15 September 2008 |
I stopped by Cohen’s Hardware, on Passyunk Avenue, this morning, and while chatting with Mitch Cohen I noticed the third edition of the richly photographed magazine two.one.five. I took particular notice because the issue’s theme is immigration, its point that in the last decade the untold story of Philadelphia’s reemergence is how immigrants are adapting to and changing our city.
The percentage of foreign born, as the magazine reports, is up, to its highest level since 1950. One need only take a ride on the Route 47 bus—through pan-Asian and Mexican South Philly, through Arab-speaking, Korean, and South American Olney—to see what immigrants bring to a city. And while that bus line isn’t quite New York’s Number Seven elevated, it is still an extraordinary thing to sit cheek to jowl, and at peace, with people from every part of the globe.
To a great extent, migration defines contemporary human experience. From China to Turkey, Egypt to India, Nigeria to Ecuador, peasants are leaving fields for tin shacks at the edge of cities. It is a melancholic, and desperate, attempt to survive. Millions more leave their own countries for someone else’s; their journeys are often brutal, inhumane, incredible. The damage to families, and children especially as one or more parents leave perhaps never to return, is unsettling. In Nicaragua last month I spoke to several people who had grown up without parents (and who had turned to drugs and street crime to survive). Their parents had left to work in Costa Rica, where they were often mistreated and abused.
The Temple University urbanist Dave Bartelt once explained to me that a somewhat different path defines American cities: people are always leaving. It’s a consistent narrative. Folks leave Philadelphia just the same as they move on from New York, Denver, and Milwaukee. What matters, then, is not a city’s ability to retain residents, but rather who’s coming—and how many. Philadelphia’s challenge, then, and despite the human cost, is to capture as many migrants as it can.
Given endless global political instability, environmental degradation, and economic crisis, the global pool of migrants isn’t shrinking. But what if the U.S. takes further steps to restrict immigration? And what about the moral question? Immigrants are making our city better, livelier, and more interesting. Is the human cost worth it?
Philadelphia continues to lose population, according to census estimates; there are some 500,000 fewer people living here since the peak of 1950 and though the rate of decline has slowed (due in great measure to the increase in immigration), if it continues it will undermine even the most ambitious of Mayor Nutter’s plans.
The usual alternative to foreign immigration is domestic migration, which kept cities like Philadelphia growing in the 1930s and 40s. But this seems an unlikely source today. The U.S. is a vastly suburban nation, and despite environmental and cultural misgivings, it’s a lifestyle many people enjoy it. It’s the endgame of the American Dream.
Strong and inventive policy and planning might reverse this usual course by making cities a new frontier. Investment in transit and urban infrastructure—on a scale of ambition of China, Japan, and Europe—would make city life easier, less expensive, and more exhilarating. Gas prices of $5 or more a gallon, especially if linked to gas taxes that pay for ambitious infrastructure, might push suburbanites, now trapped in a petroleum world, into the foot and transit-fueled city.
It’s been a long time since cities have been at the center of the American narrative. As a percentage of the U.S. population, only about 7% is truly urban, the lowest proportion since 1830. It’s a population that despite the ascendancy of the Chicagoan Barack Obama holds little political sway. (Obama promises a director of national urban policy as well as an infrastructure investment fund.) But if we are to elevate city life, these difficult, long term solutions will be necessary. Sadly, they won’t produce the 100,000 or so people that Philadelphia needs, today.
My fear is that Philadelphia continues to plod along, despite reform and better planning, despite a new commitment from Washington, shrinking, and out of options. Oil remains relatively cheap, and most Americans can’t imagine living in a densely populated city, cheek to jowl with anyone.
Foreign immigrants remain a kind of magic solution, the missing piece we here in Philadelphia—the original polyglot city—have just now found again. And, as two.one.five so elegantly proves, the immigrant tale captivates us. What’s in the melting pot is the marrow in our national bones. It remains the American narrative. We ought to seize it.