Is Immigration a Sensible Approach to Economic Revitalization of Blighted Communities?

By: Shannon Pascal

Throughout the 1990s, Charlotte, North Carolina’s Central Avenue Business District was a community in decline. Many of the shopping centers built during the economic boom of the 1960s and 70s were abandoned, and landlords struggled to find tenants to occupy vacant apartments as residents fled to more prosperous suburbs. The 2000s signaled a reversal of fortune, however, when foreign-born immigrants began moving to the District. The new residents brought with them new businesses for the shopping centers, and new families to fill the apartments. Two decades later, Charlotte’s Central Avenue Business District is once again an economically vibrant community.

In a recently-published case study analyzing Central Avenue’s revitalization, researchers suggest that immigrant business owners have a unique set of advantages which empower them to excel in racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods like Charlotte. These advantages include: 1) foreign language skills which make foreign-born customers feel “at home” and native customers feel cosmopolitan; 2) a high degree of loyalty among co-ethnic customers; 3) the willingness of immigrant business owners to exploit their own labor; and 4) an openness to investing in economically distressed neighborhoods. Researchers also cite factors specific to Charlotte, such as extensive cooperation between business owners of all races over issues of common interest (such as crime) and a prime location along a central downtown corridor, as contributing to Central Avenue’s success.

An important result from Central Avenue’s revitalization, however, is the degree of immigrant business-owners’ government involvement. A Supervisor from the City of Charlotte described most immigrant business owners as being too interested in the day to day survival of their businesses to become politically involved. The city has made numerous attempts to reach out to immigrant business owners, but none have been successful. Researchers, meanwhile, cite linguistic, cultural, and trust-related barriers, as well as general ignorance of available programs, as driving immigrant business owners away from seeking help through government channels. In other words, immigrant business owners in Charlotte are very much “going it alone.”

Contrast the immigrant business owners’ experience in Charlotte to the heavy-handed government revitalization efforts in cities such as New York.   Immigrant business owners in Charlotte were able to revitalize the Central Avenue Business District by giving new life to long-abandoned businesses, while in New York City, the government routinely seizes privately-owned property and displaces residents under its “land use improvement” policies. Charlotte and New York City are very different cities facing very different issues, but consider the fact that more American cities resemble Charlotte than they do New York, and the social toll of heavy-handed use of eminent domain, we should look towards Charlotte and its industrious immigrant community as a model for revitalizing blighted communities in the future.

Sources:

Johana C. Schuch. & Qingfang Wang, Immigrant Businesses, Place-making, and Community Development: A Case From an Emerging Immigrant Gateway, 32 J. Cultural Geography 214 (2015).

Kate D. Derickson & Robert J.S. Ross., Asia Comes to Main Street and May Learn to Speak Spanish: Globalization in a Poor Neighborhood in Worcester, 13 J. World-Sys. Res. 179 (2008).

Matter of Kaur v. N.Y. State Urban Dev. Corp., 933 N.E.2d 721 (2010).

Matter of Goldstein v. N.Y. State Urban Dev. Corp., 921 N.E.2d 164 (2009).

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