“Detroit needs people,” my friend stated over dinner the other night after we strolled through the hustling Manhattan’s streets. “They have so many gorgeous but empty buildings.” She continued with excitement in her voice, “Maybe it’s a crazy idea but how about inviting all those immigrants to come? They could fix up the empty buildings in exchange for housing and voiláaa! More people will come!”
Crazy idea, indeed. After all, isn’t it crazy to think about adding more people to an area where there seems to be an overwhelming scarcity of jobs and resources? But I wonder if some wisdom may be found in this thinking. A shrewd politician like Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York has suggested that immigrants are the solution to Detroit’s population loss and hold the promise to economic prosperity.
You may judge from his city’s own experience. You can see them anywhere. Street vendors’ skin color and dress reveal past lives in Pakistan or Ghana. Taxi drivers’ accents transport you to Mexico, Ukraine, or Libya. And the lady behind the Macy’s perfume stand talks about her beautiful Tel Aviv. You may think the cliché that America was built by immigrants is just a thing of the past. But cities like New York, or Chicago, or San Francisco, are telling us something else.
It could be a wild idea, indeed. But then, you look at our own neighborhoods. You cannot miss the mosaic of languages, dresses and faces in communities just a stone’s throw from ghost-like downtown Detroit.
Buoyed by Latinos—the only ethnic group exhibiting growth in the City of Detroit in the last decade—you find an endless corridor flanked by vibrant mom and pop businesses in Mexicantown.
American, Canadian and Mexican flags, next to each other, welcoming customers in virtually every shop.
Or, you need to travel only a short distance to the east and hear the Polish, Arab, Albanian and Bangladeshis talking to their children in their shops in historic Hamtramck.
And Dearborn, a city that went through its own decay in the 1970s and experienced a revival thanks to Arab immigrants, is one of few communities in the Detroit area that had population growth in recent years, mainly from Asians, according to the 2010 Census.
Another finding is a growing migration into these neighborhoods from people of all ethnicities – whites, blacks, and other minorities – creating a greater diversity of cultures.
Maybe the savvy Bloomberg is onto something.
Not only do these neighborhoods seem to be reversing a long-time trend of increasing segregation in this region but these immigrant enclaves seem to have something different going on. According to Kurt Metzger of Data Driven Detroit, certain communities with foreign born populations are withstanding the economic recession better than others.
Numerous studies have reported the high entrepreneurial activity prevalent in immigrant-led areas all over the nation. My own experience of 30 years with immigrants and refugees in various US cities is loaded with stories of microbusiness activity, families working as a unit to pool earnings from whatever jobs they can find, never turning down a task considered below the training or status they may have enjoyed back in their home country.
Immigrants start everything from scratch. Like the African-American and other migrant communities that came to Detroit in earlier decades, they typically arrive with very little or no material resources at all. But they arrive bearing a “frontier-like” state of mind, or a survivor spirit, that welcome any opportunity that allows them to dream.
So, you may wonder, where did the resources come from that built neighborhoods like Mexicantown or Dearborn? To me, there is no mystery about this: the source of vibrancy and vitality in these communities is grass-roots persistence and perseverance. Emerson’s “Self Reliance” would have added a chapter about these people. Like immigrants of the past, newcomers relied on each other. The concept of solidarity is not foreign to them. Families pool their savings, form lending circles, and help each other to start a business or buy a home.
Little by little. Patiently.
My friend’s idea about bringing more immigrants to Detroit may be a crazy idea.
But who knows?
Maybe a crazy invitation to immigrants to come help us dream and rebuild Detroit’s future is what we need.