Ethiopian Place-Making and Heterolocalism

Ethiopian immigrants make up the largest community of people from Sub-Saharan Africa in the Washington, DC area. However, unlike immigrant groups in the past, Ethiopian immigrants are dispersed across different areas in the region.[1] Despite the lack of residential proximity to each other, Ethiopian immigrants created a unique place-making experience in the Washington metro area to maintain social ties.

Although a majority of Ethiopian immigrants do not live in the same neighborhoods, ethnic place-making helped create and sustain community among themselves. Ethiopians created “robust ethnic places” that fulfilled “many of the functions of the traditional inner city ethnic neighborhood.”[2] Ethnic place-making, whether it be neighborhoods, businesses, or other areas in the community, are environments that fulfill the “needs and wishes” of immigrants, as well as “to reflect their social and cultural identities.”[3] Geographer Elizabeth Chacko defines ethnic place-making as: “ethnic places … are home or representations of home to various immigrant groups, infused with social meaning and cultural and emotional associations.”[4] For Ethiopian immigrants in the Washington, DC area, place-making did not take place in neighborhoods, but in other places in the community such as businesses and cultural centers.

Starting in the late nineteenth century, most immigrants that came to the United States settled in large cities and created common ethnic neighborhoods or ghettos. Typically, once immigrants accrued wealth and their social circumstances improved, they moved out of the city and into suburbs.[5] By the 1990s, this began to change and settlement patterns became more complex. Consequently, “ethnically homogenous” residential and businesses relocated to suburban areas rather than inner cities.[6] Wei Li coined the term “ethnoburbs” to describe the spatial forms of moving directly to suburbs.[7] Ethiopian immigrants followed this pattern of migration, living in the suburbs outside of Washington, DC rather than in the city.

Due to the new settlement pattern in ethnoburbs, immigrants marked their cultural places with tangible and/or intangible symbols. Some immigrant groups used structures such as art, architecture, and business establishments that “cater[ed] to the special interests and tastes of the community.”[8] Tangible symbols of Ethiopian identity that are visible throughout Alexandria include flags, murals, and colors that transform arbitrary spaces into “cultural places” that are filled with meaning.[9] Intangible ethnic markers include internet sites and radio and television stations, which enables Ethiopians to stay connected with their family back home.[10] Since Ethiopian immigrants do not settle in ethnic neighborhoods, they often rely on tangible and intangible markers to display their heritage in their homes and businesses.

Wilbur Zelinsky and Barrett Lee created the term heterolocalism, which means “intricate centrifugal forces” and “dispersed residential patterns” that were a result of scattering of ethnic groups.[11] Heterolocalism assumes that more modern ethnic communities are held together by organizations such as churches, businesses, sports leagues, and cultural centers that cater to an ethnic group.[12] This is why Ethiopians in Alexandria are able to develop close-knit social groups with other Ethiopians living around the beltway. Heterolocalism is important to immigrants in retaining their cultural ties to their home country as well as other immigrants in the area.

 Ethiopians stay connected through a variety of ethnic places, such as:

  • Ethnic institutions: these serve as “connectors for the community.”[13] These can include Ethiopian restaurants, which serve ethnic cuisine but are available to the entire community, not just immigrants.
  • Ethnic sociocommerscapes: these are “areas with concentrations of ethnic businesses that provide not only goods and services but also meeting places for the community.”[14] Chacko claims that ethnic sociocommerscapes allow Ethiopians to sustain their heritage in ways that leave their mark on the community. Some examples would include ethnic restaurants or coffee shops.
  • Ethnic arenas: these are spaces used repeatedly by the community but lack a permanent ethnic marker.[15] An example would be an Amharic language learning class meeting in a school gym.

[1] Elizabeth Chacko, “Ethiopian Ethos and the Making of Ethnic Places in the Washington Metropolitan Area,” Journal of Cultural Geography 20, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 2003): 21-42.
[2] Ibid., 22.
[3] Ibid., 24-25.
[4] Ibid., 25.
[5] Ibid., 24.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 25.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 30
[11] Ibid., 24.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 29.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.