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Not Your Mother’s Levittown: How “Brown Flight” Altered ...

Not Your Mother’s Levittown: How “Brown Flight” Altered the Suburban Identity of Bridgewater, New Jersey

The west end of Bridgewater, New Jersey marks a series of densely populated suburban communities, known to the public as the “Milltown-Vanderveer” district, and to its residents as “Chindia” for its predominantly Chinese-Indian demographic. The majority of Chindia’s two-story, single-family homes are inhabited by immigrants raising first generation Asian-American children. Stratton Meadows, a “Chindian” community

The suburbs of the Milltown-Vanderveer section of Bridgewater are attractive to workers with families who want a rural life while having easy access to urban areas. Families that wanted to live in close proximity to the city while bringing their children up in a comfortable, residential setting with a quality education system, for example, were attracted to the value for money offered by the Bridgewater township.

The west end of Bridgewater, New Jersey marks a series of densely populated suburban communities, known to the public as the “Milltown-Vanderveer” district, and to its residents as “Chindia” for its predominantly Chinese-Indian demographic. The majority of Chindia’s two-story, single-family homes are inhabited by immigrants raising first generation Asian-American children. Stratton Meadows, a “Chindian” community in Bridgewater developed in 1994, is a 487-housing unit that allows middle-class residents to receive value for their money; by having the privacy of single-family homes, with public access to jobs, goods, and services, both in and around the township.      

The development of Stratton Meadows, as it exists today, was the product of both first and second wave suburbanization. The first wave, known as “white flight,” was caused by racial tensions punctuated by political upheaval, resulting in the mass movement of white Americans to the suburbs. The second wave, a lesser known phenomenon that could be called “brown flight,” resulted from amendments in national immigration policies that allowed Asian-Americans and, eventually, their families, to gain entry into the United States. If you live in the United States, you have probably heard of “white flight.” “Brown flight,” maybe not.

For those who may not be familiar with the term, “white flight” was the mid-20th-century mass movement of white Americans out of the city and into more rural areas near the city. The initial development of the American suburb was the product of white flight, which, in turn, was the product of riots in New Jersey’s urban centers. At the surface, white flight was a primary contributor to the growth of suburbs and the decline of cities, but it was more than just a physical relocation. White flight was a political movement that forced conservative white people to abandon their blatant prejudice and make way for a new, subtle, more powerful conservatism. The 1960s, in particular, marked a period of political turbulence stemming from racial tension in urban centers such as Newark, New Jersey.

If you take the “white flight” movement, change the setting from mid-20th century to late-20th century, and substitute Caucasian-Americans with Asian-Americans, you get “brown flight.” While white flight helped make the Bridgewater suburbs, changes in immigration laws altered the suburban identity by increasing its Asian-American demographic. From 1880 to 1965, Asian-Americans were heavily excluded from the United States with the help of laws such as the 1875 Page Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In 1965, however, the United States Congress passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act, also known as the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act. This act opened up immigration to more non-European groups and placed more focus on immigrant skills and family relationships with United States residents.

Prior to 1965, immigration from Asian countries was relatively small and isolated; less than one percent of United States immigrants were of Asian descent. The passing of the Hart-Cellar Act brought with it an unexpected spike in Asian immigration to the United States. More than seven million Asian-born immigrants were admitted into the United States between 1971 and 2002.

Asian-Americans who practice a religion may translate this practice into their own home by converting a bedroom into a shrine. This photo depicts a part of my home that has been converted in a Sikh prayer room meant for daily prayers and ceremonies.

Many of the Indians who came to the United States were engineers and doctors who grouped themselves in living spaces such as the apartments of Hoboken and Queens. Asian-Americans were also particularly attracted to New Jersey’s high-end schools, inexpensive townhomes, and accessible highways. Thus, the Asian population boom in Bridgewater was not an isolated incident; nearby townships such as Edison, New Jersey, have majority non-white populations that can also be traced back to the 1965 immigration law. In more recent decades, ethnic and racial minorities have been further integrated into the suburban community. Changes in immigration laws to include minorities and families allow for predominantly Asian-American communities, such as those in Bridgewater, to exist.

This second wave of suburbanization, resulting in the development of Chindia, has changed the face of suburbia as America once knew it. But you wouldn’t know this by looking at both types of houses side-by-side. The architecture of the typical “white flight” suburban home and the Asian-American suburban home are, structurally, the same. It’s only by entering these homes that one can distinguish between these two identities in terms of the program. For example, religion plays a significant role in the domestic spatial organization. The second floor of my home was initially meant to have two smaller bedrooms and a master bedroom. During construction, however, the house was modified to have a fourth bedroom. The entirety of this bedroom did not serve its original function, however, and part of it was converted into a prayer room. Many Asian-American families, like my own, practice a religion and have a separate room or area dedicated to housing a shrine or holy text. In Hinduism, the Pooja, or worship room, is the most sacred space in the house.

Also, in accordance with Asian cultural traditions, many Asian-American families have to account for living spaces meant to accommodate extended family. Asians are more likely than any other ethnic group in America to live in a multi-generational family household; twenty-eight percent of these Asian-American households are recorded to house at least two adult generations. Bedrooms that were originally meant to serve as guest rooms may be converted into spaces for non-nuclear family members, such as grandparents or grandkids. Political events have had little impact on the exterior of my home in comparison to 1950s and 1960s suburban homes, but evidence of our culture can still be seen behind the walls.

When comparing the homes in Bridgewater belonging to immigrant and first-generation Asian-Americans to that of the “white flight” suburban family, one will find that the structural layout is essentially the same. The differences only lie in the interior as a result of different cultural and political values. White-Americans may have developed the suburbs, but they are no longer the sole face of suburbia.

How do you think that the identity of your community has changed recently? Is your community's cultural identity changing? If so, how? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.

Credits: Images by Sukhmann Aneja. Data linked to sources.

Intern photo

Third year student at the Syracuse University School of Architecture. I am interested in exploring the sociopolitical aspects of architecture through writing and I'll be sharing insights from Bridgewater, New Jersey and Syracuse, New York.

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