Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Utopia of Diversity

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, September 7, 2021 --  

People who talk a lot about about diversity are rarely found in the places where it actually exists.

When billionaire entrepreneur Marc Lore announced plans to build an urban utopia, buzzwords for his planned city filled the sky like a meteor shower: sustainability, walkability, equality, eco-friendliness and, of course, diversity.1

Diversity has become the essential attribute of every urban locale. But what does that even mean? Clearly, it doesn't require an "ethnic" aisle in the local supermarket. Plenty of folks have opined of late that the concept of such an aisle is racist.2 These people favor fully integrating international foods throughout the store, much like placement of trendy quinoa or hummus in Whole Foods.

To understand what would-be urban planner Marc Lore might expect of the diversity in his new utopian city, let's take a look at New York, particularly Lore's native Staten Island. Census data says it is 75 percent white, 11 percent black and 7 percent Asian.3 Fairly diverse, huh? But if you look more closely, you'll find the the black population dominates a few census tracts in the north and east, The southern side is over 90 percent white.

If you want a real indicator of a neighborhood's diversity, look at its grocery stores. The debate about racism and the ethnic food aisle ignores the elephant in the room: if your supermarket has so few "ethnic" items that they will fit into a single aisle, then the clientele is most certainly not diverse.

Take for example how supermarkets work in two American metropolitan areas, Washington DC and Miami.

In Washington, the traditional chains of Giant and Safeway have long dominated food sales. Back in the 1990s, when DC was still known as "Chocolate City", the "ethnic" aisles in both Black and white neighborhoods were similarly sad. They featured the contrived Latino brand Old El Paso, canned Asian foods from La Choy, along with kosher foods from Manischewitz.

The produce and meat sections were where they differed. In black neighborhoods, you'd find smoked meats like turkey necks and pork fatback perfect for stewing the collard greens in the produce section. Groceries in white neighborhoods had boneless chicken breasts and bean sprouts -- perfect for keeping flavor off the dinner table.

Waves of immigrants settling in the DC area had no interest in this nonsense.

New arrivals from Vietnam, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Korea and Bangladesh avoided these supermarkets. They settled in older suburban neighborhoods like Falls Church, Virginia and Wheaton, Maryland (with cheap houses yet good schools). They founded and shopped at neighborhoods supermarkets that became incredibly diverse.

At Shopper's Food Warehouse in Seven Corners, you'll find fresh plantains, tomatillos and lemongrass in the produce section, and the "ethnic" aisle expands to nearly a quarter of the store with products from India, the Middle East, Central America and Vietnam. You'll always find fresh Salvadoran cheese, dried rice noodles, tahini and West African fufu mix. More overtly international supermarkets like H-Mart offer ripe durian, store-made kimchi and fresh squid on ice.

The Miami area shows a different pattern owing to its huge Cuban population. At the far south end of Miami Beach, the Meridian Market is dominated by Cuban products including guava pastries and plantain chips. Ropa vieja is sometimes sold at the hot food counter. Forty miles north in white working-class Pompano Beach, the tiny ethnic section of the local Publix supermarket features (I kid you not) English, German and kosher foods. While less flavorful than offerings in Cuban-American Miami, the Pompano Beach Publix is similarly insular.

Like Washington DC, Metro Miami's most diverse areas are found in the slightly run-down suburban neighborhoods. At an old Route One strip shopping center in Hollywood you can find Russian sour cream sold by the half-gallon. And in western Ft. Lauderdale there's the Swap Shop & Thunderbird Drive-In with a colorful open-air Mexican food market that recalls Oaxaca.

Immigrants choose neighborhoods that are affordable places to raise their families. They have no use for trendy and expensive places like Williamsburg, Capitol Hill, or South Beach. They damn sure aren't moving to Marc Lore's planned utopia.

The truth is that folks who spend all their time talking about diversity almost never actually experience it. The less educated segregate themselves with people who look like themselves, then complain when people who look different move in. The over-educated folks tend to move to hipster neighborhoods (with at least a few different ethnicities.) Yet for all their talk, they show almost no diversity of thought or culture (turmeric-infused quinoa anyone?) They wouldn't be caught dead in unstylish immigrant suburbs where diversity actually flourishes.

It's unlikely that Marc Lore's urban utopia will ever come to pass. Even if it did, here is no way it could live up to its promise of diversity -- the utopia of diversity already exists:. You can find it surrounding the immigrant supermarket that older suburban neighborhood across town.


1. CNN, Plans for $400-Billion New City in the American Desert Unveiled, September 6, 2021

2. New York Times, Why Do American Grocery Stores Still Have an Ethnic Aisle? August 10, 2021

3. Census Bureau, QuickFacts: Richmond County, New York; United States, July 1, 2019