Indians in New York City Businesses
by Madhulika S. Khandelwal

This brief analysis discusses basic patterns found in the growth of Indian businesses in New York City. In the past several decades the expansion of the Indian immigrant population has been accompanied by changes in the Indian business community. From a handful of Indian businesses in the 1960s, it expanded into an activity which combined businesses serving primarily Indian customers (ethnic) and those catering to a general population (mainstream). In many respects, the Indian immigrant experience is shared by other South Asians. However, this article is limited to immigrants from India (as distinguished from a larger population of overseas Indians who also arrived in the U.S. from other countries).

Before the large waves of Indian immigration to the U.S. in the late 1960s, Indian business activity in New York was quite limited. Indian merchants were scattered and usually integrated in mainstream society, and dealt in business such as import and export firms. Few shops specialized in ethnic goods. Some operations such as restaurants grew out of the needs and informal networks of the small Indian population of students, professionals, and then residing in New York City. This group's familiarity with English and with Western ways before migrating made it easier to pursue friendships with other people. They could be seen together at Indian cultural activities and shopping in stores selling Indian articles. In fact, one of the places most frequented for Indian foods and clothing was a store called Kalustiyan, which was owned by an Armenian. Most of these activities centered in Manhattan where this early group of Indians lived.

The continuous waves of Indian immigrants since the 1960s transformed the size and nature of Indian businesses. First, the number of businesses increased sharply. Clusters of stores grew in places that earlier had only one or two stores. Many Indian stores now flourish around 28th and 29th Streets on Lexington Avenue, where once Kalustiyan was the only store.

Second, Indians began businesses catering to the expanding Indian population. Life insurance and travel agencies emerged. Often, Indian professionals started their own businesses instead of working for an established firm. In this way, the first signs of occupational diversification among Indian professionals may be seen.

In the following years, the size of the Indian population increased, and Indians moved into a variety of businesses. Today they can be found as diamond merchants, and as owners of motels, garment business, candy and newspaper stores, and electronics and appliance shops, as well as running newsstands and gas stations. While some operations are spread throughout the city, others are located in specific areas such as the Garment District (between 30th and 40th Streets around Broadway), and the Diamond District (between 46th and 49th Streets and 5th and 6th Avenues). Indian jewelers cut more than 43 percent of the US. retail trade in small polished diamonds. A cluster of Indian-owned businesses dealing in electronics is located on Canal Street, and many Indian restaurants are on 6th Street in Manhattan.

Ethnic Indian businesses have emerged in areas near concentrations of Indians. The most noticeable increase of such businesses has occurred in Queens, where Indians began to settle in the 1970s and the 1980s. A prominent area is around 74th Street in Jackson Heights, which now attracts thousands of Indians every week from the tri-state area, the rest of the country, and the world. The opening in 1976 of Sam and Rai, the first store on 74th Street, initiated a gradual but continuous growth of new ethnic businesses. In 1990, this area included about 70 establishments--restaurants and stores dealing in groceries, clothing, jewelry, and electronics and appliances. These stores often carry different combinations of Indian dresses, groceries, recorded music, and electronics. Thus it is common for a store which deals mainly in Indian clothing to sell suitcases and carry-on bags for frequent travelers. An Indian grocery store will also stock Indian videos and cassettes.

Smaller business areas have emerged in Queens, such as on Main Street in Flushing and around Broadway in Elmhurst. IndoCaribbean stores have appeared in Jamaica, Richmond Hill, and in Brooklyn, where sizable numbers of Indian immigrants from Guyana and Trinidad live. Whereas ethnic businesses in Manhattan such as Indian restaurants serve a mixed population, stores in Queens cater primarily to Indian customers.

The increase of ethnic Indian stores and the visibility of Indians in other city businesses have led to the creation of Indians immigrant networks. Ethnic Indian stores serve as important places where information about cultural events and resources is available. Like many other ethnic groups, Indians have used their kin and family relationships to create opportunities for themselves in businesses. Ethnic links among South Asians helped them in establishing and running a large number of New York City newsstands. Some Indian families own and operate chains of motels all over the United States. Strong kin relations are similarly evident among Indian diamond dealers in New York City, most of whom come from one region of India.

Indian businesses also play an important role in the rediscovering and reshaping of immigrant ethnic identities. Primarily to attract more business, many Indian ethnic stores appeal to customers from not only different regions of India, but also from different South Asian countries. These store signs often include the terms "Indo-Pak" or "Indo-Pak-Bangla," and carry foods and audio and video cassettes which are popular with Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and other South Asians.

Some Indian businesses have organized themselves to deal with local situations. Several years ago, Indian and other South Asian merchants from 74th Street in Jackson Heights formed an association to respond to civic issues in their area. During the Daily News strike, Indian newsstand owners were among the many groups that were affected. They organized themselves to deal more effectively with the situation.

These activities of forming identities and creating networks and alliances, whether in ethnic or mainstream settings, highlight the adaptation process of Indian immigrants living in the U.S.

Madhulika S. Khandelwal is an historian and Staff Researcher at the Asian/American Center.

April, 1991