Asia on Main Street: Recent immigration to Worcester, MA in New England
Robert J.S. Ross, PhD
Professor of Sociology
Director, International Studies Stream
950 Main Street
Worcester, MA 01610
508 793 7376
fax: 508 793 8816
Worcester, MA, a middle sized regional city in transition from a manufacturing to
a service industry base, has been a home to immigrants since the late 19
Century. In the
past Irish, Swedish, Armenian, and Italian immigrants followed the English settlers into
the heart of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Later came Puerto Rican and Central
American migrants. In the last decade something entirely new came to Worcester –
immigrants from South and East Asia.
The pattern of Asian settlement, especially of business enterprise, will complete
the overview. It appears that there is a concentration of Asian owned retail stores in the
heart of the poorest communities in Worcester – raising a familiar New York/ LA pattern,
where Asian entrepreneurs fill the role of middle-man minorities in communities
otherwise subject to disinvestment.
Waves of immigration are like fingerprints. Each leaves a distinctive pattern, and
those patterns tell the stories of their times. Great tides of history and social change toss
families about the globe and they wash up here and there to make their ways as they can.
As participants in the scientific world we view the result through the microscopes and
telescopes of census surveys and ethnic identifications; as hosts and travelers we cope
with changes, with the pushes and pulls of global tides, sometimes like paddlers in a wide
sea, without reference points, lost in history.
This paper is an effort to answer the questions men and women always ask about
their times and places: what is the same about our experience and other times and places;
and what is different about our place in the world. It focuses on a not very famous
middle-sized city, Worcester, Massachusetts, but on an experience that is a part of the
story of globalization – for America in the last decades -- and for the world.
Underneath the waterline of social phenomena lie those characteristics that have
slow but powerful effects. By powerful I mean something specific: they affect our lives,
in mundane ways. They affect our lives the way the steady drip of water through
limestone makes great caves and fantastic stalactites. It is a commonplace that
globalization and immigration are big issues of our time. Sometimes we miss how big
The first decade of the 20
Century saw 8.8 million immigrants enter the U.S., 5.7
net immigrants. From 1981-1990, somewhat fewer immigrants entered, but almost
exactly the same number stayed – 5.7 million.
The last decade of the 20
century was the only one in which gross immigration
exceeded the first: 9.1 million new residents entered the U.S.
Naturalization Service 2003)
The “new immigration” of the post-1965 era is different from the turn of the
century immigrant flow – just as it, in turn, was different from the one that preceded it.
Immigrants in the era of the old sweatshops came in the greatest number from Eastern
and Southern Europe, the Jews and Italians among them. Between 1890-1920, 87 percent
of the 18.2 million immigrants came from Europe.
Most of these immigrants, in contrast
to the Protestant Northern and Western Europeans who preceded them, were Catholic or
Orthodox or Jewish. While their levels of formal schooling were low compared to Native
born Americans that was less of a barrier to economic participation than it is in our era.
Today’s immigrants have changed yet again. Only 14% of immigrants between
1970-2000 came from Europe. Western Hemisphere (48%) and particularly Mexican
immigrants are the largest group; and Asians make up a major portion of this era’s new
Americans – 34%. (Immigration and Naturalization Service 2003)
Contemporary immigrants have two distinct aspects to their educational
attainment. On average, they have completed college and attained graduate education at
about the same rates as citizens born in America. However, immigrants of the last two
decades are more than twice as likely as native-born residents to have less than a high
school education (33% to 13%). (Lollock 2001.) Hispanic and particularly Mexican
Gross Immigration is a larger number than net immigration. Net immigration includes emigration, and
estimates of undocumented entries and exists of illegal migrants. The Immigration and Naturalization
Service (INS) has not yet released net immigration figures for 1990-2000. Ironically, although 1900-1910
had higher gross immigration than 1980-90, the net figure was identical – 5.7 million. (U.S. Immigration
and Naturalization Service. 1999)
workers are more likely than others to be in this group: half of Latino American
immigrants have less than a High School diploma. Two-thirds of people over 25 years
old from Mexico have less than a High School diploma. On the other hand about half
(45%) of Asian immigrants have college degrees at least (compared with 25% for the
native population. (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2002) The Asian educational distribution
is bimodal – for it is not a homogeneous group of nationalities. Immigrants from India
and Korea for example, have higher average levels of education than the American
population as a whole, while recent Vietnamese, and Cambodian and Laotian groups are
lower in formal schooling
. The Hong Kong Chinese are lower in formal schooling,
while the Taiwanese are higher.
