Image: Charles Park
Donna McWilliam  /  AP
Asian-themed businesses have given what was one a dilapidated section of Dallas new life. "Now the perception of the city is very much improved," says Charles Park, president of the Asian District Development Association of Dallas.
updated 9/18/2006 10:55:23 AM ET 2006-09-18T14:55:23

Up and down a stretch of Harry Hines Boulevard, signs emblazoned with Korean characters advertise clothing, linens, gift items and much more.

Traffic trudges through an area transformed from a place once frequented by prostitutes into the bustling center of the city's Asian Trade District.

"Now the perception of the city is very much improved," said Charles Park, a native Korean and president of the Asian District Development Association of Dallas.

From Harry Hines in Dallas to Boston's Fields Corner, immigrant business owners are reviving older, deserted or crime-ridden neighborhoods. Throughout the country, once-empty shopping centers now house stores with a distinctively international style.

Many of those business were launched by some of the 34 million people who now live in the United States but were born elsewhere.

The entrepreneurial spirit has always accompanied the immigrant population. Census figures going back to the 1880s show immigrants more likely to be self-employed than native-born Americans, say researchers at the Immigrant Learning Center's Public Education Program in Malden, Mass.

"One of the points we make is, it's a phenomenon that's not only happening all over the country with different immigrant groups. It's a phenomenon that has clearly been at work well over a century," said Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Immigrant-owned stores have long sprung up and formed clusters in neighborhoods. Big cities typically have Little Italy, Chinatown or Little Havana. But immigrant-owned businesses are also appearing in suburbs, such as Brazilians in Framingham, Mass. They're in places such as Providence, R.I., and Charleston, S.C., which have many Latino-owned businesses. In the Dallas area alone, there's Little Pakistan in suburban Carrollton, Little Ethiopia in Dallas, and Chinatown in Richardson.

Those new businesses often operate on a shoestring, and few immigrant entrepreneurs apply for government grants or loans. For many, the cheaper business space available in declining or abandoned areas is made to order, Watanabe said.

Restaurant owner Mario Cesar Ramirez used his scant savings to launch his first business in the affluent suburb of Plano. Although his bakery opened in a virtually deserted shopping center, Ramirez knew many Latino families lived nearby. Like him, they had to drive far to find cinnamon and sugar-doused pastries and Coca-Cola made in Mexico.

"I started to play Mexican music outside my location so people who walked by would hear Vicente Fernandez," Ramirez said, referring to the Mexican singer. "That became a little Hispanic shopping center. It was a ghost shopping center. It was empty for a long time."

As more businesses moved into that strip, the neighborhood began to change. Residents became acquainted with each other and their neighborhood through the businesses they frequented, Ramirez said.

"You get a sense of belonging _ this is my bakery, this is my restaurant. They feel very attached to that community," he said.

That same community feel can be found in the Korean district in Dallas and other locations, where boarded-up storefronts become cleaner, colorful and more inviting.

Business and property owners make it clear what's welcome and what isn't in the neighborhood, said Park, the Korean business leader. And experts say the commercial presence and foot traffic help provide a sense of safety.

In the Harry Hines area, where Park founded a tax preparation business, property owners have organized to beautify the district. They are exploring a program that would place an extra tax on their properties for landscaping public areas and other improvements.

"This is a pretty good position. It has the potential to grow," Park said.

By getting to and working in run-down neighborhoods first, immigrant entrepreneurs open the door for further investment, experts say.

"It's really like shining a light into these areas," Watanabe said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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