Governing: Immigrants Establishing Roots in Gateway Cities

An interesting article was released recently in Governing Magazine discussing the role of the foreign born in declining cities. The basic finding is that in some cities a declining or stagnated native-born population is being offset by growth in  foreign-born residents (this is true overall in the state of Massachusetts, for example – net international inmigration outweighs net domestic outmigration). Some cities are making an explicit pitch to international migrants, although it’s unclear how well that’s working.

Population growth isn’t always an important end goal for cities in and of itself, but it’s definitely true that cities that can stabilize population loss and diversify have an additional leg to stand on. This is especially important for the Rust Belt and northern cities that have been continuously hit by deindustrialization.

Louisville and Indianapolis are two examples of cities attracting new international residents to places where they have not traditionally been. As the article states, they’re starting from a very low level, making the percentage gains huge:

Louisville FB and NB

Indy FB and NB

Compare with Boston, which has always had a high percentage of foreign-born residents. It shows 3% and 2% growth in foreign and native-born residents respectively, even though the overall numbers are far higher than either Indy or Louisville:

Boston FB and NB

I poked around in other cities I am familiar with to compare. Most are in line with my expectations – high demand areas like Seattle, San Francisco and Portland are seeing both segments of the population grow, often with the foreign born growing faster. Salem, OR made me double take. The foreign-born population has declined (or possibly remained stagnant given the margin of error) while the native-born has increased. It was one of the only cities I was able to find with this pattern.

Salem FB and NB

I am not familiar enough with Salem to say what caused this decline. It could be that a previous immigration boom to Salem has now ended, or maybe people who originally immigrated there don’t love Salem and tend to then move elsewhere like Portland or California.

Another interesting example is some of the Gateway Cities in Massachusetts we’ve looked at. Although they haven’t experienced the same population declines as an Akron or Cleveland (Cleveland, by the way, along with Flint and Detroit, declined from 2009-2014 in both populations), I suspected that I would find that their continued growth has depended on an influx of the foreign born. That’s definitely true in Springfield:

Springfield FB and NB

I was surprised by the growth in Worcester. I knew that the demographics in the city have changed quickly, but I didn’t expect it to be this stark over the 5 year period:

Worcester FB and NB

An interesting counterpoint is Lowell, where both foreign- and native-born populations are growing.

Lowell FB and NB

I wonder if Lowell’s population growth in both sections is a cause or an effect of their relatively successful economic positioning?

An interesting caveat about the data, which you should play around with: populations are based on those living within the city proper. Normally, a metro area is a better way to look at migration data, because individual city borders tend to be arbitrary. In this case I actually think it’s helpful, because it can capture loss of population whether that population moves to suburbs in the same metro or to another state altogether. When it comes to things like tax rolls, school enrollment, and other bread and butter local government services, the important question is whether someone is here or not, not where they ended up.

Gateway City #5: Lowell

Overnight the company founders became the first city fathers in what would today be called a huge company town. Both men and women slept in corporation lodging houses, ate in company dining-rooms, shopped in company stores, and were buried in company lots. Employees worked from five in the morning to seven at night. Women received from two dollars and twenty-five cents to four dollars a week, men about twice that...
Europe watched Lowell with something like amazement. Its rapid rise to industrial eminence interested and astounded economists, historians, and writers all over the world.
- Massachusetts; a guide to its places and people, written and compiled by the Federal writers' project of the WPA (1937).

LowellMA-sealThis post is part of an ongoing series where I visit each of the 11 original Gateway Cities  and record my thoughts on their community, economy, and civic culture. Lowell is the next stop.

Lowell is, generally speaking, the poster child for Gateway Cities. The consensus seems to be that of the original eleven Gateways, this northeastern Massachusetts city of 100,000 has most successfully turned around its fortunes. Public officials and the media consistently consistently point to Lowell as an example of what focusing on image and investing in important infrastructure can do to a mill town (within the state anyway – I’m not sure this type of good news travels very far).

Having visited a few times, I am inclined to agree. Though the city benefits from an advantageous starting point, it’s certainly one of the most exciting and economically vibrant Gateway Cities I’ve visited. For this series I wanted to look a bit deeper. How good is good? If things are really as they seem, what’s the secret sauce in Lowell?

Lowell Map
Birds eye view of Lowell, Mass
Source: Leventhal Center at the Boston Public Library

Lowell: the Massachusetts-est of them all?

In addition to its status as favorite Gateway child, Lowell is perhaps the archetypal Massachusetts city. It carries the name of a Boston Brahmin (like Adams, Quincy, Gardner, Winthrop, Peabody, Boylston, Lawrence, etc…)  and along with the last of these, was named after a wealthy textile patrician who probably never saw his namesake. Francis Cabot Lowell was the foremost of the “Boston Associates” who shaped the Northeast by building textile mills and the towns around them.

