Feb 13, 2023 - News

Map: Charlotte immigrants are flocking to the suburbs

Photo: Vietnamese Association of Charlotte

Behind a strip mall in University City last month, thousands of people rang in the Lunar New Year, or Tết in Vietnamese.

The celebration, hosted by the Vietnamese Association of Charlotte at Oasis Shriners, included traditional dances, vendors and Chinese chess. Festival-goers lined up for banh mi, steaming bowls of noodle soup and Bánh Tết, the traditional Lunar New Year cake made with glutinous rice and stuffed with mung bean and pork, all wrapped in a banana leaf.

Charlotte’s Vietnamese community, like the city’s immigrant population as a whole, has expanded from less than a few hundred people in the 1980s to about 18,000 today, according to Amy Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese Association.

  • They’re scattered across the city and its suburbs in places like University City and Harrisburg to the north, and Ballantyne and Matthews to the south/southeast.

Driving the news: Rising prices in the areas close to center city and job opportunities are driving immigrant communities to spread out to Charlotte’s suburbs.

Why it matters: The more expensive Charlotte becomes closer to its core, the more we price out the culture that makes our city vibrant.

  • Immigrant communities aren’t as concentrated in east Charlotte, part of the city’s majority-minority “crescent,” anymore. Their shift to the suburbs is changing the face of places like Ballantyne and Matthews that were once almost entirely white.

Flashback: In 1990, Charlotte was less than 1% foreign-born, according to historian Tom Hanchett’s book, “Sorting Out the New South City.” But then, the building of office towers brought job opportunities in construction, attracting migrants from Mexico and Central America, says Federico Rios, assistant director of the city’s office of equity, mobility and immigrant integration.

  • Plus, banks hired H-1B visa workers for technology jobs, Rios tells Axios, mostly from India and other places in Asia.
  • Add to that refugee populations fleeing places like Vietnam and now Afghanistan, plus people arriving in Charlotte as their second U.S. destination, and you create the melting pot that is our city in 2023.

What’s happening: Today, more than 1 in 6 people in the city were born outside of the U.S.

The result is a very different picture than the stereotype of a homogeneous suburb: The movie theater playing Bollywood films at Concord Mills. A grocery store with an aisle for each part of the world in Pineville. Hindu temples and mosques in Huntersville and Mountain Island.

What they’re saying: Charlotte City Council member Dimple Ajmera, who moved with her family from India to the U.S. as a teenager, says the American Dream to many immigrants is owning a home in a safe neighborhood with great schools and job opportunities nearby.

  • “As center city continues to price residents out of their homes, that American Dream is more difficult to attain, versus going in [the] outskirts where it’s still reasonably more affordable,” she says.

Geography of immigrant communities

Bánh Tết for sale at the Lunar New Year celebration. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios

Charlotte doesn’t have a Chinatown, a Japantown or a Little Italy.

In one shopping complex off a stretch of East W.T. Harris Boulevard, you can order Puerto Rican, Middle Eastern, Jamaican and Vietnamese food, all in one trip (if your stomach is big enough).

  • “We don’t have the ghetto-ification of immigrant communities,” Rios says, because the New South afforded immigrants the opportunity to move to the suburbs.

By the numbers: People from Latin America make up the largest share of the Charlotte area’s foreign-born population, at 143,994, more than 50,000 of whom are from Mexico. The second-largest group of migrants are people from India, who number over 32,000, according to the 2021 American Community Survey estimates.

Data: U.S. Census; Map: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

In some places, immigrants are chipping away at segregation patterns.

  • One of the census tracts with the highest concentrations of foreign-born residents is in Ballantyne, surrounding Ballantyne Corporate Place, which houses employers like financial organization TIAA and Abacus Group, an IT services firm. 52.5% of the people in that census tract were born outside the U.S.
  • In University City, two census tracts on either side of North Tryon Street at Mallard Creek Church Road contain more than one-third foreign-born residents each.

Zoom in: Munir Bondre landed in Charlotte in 1996 shortly after immigrating to the U.S. from Mumbai, India, for a job with IBM. Until recently, he had to drive 30 minutes from his home in Highland Creek to worship at the closest mosque.

  • Like Bondre, around 70% of the worshippers were driving to that mosque in east Charlotte from places like Mallard Creek and Highland Creek, according to John Ederer, Imam of the Muslim Community Center of Charlotte.

So a group broke off from the east Charlotte mosque and started building the Muslim Community Center of Charlotte in 2017 near Interstate 485 and Mallard Creek Road. While the building was under construction, they held services with about 150 people in a gymnasium.

Now, a congregation of around 700 shows up for Friday prayer, representing at least 30 nationalities, Ederer says. Eighty percent of members are foreign-born, coming from places like India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and a variety of African countries.

  • This year, they’re planning to break ground on a $4.5 million multipurpose center on the property, with an indoor gymnasium for events, a cafe, youth center, library and physical and mental health facilities.

Bondre and his wife, Gazala, could live anywhere. He now works fully remote, and his son is off at North Carolina State University. But over the years, they’ve become part of a community.

  • “The roots have grown deeper as time has passed,” he says.

Implications

The landmark report that has driven policy in Charlotte for almost a decade doesn’t completely reflect the city’s diversity today.

In 2014, a study led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty ranked Charlotte as the worst of 50 cities for economic mobility. But that study followed children who were born between 1980 and 1982, well before the city’s foreign-born population blossomed into what it is now.

  • “The 50th out of 50 designation is really the tale of us leaving Black, native Charlotteans behind,” Rios says.
  • The report did galvanize the community around segregation, but he says afterward, groups went back to working on their issues in silos. Charlotte should aim to solve inequity across marginalized populations, he says.

The big picture: While there are historic disparities to address, we can’t only look at the problems of today through a lens of what the city used to be.

  • Nguyen, with the Vietnamese Association, said she’s constantly getting calls asking for translating help in places like doctor’s offices and courtrooms. The immigration process is also a hurdle, and her association holds a fair every year to help people fill out their citizenship paperwork.

Nguyen’s family fled what was then South Vietnam after the North Vietnamese captured Saigon in 1975. Her parents secured false marriages with French people to earn citizenship. Five years later, her aunt sponsored the family to come to the United States.

  • When she first arrived in Charlotte in 1984 for a job at IBM, there was nowhere to eat Vietnamese food or take part in aspects of her culture. “I came and I think, ‘I’m not gonna be able to stay here long,'” she says.
  • But then, restaurants like Lang Van opened in the 1990s. And while there still aren’t as many places as there would be in a larger city, she says it’s been a joy to watch the community grow.

My thought bubble: As the granddaughter of immigrants, I believe the convergence of cultures in Charlotte is adding a richness to our city. And despite all of the challenges new migrants face in this country, they are thriving, opening grocery stores, restaurants, houses of worship and all kinds of small businesses.

The new Super G Mart in Pineville has aisles for different regions of the world. Photo: Danielle Chemtob/Axios
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