Click on town shapes to see foreign-born percentages; click on buttons on right to see data for different years. Source: US Decennial Census, 1870-2010; American Community Survey, 2022 5-year estimates
While the city of Boston has been the number one destination of immigrants settling in the metro region, suburban communities have also been important receiving areas. This has certainly been true in recent years, but it has actually been the case for more than a century.
Old Immigrant Settlement
Many of Boston’s suburban communities have a long history. In the nineteenth century, many of them built mills and industries that manufactured shoes, textiles, rubber goods, machinery, and many other products. These operations depended on immigrant labor, and their host communities developed worker housing, churches, businesses, and ethnic organizations to support them.
In 1870, we can see patterns of immigrant settlement that followed industrial development along rivers and railroad lines. The map shows, for instance, a string of immigrant settlement running west from Boston out to Framingham, following the Boston-Worcester Railroad line. Industrialization and immigrant settlement also ran north and south, from Boston to Gloucester in the north and south to places like Quincy and Canton. With the advent of truck transport in the early twentieth century, other plants and immigrant working-class communities popped up across the area.
This diffusion of the foreign born across the region continued to 1930. But following the immigration restriction measures of the 1920s, the foreign-born population began to decrease and die out. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the map shows a shrinking population of foreign born that was increasingly centered around Boston and Cambridge—urban places where the diminished stream of new arrivals were most likely to land. That decline began to reverse in the late 1960s, following the passage of the Immigration and Nationalization Act of 1965. The legislation allowed more immigrants to enter the country and eliminated a quota system that discriminated in favor of northern and western European immigrants–thus facilitating new pattterns of global migration.
New Immigrant Settlement
By the 1980s a new wave of immigrants began to have a visible impact on the region. As these migrants and refugees arrived from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean, they gradually fanned out to suburban towns and cities such as Chelsea, Lynn, Quincy, Malden, Waltham and Framingham.
But the suburban movement was not random; it tended to follow the paths of older immigrant groups. While few of these communities offered industrial employment—their mills and factories had closed or were dying out—the older working-class housing, churches, synagogues, and decaying commercial areas proved to be vital resources for new arrivals. The train lines that once moved industrial freight now proved essential to immigrant workers who commuted to service jobs in Boston and other commercial hubs. Moreover, the high cost of living in Boston and Cambridge encouraged many immigrant families to look for affordable housing in the region’s older industrial suburbs. Their presence and investment has helped repopulate and revitalize many of these communities. Higher income newcomers have also fueled the suburban diffusion, settling in upscale suburbs like Brookline, Newton, Lexington, and Acton.
Since 1990, more foreign-born residents have been moving to suburban communities than to the city of Boston itself. As the cost of living in Boston and Cambridge continues to rise, the immigrant trek to the suburbs will likely continue in the future.