City planner looks at how immigration shaped Boston

By Kenny Sui-Fung Yim


Old and new Bostonians gathered on Jan. 15 for a talk on the city’s transformation over the last 200 years titled “Ethnic Enclaves, Edge Gateways and the Global Boston,” presented by James Madden. Madden’s keynote address marked the beginning of the Boston Public Library’s Local and Family History Series, now in its 11th year.

Boston started out as a small town — an island, in fact, according to Madden. Unlike cities such as New York and Chicago, Boston wanted to remain as is. There was never any grand scheme for how the city would look, if it would even be a city at all. Instead, Boston developed little by little over periods of immigration influx.

The first wave came in the 19th century with the arrival of the Irish, who emigrated from their home country to escape the potato famine. In trying to illustrate the magnitude of this sudden surge in population, Madden likened the population boom to what Boston might look like if all Haitians displaced by the earthquake in 2010 had moved into the greater Boston area.

In the early part of the 20th century, immigrants came from more varied regions of the world, including southern China when the Chinese left the Pearl Delta region’s collapsed economy in the wake of British imperialism. The Chinese are currently the second largest immigrant group in Boston — they represent around 11 percent of all minorities. Haitians constitute a slightly larger group at 13 percent. Interestingly enough, Boston’s demographics are unlike national statistics, which state that the majority of immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico, India and the Philippines.

Another important part of Madden’s study was determining the spread of minorities over the Boston area. What he found through population surveys was that, rather than each minority being concentrated in a specific area, there is a significant amount of ethnic diversity within the neighborhoods themselves.

“The varied industries in Boston, like medicine and education, attract people from all over the world now,” Madden said. “This is really a return to normal.”

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