For many old timers in Greater Boston, this is new: Spending a Saturday shopping at just about any of the area big box stores, you’re struck by the symphony of languages and accents among the fellow shoppers. Boston has long been thought of as a white city, but you should think again. A new study out of the Boston Foundation confirms Boston's changing demographics. Paul Watanabe is one of the study's authors and the director of the Institute for Asian American studies at UMass Boston. Watanabe spoke with WGBH All Things Considered anchor Barbara Howard about the study. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Barbara Howard: Let's start with the city of Boston itself. Since 1990, the percentage of African Americans has pretty much stayed about the same, about a quarter of the city's population. By contrast, Boston's white population was nearly 60 percent white and about three decades later had dropped to 44 percent. But those white residents pretty much have transformed neighborhoods that are traditionally non-white: the South End, Mission Hill, JP. They've become increasingly gentrified and white.
Paul Watanabe: There are sections of the city that are becoming whiter, places like you mentioned: Jamaica Plain, the South End. Roxbury, for example. It's largely a product of gentrification, potentially forcing some of the people who would normally live there and have lived there for decades in many cases out of these areas.
Howard: So while some black neighborhoods have become more white, there are some white neighborhoods that have clearly become more diverse. South Boston comes to mind.
Watanabe: The majority of the city has become increasingly non-white, and if you think of places like East Boston, that’s predominantly impacted by Latino populations. Fields Corner, for example, a section of Dorchester, which in a remarkably short period of time has become heavily Asian, particularly Vietnamese-American.
Howard: And when you're talking about Latinos and Asian-Americans in Boston, without them the population would actually be shrinking?
Watanabe: It would be shrinking in Boston, it would be shrinking throughout the commonwealth of Massachusetts, and surely in the Greater Boston region that we focused upon.
Howard: So let's look outside of Boston, the suburbs and beyond. The high housing costs, of course, pushing non-white people out of Boston, it sounds like. The map that the Boston Foundation study shows has an arc of non-white residents populating cities that have traditionally been white, from Malden to Everett, to Revere. Talk about that sweep of immigrants that are not in Boston proper, but are outside of Boston.
Watanabe: Since 1990, the non-white population of Greater Boston has increased by 254 percent. What that means is that in all of the cities and towns in Greater Boston, not a single one has seen a decline in the non-white population. They've all seen an increase. In other words, none of them have seen an increase in the white population. Not in a single community in Greater Boston has the non-white population decreased, and the obverse of that is in not a single community has the white population increased in the last 30 years.
Howard: Where are there clusters of like an Asian population in a certain town, or you know, Guatemalans, I know are in Waltham. Your study, mentioning Brockton, talks about black residents, people from places like Haiti, or Cape Verde, or African countries. Your study talks about Quincy being hugely Asian. What's going on?
Watanabe: Quincy is an amazing figure. If you think back in 1960, there were fewer than 100 Asian-Americans in Quincy. Now there are approximately 23,000 Asian-Americans in Quincy. Twenty-eight percent of the population of that particular community is now Asian-American. This is a remarkable transformation that's taken place. Quincy was initially perceived as some sort of a place where people from downtown Chinatown could perhaps go and live, but yet commute back towards Chinatown, which is the traditional center of the Asian-American community. And instead, Quincy has developed its own infrastructure, its own shops, its own restaurants, its own health facilities and so forth. And it's now become a destination for Asian-Americans throughout the area to go to.
Howard: Are we seeing similar things among the Guatemalans in Waltham, that same kind of cohesiveness?
Watanabe: Yes. The study focuses on Guatemalans in Waltham. And in Boston, it focuses on the Latino population in East Boston. And it also focuses, a remarkable story, on the growth of the black and African American population in Brockton. The black or African American population is so diverse now, it isn't the traditional African American population drawn from the roots here within the United States, but increasingly defined by North African immigrants, immigrants from the black diaspora in the Caribbean, and so forth.
Howard: With this diversity that seems to be exploding, are we seeing it reflected in other areas of life, like business and politics?
Watanabe: It's not. Only 14 percent of CEOs in the Greater Boston area are people of color. We see representation in the legislature as lagging behind. Unless we're going to have this kind of transformation in leadership, in the kinds of people who are teaching our students, who are in police departments and fire departments, and who are in the halls of the state legislature and the city councils and so forth, there's still going to be a significant distance between the people who live in these cities and towns, the growing numbers, and the people who represent them in the halls of power.
Howard: That's Paul Watanabe of UMass Boston. He's one of the authors of a study out this week — it casts in sharp relief demographic changes in Boston and beyond over the past three decades.