Patrons are speaking Bengalese in one market by the corner of Fairmount and Morris avenues. Vietnamese is heard steps away at another market. Nearby are several other markets where Spanish and other languages dominate.
These many languages, heard in different corners of the city, reflect Atlantic City’s diversity. The U.S. census estimates that about 40 percent of the city’s population speaks a language other than English.
Diversity is clearly evident in the city’s schools, and even the casino work force has a mix of people from different backgrounds. That diversity extends to the small business scene, with a sizeable group of immigrant retailers who cater to customers who share a similar heritage. They say they have found success in that niche market given that they share the same language.
“Usually, people go to their own people because it’s easier to communicate,” said Mohammed Hossain, 45, the owner of the Asian-American Market at 3001 Fairmount Ave.
Hossain, a Bangladesh native, drove a taxi in Atlantic City for years before buying the market from Vietnamese owners. Initially, he wanted to operate the market as a general-purpose Asian store as a way to keep the Vietnamese regulars while attracting new Bangladeshi customers. A good business plan, it seemed, since about 1,400 people living in Atlantic City have some Vietnamese heritage and about 1,040 report a Bangladesh background, according to the 2010 census.
Hossain found, however, that he had to alter his plan to retain the Vietnamese clientele slightly due to language and other communication problems. Hossain went with what he knew and brought in more Bengali products, such as Chanachur snack mix, to appeal to his fellow countrymen.
Now, seven years after taking over the business, Hossain said he faces even more competition, including from other Bangladeshi markets in the city. So he has begun stocking more Latino and other multicultural products.
“We kind of mixed it up,” he said.
The city’s diversity also is found in the schools. In Atlantic City High School, only 61 percent of the students speak English at home; the rest speak a foreign language, according to the latest state school report card issue earlier this month.
Some schools have an even more diverse student population, such as the Sovereign Avenue School, which offers a bilingual class for every grade. In that school, only 19 percent speak English at home. The rest speak about two dozen different languages, with Spanish, Bengali and Vietnamese being the most popular.
Other languages spoken by school students include Creole, Burmese, Cantonese, Haitian Creole French and Urdu, Principal Medina Peyton said.
Many of her students come from families who immigrated to Atlantic City typically for jobs in the casinos, she said.
“The casinos have been the big drawing point for employment,” Peyton said, adding that frequently is reflected in school absences, which tend to increase during the winter months when many casino workers take vacation.
It’s hard to quantify the diversity in the casino industry work force because much of the employment data, particularly for nongaming positions, is not publicly available, officials said.
Among the 26,776 employees who must obtain state gaming credentials — such as a casino dealer — and who self-report their race or ethnic origin, about half report they belong to a minority group, according to the state Division of Gaming Enforcement.
Whites make up the largest group at 12,508, followed by 4,661 Hispanics, 4,113 blacks, 4,081 Asians, 50 Native Americans and 1,363 who listed “Other” or left the question blank, according to figures released by the division.
Many of the small-business owners in the city started in the casinos, including De Tran, 46, a Vietnamese native who worked as a dealer before leaving to buy the A.C. Produce market at 3010 Fairmount Ave.
After six years under his management, A.C. Produce is committed to carrying only Vietnamese and a few Chinese products, according to Tran, who said that strategy has worked to keep his customers loyal because they know what to expect when they visit the store.
“That way we become a popular Asian store,” Tran said.
Plus, shelf space is precious, he said.
“I have a small store. I can’t stock everything,” Tran said.
But while some businesses pride themselves on their laser focus toward serving their community, others, such as Boom supermarket, have been trying to become more inclusive. Operated by Latino owners, the supermarket has grown to embrace more cultures and carry more products, manager Margarita Rivera, 41, said.
“We have products from Colombia, Mexico; we have American products,” she said. “We have cheap prices — something for everyone.”
Rivera, who is a native of Colombia, said the goal has been to grow Boom to be an all-purpose supermarket in Atlantic City.
“Many people say there is no grocery store in Atlantic City, but that’s not true,” she said. “These doors are opened to everybody.”
Over the years, the immigrant population has changed the look of many neighborhoods. For instance, Ducktown — formerly an Italian neighborhood — now has more Latino shops.
Some customers in the Bismillah Bazaar shop near the corner of Albany and Ventnor avenues joked the city could be referred to as Bengali-town due to the growth of the Bangladeshi population.
Shop owner Nasir Uddin estimated there were 30 or so shops with a Bangladeshi owner in and around the city. He said he personally has a customer list of about 1,700 Bangladeshi people.
At the same time, the difficult economic climate has caused some people to rethink how long they will stay in the city, Uddin said. Long-term, he is unsure whether the Bangladeshi population in Atlantic City will stay put.
“It’s hard to make money,” Uddin said. “They come but they don’t have a job.”
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