Friday, February 22, 2008

The Economic Revitalization of Cities by Immigrants

Professional nativist Lou Dobbs is famous for making outlandish claims regarding immigrants. Perhaps his most famous whopper was his claim that immigrants were responsible for 7,000 cases of leprosy in the preceding three years. In fact, the actual number was 7,000 cases of leprosy in the last thirty years. As well, Dobbs stated that a third of all prisoners were “illegal aliens.” The Justice Department correctly notes that only 6% of the federal prison population are non-citizens (many of them incarcerated for immigration related offenses). What Dobbs and others of his ilk are promoting is a hate agenda that seeks to demonize immigrants – especially undocumented workers. The reason Dobbs and the nativist fringe are able to peddle such lies is that they play to the prejudices of a portion of the U.S. population. The picture of the immigrant community in the U.S. is considerably more complex and contrary to the stereotypes foisted on the public by the nativists.

Speaking from personal experience I reside in a community that is rich with immigrants and diversity. I can cross the street and buy fresh fruits and vegetables at the Korean vegetable stand. They cater to a Latin American clientele and will stock prickly pair cactus – the juicy fruit of my youth. Around the corner is a Halaal market whose proprietors are from Somalia. A Mexican Butcher shop provides some of the finest meats that I have ever tasted, no pre-packaged cellophane sterility here. Various Vietnamese markets provide all manner of great produce, fresh fish and the juiciest roast ribs and duck. A Salvadorean bakery makes wonderful corn-meal pupusas and sweet baked goods, like their famous tres leches cake (three-milk cake). My Brazilian friend has turned a dilapidated skating rink into a world-class soccer-training facility. He also operates a Brazilian restaurant where you can dine on black beans and rice with succulent meats. Our accountant is Colombian but if you wanted a Vietnamese or Eritrean accountant you could easily find one. The array of products and services that this diverse community provides is astounding. I find this smorgasbord of diversity quite wonderful.

This community was not always wonderful. A decade ago, it would have been foolish to walk alone at night. The streets were the domain of drunks, thieves, prostitutes and drug addicts. As immigrants have arrived the area has become safer and more vital economically. Where once bars, porn shops and pawn shops predominated now we have markets, computer repair stores, restaurants, video stores and cafes. Most of these businesses have been opened by recent immigrants from Asia, African and Latin America. The neighborhood has literally been revitalized by the very people so much reviled by Dobbs.

Immigrant entrepreneurs are playing a similar role in revitalizing cities around the country

There are no lepers in this community and very few of the criminals arrested are immigrants. Around the corner from me is a small store-front mosque where immigrants from the horn of Africa go to worship. They are a proud people who have seen war and devastation. In their stead they have brought safety and order to this community. They walk with their families, shop at the local markets and contribute economically to what used to be an impoverished area. The same is true of the Latin Americans and Asians who have also opened businesses and who also make this a community where kids can play and families can shop without fear of being set upon by thugs. As the immigrants have increased so the crime rate has dropped. This is now one of the safer neighborhoods in the City – much safer than areas with few if any immigrants.

Immigrant-owned businesses … run the gamut from professional services to high-growth technology companies

The nativist mind-set will not process this information as proof that immigrants are a force for good. They will retort that these immigrants – whether documented or undocumented – are stealing jobs from native-born Americans. Never mind that the immigrants have taken over dilapidated buildings and converted them into vital businesses. If the immigrant thrives he is stealing native bread. If the immigrant fails he is a drag on society. Yet none of these businesses would exist were it not for the entrepreneurial actions of the new-comers. In the nativist mind, bigotry rules and judgment and reason give way to hatred.

Lake Street was a “problem neighborhood,” known for prostitution and drug crime… “Now, everybody wants to be here”

This revitalization phenomenon is not unique to this community. In Minneapolis, a city rich with a creative class and a culture of tolerance, the south side of the City has been revitalized by immigrants. Where once blocks and blocks of abandoned buildings gave shelter to criminals, there exist vital markets, restaurants and businesses, both “ethnic” and “white.” The initial impetus for this revitalization came from Mexican immigrants who took over an abandoned building and built small businesses requiring a minimum of capital. Others saw the success of the Mexican Mercado and then African markets and International markets started to flourish. Rather than being a drain on the City, these businesses provided badly needed jobs and new sources of revenue for the City. If you want to learn more check out these sites:

Reviving South Minneapolis, by Reese Fayde (The Next American City)

The change wrought by these immigrant entrepreneurs is here described by Reese Fayde:

On a Saturday in early June, more than 10,000 Minneapolis residents celebrated the official opening of the Midtown Global Market, the centerpiece of a decade-long, $190 million, 1.2-million square foot transformation of the former Sears Tower on Lake Street in south Minneapolis.

The tower is the city’s largest building, originally built in the 1920s. It stood empty for a decade, after Sears closed its Lake Street operation in 1994. Now the Global Market, a collection of around 30 immigrant-run businesses, occupies the tower’s first floor. Luxury lofts, a corporate headquarters, and a Sheraton Hotel will sit above. In ethnic markets like the new Global Market, immigrants are playing a crucial role in the revitalization of south Minneapolis. Parts of Lake Street once bordered the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the city. Now property values in south Minneapolis are up, businesses are moving in, and the street corners are bustling with tourists and shoppers. Manny Gonzalez, owner of Manny’s Tortas—which serves gourmet Mexican sandwiches piled high with steak, onions, and jalapenos—recalls that, when he first moved to Minneapolis from Mexico City in the early 1980s, Lake Street was a “problem neighborhood,” known for prostitution and drug crime. In 1999, when he and a group of immigrant business owners formed the Mercado Central, another ethnic market in the area, rents were still cheap—around $9 per square foot for retail space. But retail rents are currently up to $15 or $16 per square foot, and he expects the price to continue to rise. “Now, everybody wants to be here,” he says.

Immigrant entrepreneurs are playing a similar role in revitalizing cities around the country. Immigrant-owned businesses still include traditional restaurants and groceries like Manny’s Tortas. But they also run the gamut from professional services to high-growth technology companies. As Mayor Michael Bloomberg quipped in recent Congressional testimony on immigration, it is “pure fantasy” to imagine life in a major city without immigrants. According to Michael Porter, chairman of the Boston-based Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, they change the face of entrepreneurship in inner cities, providing “a much-needed shot of economic vibrancy to distressed neighborhoods.” And yet few urban communities have actively sought and supported immigrant entrepreneurs as a revitalization tactic.

Minneapolis, however, is a remarkable example of a city that has not only taken steps to incubate immigrant-owned businesses, but has also taken a more holistic approach to reviving areas like the Lake Street corridor, integrating the work of private foundations and community organizations to increase public transportation, expand affordable housing options, improve public education, and expand civic engagement. While Latino immigrants have paved the way for improvements in places like Mercado Central and Plaza Verde, Hmong (Laos), Somali and Oromo (Ethiopia and, to a lesser extent, Kenya) immigrants have started their own companies, further cementing the unique economic, social and cultural role of immigrant entrepreneurs in the revitalization of Midtown Minneapolis.

Reviving South Minneapolis, by Reese Fayde (The Next American City)

In my community most of the revitalization has taken place by immigrants with little or no support from non-profits or governmental agencies. This experience is consistent with the fact that creative class cities – places of tolerance – are the ones to benefit from this immigrant revitalization. So while nativists peddle hate, good people are building communities, raising families, attending church and bringing life to once moribund areas. Immigrants have always played this role and in the mythology of our country we celebrate them. It’s time to stop the nativist claptrap and speak the reality that immigrants are a vital and positive force in our country.

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