How Latinos Are Shaping the Future of American Cities

In the days following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington, D.C.'s inner-city neighborhoods were devastated by rioting. More than 6,000 people were arrested and 1,200 buildings burned during three days of rioting across the district. One of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the riots was Columbia Heights. Three decades after the riots, the neighborhood's empty lots and abandoned storefronts had become synonymous with the poverty and violence of the crack cocaine boom that plagued the district throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Juan A. Toledo, 40, has lived in Columbia Heights since 1994. "When I moved here there were very few whites," Toledo recalls. "At the time, the neighborhood was mostly African-Americans. Latinos were still arriving. It was more dangerous then than it is now. The metro station was being built but it was not finished."

In 1999, the opening of the Columbia Heights Metro Station sparked an influx of commuters that changed the face of a dilapidated neighborhood. Residential properties were renovated and national retailers like Target, Best Buy, and Giant opened new stores along 14th Street. Census data shows that between 2000 and 2010, the white population of Columbia Heights jumped from 6 percent to nearly 33 percent. During the same decade, despite accounting for 56 percent of the nation's population growth, the Hispanic population of Columbia Heights decreased from 34 to 28 percent.

Where Do Urban Latinos Migrate?

"There's certainly not one particular pattern," says Dr. Jody A. Vallejo, Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California and author of a new book exploring Mexican-American upward mobility.

"We are seeing that some middle-class professional Latinos choose to remain and remake some of the lower-income urban areas where they grew up," Dr. Vallejo says. "There's also a trend toward what we call Latino 'urban sprawl' where upwardly mobile Latinos are moving away from the cities and into the suburbs to find affordable housing. This is something policy makers and urban planners need to understand because there tends to be a certain homogenization of Latino preferences and settlement patterns."

Revisiting Latino New Urbanism

In 2005, the California State Assembly published a paper by then Senior Legislative Assistant Michael Mendez titled "Latino New Urbanism: Building on Cultural Preferences." In the paper, Mendez notes that in established Latino communities in California, Latino living preferences are often carryovers or hybrid forms of living preferences typical of Latin America.

For example, Mendez noticed that "the adaptive reuse of homes" in established Latino communities -- and in particular, East Los Angeles -- was often "neither entirely Mexican, nor Spanish, nor Anglo-American." Instead, Mendez writes, "the introverted American- style homes are transformed to extroverted, Mexicanized, or Latinized homes."


Mendez also discusses the role of the public plaza in Latin America as a community's essential social hub. In Latin America, the plaza is a place for people to gather to talk, play, party, and do business. Citing a 1995 survey of behavioral patterns in California's public parks, Mendez notes that Latino use of public parks as "a surrogate for the misplaced a great contrast to Anglos, who primarily participated in mobile, solitary activities such as jogging, walking, bicycling, or dog walking."

In 2009, Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty formally dedicated Columbia Heights Plaza. "Before, the plaza was an open lot full of drunks," Toledo recalls. Now young people gather in the plaza after school and hipsters walk their dogs. During the summer, parents bring their children to play in the fountains surrounded by seating areas for people watching. Despite the decline in the neighborhood's Latino population, Columbia Heights Plaza acknowledges the Latin American preference for public plazas in urban spaces.

Latino New Suburbanism?

Some American cities have seen dramatic increases in the suburban Latino population. Vallejo describes Latino migration from inner-city Los Angeles neighborhoods to residential developments in the Inland Empire east of the city. The Huffington Post reports that in Chicago, while "Latino population grew by 3.3 percent within the city, in suburban Cook County, it grew by 46.5 percent. In Kendall County, a full 40 miles southwest of Chicago Latinos' numbers increased by an astonishing 338 percent, adding some 50,000 people in just 10 years."

"One of the challenges we're seeing is that as Latinos are moving to more suburban locations, there are major challenges that these communities have that they're just not prepared for," says Shelley Poticha, Director for the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). These challenges, Poticha says, range from limited access to preferred grocery stores to the absence of poverty assistance in the suburbs that may be more readily available in urban communities.

Limited access to public transit is another concern sometimes overlooked by Latinos moving to the suburbs. "We are concerned that the way we have built suburban communities in the U.S. where housing is really separated from jobs and the pattern of neighborhood development often doesn't support high quality, regular transit service, that often the cost of getting into the job market is owning a car," Poticha says. "That's a big burden financially for communities."

Latinos Organizations and City 'Master Plans'

As the Latino population in the United States continues to grow, the urban and suburban living preferences of Latino communities will no doubt continue to evolve. Dr. Vallejo cautions against seeing Latinos as a monolithic group. However, she notes that "the growth in the Latino population is coming from the native born children of immigrants, not from the immigrants." While the community living preferences among this vanguard generation of Latinos born in the United States are still developing, Poticha suggests that Latino organizations seeking to influence urban policy decisions should focus on their city's master plan.

According to Poticha, almost every city in the United States has a master plan that includes all of a city's decisions about investing in public services, housing, and transportation. These decisions are often made by city governments. Influencing them can require engaging city councils and mayor's offices. "Driving change really means getting involved with that front-end discussion," Poticha says. "HUD's interest is to help more Columbia Heights happen, but make sure as more Columbia Heights happen they remain inclusive and diverse communities." Juan Toledo says that the neighborhood plaza is a good start. And what makes a good neighborhood plaza? According to Toledo, "Que sea tranquilo."

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