Immigrant-owned businesses are lauded for revitalizing urban economies (von Hoffman 2003; Portes and Zhou 1992; Marcuse 1997; Teitz 1989). These small businesses stemmed urban decline in many local neighborhoods by revitalizing vacant storefronts, providing vital products and services, and contributing to the cultural milieu of a cosmopolitan city. But while immigrant businesses have enlivened the economies of numerous local
neighborhoods, they also pose important challenges for community economic development. One of the biggest problems in immigrant neighborhoods is not joblessness but underemployment, usually driven by low wages, lack of benefits, and part-time or intermittent work (Ong and Miller 2002). A recent community survey conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund found that low wages, sweatshop conditions, and dwindling job opportunities—particularly in the garment industry—were top concerns of Asian immigrants in Manhattan Chinatown, Sunset Park, and Elmhurst (Hum 2004). While official data provide an aggregate profile of apa firms, there is little data on the operations of small immigrant businesses. A recent business survey conducted in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park—New York’s third largest Asian concentration—offers some important insights on the nature of immigrant economies.13 Almost all the Asian firms surveyed in Sunset Park were owned or managed by an immigrant, and nearly a third by an immigrant who had emigrated in the past decade. The overwhelming majority of Sunset Park businesses are small firms with five or fewer employees. The neighborhood’s Asian immigrant economy is anchored by numerous storefront businesses, restaurants and groceries, garment factories and related shops. Virtually all of the surveyed firms hired co-ethnic workers and typically drew from the local labor market as a majority of both firm owners/managers and workers are Sunset Park residents. The survey found that Sunset Park’s local labor market generates largely part-time employment that pays slightly above the minimum wage and typically does not provide health insurance, which suggests that working poverty is a prominent result of the neighborhood’s economy. Firm operations are highly dependent on informal ethnic networks and resources. Common strategies to raise capital are personal savings and borrowing from family members. Firms seldom reach out to business organizations or institutions since the most common sources of business support are newspapers, friends or relatives, and word of mouth. Drawn by its extensive consumer market businesses locate in Sunset Park for its potential for business growth and relatively affordable rents. However, these small businesses, which provide goods and services largely to an immigrant consumer base, are also highly reliant on informal sources of start-up capital and business information. They engage in informal hiring