What It's Like to Live in a Diverse Community

Find out what it's really like to live in multicultural and LGBT-friendly neighborhoods.

San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe

Nicknamed "The City Different," Santa Fe's deeply embedded blend of Native American, Spanish and European culture manifests itself in the city's art, architecture and cuisine.

QUEENS, N.Y.

With foreign-born residents making up nearly half of its population, Queens is often cited as the most diverse county in the United States. Seth Bornstein, the Executive Director of the Queens Economic Development Corporation and a Queens resident for 15 years, says on a typical morning, he might go to the gym and be checked in by an African man, get breakfast at a bagel store owned by a Russian couple, and pick up a croissant for his wife at a French bakery owned by an Indian woman. "The great thing about that experience is I don't think twice -- this is normal in Queens," he says.

Getting around: Queens residents rely on many forms of transportation, depending on what area of the borough they call home. "There are parts of Queens that are well-served by public transportation, and there are parts that are much more suburban in character," Bornstein says. Flushing, Forest Hills, Jamaica and other dense urban areas tend to be very walkable, while the Rockaways and other areas further from Manhattan are more dependent on cars.

Owning a home: Like its residents, housing in Queens is very diverse, ranging from high-rise apartments to single-family homes to beachfront condos. In addition to new housing developments, Queens is home to some of America's oldest planned communities, including Forest Hills Gardens and Sunnyside Gardens. "There are really well-planned communities that have stood the test of time in the borough," Bornstein says.

Twenty to 30 years ago, Bornstein says many neighborhoods in Queens were known for having an ethnic or religious majority -- Astoria was the Greek neighborhood, Flushing was the Asian neighborhood and Forest Hills was the Jewish neighborhood. Today, Bornstein says, the array of cultures found in Queens has become much more integrated. Bornstein's neighbors, for instance, are of African, German, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese descent. "And that's just one little block in Forest Hills," Bornstein says.

Finding fun: On a warm summer day, people from all walks of life can be found swimming, surfing and sunbathing at Rockaway Beach on the southern shore of Queens. Flushing Meadows Corona Park is another popular destination for Queens residents. The park plays host to a number of special events throughout the year, including the U.S. Tennis Open, the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival and New York Mets games at Citi Field. On other days, Queens residents flock to the park to play soccer and cricket, stroll along the Flushing Bay Promenade or enjoy the sounds of a summer concert.

"Sports and music bring people together no matter what their background," Bornstein says.

Tallying the cost of living: Compared to Manhattan, you get a lot more for your money in Queens, Bornstein says. And with diverse housing options, there's something for everyone in the borough.

"Unlike Brooklyn or Manhattan, there's a lot more middle than there is upper and lower," Bornstein says. "So there's a lot more variety for middle-class families." 

RAINIER VALLEY, SEATTLE, WASH.

Encompassing some of Seattle's most colorful neighborhoods -- including Columbia City, Rainier Beach and Othello -- Rainier Valley is said to be the most culturally and economically diverse neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest. Nearly two-thirds of Rainier Valley's residents are Asian or African American, and more than 50 languages are spoken in Southeast Seattle. As a result, the area's shops, restaurants and art all offer a glimpse into other parts of the world.

"It's a wonderful experience," says Jerri Plumridge, a Rainier Valley resident and director of SEEDArts, a program of SouthEast Effective Development devoted to building community through art. "Nothing is homogenous, and you get to see different cultures and viewpoints in your daily life."

In addition to ethnic diversity, Seattle also has one of the highest LGBT populations per capita in the United States, ranking second behind San Francisco. In 2009, Washington became the first state to give domestic partners the same legal rights as married couples.

Getting around: Many areas of Rainier Valley are very walkable, including the thriving business district in Columbia City. Located along Rainier Avenue South, this area offers 17 restaurants serving cuisine from across the globe -- including Ethiopian, Mexican, Sicilian and Caribbean food -- all within three city blocks. The district also features a bookstore, a gym, an art gallery and assorted retail shops.

When residents need to venture outside of Rainier Valley, the Link Light Rail is a popular service. Since July 2009, the light rail has connected the neighborhood to both downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport.