In Massachusetts our profile has some similarity to the national profile and small
differences. We have higher levels of education – among both immigrants and native
born populations; and Spanish speakers, especially Mexicans play a smaller role in our
Immigrant characteristics suggest a structure of the labor force and roles in
businesses. In the first instance immigrants with higher levels of education or business
experience or ambition, may want to be business owners. They may come from linguistic
communities where there are large numbers of women without language or professional
skills that would give them entry to well-paid employment. In the 1980s for example,
Korean entrepreneurs and Korean sewing machine operators populated firms in the
Dallas-Fort Worth area. (Um 1996)
Calculated from Immigration and Naturalization Service (2003: Table 2)
See TABLE 20. IMMIGRANTS ADMITTED BY MAJOR OCCUPATION GROUP AND REGION
AND COUNTRY OF BIRTH, FISCAL YEAR 2001, (INS 2003)
The economic penalties of low levels of schooling have grown in recent years. So
wages in the low wage labor market have become relatively lower. The failure of blue-
collar unskilled and semiskilled jobs to maintain purchasing power is among the things
driving the increases in inequality of the last generation. Immigrants arriving in America
face a blue collar labor market that is considerably weaker –looser-- than in other parts of
the skill and schooling distribution.
Globalization and immigration together are creating news kinds of labor supply
and demand. For example, cheap labor and the changing demands on two earner families,
produce an increase in domestic workers.
Flat or declining wages of prime age men send women to work; this increases
demand for a variety of labor replacements including domestic workers.
One consequence is that the number of private household workers is increasing
twice as fast as job growth (calculated from BLS). We have high dependence on
immigrants for this work – 35% in 2000 (up from 30% in 1995).
Another way to view globalization and immigration is at the high end of the
occupational martket. The US is using other countries’ educational systems to overcome
bottlenecks in our own, through, for example, the use of Chinese, Korean and Indian
education systems to feed high tech needs.
Coming to Worcester
Located 50 miles west of Boston, Worcester, Massachusetts is approximately tied
with Providence, Rhode Island, as the second largest city in New England.
It is part of a
Providence, RI is marginally larger. From the 2000 Census: Hartford, CT, city, 121,578; Providence RI,
city, 173,618; Springfield MA city, 152,082; Worcester MA city, 172,648.
quadrangle of Southern New England cities in the same size class dominated either by
New York City’s reach, or Boston’s, or in a field of influence shared by both: Hartford,
Providence, Springfield, Worcester.
Worcester’s economic and demographic past has been part of the larger stories of
New England and the Northeast. A major destination for immigrants in the mid-19
Century, Worcester also shared the late 19
Century surge of migrants from Eastern and
Southern Europe. The national origins and ancestries that Worcester residents reported to
the U.S. Census in 2000 register clearly these two waves. Table One shows the reason
that Irish and Italian politicians dominated the late 20
Century history of the city:
together they are 30 % of the population – but, as in Providence, they are rarely together.
Two or three other groups compose part of a distinctive immigration history for
Worcester, but are not so apparent from these data. Worcester, Massachusetts was
unusual as an East Coast urban destination for Swedes, and indeed, for Swedish industrial
workers.(Ronblum 1995; Estus and McClymer 1995) At the turn of the 21
there were still over 5500 Worcester residents who identified as Swedish.
Worcester was also among the earliest Armenian immigrant portals to America,
thus the home of the first Armenian Church in the United States. (Deranian 1998)
Though Providence, RI and Watertown, MA would later prove to be more important
centers of Armenian-American life, the establishment of a Chair in Armenian Genocide
Studies at Worcester’s Clark University registers something of this history.
