Refugees Could ‘Save’ America’s Legacy Cities—Will We Let Them?

For America’s legacy cities, refugees would not only boost economies but enrich the lives of residents.

Dearborn, Detroit

Courtesy Jenna Hamed

In May of last year, David Laitin, a political science professor at Stanford University, penned a controversial op-ed in the New York Times. In “Let Syrians Settle Detroit,” he juxtaposed two unrelated yet concurrent disasters: the millions of Syrians fleeing their war-torn land, and the contraction of the once-prosperous city of Detroit, which has left thousands of buildings abandoned and lots vacant. “Suppose,” Laitan suggests, “these two social and humanitarian disasters were conjoined.”

At face value, Laitin’s proposal makes sense. Syrians need homes; Detroit needs people. Why not let Syrians “settle” Detroit? It has been proven, again and again, that immigrants—including refugees—contribute greatly to economic growth. Of the 50 largest cities in the United States, 29 had significant population decline between 1960 and 1980 (Detroit, for example, lost 28 percent of its population). Since 1980, 14 of those cities have bounced back—despite the fact that their U.S.-born population has continued to decline.

Those other 15 cities, however, have not rebounded. These are America’s so-called “legacy cities” that, while once thriving, have found themselves on the losing side of globalization. They are the cities that stand the most to gain from immigrants, refugees or otherwise. According to a recent report released from the Fiscal Policy institute, immigrants— who make up 16 percent of the labor force—own 28 percent of main street businesses, which have tremendous impact on neighborhood revitalization. And this is partly why cities such as Utica, New York, St. Louis, Missouri, and Lewiston, Maine, have all spearheaded robust refugee-resettlement programs.

But injecting a large group of newcomers into any city, as Professor Laitin suggests in his op-ed, is far from a panacea. After the article was published critiques abounded across social media, suggesting the plan was a “foot in the face” to existing residents. In one commenter’s words: “So you believe that penniless, probably non-English-speaking Arabs can revitalize a city that all the blacks in the world can’t. At least now we know what you must think about black people.”

This comment hints at the kinds of difficulties incurred in bringing refugees into legacy cities. For one, most of these cities have disadvantaged low-income communities and people of color for decades. Any development strategy must not only consider immigrants, but also deep racial divides, and provide for those long-term residents who have suffered most through the city’s darkest days.

What’s more, and as the current political climate has made abundantly clear, a fear of the “other” is alive and well throughout American society. The state of Texas recently threatened to withdraw from the refugee-resettlement system entirely, out of “security concerns.” And legacy cities—thanks to their economic plight and lack of diversity—are primed to be most susceptible to fear-mongering.

The only way to combat this fear and, indeed, integrate refugees so both they and long-term residents benefit, is to reframe the narrative surrounding refugees. And, if that truly is the case, then design will have a pivotal role to play.

Partners, Not Parasites

In 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) approached Don Weinreich and Eliza Montgomery, two architects at the New York–based firm Ennead Architects, to help them design a camp for Congolese refugees in Rwanda. The pair had been researching the topic of refugee resettlement for the better part of a year, and had established a vital theoretical framework. Weinreich explains: “It’s about changing this proposition that refugees are people who need charity, as opposed to people who should be your partners, for both their and your own betterment.”

This simple pivot in perception—from parasite and host to agent and partner—has tremendous spatial consequences. Rather than locating camps in isolated and empty tracts of land, Weinreich and Montgomery advocate placing camps adjacent to existing urban fabrics, so both refugees and existing communities benefit. To take a simple example, if both communities require a hospital, the architects determine how to best position the building so it is equitably accessible. This way, even if refugees do leave in a few months’ time, the hospital will continue to serve the host community. The nodes are, according to Weinreich, what allow settlements to subvert the “disaster of the conventional camp … What design can do is work towards dissolving borders between the familiar and the other.”  

Courtesy Ennead Architects

It’s important to remember, of course, that despite public perception, most refugees do not live in camps. The UNHCR reports that about 60 percent of the world’s 21.3 million refugees live in cities. ​With the surge of global conflict and natural disasters related to climate change, it is all too likely these numbers will grow. As the struggle to accommodate Syrian refugees in Europe and the Middle East has proven, most cities are woefully unprepared.

But Weinreich and Montgomery’s work offers a potential way forward. After all, shared resources and mutually beneficial connection points? This is the very stuff that cities are made of. That begs the question: What would it look like if this framework were applied, not just to the refugee camps of Rwanda or Jordan, but to American cities, like St. Louis, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Detroit?

A Detroit Tale

The play had finished, but the dialogue had just begun.

In a makeshift theater off Detroit’s Livernois Avenue, the main corridor of a traditionally African American neighborhood, A Detroit Carol had just had its world premiere. The play, written by local playwrights for Detroit Design Festival, told the tale of a grumpy long-time Detroiter, unwilling to accept the changes—both good and bad—that were happening to his city.

