During the break, I started gathering data for Filipino-American settlement and representation in Michigan, and my first stop was the city of Detroit. Michigan is already a difficult state for this type of search because many of the first wave immigrants came through Hawaii, the West Coast, and Illinois. I believed Detroit would be a promising start because though the first Filipino students came in through Ann Arbor, many Filipino migrants were drawn to work in the auto industry. In my mind, I imagined populating a digital map with the general movement of these immigrants, the neighborhoods they would eventually settle in, and the commercial and community establishments that would later develop from the diverse population.
Instead, I ran into dead ends. After a week of relentless research, I concluded it still exceptionally difficult to unearth Asian American histories in this area of the Midwest – thus, perhaps all the more crucial. Most of what I found written about Filipinos coming to Detroit focused on whether they were civilized or not. In one memorable example, an article in the Detroit Free Press highlighted the city’s first Filipino in 1904 with a discussion of his white overseer’s compassion in bringing the Filipino child over and an excerpt from his school writing to show how his exceptional grammar and English skills proved Filipinos could be made civilized. I doubled back and gathered the addresses of the Filipino students that came through between 1917 and 1921, hoping to find their story, but I was met with silent fates, mostly implied displacements from major (discriminatory) zoning laws and urban developments. This is to say that the work of unearthing these histories is a struggle—and necessary to move beyond denigrating frames of specific cultures. Still, traces are coming through, and reminding me that Filipinos had a role in forming the city.
One particularly case is the neighborhood of Cass Corridor which is now the target of gentrification. Filipinos and other immigrants who were pushed into the crime-infested area had helped built into a solid ethnically-diverse community. They opened businesses, introduced new foods, and celebrated culture in impactful ways, which the city then marketed for profit. Cass Corridor’s fate isn’t new if we look at Chicago’s Wicker Park or Cabrini Green. And beyond providing marketable culture, immigrants’ place-making in host cities has helped redevelop decaying urban and economic infrastructures.
With over 100 years of Asian Americans in Detroit, the community’s displacement due to zoning measures, prejudice, and urban planning has contributed to such movements as the upheaval and transfer of an entire Chinatown, relocation to the suburbs or other states, and migrations to low-income, crime-infested downtown areas such as Cass Corridor. These transferences have provided a challenge for sustainable Asian American communities, making the Asian American presence—despite its numbers—struggle to be representative in the public sphere. To then represent these movements on a digital map relies on what little spatial data can be found: the general movement of neighborhoods and snapshots of APA material sites that assert claims to space before erasure.