An industrial town, like many other New England’s older cities, Worcester shared
the Rust Belt experiences of the second half of the twentieth century: deindustrialization;
population stagnation; and fiscal stress. (Ross and Riesman 1994) After the 1960’s
Worcester became a migration destination for the Puerto Rican journey Northeast from
New York, a journey with large impact on Hartford, moderate on Worcester and
otherwise widely distributed in New England. Puerto Rican workers in the Northeast
have been relatively concentrated in manufacturing industries and their migration patterns
have in part followed the paths to work provided for operatives. In the Census of 2000,
fifteen percent of Worcester residents were classified as “Latino”; 13% of those over five
years of age speak Spanish at home. In 1990 9.6% of Worcester residents were
“Hispanic”. The old working class neighborhoods changed; from Irish, for example, in
the Main South neighborhood around Clark University, to Hispanic.
The changing structure of Worcester’s lower income neighborhoods and
population is an almost direct reflex of the era of global capitalism. The working class
Irish and Italian and French Canadian neighborhoods were once sustained by the
manufacturing economy of the city. Manufacturing economies generate a job structure
thicker in the middle-income regions than do the more nearly bimodal service economy
income distributions. With increasing speed through 1970s the old manufacturing base
dissipated, migrating first to the US south and then elsewhere to the Global South..
It is into the weakening job market created by regional restructuring and
manufacturing capital flight that the new immigrants of the last generation enter. These
immigrants themselves are cast up by the tides of global capitalism. From the Western
hemisphere come the twice migrant: first, from failing rural economies where
commodity prices pressured by agribusiness and the world market cannot sustain small
family farms or landless laborers, marginal agriculturalists migrate to the big cities. Then
– sometimes a generation later – the lure of the Colossus of the North brings workers to
the big immigrant portals – New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Miami. And then they
The increase, in Worcester, from what the 1990 Census called Hispanic to the
2000 Census Latino count included individuals and families from Central America. In all
these ways – Rust Belt decline; attempts at restructuring; shift from Eastern European to
Western Hemisphere migrants, Worcester was like other New England cities. Until
1990, though the appearance of low income Spanish speakers was ‘new’, the migrant
stream to Worcester was still Christian and the cultural backgrounds of even the lower
income immigrants was part of the larger picture of the European expansion of the early
But now, in the last decade or so, Asia has come to Main Street, and that is
something entirely different. In the census of 1970 Massachusetts’ Asian and Pacific
Island population composed but 0.4% of the whole, about 60% of the nation’s ratio. In
the ensuing generation the Northeast and the Commonwealth attracted Asian migrants at
a faster rate than the nation as a whole, and Massachusetts now is home to over 53,000
Asian people, 3.8% of its population, higher than the Nation’s 3.6%.
[See Table 2]
The city of Worcester, Massachusetts has received an ample share of the Asian
part of the recent migration patterns. From 1990 to the 2000 Census the number and
proportion of people of Asian background in the central city of Worcester nearly doubled,
from 4800 to 9400 (See Table Three). More than any other group among the new Asian
migrants to the heart of the Commonwealth, however, have been those from Vietnam.
The 2400 Vietnamese who lived in the city of Worcester in 1990 have become 5100 by
The 2000 Census separated Asian from Pacific Islander populations – 0.1% of the U.S. population.
the year 2000. From a barely visible 1% of the population they are now a very visible
3% of the population.
The arrival of Vietnamese immigrants to America, we should note, is a function
of another face of the era of global capitalism – not economic restructuring but the
consequence of empire and military enforcement of it. The waves of military defeat at
the far end of the empire washed our clients upon our shores.
Consistent with the classic models of immigrant economy and community
building, the Vietnamese presence in Worcester is accentuated by the concentration of
enterprise along a particular stretch of one the two main North-South commercial streets
of the city.
