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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Hispanic Community Takes to Suburbs

CHICAGO -- For years, the center of Chicago's large and fast-growing Hispanic community was 26th Street, a three-kilometer strip of ethnic grocers, restaurants, bookstores and boutiques in a neighborhood called Little Village.

But that is changing. In a trend being repeated across the United States, Latino immigrants are eschewing their historic urban enclaves and moving out to the suburbs -- in some cases as soon as they enter the country. In the process, they're both living out the American dream and discovering its limits.

Two forces are driving the change, said Marta Tienda, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. First, employment growth has been stronger outside urban centers than inside them. "Immigrant flow is a wage-labor flow and it goes where there are jobs," she said.

The second is aspirational: Like generations of immigrants before them, today's newcomers are drawn to the suburbs by the promise of safer neighborhoods and good schools.

"Places like Little Village give immigrants a place to get their bearings," Tienda said. "But once they've done that, it's often much more attractive to move elsewhere."

More than 1.6 million Latinos, the majority of them of Mexican descent, call greater Chicago home. It is the third-largest Latino population and the second-largest Mexican community in the United States. Little Village remains a decidedly Latino enclave, as it has been since the 1960s when Mexicans revived the neighborhood after descendants of the European immigrants who built it fled to the suburbs.

Tax revenues from Little Village's mostly mom-and-pop shops made it one of Chicago's biggest sources of sales tax, rivaling the glitzy strip of marquee stores on Michigan Avenue known as the Magnificent Mile.

But more Latinos now live outside the city center than inside. While the metropolitan region's Latino population has grown by 200,000 since 2000, fueled primarily by migration from Mexico, all the growth has taken place outside the city in towns like Aurora, Joliet and Elgin, where new commercial strips filled with ethic stores and restaurants have grown up.

"Little Village isn't unique any more," says Silvia Puente, the director of the Center for Metropolitan Chicago Initiative, a project of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. In some ways, the enclave is a victim of its own success. Rents and property values on 26th Street have skyrocketed in recent years as landlords began to understand how much money their tenants were making.

As a result, entrepreneurial newcomers find the price of entry prohibitive. "It's not easy making money running a taco stand when your monthly rent is $3,000," Doyle said.

The rise of violent gangs, who have divided Little Village into warring territories and drawn increased scrutiny from law enforcement, have added urgency to the suburban flight.

It's tempting to see the rise of these suburban ethnic enclaves as signs of Latino assimilation. But Hispanics living in the suburbs often settle in clusters that leave them more segregated than their peers who remain behind in Chicago.

And the reception they received from their suburban neighbors hasn't always been open armed.

In Carpentersville, a suburb about 70 kilometers northwest of Chicago, the police have begun checking the immigration status of the people they arrest, joining a controversial trend by some local law enforcement officials around the United States.

Princeton University's Tienda said 570 anti-immigrant ordinances had been introduced in recent years in 32 states where large suburban clusters of Latinos have arisen.

Some experts think that backlash might turn out to be good news for Little Village and other historic enclaves in jurisdictions that don't check the immigration status of the people they arrest.

And despite its latest challenges, many residents of Little Village think the old neighborhood has life in it yet.