SUGAR LAND — Nikhil Sabharwal of Toronto stood outside a hotel, next to a cart piled with luggage, holding a tall stick decorated with gold garland, a bhangra dance prop from an Indian wedding he had attended here. Steps away, at a coffee shop, a woman wearing a hijab sat near the spot where, minutes earlier, Lynne Gabriel, a fashion blogger of Filipino descent, had posed for photos for her website.
All of this played out on Monday at the town square in Sugar Land, the largest city in Fort Bend County, which Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University, calls the most ethnically diverse county in America. By that, he means that this county southwest of Houston comes closer than any other county in the United States to having an equal division among the nation’s four major ethnic communities — Asian, black, Latino and white residents.
Fort Bend, home to 627,000 people, was also the fifth-fastest-growing large county in the country between 2010 and 2012, according to Forbes magazine.
“Fort Bend County is the new America,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Houston political strategist. Sugar Land, he said, has become a multicultural city — rather than a melting pot — with various ethnic communities, each maintaining its identity.
Fort Bend County was 19 percent Asian, 24 percent Hispanic, 21 percent black and 36 percent white in 2010, according to the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice.
“The statistics for Fort Bend are just remarkable,” said Klineberg, co-director of the institute. “There are very few Asians in Miami, very few Hispanics in San Francisco, very few African-Americans in Los Angeles. The greater Houston metropolitan area is where the four communities meet in greater balance.”
That area, he added, “is where we’ll see what kind of an America we’ll have, because it’s happening first in cities like Houston and counties like Fort Bend.”
Between 2000 and 2010, the county’s population surged by 65 percent, and the Asian population grew especially fast, increasing by 150 percent, according to a 2013 Kinder Institute report.
In Sugar Land, more than one-third of residents are Asian, and one-third of those are Indian, many drawn by good schools, jobs and parks, said Harish Jajoo, a city councilman originally from India who has witnessed Sugar Land’s tremendous growth since moving there in 1985. The city's Asian population also includes a large Chinese community.
Nearby Stafford is home to a Hindu temple made of more than 33,000 pieces of hand-carved Italian marble and Turkish limestone.
Some people settle in affluent Sugar Land for Houston jobs in medicine or energy, while others work in Sugar Land at businesses like Fluor, an engineering company.
On Monday in Sugar Land, Navjinder Singh stocked oil at Keemat Grocers, an Indian store that had just moved to an expanded location. Shoppers can find fresh samosas and jarred mint chutney as well as Middle Eastern and British specialties.
Singh said Kempner High School in Sugar Land, from which he graduated in 2010, was so diverse that each hallway was known for the ethnic group that congregated there between classes. Indian students hung out in the “Desi hallway,” although other students were welcome there, said Singh, who is about to begin a nurse-anesthetist university program. Kempner was named for a founder of the Imperial Sugar Company; Sugar Land is a former company town. Today, spacious brick homes are built in master-planned communities on what was once farmland.
“I’m never moving from here,” Singh, who was born in Texas to parents from India, said of Sugar Land. He said he liked that he had easy access to everything he needed, like Starbucks.
Sugar Land’s appeal goes beyond Indian markets for Samina Quddos, a Houston native and stay-at-home mother. She likes living just a few miles from her India-born parents and the fact that the city has a Cheesecake Factory and a pedestrian-friendly town square.
“They really are creating a Houston inside of Sugar Land, and that’s been nice,” Quddos said.
At 99 Ranch Market, an Asian grocery store in Sugar Land, persimmons were a bargain on Monday, and four shoppers reached for them at the same time: three women — from India, Egypt and Jamaica — and a man from the Philippines.
“This city,” Jajoo said, “welcomes everyone.”