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Come Live Here! Attracting Immigrants to the Rust Belt

17 January 2011 7 Comments

Editor’s note: Attracting new immigrants is key for every Rust Belt city if they are to reverse decades of population decline. In this post, contributor Lewis Lehe examines why Pittsburgh has had a hard time attracting Hispanic newcomers. (If you enjoy this piece, make sure to check out Lehe’s last contribution to Rust Wire, these videos that explain congestion pricing.)-KG

Pittsburgh’s population has shrunk over the last decade, falling by 24,000 persons between 2000 and 2008. In the 2009 Democratic primary race for mayor, Councilman Patrick Dowd even made reversing population decline a signature issue of his campaign, (as you can see in this video).

We can get by without steel mills, but new residents are sorely needed to support the legacy costs of public servants employed when Pittsburgh had double the public to serve.

While Pittsburgh’s population dips, the U.S. Hispanic demographic drives American population growth and is projected to triple by 2050. Immigration accounts for recent trends, but projections also depend on higher Hispanic birth rates.

Last month, Bloomberg reported:

”Hispanic birth rates climbed 27 percent from 1990 through 2010, according to a Bloomberg analysis of yesterday’s Census Bureau estimates. That compares with a 7.5 percent decline in the birth rate of the overall population and an 8.3 percent decline for blacks.”

This could mean that Hispanic inflows to an area are also a good guarantee of future population growth. Already, Hispanics have transfused fresh blood into vacated corners of cities far from the Mexican border. In Birmingham, Alabama—the steel town where I grew up—a medley of Mexicans, Panamanians, and other recent arrivals peppered one stretch of blight with specialty groceries and flashy night clubs.

The University of Pittsburgh boasts a world-famous Center for Latin American Studies, so it always struck me as odd that Pitt students have to study abroad to actually meet Latin Americans. Pittsburgh slept through the last decade’s wave of Hispanic immigration like a drunk at a quinceanera. Of course, Pittsburgh won’t mirror El Paso, but even relative to nearby Rustbelt cities, the Steel City’s Latin flavor is pretty mild.

City Population Hispanic Pop Hispanic Share (%)
Pittsburgh 313,118 6,788 2.2
Erie 103,516 5,151 5.0
Cleveland 439,013 38,252 8.7
Buffalo 273,335 22,377 8.2
Toledo 316,725 20,399 6.4

(Source: American Community Survey 2009)

Compounding the sense of vacancy, Pittsburgh’s Hispanics don’t cluster in a neighborhood but rather occupy small pockets in Beechview, Brookline, Oakland, and the South Side. Saul Guerrero, owner of La Jimenez Mexican grocery stores in Beechview and Oakland, said most of his customers travel from surrounding counties.

It’s hard to say the City of Champions hasn’t made a good hustle, though. For a city with such a small Hispanic population, Pittsburgh hosts a large number of Hispanic organizations, including the Latin American Cultural Union, Pittsburgh Hispanic Center, Hispanic Family Center, Colombia in Pittsburgh, Salud Para los Ninos, Pittsburgh Hispanic Catholic Community, Pittsburgh Venezuelan Association, and Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The Hispanic Center, in fact, was founded with the goal of bringing Hispanics to Pittsburgh. (This 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article chronicles some of the Hispanic Center’s challenges.)

The welcome mat is certainly welcome, but for many Hispanics an area’s strongest draw isn’t marketing so much as the presence of fellow countrymen. As part of my exhaustive research process for this post, I drank two pitchers of Yuengling with Cesar—a restaurant worker and occasional yard man—who has never been anywhere else in the United States except for Pittsburgh. He moved here directly from Mexico, because he knew someone who lived here. Hence, Pittsburgh faces a chicken-and-egg dilemma: you need Hispanics to attract Hispanics.

Plentiful jobs can ignite an upward cycle of immigration and growth, and Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate has stayed nearly 2% below the national average. But western PA lacks the poultry processing, endless suburban construction, and seasonal farm employment that often occupy Hispanic hands. The region’s flagship industries are health care, education and finance—not exactly promising lines of work for someone buttoning down a shaky grasp of English. Today’s trickle of Hispanic labor might continue to satiate the city’s restaurant, housekeeping, and landscaping industries.