Main Street bisects Worcester on a North-South axis. South of the Central
Business District, Main Street enters the poorest precincts of town. Emerging from the
older, and far from thriving, CBD Main Street becomes the center of a community known
as Main South, housing among other institutions, Clark University. In Main South we
have seen the tides of the twentieth century ebb and flow and the 21
following Ireland, and Latin America.
[See Figure 1]
The community known as Main South is among the poorest in Worcester County:
17.9% of the City population fell under the official poverty line in 2000, but 28.5% of
Main South residents did. Into this poor community as has usually been the case with
immigrants who arrive without technical skills, the late 20
Century witnessed a new
A quarter of Main South residents are Hispanic, and 60% of these are Puerto
Rican (15.8%). Over 9% of Main South residents are Black – a bit over double the City’s
average. About 11% of area residents are from Asia (1364) and two-thirds of these are
from Vietnam( 877). The Vietnamese population is a relatively recent arrival in the
community. Only 533 persons in 1990, by 2000, seven percent of Main South residents
were Vietnamese (877). Local observers, including those who have done housing
surveys for the local community Development Corporation report with some assurance
that the numbers of Vietnamese are underreported in the census. Reluctant to talk to
outsiders, the Vietnamese who have come to their front doors seem reluctant to tell how
many people are living in their apartments. This leads the local CDC workers to guess
they are saving on rent and living quite densely.
Despite the relatively small number of under or around 1000 Vietnamese
residents, Main Street for a five or six block length has become something of a little
Saigon, with a touch of Asian cosmopolitanism thrown in. In this short stretch there are
eleven Asian owned retail businesses, nine of them Vietnamese. None of these businesses
existed before 1993.
The enterprises include one grocery (Chinese owner); one Vietnamese/Chinese
restaurant (Vietnamese owner); one nail salon (Vietnamese owner); one Chinese
restaurant (Chinese owner); one Laundromat (Vietnamese owner). Six others from whom
survey instruments have not been collected appear to have Vietnamese signage and to be
mainly food stores, Of the six from whom we have survey instruments, not all live in the
community; most complain of poor business in the last few months. Most indicate the
complaints of retailers in poor neighborhoods: dirty streets, perceived dangers that deter
outsiders from coming to eat or shop.
The business survey from which these notes are extracted is only just begun; there
may be more Asian and Vietnamese presence in business locations outside of this striking
Despite the early nature of the work there is a pattern here, not unknown nor
unsung elsewhere. From Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, to the LA riots, the
appearance of middle-man minority entrepreneurs in poor neighborhoods is a familiar
pattern. Edna Bonacich ( 1973) in particular has conceptualized this phenomenon.
On the one hand a minority ethnic group may be part of an immigrant cohort that
is absent the technical skills to fit easily to the mainstream economy. Language barriers
may deter easy transfer of existing cultural skills to middle and upper income
employment. On the other hand, poor neighborhoods offer low rents and the reluctance
of majority status groups to compete in certain retail niches. Blocked opportunity for
middle-income jobs, ambition to become part of an owning class, and a de facto vacuum
of competition from mainstream groups produces an opening for the immigrant
As employers such middle man ethnic business owners can often exploit the
weakness of their co-ethnics – they hire cheap but obtain loyalty merely because they
offer employment. Retail businesses offer the additional opportunity of self-exploitation
– the restaurants surveyed are family owned and by observation appear to used family
labor in long hours. In addition they offer co-ethnics specialty goods they cannot obtain
at local supermarkets or franchise restaurants. To the low income locals they offer cheap
food and the particularly American chance to eat another group’s street food.
Of course the New York and LA stories of Korean business owners in Black
communities has had an ominous dimension, as has Asian contractor, Latino worker
relations in the apparel industry (Bonacich and Appelbaum 2000). No such tension is
obvious in Worcester’s Main South between the largest ethnic minority in the community
– Hispanics of Puerto Rican and Central American background and the new Asian
entrepreneurs. Perhaps that is because there is also a substantial number of small retail
establishments owned by and catering to Spanish speakers – Bodegas, a hair salon, etc.
