Bronx, NY – Fnu Sweety, a Bangladeshi immigrant, works the checkout counter of a Bangladeshi supermarket in Parkchester. When some Latinx customers approached Sweety, she gave them a shock by greeting them in Spanish, prompting the couple to ask if she spoke it.
“Un poquito,” she responded. “A little.” Sweety immigrated from her home country three years ago with limited English proficiency. Over time, her job as a cashier in the heart of the Bronx has taught her English and some Spanish. But Sweety’s not the only Bangladeshi who’s learned how to integrate into America as an immigrant.
It’s an age-old New York immigrant experience: a group settles in a neighborhood and over time the neighborhood becomes an ethnic enclave. It’s what happened with Little Italy in Manhattan, Little Odessa in south Brooklyn and now Little Bangla in Parkchester.
The vibrant Bangla community in Parkchester is anchored by more than a dozen halal restaurants, supermarkets and shops along a stretch of Starling Avenue, renamed Bangla Bazaar in 2008. For Bangla immigrants, the neighborhood brings a sense of comfort and familiarity, while for their U.S.-born children it’s beginning to be a cultural touchstone.
“Parkchester feels like the home I left in Bangladesh,” said Nasrin Ahmed, 36, who immigrated to Parkchester from Bangladesh in 2000. “Everything is available here: Bangladeshi food, Bangladeshi businesses, Bangladeshi mosques – and Bangladeshi people.”
According to the Department of City Planning, Bangladeshis are the fastest-growing immigrant group among the top 10 foreign-born groups in New York City, up 92% from 2000. This growth is in part due to the diversity visa lottery program that began in the early 90s. Now, the Bangladeshi population makes up 10% of Parkchester and its surrounding areas, replacing the area’s former predominantly Irish and Jewish communities.
Tamzidul Islam, 20, is the coordinator for the Muslim youth group at Parkchester Islamic Center, one of six mosques located around Parkchester. The youth group is a relatively new addition to the community, since most Bangladeshis who immigrated to America in the early 2000s were adults. Like many of his friends, Islam was born in Parkchester and is a child of parents who were part of the first wave of Bangladeshi immigrants to America.
“Now, most of us are 15-20 years old and we’re slowly starting to have an identity and be more active and involved,” said Islam. “But this wasn’t the case even 10 years ago.”
Islam hopes the youth group will lead the effort to get the Bangladeshi community even more assimilated and involved with their surrounding communities. While the youth are used to this idea, having been born and raised in America, their parents are a little more wary of stepping outside the community they know.
“My hope is that taking steps as the youth will hopefully lead to the rest of the community being involved,” said Islam. He plans on leading the youth to do more community service and thereby build a relationship with their non-Bangladeshi neighbors.
The mosque Islam attends was formerly Young Israel of Parkchester, a synagogue that was repurposed into a mosque in 2015 to accommodate the increasing population of Bangladeshi Muslims in Parkchester.
The growing Bangladeshi population has also supported the proliferation of Bangladeshi-owned businesses in Parkchester.
Mohammed Mujumder, First Vice Chair of Community Board 9 and a longtime resident of Parkchester says that the number of Bangladeshi businesses has grown 500% in the past decade.
On a Friday afternoon after jummah prayers, Bangla Bazaar is teeming with Bangladeshis doing their grocery shopping at the various halal supermarkets that line the street. In the stores, the shelves are well-stocked with turmeric and other spices from Bangladesh. But the shops also offer products such as Quaker oatmeal and Nutella to meet the needs of many different shoppers – including Sweety’s Latinx customers who promised they’d be back.