I would like to believe Hispanics could reverse Pittsburgh’s population loss—partly because I like Latin cultures, but mainly because I like Pittsburgh. The evidence, however, suggests only slow growth in the Hispanic population. We can say gracias for what we have, though. The four Mexicans I interviewed for this piece all emphatically described Pittsburgh as refreshingly tranquilo. Samantha Guerrero commented, “One of the best things that can happen is that the [Hispanic] community remains scattered,” because exclusively-Hispanic neighborhoods can foster gangs and allow immigrants to procrastinate learning English.”

-Lewis Lehe

  • Sean Posey

    Pittsburgh has failed to tap into the possibilities present in its African American population, which makes up twenty seven percent of the overall population. The black population of the city actually rose six percent between 2000 and 2005. It would seem that developing their potential is the right place to start.

  • nick

    valley ave represent!

  • Anonymous

    Interesting article. FYI, the Hispanic Center closed last year due to lack of funding.

  • http://motowntotreetown.wordpress.com Andy

    ‘(W)estern PA lacks the poultry processing, endless suburban construction, and seasonal farm employment that often occupy Hispanic hands. The region’s flagship industries are health care, education and finance—not exactly promising lines of work for someone buttoning down a shaky grasp of English. Today’s trickle of Hispanic labor might continue to satiate the city’s restaurant, housekeeping, and landscaping industries.’

    I agree with you that recruiting and welcoming immigrants is a great way to help staunch our population loss, but I don’t think cultivating low-wage, low-skill industries is at all a good idea. I’d take health care, education and finance as my region’s core strengths over ‘endless suburban construction’ and poultry processing any day — and I like to think Latino immigrants are capable of excelling at more than slaughtering chickens, picking fruit and building tract homes.

  • Lewis

    Andy,
    Yeah I agree that cultivating low-wage industries should not be a priority. Of course, nor should these industries be discouraged from locating here.
    I’m just pointing out that it’s unlikely Pittsburgh will bring many Hispanic immigrants without these industries. I conclude we will just have to make do without many Hispanic immigrants.

  • Pete from Baltimore

    I would have to respectfully disagree with the authors premise. i think that he has confused cause with effect.

    For example the city that i live in,Baltimore, has a fairly small sized population of immigrants. Nearby Washington DC has a large population of immigrants.Latino,African ,European, you name it.

    The Washington DC area is a much wealthier area then the Baltimore area.Is it because it has more immigrants? Im guessing that its the opposite.Dc has more immigrants because it has more jobs then Baltimore.And its wages are much higher.

    I dont have a car. And i actually sometimes ride my bicycle 65 miles to Northern Virginia to stay at a motel and work for a guy down there for a few weeks as a construction laborer. Even after the the price of the motel, i still make more then i would in Baltimore.the wages are twice as high.

    Im generally in favor of immigration.But its not the solution to the problems of rustbelt cities. Immigrants are just like anyone else. They want to live somewhere where there are jobs that pay well.and they want to live in safe neighborhoods with good schools.

    I cant speak for other cities.But in the Baltimore and DC areas the latino immigrants dont live in the poorest neighborhoods.They generally move into blue collar white neighborhoods that have fallen o hard times and are cheap to live in. They tend to pick neighborhoods that are cheap in rent, but are also close to richer areas that are full of jobs.Langly Park MD is a perfect example. Its right outside the Montgomery County MD border.Its cheap.But close to the jobs in Montgomery County

    This also leads to confusion about “cause and effect”. Some people think that latino immgrants caused these neighborhoods to decay.the sad fact is that the neighborhoods generally were decaying before the immigrants moved in.and that the immigrants revitalised the area.

    So immigrants CAN revitalise an area.But there have to be good paying jobs nearby.

    to put it bluntly, if a city wants to attract immigrants, it has to do the kind of things that attract black and white Americans as well.

    Cities like Detroit need to lower thier crime.and cities like Cleveland need to attract more jobs

  • DBR96A

    It’s not politically correct at all to say this, but the majority of Hispanic immigrants in the United States take unskilled jobs. What a lot of people don’t realize about Pittsburgh is that the region’s job growth has lagged the national average because of attrition in virtually all unskilled job sectors. The jobs that have been (and are being) created in Pittsburgh tend to be very specialized and require a lot of skills. This explains why educational attainment in the region has skyrocketed among younger age segments, income growth has exceeded both the U.S. and metropolitan averages since 2000, and over half (58%) of all foreign immigrants who live in the Pittsburgh area have college degrees. This might also explain why the Asian population in the Pittsburgh area is larger than the Hispanic population, because Asian immigrants are much more likely to take skilled jobs than Hispanic immigrants.