No sooner had the final scene finished, the director, a Detroit-born son returned to his city after years in New York and L.A., hopped on stage and asked the audience if the play had resonated. One by one, residents began to voice their feelings. There was a palpable excitement humming in the air. At long last, Detroit seemed to be turning around. But there was trepidation too.

“I’m tired of people saying we have to save Detroit. We don’t have to save Detroit. What you see on TV, that’s not all Detroit, all the time. We don’t need to bring Chicago here or bring Brooklyn here. We just need to embrace what it is, and embellish what we have.”

The city of Detroit is on a precipice. After years of decline, neighborhoods are beginning to show signs of revival—the downtown is already flush with investment from private developers, the local art and design communities are flourishing, and newcomers arrive every day. However, the realities of the city’s challenges are hard to escape—particularly as they are so embedded in the hardscape of its built environment. Rarely can one walk anywhere: A ten-minute drive in the car can easily be an hour’s walk on hostile sidewalks. Highways criss-cross the city, segregating neighborhoods, often along racial lines.

The spatial problems are so severe that 21 American architects chose to dedicate themselves entirely to the topic at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Each of the U.S. pavilion’s 12 teams was assigned a distinct swath of the city and told to reimagine it.

The founding partners of Zago ArchitectureAndrew Zago and Laura Bouwman, both Detroit natives, were assigned an area in northeast Eastern Market, a neighborhood currently being activated with hip cafés, printmaking shops, and vintage stores, not too far from downtown. The site’s location made it ideal for the pair’s vision: a grand project, on the scale of the New Deal projects of yore. As Zago explains, “A million [grassroots] interventions don’t turn around a million people leaving, and no tax base, and no infrastructure …To help people who are there already, you have to bring in more people.”

Zago and Bouwman’s proposal, called “A New Federal Project,” calls for Detroit to settle 68,000 Syrian refugees, 10 percent of Detroit’s current population, in nine years’ time. If the idea sounds similar to Laitin’s proposal in the New York Times, it is—the professor consulted on the plan. In a letter addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry, the pair request significant federal funds—enough to construct a complex of federal and public/private buildings that would “serve this new population in the short term” and “the people of Detroit for decades to come.” A building that would begin life as a welcoming center and would transition over time into a library and educational center, one that could provide language classes to refugees and job-training classes for Detroiters.

Courtesy Zago Architecture

The architects also propose taking an area northeast of their site, an area of “high vacancy,” according to the Detroit Future City planning document, and constructing 3,740 houses and duplexes on vacant lots. “As the refugees become naturalized and move to other parts of the city or country,” the architects’ plan cites, “the mix of subsidized and market-rate units opens up to all of Detroit.”

While the plan suffers from its unrealistic ambitions and timeline, the strengths of “A New Federal Project” lie in recognizing the overarching challenges facing Detroit—i.e., filling vacant lots and providing affordable housing—and considering design solutions that will benefit all Detroiters. This idea is crucial—and speaks to design’s most fundamental role in easing the integration of refugees into urban centers. Where difference can peacefully and productively coexist, then borders can, potentially, be dissolved.

Bringing the Border Into the City

“There’s a song I always say to myself.” Nadin Yousef, an Iraqi refugee who lives in Buffalo, New York, begins speak-singing unabashedly: “I’m a survivor, I’m gonna make it.” She chuckles. “You know that song? I always tell myself that.”

Yousef is undeniably a survivor. After fleeing her home country of Iraq in 2006 with her husband, and four children, waiting in Syria for six years, and then waiting two more in Turkey, she was finally resettled in 2014. Two months later, she was offered a booth at the West Side Bazaar, an incubator that allows refugees and immigrants to become small business owners. She’s been working there since February of last year.

“People sometimes think that because we are refugees, we are poor and we need help. We need help, but not money,” Yousef explains. “If I need money, I could stay home and get welfare—but we like to work. It’s about feeling proud.”

Not only has the bazaar given Yousef the chance to make a living she can be proud of, but it also lets her practice her English with locals. “It’s very funny and very, how can I say … beautiful,” she says. “And the customers, they’re always very excited, because they visit all the world in the same place. They like that very much. Each booth is a different country.” Located in an economically depressed neighborhood that has been home to various immigrant groups over the years, the bazaar is one of those few places that brings old residents and new together—all while spurring the local economy.

In fact, most security concerns around refugees are, frankly, ill-founded. A refugee is admitted into this country for humanitarian reasons—because, in the U.S.’s estimation, they have suffered or been persecuted unjustly in their home countries. Before ever arriving on American soil, they go through a vetting process (including multiple background checks and security screenings conducted by the Department of Homeland Security). Should they pass muster, a resettlement agency locates the refugee somewhere in the U.S. That agency offers social services for 90 days. After that period is over, the refugee essentially becomes like any other immigrant in the U.S., facing the challenges of acquiring English, finding a job, paying rent, and building a new life on his or her own.

