When Tou Ger Xiong first moved to Woodbury in 1996, he was struck by the dearth of ethnic restaurants and stores as he drove through what was then still a small but ambitious suburb.
“Not only was it pretty white, but it was still pretty much farm country. People were still selling their corn and vegetables in stands around town,” said Xiong, whose family immigrated to St. Paul from Laos in the waning days of the Vietnam War.
In the years since, Woodbury’s minority population has grown to about 20 percent of the total population, according to the latest U.S. census data and is expected to continue climbing.
The growth is largely the result of a seismic shift in settlement patterns, echoed nationwide, in which immigrants have bypassed traditional gateway cities and settled in the suburbs, said Edward Goetz, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
“We used to think of the metro area in a kind of binary way, where the cities were the location of all the diversity and the suburbs were kind of white and middle class. That may have been true 30 and 40 years ago,” Goetz said, who studies urban planning and race. “I think people see the same kinds of impacts occurring in Eden Prairie. It’s a slightly different kind of profile of immigrant worker that we’re looking at. We’re not necessarily looking at a low-skilled kind of worker moving for these jobs.”
People began trickling out of the urban core in recent years in search of more affordable housing and better schools, and many settled in the rapidly developing suburbs east of the Mississippi River, analysts say.
“The concentration of new jobs is in more outlying areas, as metro areas decentralize. So these areas are becoming more economically self-sufficient,” Goetz said.
Woodbury’s overall population jumped to 61,961 in 2010 from 46,463 in 2000, after more than doubling in the years since 1990, the data show. The population surge was driven in part by an influx of minorities, lured to the area by the promise of high quality jobs, State Demographer Susan Brower said.
“I think in the case of Woodbury, we see high growth in the black population, the Latino population and especially the Asian population,” Brower said. What is unique about Woodbury is that many of the newcomers are college-educated, she said.
The city has since morphed into one of the east metro’s most diverse communities. The city’s share of minorities has risen sharply from 6.6 percent in 1990 to 20.9 percent in 2010, the last year with available data. The Asian population grew in that span to 5,645, or 9.1 percent of the total population. Blacks, the second-largest minority group, represented 5.5 percent of the population in 2010, while Latinos represented 3.8 percent.
The percentage of minorities has gone up to 22.3 percent since 2010, based on information gathered between 2009 and 2011 in the American Community Survey.
Elsewhere in county
Oakdale, with about 27,400 residents, saw a similar increase in the percentage of minorities. Since 1990, Oakdale’s minority population has risen from about 4 percent of the total population to about 20.9 percent, the census shows. In contrast, the more rural suburbs of Afton and Lakeland remained mostly white.
Overall, the percentage of nonwhites in Washington County increased from 4 percent to 14.3 percent between 1990 and 2010; the metro area as a whole rose from 9.2 percent minority to 23.7 percent. Asians made up 5.1 percent of the total population in the county, blacks represented 3.5 percent and Latinos 3.4 percent, well below their metrowide averages, according to the data.
Xiong, a Hmong educator and community activist, said today’s Woodbury bears little resemblance to the sleepy suburb he moved to in the mid-1990s. But he says the census numbers do not tell the whole story.
“There are a few places now that suit my palette,” he said. “I think for the most part, it’s still pretty white. I still have to come into St. Paul to get my Asian ramen, my Asian spices, my Asian cuisine.”
Critics also pointed out that the city’s growing diversity has not been reflected within the political power structure. Only a handful of members of the city’s boards and commissions are ethnic minorities.
But change will not come overnight, according to Goetz.
“There’s always a lag between the time when new populations enter communities and settle, and a full infrastructure is created. Because, partly that’s created by the community itself. So, there’s always this period of adjustment and change,” he said.
Washington County’s largest city is taking steps to accommodate expected demographic growth and help shatter perceptions of suburbia as inhospitable to nonwhites. Officials said they are working with the Community Foundation’s Citizens’ Academy to help promote cross-cultural understanding. And the city eased its zoning laws to make it easier for religious organizations to build places of worship.
Irfan Ali, a member of the Planning Commission, said that, after looking at other suburban areas, he moved his family to Woodbury to be closer to his wife’s job in St. Paul. “It was near a city. It just felt more fresh and at that time there was a lot of diversity,” said Ali, who is active in the Islamic Society of Woodbury.
“We have a place of worship for our community to meet. That really keeps us motivated, because it’s a place where our kids can meet other kids,” Ali said.
“Our needs are pretty basic: It’s really about being able to have a good place to grow. You know, what kind of experience are our kids going to have in growing up? And Woodbury, at least so far, has that.”