Academics and government officials who gathered at a Miami University symposium on the fates of mid-sized industrial cities were told one reason larger U.S. cities have thrived in recent decades has been immigrants.
That same dynamic hasn’t played as large a part in the mid-sized counterparts, attendees were told.
Steven Conn, a history professor at Miami University who specializes in urban history and American cultural and intellectual history, organized the event, which happened at Miami’s Oxford and Hamilton campuses. It featured a tour of Hamilton.
Conn noted cities like New York were financially on the ropes in the 1970s.
“One of the foundations of that urban renaissance in New York; Washington, D.C.; Miami and other places like that were immigrants,” Conn said. “Those were the people who went into those neighborhoods everybody else was leaving, because the real estate was cheap, and they sort-of stabilized those places, the crime rates started to drop, they opened some small businesses, and that was the foundation upon which the hipster breweries got built, if you know what I mean.”
“So I’m a big believer myself, because I’ve seen it happen, that when immigrants show up into cities, good things start to happen,” Conn said.
And yet, he added, “We are not in a moment right now when anyone’s talking that way. And I think the political dynamic right now in some places is kind of an outright hostility to immigration, and I think that’s problematic. If not immigrants, who is going to bring in new energy, new vitality, new capital to these places?”
AlisonGoebel, who is executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center and who researches ways to improve mid-sided cities, agreed immigrants have been major helps to big cities.
“The symposium was focused on smaller (industrial) legacy cities, places that don’t have as diverse of economies as Seattle or New York,” she said. “But our nationally focused research — looking at places beyond Ohio — shows that those places that are welcoming of immigrants and refugees tend to see improvement on a whole range of indicators.
“Poverty levels decline, median household incomes improve, and an injection of new, eager people who want to become community members and employees and employers in a community often has a beneficial impact.”
She added that several mid-sized Ohio communities “are recognizing welcoming immigrants and refugees into their cities is a revitalization strategy unto itself, and are taking steps to do so.”
She named Dayton’s “Welcome Dayton” program, whose Monica Harris attended the event, Cleveland Toledo and Akron. Cities smaller than those in Ohio “have not yet embraced and made it a city hall priority, but that’s not to say that they couldn’t in the future.”
Ohio’s city of Lorain, on the other hand, historically has been a home of Puerto Ricans who have worked in steel mills, Goebel noted.
Conn said the idea for the gathering started about a year ago when two of his students, an undergraduate and a graduate student, noticed “urban history has tended to focus on the big places, so lots of books about Chicago, lots of books about Cincinnati and New York, but one of my students was doing a thesis on an aspect of Dayton history, and just not a lot of scholarly examination of these smaller places.”
And yet, “they turned out to be pretty crucial in the last election, they turn out to have a set of challenges that deserve some attention,” Conn said.
Conn decided he didn’t merely want it to be a gathering of historians, or just academics. Instead, people “who actually work in city government, or the policy world, or think-tanks of one kind or another” were included, “to see what we have to say to each other,” he said.
Goebel said that intermixing was very healthy.
“What was really exciting was the opportunity to physically be in the same room as other people who are thinking about these issues, but from a variety of perspectives,” Goebel said. “Because it’s really easy for us in the policy world to stick with other policy wonks, and academics to just stick with other academics.
“What I think was really valuable about this conversation was the sharing of ideas, research and perspectives in service of how do we help our small legacy cities be the best places that they can be and want to be?”