Owning a home: Housing options in Rainier Valley range from older, single-family homes -- particularly in historic Columbia City -- to new condominiums. Lower housing prices initially drew people to the area.

"Now, I think people want to be here because their cultures are here and the languages they speak are here," Plumridge says.

Finding fun: Like many diverse neighborhoods, Rainier Valley offers fun events for residents that embrace the area's multiculturalism. Arts Gumbo, an annual series organized by SEEDArts, is one such event. Each year, the program highlights three different cultures from the diverse community of Southeast Seattle and beyond. Plumridge, who has been director of SEEDArts for 25 years, says the 2010 event showcased Mexican, Chinese and African American cultures, blending both educational and participatory events.

"The Spirit of Mexico, for example, featured Mexican dances, costumes and food, and people could also learn some of the dances," Plumridge says.

Tallying the cost of living: In addition to its diversity, affordable real estate is one advantage of living in Rainier Valley. In other areas, the cost of the living in Rainier Valley has its pros and cons compared to other areas of Seattle. Shopping may be more expensive, as there are more specialty stores than shopping centers. Recreation is less expensive than other parts of Seattle, but it's also not as varied, Plumridge says. 

SUGAR LAND, TEXAS

Sugar Land, located 20 miles southeast of Houston, has racked up a number of accolades over the years, including fittest city in Texas, fifth safest city in America and third best city to live in America. In 2010, Sugar Land was named a "Community of Respect" by the Anti-Defamation League for the third in a row, a title that acknowledges the city's commitment to creating an inclusive community. Sugar Land's staff strives to understand different cultures found throughout the city; last year, they organized "101 sessions" on Chinese, Indian and Pakistani culture so key staff members could learn more about the traditions and history of these ethnic communities, thus improving the city's ability to meet the needs of all residents.

Saleena Jafry moved to Sugar Land in 1999, drawn to the area's diversity, great schools and safe neighborhoods. While many diverse communities are referred to as "melting pots," Jafry prefers a different analogy for her town.

"I think of Sugar Land as a 'mosaic,' in which individuals are encouraged to retain their respective cultural and religious identities while contributing to the wellbeing of the larger community," she says.

Getting around: Since Sugar Land doesn't currently have a mass transit system, a car is handy to have for traveling around the city. "That said, you will often see people cycling through the neighborhoods, and if you’re going to the Town Center, the most popular mode of transportation is typically to park and stroll around," Jafry says.

Owning a home: Homebuyers can get a lot of bang for their buck in Sugar Land, where many master-planned communities not only offer beautiful, reasonably-priced homes, but also community amenities such as parks, trails, playgrounds and pools. Within individual neighborhoods, Sugar Land's diversity is very apparent.

"There may be some streets and cul-de-sacs with ethnic clusters as many families prefer to live near each other, but Brazos Landing, the neighborhood in which I live, is very integrated across ethnic, religious and cultural identities," Jafry says.

Finding fun: Sugar Land organizes and sponsors events that celebrate its multiculturalism, including the Diwali Festival, Holi and Kite Festivals, the Dragon Boat Regatta and Halloween and Christmas events at the City Hall. Along with annual events, the City also organizes regular weekend events with open-air movies, music, dance and family-friendly entertainment at the Town Center for all its residents.

"These open air concerts and outdoor family movie nights are a hit with our family and we make it a point to take advantage of such activities whenever we can," Jafry says.

Plus, with the fourth-largest city in the country just a 30-minute drive away, Sugar Land residents have easy access to high-end shopping, sporting events and world-class performances in Houston's 17-block Theater District.

Tallying the cost of living: "The cost of living in Sugar Land is very reasonable, and I would venture to say, even competitive when compared to places like Austin, Dallas and even Houston," Jaffry says. The city and Fort Bend County in general have very competitive property tax rates, which most professionals find very attractive. 

SANTA FE, N.M.

Nicknamed "The City Different," Santa Fe's deeply embedded blend of Native American, Spanish and European culture manifests itself in the city's art, architecture and cuisine.

"It's multicultural, but those three cultures bring their own traditions and celebrations and heritage here, and it all comes together in this one place,” says Steve Lewis, a Santa Fe resident for more than 20 years.

