biotechnology to job-intensive industries such as construction.

There are more than a dozen dessert manufacturers in the city that can satisfy a sweet tooth for mango cake, flan or Indian sweets. The city has at least three companies that manufacture frozen Indian dinners.

Another example of the robust health of the food sector is the growth of Indian sweets manufacturers in Queens. Rajbhog Sweets in Jackson Heights opened in the late 1980s as a simple storefront; now, the business comprises two factories, six stores, a vegetarian catering service, two banquet halls and a line of frozen food, snacks and sweets, which they ship to 40 states.

A stroll down 47th Street in Manhattan, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, shows that immigrants play a pivotal role in the city's diamond and jewellery industry, the CFU report said.

While Jews still own a considerable share of the businesses in the district, entrepreneurs from India, Russia, Iran, Lebanon and China have started the overwhelming majority of new businesses during the past two decades.

Basant Johari, president of the Indian Diamond and Colourstone Association (IDCA), says that at least 500 Indian owned diamond and jewellery businesses operate in New York.

Meanwhile, the number of Polish- and Russian- language papers has grown by a third in the past decade, and the number of publications targeting New York' s Indian community increased from one to eight during the last 25 years, CFU said.

New York's regulatory environment is a headache for most entrepreneurs, but language and cultural barriers make it particularly difficult for many immigrants commercial strip on Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill.

Several dozen immigrant entrepreneurs from Pakistan and the Middle East had to contend with a problem far more serious than gaining access to financing or learning city regulations: the economic consequences of the deportation and detention of hundreds of local residents shortly after the tragic events of Sep 11, 2001, CFU said.

"What happened after September 11th is that a lot of people started leaving, especially businesses that we were supplying - Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi grocery stores and restaurants," says Tariq Hamid, the owner of Shaheen Sweets, which now does all of its manufacturing at a Jackson Heights facility.