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Celebrating Diversity in Shrinking Cities

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Daniel Hummel
May 16, 2020

The states and the cities that border the Great Lakes represent a post-industrial region in the United States that has been losing population for more than half a century. By the middle of the 20th century the economy began to shift along with globalization, and the economies of these states began to lag behind as they struggled to adapt to the new environment. Many cities which had become reliant upon a single industry witnessed the shuttering of those industries, cutting off thousands from the jobs that sustained them. The natural result was and is population decline. In places like Lordstown, outside Youngstown, Ohio, and Hamtramck, within the Detroit metropolitan area, this trend continues with major manufacturing plants closing in 2019.

To put this in perspective, Youngstown, Ohio lost 60% of its population between 1960 and 2010. Detroit lost 57% of its population with Flint, Michigan and Dayton, Ohio losing 48% and 46% of their populations during the same time period respectively. This means that in some cases these cities have lost more than half of their population during a 50-year time period.

As one can imagine, these cities and states have struggled with a number of problems for this reason. These issues include crime, poverty and city/state fiscal stress. In response many of these cities and states have offered tax incentives for businesses to relocate there with limited impacts. In addition, some have attempted to cut costs and restructure for a smaller population. A part of this has been demolishing derelict structures to reduce crime and increase the aesthetics of the community.

Rick Su observed that many cities emerged from decades of depopulation and decline in the 1990s because of the growth in immigration. Some of these cities reversed decades of population loss through the growth of the foreign-born population there. Even in cities that continue to shrink, the size of this loss has been abated by immigration. Su identified the linkage between immigration and urban development when he wrote, “Immigration appears to be so central to urban development in the United States that it is a wonder why immigration is not explicitly discussed as an aspect of urban policy.”

In some of these cities there has been a recognition of the great contributions of these communities. Rachel Steinhardt noted that, “In the Great Lakes region, initiatives such as Global Michigan/Global Detroit are working to revitalize the regional economy by making the area more welcoming to immigrants, international residents, foreign trade and foreign investment.” St. Louis has the St. Louis Mosaic Project and Dayton has the Welcome Dayton Plan.

Despite the recognition of these positive contributions, anti-immigrant sentiments have been rising in recent years. According to data collected by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding between 2011 and 2017, the states collectively introduced 389 anti-immigrant laws. Anti-immigrant laws included laws styled on Arizona’s SB 1070, which aimed to facilitate the deportation of undocumented immigrants. Other laws included bans on Sanctuary Cities. Similarly, anti-refugee laws were introduced 78 times across the states. Anti-refugee laws were focused on preventing the resettlement of refugees in the state. Strangely, states like Pennsylvania introduced more anti-immigrant laws than average, even though the population in Pennsylvania has consistently declined through the years while states like Michigan, another state consistently losing population, introduced more anti-refugee laws than average. On the other end of the spectrum, states like Utah, with a booming economy and population, introduced only 1 anti-immigrant law between 2011 and 2017 and no anti-refugee laws, putting it well below the average. This is as immigrants and refugees increase in a largely conservative state.

Back in Michigan, the immigrant/refugee population has contributed significantly to the revitalization of the Detroit metropolitan area. For example, in Banglatown, bordering Detroit and Hamtramck, the densest cluster of Bangladeshi-Americans can be found in the United States. The area has been bustling with projects and businesses. In recognition of this, the City of Detroit has been investing in the neighborhood with revitalized parks and residential/commercial development.

Sign Thanking Visitors to Banglatown in the Detroit Metropolitan Area (photo belongs to the author)

Shrinking cities are transforming in many ways. Many of these places have embraced and celebrated the increasing diversity there to their benefit. Interestingly, these cities already had a legacy of diversity when they were the employment hub of the country. People from all over the world immigrated there to work in the factories. The historical tapestry of these cities is evidence of this immigration. The factories are largely gone, but these cities are still places where immigrants can find a home.


Author: Dr. Hummel is an assistant professor in the Department of Philanthropy, Nonprofit Leadership and Public Affairs at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. He teaches classes on civic engagement, program evaluation and financial decision making. His email is [email protected]. You can also visit his website: www.hummel-research.com.

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