Just as familiar is Lowell’s path from factory boomtown and massive immigration hub to decline. As described in the opening quotation, Lowell was a textile company town, growing in the 1850s to contain the largest industrial complex in the United States. Like its peers, it lived by the loom and died by the loom. Eventually the industrial textile mills that powered the local economy moved south and then overseas. By the mid twentieth century, Lowell was a depressed place lacking jobs and opportunity.

But unlike some of the other cities covered in this series so far, the population of Lowell today is near its height – like many others, it reached its population crest in 1920, but it is back to almost the same level, unlike cities such as Fall River or Holyoke, which are still fractions of their previous size. In addition, today Lowell has built up more specialized and technical firms than other Gateways, and performs relatively well in metrics like employment gains and median income.

A Bit of Luck, a Bit of Love, and Good Planning

So how did Lowell end up in the winner’s column relative to Holyoke and Fall River? The answer is in the section’s title: a bit of luck, a bit of love, and good planning.

World War II provided a temporary boost to traditional manufacturing that had sustained Massachusetts economies for the previous century. But by the 60s and 70s, the writing was on the wall, and in some places had been for 50 years. Cities responded to the changing economic circumstances in different ways. Some wrung their hands and gnashed their teeth, some abandoned the city altogether, and a few met the challenge with proactive leadership.

Lowell, thanks to a couple of unique factors, took the latter approach. It made a conscious effort to shift towards comprehensive planning and a more diversified economy in the 1970s. The foremost among these efforts was the “Lowell Plan”, formed in 1979 as a nonprofit economic development organization tying in partners from the public and private sector to work together on collaborative city growth goals.

In retrospect this was a key time to be moving away from old school, top-down and manufacturing-dependent economies. 1979 was well before Public Private Partnership was every government’s favorite catch phrase. Everything I’ve read indicates that the Lowell Plan was a daring and meaningful experiment for its time, leveraging tens of millions of private and government dollars for education, workforce development, and economic growth..

A difference in approach informed how the city responded to later economic challenges. While many places in Massachusetts felt the “Massachusetts Miracle” in the 80s, that miracle was coming to an end in the 1990s. In 1992, Lowell was hit with a shockwave when Wang Laboratories, a $3 billion computer manufacturer based in the city employing 33,000 people, filed for bankruptcy .

The closure had a gigantic impact on Lowell’s economy. But unlike other cities, Lowell appears to have had better infrastructure, capacity, and even political willingness to deal with the loss of the company in the company town. Lowell pivoted and continued to build on strengths, taking the loss as further evidence that reliance on a single industry was a bad ide,a even in high tech sectors. A Boston Fed analysis of the booms and busts in Lowell found that while the ups and downs of the Lowell economy have been severe, the local economy was still better off than it would have been without the high tech sector that had made the bust possible.

Lowell’s Many Assets

I don’t want to leave the impression that Lowell is doing well because the powers that be willed it to be so. Meaningful economic development comes from leveraging existing community assets to build the wealth of inhabitants.  When it comes to assets, Lowell would be well above the average Gateway City even if city leadership was incompetent (which it doesn’t appear to be) or if the state ignored it.

Old mill machinery, left in place in a building now used by UMass-Lowell and other local institutions.

First and foremost, the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The fact that the state’s second largest and fastest growing public university is located downtown and runs programs from dozens of the old mill buildings provides a unique “anchor tenant” for the whole town. Similar to Worcester, “town-gown” relations aren’t the strongest, but having 20,000 student and faculty based in the city is a powerful economic engine that isn’t going anywhere.

The people are another significant asset. One reason that Lowell has not suffered severe population loss is foreign inmigration. Lowell has grown much more ethnically diverse in the last 25 years, with an enlivening effect on the local community. Lowell has the highest proportion of Cambodians of any city in the US, with a corresponding effect on local cuisine and culture. Puerto Ricans, Portuguese, Brazilians, Colombians, Indians, and Liberians and other African immigrants also form substantial communities.

More so than its neighbors, Lowell also received attention at the federal and state level. The name Paul Tsongas may not mean much to folks outside of Massachusetts, but he was instrumental to the government attention and financial firepower that has helped Lowell weather the economic storms over the years. As a US Representative, Senator from Massachusetts, and presidential candidate in 1992, hometown hero Tsongas tirelessly advocated for Lowell. His major issues in Congress were ecological and historical preservation, and he cultivated a reputation for economic revitalization. It’s probably due to his work that the National Historical Park that forms a centerpiece of Lowell’s downtown today exists.

