November 1, 2013

Immigration as Urban Revitalization

By: Michael B. Katz

Michael B. Katz is a Penn IUR faculty fellow and Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts & Sciences.

Most of the abundant new literature on recent immigration concentrates on the traditional immigrant ports-of-entry and on new and emerging immigrant gateways. As in urban studies literature more generally, small and medium-sized cities remain relatively neglected. However, these cities house a significant fraction of the population and are home to huge numbers of immigrants. Indeed, in 2010 more than four of ten of the foreign-born persons in the United States lived in a municipality with a population of less than 200,000; a third lived in cities and towns of 20,000-99,000. Immigrants are transforming the economies, demographies, and spatial organization of these cities and, as a result, bringing them back to life – but bringing them back in a special way. We need to look hard and drop some of our customary assumptions to appreciate just what kind of a process immigrant-led revitalization is.

That, in a nutshell, is the hypothesis of current research I am conducting with Kenneth Ginsburg. Our intensive look at Paterson and Passaic, NJ, and Bridgeport, CT, supports our hypothesis and points to interesting and important directions for public policy. Of course, these three small cities are not the universe nor are they statistically representative of urban America. But they share a history common to many other cities: a vibrant manufacturing past resting on immigrant-dominated workforces; a precipitous economic and population decline around the middle of the twentieth century; and renewed immigrant-led population growth in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Revitalization is a term bandied about in urban studies literature but rarely defined. To us, urban revitalization consists of increases in population, commerce, occupancy, leisure/entertainment venues, services, and safety. Although these features of the revitalization process form a package, population increase comes first. The process is facilitated by a distinctive type (or types) of private agency and by sets of public/private relationships. Moreover, it plays out differently in what I term Growth and Immigrant Models.

Revitalization follows on roughly a half century of devitalization. Devitalization refers to a decrease in each of the factors listed above. Depopulation, dying downtowns, vacant stores, disappearing movie theaters and restaurants, bank closings, rising crime rates: together, these squeezed the life and vitality of older American cities. They are what revitalization has fought to turn around.

Revitalization, however, takes different forms. The form that receives most attention might be called the Growth Model. (I am painting here with a broad brush.) It is associated with the transformation of land and buildings into high-end uses and with rising real estate prices. It takes shape in new office construction; the rehabilitation of historic buildings for new commercial uses; high-end shopping, dining, and entertainment, some of which is located in faux-spontaneous funky districts serving an affluent clientele; new hotels; in apartment construction, loft conversion, and gentrification; and, in recent years, a swelling “creative class.” Private Business Improvement Districts, funded by businesses, anchor institutions, and homeowners, protect and sanitize revitalizing sectors of large cities and sometimes promote both economic development and cultural amenities. They also attempt to exclude poor people, especially those whose visible poverty tarnishes the image they hope to convey. The Growth Model contributes to the growing trend in the United States toward the economic inequality of places and of people even as it attracts population and increases tax revenue.

Revitalization through immigration is another matter. In the Growth Model the daytime population of workers in new venues is the first to increase. Residential population follows. In immigrant districts, the growth of the residential population increases first. The availability of low-cost housing, co-ethnics, and family attract new residents. In immigrant districts, commercial development serves the needs of the low-income resident population for necessities and, often, ethnic goods. Population increases the occupancy of vacant stores in shopping districts with popularly priced establishments, like dollar stores and small groceries, serving the immediate needs of residents. Inexpensive immigrant ethnic restaurants along with immigrant arts organizations, community gardens, and venues for socializing dot the landscape. Immigrant districts foster the emergence of a specialized immigrant civil society – what Stephen Castles and Mark Miller in The Age of Migration call a “meso-structure:” money-transfer agencies, auto-title and insurance brokers, specialized travel agencies, and social services which provide literacy education, housing assistance, and other immigrant integration necessities. The role of the informal economy in Growth and Immigrant Models is less clear. However, in both models, safety increases. Violent crime rates, in fact, decrease dramatically in small and medium-sized immigrant cities.

Employment connects the two models symbiotically. Growth districts depend on low-cost immigrant labor for many tasks, such as cleaning offices or working the back of restaurants. They import the workers who perform these tasks. Except for resident domestics, these low-wage workers do not live in the districts in which they work or in the gentrified areas that abut them. In immigrant cities, the overwhelming majority of workers – 70 percent to 80 percent in the cities we are studying – work outside the cities where they live. These small immigrant cities thus serve as reservations for low wage-workers who are dependent on labor markets that surround them. The better jobs within them are taken for the most part by workers who enter from other, more affluent municipalities.

One way to view these cities is as incubators. They are places to which people from afar come to settle and build lives; they incubate integration to the United States and the local labor market. They also incubate social mobility primarily among the second generation, who leave the city when they can. I use the term incubator to signify that the cities are both places of nurture and nests from which the successful leave.

There is much more that could be said about these models of urban revitalization and the research needed to fully understand them. But let me conclude with just a couple of implications for policy. First, and most obvious, is that small rustbelt cities should do everything in their power to attract immigrants. Immigrant-attraction policies should include active programs to facilitate immigrant integration. Where immigrant integration programs are too difficult or expensive for small cities, they might form alliances for this purpose. Immigrants hold out the only realistic hope of population growth and economic revival in these small and medium-sized cities. Immigrants often may be poor and the commerce and institutions they sustain unglamorous. But they contribute tax dollars, stem housing and commercial vacancy, start businesses, and bring life and vitality to formerly dead neighborhoods and downtowns. There is evidence that some cities are hearing this message. In a recent (October 6, 2013) New York Times article, reporter Julia Preston points out that Dayton, Ohio, and other “struggling cities are trying to restart growth by luring enterprising immigrants, both highly skilled workers and low wage laborers.”

Second, these small cities should stop chasing the Growth Model of development. They are not going to revive their downtowns as mini-Manhattans or Philadelphia Center Cities. They are not going to be home to large numbers of the creative class. They are not going to attract cutting-edge technology firms in significant numbers. Anchor institutions will help. But overall, for revitalization they need to accept and build on what they are and where their strengths lie. One might say that despite the absence of public policy, these immigrant cities are reinventing themselves. In fact, the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act repeal of the nationality-based immigration quotas, which sparked the current immigrant surge, may turn out, unintentionally, to have been the most effective of all federal contributions to urban revitalization. The intelligent choice for policy is to embrace this new definition of the city and work toward facilitating its development as a place where an economically modest population can find what it needs to carve out satisfying lives. This course is realistic, honorable, and, in its way, exciting.

Urban Link November 2013 (Volume 2013, Issue 9) »

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