Most diverse neighborhood in US welcomes you in Alaska

by @julia_omalley August 9, 2015 5:00AM ET

Just a walk down the street of this Anchorage suburb shows you what future of this country can look like

Race & Ethnicity
Omima Adam, formerly a civil engineer in Sudan, steps outside of her truck Sultan Shawarma in Mountain View, Alaska. In addition to shawarma, she serves homemade falafel and kebabs.
Ash Adams
The Mountain View car wash
Ash Adams for Al Jazeera America

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Sai Lee owns a Hmong grocery on the main commercial strip of the Mountain View neighborhood in Anchorage, a long way from the refugee camp in Thailand where he was born.

How did he end up in a town where snow covers the ground half the year? His parents took him, he says as he rings up fresh basil and rice noodles. They heard Anchorage had better jobs than in Merced, California, where they used to live.

“It’s easier to get a living for your family,” says Lee’s wife, Chue Her. “Less competition.”

Talk to the business owners up and down thriving Mountain View Drive and the answers are the same. At the Dominican restaurant and the Polynesian salon. At the shawarma cart and the pho shop and the Korean laundromat. In Anchorage and in this neighborhood, people see opportunity.

Mountain View is a grid of modest houses and apartment buildings, churches and small shops, bordered on one side by a state highway and on the other by an Air Force and Army joint base. The population is a little over 9,000. People don’t drive as much as they do elsewhere, instead choosing to walk and ride the bus. The neighborhood parks are full of children this time of year, their bikes lying in the grass. Asian greens crowd the community garden. On a weekend morning you can hear the sound of Lao Buddhist monks chanting on one block and African-American spirituals pouring out a church door on another.

Welcome to the future of America. Welcome, according to some sociologists, to the most diverse neighborhood in the country.

Mapping diversity

Chad Farrell, the chair of the sociology department at University of Alaska Anchorage, and colleagues at Penn State, developed a diversity index that takes into account two factors: the number of different racial groups and the size of those groups in relation to one another. The more groups, the more equally distributed, the higher the diversity rating. 

Explore a America's most diverse counties below and click to see the ethnic breakdown of each county.

For those whose impression of Anchorage and Alaska has been shaped by Sarah Palin or episodes of MTV’s “Slednecks,” then the rest of this paragraph might be unexpected. Anchorage, like many cities across the West, has undergone a dramatic demographic shift over the last 30 years. To begin with, the city had among the country’s highest proportions of Alaska Natives. Recent decades have seen rapid growth among Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders. Refugee resettlement planted the seeds of Hmong, Middle Eastern and African communities. A strong economy during the recession boosted the changes.

In Anchorage schools, where more than half the students are nonwhite, almost 100 languages are spoken, about the number spoken in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Many cities have large, rich ethnic communities, but diversity may not mean what most people think it does. Some people think of diversity as the percentage of people who are nonwhite, said Chad Farrell, the chairman of the sociology department at University of Alaska at Anchorage. Farrell and colleagues at Penn State and Cornell, looking at ways to track integration and the changing racial contours of the United States, used a diversity index that takes into account two factors: the number of racial groups and the size of those groups in relation to one another. The more groups and the more equally distributed, the higher the diversity rating.

Mountain View wound up at the top, followed by two other Anchorage neighborhoods. After those came several neighborhoods in New York City’s borough of Queens. Farrell knew Anchorage was diverse, but he wasn’t expecting it to top the chart. Mountain View has taken the diversity even further, in part, he suspects, because of affordable rentals (as low as $1,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment). It looks the way many places will as demographic shifts continue, bringing more people of different backgrounds to small towns and suburban areas.

“How we deal with diversity — both our successes and failures — really is a bellwether for how our nation deals with these types of issues,” he said.

Institutions in Anchorage still struggle to keep up with the increasingly varied needs of city residents. Courts and hospitals are constantly recruiting interpreters. In Farrell’s classes, he sees more students than ever who don’t speak English as a first language.

Kawehi Mahi-Sefo styles the hair of customer Ness Sapp at Island Style Hair Design. Mahi-Sefo, originally from Hawaii, has lived in Anchorage for 18 years.
Ash Adams for Al Jazeera America
Hmong attire and jasmine rice on sale at the New Asian Market in Mountain View.
Ash Adams for Al Jazeera America

Anderson Gomez, 16, works the counter at Latino Innovations, a shop that sells international phone cards and groceries. When payday comes, he helps hotel workers, fishermen, grocery-store meat cutters and retail shelf stockers send money to family all over the world, to Kenya and South Korea, the Philippines and Mexico. Many don’t speak English well, he said. People in Mountain View are more connected to different parts of the world than in other places, he explained. Sending money home is an expression of love and a way to counter the long distance between people.

“Where I come from, that money feeds the family. It’s really hard,” he said. “Everywhere it’s really hard.”

At Island Style Hair Design, Kawehi Mahi-Sefo specializes in doing thick, coarse Polynesian, Filipino and African-American hair. She moved her business to Mountain View to be closer to clientele. She’s originally from Hawaii, also a very diverse state. For her, it feels freer to be among people from all over the world.

“I found a place in this town that is just like home to me,” she said.

Her customers work hard to provide a better life for their kids, she said, and appreciate what they have.

Ioaue Lotu, from Samoa, comforts his grandson Lima Tapeni after the 2-year-old took a tumble on his scooter. Lotu moved from Samoa to Anchorage in 2012 for open heart surgery, and now lives with his children and grandchildren in Mountain View.
Ash Adams for Al Jazeera America

Lee and Her at the Hmong New Asian Market said that many in the Hmong community moved from California, preferring the cool Alaska summers and the natural beauty. Many Hmong families are large, and every Alaskan gets a Permanent Fund dividend, an annual payment from the state’s oil revenue investment fund. This year it is projected to be $2,000 per person.

“I believe a lot of people come here because of the PFD,” he said. “Also, the unemployment rate down south.”

Kirsten Swann, formerly a Web producer at a television station, moved to Mountain View a year and a half ago looking for an affordable place to rent. She soon began The Mountain View Post (, a blog dedicated to the neighborhood.

“It just seemed like a neighborhood that had a lot of stories that weren’t being told,” she said.

She has posted microprofiles of a Somali man headed to fish in Dutch Harbor, Hmong veterans of the Vietnam War and an 85-year-old Alaska Native elder on a park bench, dreaming of her village. The neighborhood’s diversity gets a lot of press, she said. But does it matter to the people who live there?

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really affect things as much as you might think because everybody is caught up in the business of living,” she said.

East Anchorage High, a school of 2,200 students, serves Mountain View. The principal, Sam Spinella, began his career in education in a New Jersey classroom where most students were white. At East, 80 percent of the student body is nonwhite, he said. After English, the most common languages spoken are Spanish, Hmong, Samoan, Tagalog, Somali and Yup’ik, an Alaska Native language.

Sometimes students will isolate themselves, he said, hanging out only with people like them who speak their language. But no one group ranks higher in terms of achievement or involvement at East. Classes and sports, like soccer, create inspiring cultural mixing grounds. The students don’t know any different, but there are moments, like some mornings when he walks into the common area, that he is still moved by it.

“I look out there,” he said, “and I see the world.”