Lowell-Merrimack looking west
Merrimack Street looking west, Lowell, Mass.
Source: Library of Congress
Lowell-Merrimack looking west 2012
Same view in 2012. Not many Massachusetts cities stayed this well preserved through urban renewal.
Source: Google Maps

The combination of economic flexibility and asset preservation has allowed Lowell to be relatively well positioned in the 21st century. Through skillful use of historical status and open space, the city does a good job cultivating a feel of modern entrepreneurship existing alongside the machines that powered the industrial revolution. For example, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell occupies space in old mill buildings that maintain their impressive original machinery.

This balance is not easy to do. Many other cities in Massachusetts don’t have the capacity to put underutilized properties to use unless they have a new occupant with deep pockets moving in. Trying to balance preservation and growth either leads to a jarring contrast between the past and present, or row after row of abandoned buildings. The temptation to clear “eyesores” and start again or focus attention on the outlying areas is strong.

Looking up, but a long way yet

I’ve been pretty glowing in my review of Lowell, but it would not be a Gateway City if everything was working perfectly. Lowell still suffers from slow job growth, underutilized properties, and serious poverty – we’re talking about one of the top performers among a class of Massachusetts’ most challenged cities.

An example of how those difficulties manifest themselves is the recent experience with the Hamilton Canal project a vital piece of downtown with an ambitious plan for mixed use redevelopment. Progress on the development has been slow because attracting a main tenant and arranging financing are both tricky (there are many similarities with Worcester’s City Square project). Trinity Financial, the developer that had been chosen to build out Hamilton Canal, pulled out in May. The state has a lot of money on the table but as is usually the case there are complex jurisdictional questions to be dealt with, things like contingent funding and various levels of government ownership. Patient money is hard to find, especially when developers can make a killing in and around Boston with much less headache.

Still, I’ll bet that Hamilton Canal makes substantial progress before City Square. The city has a firm idea of where it wants to go with the project and appears to have the leadership to make it happen. Although Lowell has a long way to go to reach its potential, it inspires confidence in onlookers.

Lowell’s success seems to be in process rather than product. The city has more resilience and flexibility that allow it to deal with crises, comparing well to the fragile systems (of politics, administration, or economy) in other Gateways. On its own, this has not propelled Lowell towards the high bar the state has set, but it’s headed in the right direction and is won’t be easily deterred by the roadblocks that stand in its way.

Where do Immigrants Settle in the US?

While looking for migration data, I happened across this incredible tool from the Migration Policy Institute. It displays Census data showing where international migrants to the US settle by Metropolitan area.

This is not only quite fun to play around with, it’s actually extremely useful. It can be hard to find out where immigrant groups settle with a direct internet search – you usually have to rely on imprecise proxies like “what cities have a lot of Nepalese restaurants?” I recently tried to find out where the epicenter of Beninese immigration to the United States was, and beyond locating the embassy in Washington, DC, I wasn’t very successful.

Indian Distribution
Indian Immigrants are scattered throughout the country, even in very small metros.
Indian Distribution
There are far fewer immigrants from Bosnia and Herzegovina and they tend to be much more concentrated. Utica, NY, Des Moines and St. Louis all have high Bosnian location quotients.

Especially interesting in this graphic is the inclusion of both raw numbers (reflected in size of the circle) and percentage of population (color of the circle). I think it’s fascinating that although Minneapolis has a higher number of Laotians than any other city, the smaller Laotian community in Fresno makes up more than 1% of the entire metro area. As soon as I get some more sophisticated mapping skills, I’d like to reform this data to answer a different question. I want to make a graphic showing which immigrant populations a particular MSA punches way above its weight in. For economic development nerds, it would be neat to see a graphic representation of the various “location quotients” of immigrant communities in cities or even Census blocks.

For now, here are some fun facts that I learned from poking around the map.

  • Atlantic City, NJ has the highest percentage of Bangladeshi immigrants.
  • Worcester, MA has the highest percentage of both Albanians and Ghanaians in its population.
  • Fort Wayne, IN is home to a higher concentration of Burmese than any other city.
  • Moldovans and Belorussians are highly concentrated in Sacramento.

Some facts are of limited usefulness: although Atlantic City has the highest percentage of Bangladeshi immigrants, the community in nearby New York City is 38 times its size. Still, I suspect a better understanding of where and how immigrant groups cluster would be useful to public officials and service providers, and relative size of the community could still be indicative of the size of the need. It also makes for an interesting look at the cultural fabric of cities.