Those who argue that there are inherent risks involved in welcoming refugees to the U.S. often point to Europe, where home-grown extremism has grown in the enclaves of low-income, suburban neighborhoods. Of course, for multiple reasons, the last thing the U.S. would want is to isolate foreign-born immigrants into their own “ghettos.” However, the reality is that when immigrants arrive to the U.S., especially at first, they seek out neighborhoods—like Buffalo’s West Side—where they can find kin and family, foods they know, and books in their native tongue.

Housing stock in Buffalo

Courtesy Erkin Özay

Erkin Özay, a professor of architecture at the University of Buffalo, who recently led a class on refugee integration, believes the role of the designer is to figure out how refugees can maintain those supportive relationships in a way that’s “positive and porous” rather than hermetic. Özay points to the importance of  “spaces of encounter,” like the West Side Bazaar, that also serve as points of intervention—not just allowing refugees and residents to intermingle, but to positively intervene in the city’s built environment. These spaces can vary, he says, from more formal environments, such as schools or places of work, to more informal spaces of interaction—like community gardens and farmer’s markets.

These spaces, which often require less intensive investment, are particularly important within the context of legacy cities, which work within tremendously constrained financial circumstances. Bootstrapped cities can also program existing spaces to create important, if temporary, “social border conditions,” in Özay’s words.

Where these points exist is just as important as the fact that they exist at all. For their final project, a group of Özay’s students actually suggested redeveloping buildings around an old industrial freight line, which connects about 10 to 20 industrial warehouses around the edge of the city. If each of these warehouses became refugee housing, the students suggested, you could get the benefits of a supportive network, without incurring the detrimental impact of a spatial enclave. In other words, there would a “short-axis” of continuous contact with the refugee community while, at the same time, a “long-axis” of connection with the city at large.

But the only way to determine where and what these spaces should be is to ask community members themselves.

America’s Moment

The son of a naturalized Slovenian immigrant who could recite the Declaration of Independence from memory, former city councilman Joe Cimperman now runs Global Cleveland, a nonprofit organization that aims to attract immigrants and, as its website puts it, “strengthen the economic vitality and social fabric of our region.” Cimperman believes in this mission wholeheartedly. For about a year, he has been leading a plan known as the Dream Neighborhood, a land-use concept that aims to court refugees and revitalize the city’s troubled West Side, specifically in an area surrounding the Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy, a high school oriented towards international, non-English speaking learners. The plan was met, at least initially, with skepticism. “We had almost a dozen community meetings,” Cimperman recalled. “They started out really intensely, like, ‘Why do you want to move Osama bin Laden’s cousin next door to me?’ To the conversation in the end, which was, ‘Why haven’t you done this before?’”

Cimperman cites multiple factors for Cleveland citizens’ change of heart around the Dream Neighborhood. First of all, he reiterates the point, again and again, that Cleveland is a city built by immigrants, and thus has immigration in its “DNA.” Second of all, the program, although in its early stages, is working: Private developers have begun taking those salvageable homes out of the city’s Land Bank, rehabbing them, and putting them into refugee families’ hands. Each newly inhabited home has a ripple effect across the city, improving not just the neighborhood but putting more tax dollars into the city’s coffers. Finally, the location of the neighborhood, anchored by the school, has some significant advantages. Not only is it walkable, but it has the highest number of community gardens in the city, where local residents and newcomers intermingle.

This, Cimperman, cites has been one of the most important elements in the Dream Neighborhood’s acceptance. “It’s hard to hate people you know.”

One could easily argue that the U.S. has a moral imperative to do much more in response to the refugee crisis. This year, the U.S. accepted about 12,500 Syrians. Canada accepted over 25,000. Last year, Germany accepted 890,000. Lebanon, more than a million. However, the political reality, no matter how many more refugees President Obama calls on this nation to accept, is that the U.S. will continue to accept refugees in the tens of thousands.

This affords us a tremendous opportunity. We can decide how many refugees arrive and where they are located. We can encourage local communities to spearhead the change and scale up, slowly, over time. We can even integrate refugees in such a way that we overcome the original sins of our legacy cities, and potentially bring them, once again, to states of prosperity and growth—not just for some, but for all.

And we know it’s possible, because it’s already happening. Cleveland accepted 750 refugees in 2014; it was assigned 1,100 for 2016. According to Cimperman, it’s likely they will surpass that number by the end of the year because local citizens are asking for more. Refugees have already become neighbors, colleagues, friends. “This to me is the most exciting part about the time that we’re in right now,” Cimperman says, passionately, “because as tragic and preventable as the refugee crisis is across the world, this is a moment in time for America to be America and for Cleveland to be Cleveland in ways that we’ve never seen in our generation.

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