Home Away from Home
Take a trip to Little Indias to experience Indian and South Asian cultures in the United States.
Across the United States, there are scores of places inhabited by people from India. These Little Indias are expanding as immigration from the subcontinent continues apace. The substantial influx started in the late 1960’s, after the lifting of a provision of a U.S. immigration law that had greatly restricted immigration from Asia and Africa. Now, for many, these neighborhoods are the first stop on the road to a life in the United States.
These communities “have a big appeal for people immigrating with their parents,” says Mita Shewakramani, a business owner in Devon Avenue, an area often dubbed as the Little India of Chicago. “People can get around comfortably in these areas without knowing much English.”
But unlike other areas with ethnic communities, like the Chinatowns in the United States, Indian neighborhoods tend to be more transient. “Indians move to a Little India, become successful and, then, move on to more affluent areas,” says Animesh Goenka, who lives in Long Island, New York. He is the president of New York-based Steelbro International Co., Inc. and a former president of the Association of Indians in America.
Here are three of the many Little Indias across the United States.
Devon Avenue, Illinois
Chicago’s Devon Avenue neighborhood is one of the United States’ most well-known Little Indias. The community is centered around the 1.5-kilometer stretch of Devon Avenue, a dense commercial street lined with low brick and stucco buildings on Chicago’s north side. Stroll down the sidewalk and let your senses regale in the aromas from dozens of Indian and Pakistani restaurants and grocery stores, the colorful saris adorning mannequins in clothing stores and the subtle jangling of bangles.
South Asian residents share the area with people of various nationalities, ethnicities and religions: Eastern European Jews, Russians, Arabs and Latinos. It is said that 40 different languages are spoken at Devon Avenue. A stretch of the road bears the official honorary name Gandhi Marg, while others are named after Golda Meir, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It’s, therefore, not hard to understand why locals call it “the most diverse street in America.”
This diverse mix of cultures has led to some surprising culinary mash-ups: Ali’s BBQ Restaurant advertises “fine Pakistani and Indian food” as well as cheese burgers, chicken nuggets and french fries. Royal Sweets serves pizza as well as chaat.
Devon Avenue had a large population of orthodox Jews, originally from Eastern Europe, when Indians began arriving in the 1970’s. From the 1990’s, they were being joined by Pakistanis and other South Asians. Thus, you can find at least half a dozen synagogues and half a dozen mosques scattered around the neighborhood. The first Hindu temple opened last year.
Oak Tree Road, New Jersey
The first Indian restaurants and grocery stores opened on Oak Tree Road in the town of Edison, New Jersey, in the early 1980’s. At the time, this area of strip malls—clusters of stores lining major roads—was in a slump, losing business to the newer, enclosed shopping malls. Fortunately, migration to the state of New Jersey was on the rise as skilled professionals were coming from India.
Fashion boutiques, beauty parlors, jewelry stores and travel agencies followed, attracting even more Indians to settle here. Today, an estimated one quarter of Edison’s 100,000 residents are Indians and the neighborhood accounts for more than 400 Indian-owned businesses. The Oak Tree Road neighborhood is now one of the largest Indian commercial hubs in the United States.
The area is soaked in the ambience of India. Restaurants and sweet shops alternate with Indian-owned banks, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, and real estate agencies. One can find stores with a wide collection of Indian music and Bollywood films, or can catch the latest Indian films at a local movie theater that sells samosas in addition to popcorn to moviegoers.
India’s Independence Day is celebrated here with an annual India Day parade, featuring food, music and dance, which attracts thousands. Diwali and Navratri are also celebrated with much fervor on Oak Tree Road.
Located only six kilometers from downtown Philadelphia, where many residents go to work, Millbourne, known as a “borough,” is a small community of only about 1,000 inhabitants. Walk down Market Street, the town’s main commercial thoroughfare, and for a few blocks, you’ll be transported to India without the air travel. Indian grocery stores, beauty salons and other types of establishments are full of clients speaking an Indian language and women clad in saris. Half of the businesses are owned by Indians and the town’s only place of worship is a gurdwara established in the early 1990’s.
What makes Millbourne unique is that it may be the only town in the United States with a majority of residents from the subcontinent—mostly Indians, followed by Bangladeshis. Millbourne distinguishes itself from other Little Indias in another way—its residents are distinctly of working class. Many residents stay here for a number of years, and then move to more affluent communities after they become more financially secure.
Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.