Up to now, then, the appearance of Asian migrants to Worcester, in its poorest
neighborhoods and its commercial sector is part of a larger unfolding story of increasing
diversity, globalization and maybe, if we are lucky, a happy immigration saga. Looming
ahead is also the darker possibility: recession; loss of working class purchasing power;
increasing crime, business failure, immigrant privation; tension among competing groups.
Main South’s Community Development Corporation and Clark University have
an ongoing and positive collaboration. This includes active use of Clark PhD, MA and
undergraduate research students to do benchmark research on business, housing and
social conditions in the community. The fate of the community’s immigrants is one we
will all be watching.
Questions for Globalization
Through 1990 Worcester had more equality, less poverty and less homicide than
the four other cities in New England’s second tier. Will the new immigration now run up
against the new economy with the polarizing inequalities that have everywhere
accompanied globalization? Will Worcester become more like the other middle sized
cities of New England, with more violence and more poverty? And if these come to pass,
what will happen to Asia on Main Street?
(single or multiple)
Total population 172,648 100
Total ancestries reported 188,978 109.5
Irish 32,784 19
Italian 19,950 11.6
French (except Basque)1 17,719 10.3
English 10,633 6.2
Polish 10,482 6.1
French Canadian 7,394 4.3
United States or American 6,054 3.5
German 5,894 3.4
Swedish 5,535 3.2
Lithuanian 3,812 2.2
Subsaharan African 3,878 2.2
Greek 2,431 1.4
Arab 2,292 1.3
Russian 2,174 1.3
Scottish 2,156 1.2
All others below 1%
1: It is likely that most “French” are “French Canadian”
Source: Extracted from American Factfinder:
Table 2. Percent Asian and Pacific Islander: U.S., Northeast and Massachusetts.
Region 1970 MA:US 1980 MA:US 1990 MA:US 2000 MA:US
United States 0.7 1.5 2.9 3.6
Northeast 0.4 1.1 2.6 4
Massachusetts 0.4 .57 0.9 .6 2.4 .92 3.8 1.05
Source: Hobbs, Frank and Nicole Stoops,
U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Special
Reports, Series CENSR-4,
Demographic Trends in the 20th Century,
U.S. Government Printing Office,
Washington, DC, 2002. Table 8.
2000: 2001 Statistical Abstract of the United States, Tables 24 and 22.
Worcester, MA-CT PMSA
Asian Population Data for the Central City Area
. 1990 2000
Asian 4,770 2.8 9,377 5.4
Chinese 694 0.4 1,347 0.8
Korean 231 0.1 265 0.2
Vietnamese 2,391 1.4
Other Asian 187 0.1 144 0.1
Source: Extracted from the Lewis Mumford Center Census analysis database. Available
online at: http://mumford1.dyndns.org/cen2000/AsianPop/AsianPopData.htm .
Bonacich, Edna. 1973. American Sociological Review, Vol. 38, No. 5. (Oct., 1973), pp.
Immigration and Naturalization Service. 2001 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration
and Naturalization Service. Available online at:
Accessed April 14, 2003.
Lollock, Lisa, 2001, The Foreign Born Population in the United States: March 2000,
Current Population Reports, P20-534, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, D.C.
Ross, Robert and Jean Riesman, 1994. "Choosing Your Parents Well: Structure,
Competence and Corruption in Coping with Fiscal Stress." In Joseph S. Slavet, ed.,
Municipal Fiscal Stress in Massachusetts: Prognosis and Prescription. A Special
Report. Boston: The John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs. Pp. 50-92.
Um, Shin Ja. 1996. Korean immigrant women in the Dallas-area apparel industry
:looking for feminist threads in patriarchal cloth . Lanham, Md . University Press of
U.S. Census Bureau. 20002. Profile of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States,
2000 Detailed Tables for P23-206, Population Division,Ethnic & Hispanic Statistics
Branch. Maintained By: Laura K. Yax (Population Division) Created: February 7, 2002.
Available at: http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/foreign/ppl-145.html .
Accessed on April 14, 2003.