What American Dream did Asian Immigrants Find in the Southern California Suburbs?Roundup
tags: California, immigration, suburban history, Asian American History
James Zarsadiaz is an associate professor of history at the University of San Francisco and author of the forthcoming book Resisting Change in Suburbia: Asian Immigrants and Frontier Nostalgia in L.A.
For generations, suburban homeownership has symbolized American success — epitomizing the American dream, the myth of a universally achievable “good life.” Over the last four decades, L.A. has been the promised land for Asian immigrants seeking this all-American lifestyle. The east San Gabriel Valley made some of these dreams a reality. How did this happen? How did Asians change — and cleave to — American suburbia?
L.A.’s rise from western outpost to global city took off in the 1920s. Buoyed by agriculture, then the defense, entertainment and hospitality industries and later trans-Pacific trade, L.A.’s economic growth led to rapid expansion that beckoned more residents. After the 1965 Hart-Celler Act relaxed immigration restrictions, American dream seekers included people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines, predominantly educated professionals fulfilling labor shortages throughout California.
Many middle- and upper-middle-class Asian immigrants looked to suburbia as the best place to raise a family. During the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, these families were lured to the valley by newer housing that provided access to reputable schools. Builders in the east valley courted Asian residents and their buying power, in contrast to urban neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs where real estate agents imposed formal and informal restrictions mostly to exclude Black and Latino residents during the early and mid-20th century.
Asian homebuyers were also drawn to what developers, homebuilders and sellers called “country living” — a design aesthetic and local culture inspired by romanticized, imagined histories of old California as rural, conservative and white.
Housing brochures and newspaper ads promised that country living shielded its residents from modern urban life. The subtext: These suburbs kept you away from the vice, crime and poverty associated with cities, which were facing the challenges of deindustrialization, cycles of white flight and gentrification as well as government disinvestment in the social safety net since the Cold War. While white families understood that country living was designed for them, many foreign-born Asian people also gravitated to this landscape. Homeownership in a desirable suburb afforded immigrants bragging rights as people who “made it” in America, seemingly granting a path to assimilation.
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