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Immigration and Gentrification

Are our romantic attachments to place to blame for fear of brain drain from, immigration to, and gentrification of our cities?
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Jane Jacobs, then chairperson of a civic group in Greenwich Village, at a press conference in 1961. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Jane Jacobs, then chairperson of a civic group in Greenwich Village, at a press conference in 1961. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Anxiety about brain drain, gentrification, and immigration are all cut from the same cloth. For the jihad against brain drain, local talent is better than talent groomed elsewhere. For the protesters against gentrification, newcomers destroy the soul of a neighborhood. For those fretting about foreigners, immigration is an existential threat:

There has recently been built in Merton in south London a ‘mega mosque’ that has inevitably become the focus of much controversy. In his book The British Dream, David Goodhart takes the mosque as symbolic of the unacceptable change that immigration has wrought upon the nation. The mosque, he writes, ‘replaced an Express Dairies bottling plant which provided a few hundred jobs for local people and lots of milk bottles — an icon of an earlier, more homogenised age’.

There was, in fact, a seven-year gap between the closing of the dairy in 1992 and building work beginning on the mosque. In those seven years the abandoned dairy was, according to local accounts, turned into a crack den. So, one story we could tell is that of economic forces closing down an unprofitable dairy, with the loss of a several hundred jobs, and of local Muslims subsequently rescuing the abandoned, crime-infested site, creating new jobs and in the process transforming Merton for the better. Critics of immigration want, however, to tell a different story. The mosque, in their eyes, is symbolic not of the rescue of a site from abandonment and crime, but of the original closure of the dairy and of the transformation of Merton’s old way of life.

The story of the Merton mosque, and the retelling of that story as a narrative of cultural loss, gets to the heart of the contemporary debate about immigration. Immigration is clearly one of the most fiercely-debated and toxic issues of today. The debate is, however, less about the facts than about the existential impact. Immigration has become symbolic of the disruption of communities, the undermining of identities, the fraying of the sense of belongingness, the promotion of unacceptable change. For Goodhart, ‘Large-scale immigration’ has created ‘an England that is increasingly full of mysterious and unfamiliar worlds’. He quotes one man from Merton: ‘We’ve lost this place to other cultures. It’s not English any more.’

Emphasis added. This England is dead. The mosque displaces mother's milk. Cultures clash over space and place. "Disruption of communities" applies equally well to fear of brain drain, gentrification, and immigrants.

At the heart of the matter are romantic attachments to place, usually fixed in some golden era with plenty of soft lighting. A rural landscape is the essence of a nation. For the urbane, we have Saint Jane Jacobs:

This stupid joke is getting at something very deep and disturbing: All New Yorkers are gentrifiers. Say you're of Jewish extraction: your forebears gentrified some Irish right out of L.E.S. around the turn of the century. Or maybe you're Irish, and your ancestors were responsible for gentrifying the marginal land around the Collect Pond in Five Points. Or maybe your family goes all the way back to New Amsterdam and Peter Minuit, the original gentrifier, who gentrified the poor Native Americans right off Manhattan island. No New Yorker, no matter how long their tenure, has the right to point fingers and say to anyone else "the problem started when you arrived here."

That doesn't mean they won't try. When Jane Jacobs saw rich kids moving into her patch of the West Village in the 60s, she wrote:

The high-rent tenants, most of whom are so transient we cannot even keep track of their faces, have not the remotest idea of who takes care of their street, or how. A city neighborhood can absorb and protect a substantial number of these birds of passage, as our neighborhood does. But if and when the neighborhood finally becomes them, they will gradually find the streets less secure, they will be vaguely mystified about it, and if things get bad enough they will drift away to another neighborhood which is mysteriously safer.

But Jane Jacobs wasn't a native New Yorker—she'd lived in the city for about 25 years when she wrote that. And she left a few years later for Toronto, where she lived for the rest of her life. Now Jane Jacobs was a very wise woman, and we owe her a great debt for encouraging the school of humane urbanism that has shaped the city for the last 25 years. She was right to point out the essential restlessness of gentrification, and warn us about the monoculture that can result from uncontrolled redevelopment. But the idea that any version of the city, even one as quaint as the 1960s West Village, is the "true New York", and that everyone who comes after you is a destructive transient— well, that's fundamentally unzen.

Emphasis added in boldface. Ah yes, the true New York. The true England. The true America. Jane Jacobs planted her flag in 1960s West Village and claimed her turf. Those in the next wave were evil gentrifiers disrupting the sidewalk ballet.

All migrants are gentrifiers. The Great Migration didn't land in urban Chicago greenfields. The influx wrecked neighborhoods, displacing thousands. The greatest riot in American history pitted Irish immigrants against African Americans over the hysteria about freed slaves streaming into New York City. As Saint Jane lamented, "so transient we cannot even keep track of their faces, have not the remotest idea of who takes care of their street, or how." We've lost this place to other cultures. It isn't cool anymore.