Beyond The Sea: What Lies in the Midwest for Asians and Immigrants?

Along Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, a few Asian merchants have opened shop selling groceries, fresh vegetables and videotapes from across the Pacific. Some of the city’s most visible Asian residents are long-time Pittsburghers. But Asians and recent immigrants who have made it past the coastal cities of the United States to the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states are a minority. While record numbers of immigrants are arriving in cities on the nation’s shores, few are destined for America’s “second cities.”

Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo and other cities that have historically been a destination for immigrants are not attracting the newest arrivals from China, Vietnam, the Phillipines and Mexico. Those have who ventured inland have mixed feelings about it. While there are good jobs, an affordable cost of living and less competition in business, common complaints stem from a lack of cultural amenities, limited opportunities for advancement, closed communities that make it hard to make friends–and even racism.

With such barriers in place, the question of whether Asians and other immigrants will ever penetrate invisible interior boundaries remains unanswered.

A Divided Country
The Asian population in the United States is expected to increase from 11 million in 1999 to 38 million by 2050; most of them will reside on either coast. The top three countries of origin for immigrants are in Asia. According to Migration News, a publication of the University of California at Davis, immigrants are coming to and native-born residents are leaving, ten states: Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Texas. The publication also says these fast-growing and diverse states are projected to be in sharp contrast to 20 others, mostly in the Midwest, that are expected retain largely white and native populations into 2025.

Because most of today’s immigrants are arriving from non-white countries, unless immigrants and minorities begin to move to Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern cities, the country could become further divided by race between the states receiving immigrants and those that aren’t. Not only that, many of the states and cities where immigrants are not going are losing population, or gaining it at a much slower rate than other regions, which can lead to a loss of representation in Congress and less Federal tax money–both factors which could heighten animosity toward immigrants.

Writer Joel Garreau called the cities in this part of North America “the Foundry” in his book “The Nine Nations of North America.” As he points out, many in the country and the world historically viewed this region as the United States and North America itself. It’s where most of what America created was produced for mass consumption. And, it’s where most of the much of the wealth, art and economic history still is. But for these regions, maintaining a position–or gaining an economic lead in an information and technology ordered world economy–will depend in part on an ability to attract educated immigrants and technology investors, who today are more often coming from across the Pacific than the Atlantic.

Economic Indicators
Today, the high-tech industry is the single-largest manufacturing employer and, by sales, the single-largest U.S. industry. Cities in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic have, to some degree, played a part in the technology boom. A Computerworld survey of 5,611 companies showed that permanent information-technology staffs in the East North Central part of the country were expected to increase at 10 percent–a rate identical to Pacific regions–with Mid-Atlantic and New England regions not far behind. And, for skilled immigrants, there are jobs to be found there.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Minneapolis and St. Louis all rank as top markets for electrical and electronic engineers. Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit rank as top markets for computer systems analysts and scientists. Researcher Corptech ranks Pittsburgh, Chicago and Minneapolis ahead of San Francisco in the top 30 cities for computer software jobs, with St. Louis not far behind. But according to the Pittsburgh Technology Council, many skilled jobs, at least in that city, go unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants.

With low numbers of native American’s entering engineering and technology fields, high-tech economic growth is somewhat dependent on the ability to attract immigrants.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, a quarter of Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies are headed by Chinese and Indian immigrants. An even a larger percentage of the work force is non-white. Compared with a nearly 20 percent Asian population in San Jose, almost 30 percent in San Francisco and a 21 percent foreign-born population in California, Pittsburgh has a .9 percent Asian population, and in Pennsylvania only about three percent are foreign-born.

Other Midwestern cities aren’t much different. Missouri has a 1.6 percent foreign-born population and St. Louis also has a .9 percent Asian population. Only two and a half percent of Ohio residents were born outside the U.S., and Columbus has little more than a two percent Asian population, with Cleveland and Cincinnati lagging behind even that, hovering at about one percent. According to 1996 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Chicago is the only city in Garreau’s “Foundry” region to rank in the top ten of cities with immigrant populations

. In a global economy, a static, mono-racial population represents somewhat of a handicap. A University of Pittsburgh report seemed to agree when it concluded one of the most serious problems for the city is a lack of recent international immigrants. If much of the high-tech work force continues to be foreign-born and non-white, technology firms in Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic cities will need to be able to attract and retain Asians and immigrants to grow economically.

Quality of Life
But some Asians who have moved to and lived in Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic cities say that may not be so easy.

“I think Columbus, Ohio is a hidden jewel,” says Shih-Min Robert Liao, 57, born in China and a 32-year resident of Central Ohio. “It’s getting better every year and it’s much more sophisticated than ever before.” Still, Liao says people in the Columbus suburb of Worthington are polite but remote, making for a sense of isolation. And he says racism can have a different face in Columbus from what it wears in New York or San Francisco. “The unique part of racism in this area is that certain local people feel strongly it is their patriotic duty to keep America ‘real American,'” he says.

Frederick Tsai said he came to St. Louis from suburban Baltimore in part because of an effort by Washington University to bring diversity to St Louis and the school where a $1.5 million gift from a local businessman established a professorship to foster racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in the St. Louis community. But Tsai said that while many other Asians have also come, few plan to stay. “To be quite honest,” Tsai says, “the environment here does not embrace diversity. I made it clear I would never come back to Saint Louis.”