The accepting nature of Santa Fe extends not only to different ethnicities, but also to gay and lesbian residents and visitors. The city is home to Rainbow Vision, the first community of its kind in the country for allies and LGBTQ residents.

Getting around: While most residents rely on cars to get around the city, the five historic districts that make up Santa Fe's downtown are compact and walkable, and there's also an extensive bus system and bike paths throughout the city. For the thousands of people who travel between Santa Fe and Albuquerque -- where the University of New Mexico is located -- the New Mexico Rail Runner Express has made commuting much easier. The train runs between the two cities with several stops in between.

Owning a home: Most homes in Santa Fe are built in the Southwest's signature pueblo revival style, characterized by flat roofs, large wooden beams and earthy materials. While genuine adobe homes -- made from clay, straw and water hardened into bricks and mortared together -- are well-insulated and durable, they're also labor-intensive to build and require regular maintenance. As a result, many homes in Santa Fe are "faux-dobe," or coated in stucco so they resemble abode.

Finding fun: Thanks to the city's year-round sunshine and beautiful scenery, Santa Fe is an ideal spot for outdoor recreation, from hiking to biking to golfing to skiing, to name a few. Santa Fe is also a major cultural hub and has long been known as a source of exceptional Western and regional art.

"Locals are very much art-inspired," Lewis says. "And that can be anything from traditional Spanish Colonial type art, to doing tin work or straw applique or colcha embroidery, to just being a plein air painter or doing your own jewelry."

Tallying the cost of living: Surrounded by mountains on three sides and a desert to the south, Santa Fe's location has an effect on its cost of living.

"It's not an easy place to get to," Lewis says. "Things have to travel a ways to get here -- everything from iceberg lettuce to door hardware -- so cost of living is a little higher here than in many places." But for many Santa Fe residents, the extra expense is well worth it.

"There’s a real ownership of the city that people assume when they live in Santa Fe," Lewis says. "I know this is true for almost everybody who lives here that I talk to -- you feel lucky to be here." 

SACRAMENTO, CALIF.

California's capital may be most widely known as River City, but it also goes by another nickname: America's Most Diverse City. Sacramento has large African American, Asian and Hispanic populations, which the city actively engages with cultural celebrations.

"We want to be inclusive in our city of Sacramento as the most diverse city and integrated city," says Gary Simon, a resident of the Sacramento area since 1995 and Director of Multicultural Affairs for the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. In 2001, Simon's department coordinated Sacramento's first Juneteenth Festival -- a celebration of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Simon also supports Festival de la Familia, Native American Day and other festivals that embrace Sacramento's diversity.

Getting around: According to Simon, more and more people are moving out of the suburbs to downtown Sacramento to be within walking distance of the region's best restaurants, theaters and attractions. But for suburban dwellers -- including Simon, who lives just south of downtown in the city of Elk Grove -- getting to the city center is a cinch.

"It's an easy commute from Elk Grove to downtown Sacramento. I jump on I-5, and it takes me maybe 15 minutes to get to work at the most," Simon says.

Owning a home: The movers and shakers of Sacramento are drawn to Midtown, which offers a mix of apartment buildings, condos, townhomes and old Victorians. But for those who want to avoid the bustle of downtown Sacramento, there are many desirable neighborhoods located just outside of the city center. Stonelake, the community where Simon lives in Elk Grove, is an upper-middle-class neighborhood whose residents include Asian, East Indian, African American and Caucasian families.

"That was one of the reasons we wanted to move there: It's kind of exclusive, but still a diverse neighborhood," he says.

Finding fun: For all cultures who call the Sacramento area home, abundant outdoor activities are one of the city's major attractions. Located at the confluence of the Sacramento River and the American River, the city is ideal for whitewater rafting, kayaking, boating and fishing. Plus, a central location makes Sacramento convenient to California's other great attractions.

"We're right in the middle of everything. Within an hour and a half, you can be up in Lake Tahoe or you can be down in San Francisco," Simon says. "There's a lot to do in the region."

Tallying the cost of living: Compared to San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles, Sacramento is very affordable -- a factor that constantly attracts new residents.

"We have a very reasonable cost of living, which is why we get a lot of influx of people from the Bay Area," Simon says.            

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