Tsai says much of the life he experienced in St. Louis was foreign from life in Maryland or California. It’s not like in coastal cities, he says: Asians in St. Louis haven’t integrated into society to any degree, and the barriers are daunting and obvious. “Asians in St. Louis are outsiders. There are very few in corporate positions despite large firms like AG Edwards, Boeing, TWA and Ralston-Purina,” Tsai says adding that involvement in public life was also an uphill battle. “There’s no Asian voice in the city.”

“Milwaukee is a fast-growing city right now. But, the pay does not compare to Southern California,” comments Steven Lee Tanaka, a graduate student and teacher. With Japanese and white ancestry, Tanaka has also experienced frustrations with the Midwest. He explains that Milwaukee is a very segregated city with no clear place for him to fit in. “I think immigrants avoid the Midwest because it has a stereotypical reputation for being ‘conservative’ which to some means ‘racist.'”

While the effort in St. Louis sought to attract Asians, groups in Pittsburgh, worried about economic growth and survival without young, skilled workers, launched a campaign–not to attract skilled immigrants, but to draw white natives who have left for college or other employment opportunities back to the city.

“It can be taken as a signal that Pittsburgh is happy being white,” said Vietnamese immigrant Hien Ma, 36, who moved to the city from Dallas to take an engineering position with U.S. Airways. “It’s a nice city with a fair amount of opportunity and lots of affordable housing, but there is a sense that certain doors are closed to anyone who isn’t from here. People are friendly, but it’s hard to make friends.”

My Kind of Town 
The one clear exception among second cities as a choice and destination for Asians and immigrants is Chicago.

The Chicago metro area has a 3.9 percent Asian population, and Illinois is one of the top states in terms of being a destination for immigrants–easily number one among heartland towns. And Asians living in the windy city have good things to say about it.

“Chicago is filled with people who come from other places and don’t necessarily have a lot of family and friends nearby,” explains Jeanette, 33, a native of Canada who preferred that only her first name be used. “An immigrant could find a job and people to help them here.” Similarly, Wilbur Pan, the son of immigrants from Taiwan and president of the Chicago Chapter of the National Association of Asian American Professionals, said unlike other cities in the Midwest Chicago was a destination for Asians because the city has been able to attract the “critical mass” needed to facilitate more arrivals. “A lot of it is the ‘founder-effect,'” Pan explained. “Someone lands here because they have friends and relatives who can help them. Being where there’s people you know makes a big difference.”

Outside Chicago
That effect may be taking hold in other places.

Lisa Wong, 32, grew up in Cleveland and says she would never consider moving. In fact, she says Asian immigrants are moving in. Receiving recent national recognition as a “comeback” city, Cleveland seems to be a new hub for cultural and ethnic dynamics and a near frontier for immigrants. Despite the low population numbers, Wong says Cleveland has an active Asian community and there’s plenty of access to culture and organizations. If an America that’s tinted at the edges and white in the middle is ever to be avoided, it will be because of efforts like one in Cleveland to build an identifiable Chinatown where retail buildings and projects, including the first subsidized apartment building in Ohio aimed specifically at Asians, are being built.

Networks of family and friends are what bring many immigrants to a particular city, and established cultural institutions like the Chinese schools, churches and business institutions in Cleveland can serve to make what can sometimes be unfriendly cities a bit more “livable” for Asians, minorities and immigrants. Leaving the coasts and moving to the interior can be an invigorating experience.

“What’s available for immigrants and minorities in these cities that isn’t available in New York San Francisco or Los Angeles?” Gene Millar, a Filipino native of Milwaukee repeated. “The opportunity to educate fellow humans about culture and ethnicity, because for the most part there are a lot of people in Milwaukee who have never left Wisconsin.”

Chicago native Jean Liu, 30, agrees. “I think most people who start American life on the coasts are unaware there is anything between New York and Los Angeles,” Liu says. “If they investigate they’ll find some nice surprises.”

Asian Population by percent of total (1990)

Northeast 18.4
Midwest 10.6
South 15.4
West 55.7

Tech Growth by Region (SOURCE: A Computerworld survey of 5,611 companies, as reported in Computerworld, 7/6/98)

East South Central +1 percent
West North Central +1 percent
Mountain +3 percent
South Atlantic +3 percent
Mid Atlantic +4 percent
New England +8 percent
East North Central +10 percent
Pacific +10 percent
West South Central +17 percent

Population Increase in 1990s by percent of Fast Growing U.S. Cities Attracting Immigrants (Migration News, University of California at Davis)

Las Vegas 55
Laredo, TX 41
Boise City, ID 34
Naples, FL 31
Phoenix 31
Austin, TX 31
Fayetteville-Rogers, AK 29
Wilmington, NC 27

MSA Asian Population by percent (1996)

Cleveland-Akron, Ohio 1.3
Detroit-Ann Arbor-Flint, Michigan 1.9
Buffalo-Niagara Falls, New York 1.3
Columbus, Ohio 1.9
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 0.9
St. Louis, Missouri 1.2
Chicago, Illinois; Gary, Indiana; Kenosha, Wisconsin, 3.9
Cincinnati, Ohio; Hamilton, Kentucky 1.0
Kansas City, Missouri 1.4
Indianapolis, Indiana 1.0
Milwaukee-Racine, Wisconsin 1.6

U.S Cities Favored By Immigrants Ranked (1990)

1. Miami
2. Los Angeles
3. San Francisco
4. New York
5. Orange County
6. San Diego
7. Houston
8. Chicago
9. Washington
10. Boston

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at