Wanted: new neighbors — and maybe a new neighborhood too.
That was the message five years ago when former Mayor of Baltimore Stephanie Rawlings-Blake convened a group of local policymakers, businesses and non-profit leaders collectively known as the New American Task Force to discuss the future of immigrants in Baltimore. There were high hopes that the city’s growing immigrant population would help revitalize some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, putting families back in homes, citizens back on the sidewalks and businesses back in storefronts. To help reach that future, Ms. Rawlings-Blake established the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs to much fanfare.
Five years later, early results are in, and at first glance, the numbers look good. Baltimore’s immigrant population is growing quickly, even as its native-born population continues to decline. But low business ownership is holding immigrant communities back from the change hoped for by the mayor’s office. So while there are indeed new neighbors, the neighborhoods still struggle with many of the same challenges.
This spring, as an undergrad at Princeton University, using data from the 2012-2016 data set from the American Community Survey, I researched neighborhood health by tracking factors like income and home ownership across four cities: Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore and Buffalo. For most factors, neighborhoods with lots of immigrants showed almost no difference from other parts of town; they weren’t any better or worse off than anywhere else. However, in some cities I studied, migrant communities consistently showed higher employment and higher rates of business ownership than other neighborhoods — there were more small businesses, and more jobs.
Social scientists have long seen higher rates of entrepreneurship among immigrants compared to their native-born neighbors. Immigrating itself takes chutzpah. It’s not surprising then that after arriving, many new Americans continue to take risks to get ahead, starting businesses like delis, diners and laundromats.
Luckily, that entrepreneurial drive benefits their communities as well. When immigrants start businesses, they create jobs for the neighborhood around them. More people with jobs means more consumption, which is good for other businesses. This virtuous cycle creates local micro-economies, which are sometimes called “immigrant enclaves,” sort of like mini business centers with some cultural flair. These Greektowns, Little Italys and Chinatowns bring life, diversity and fun to America’s cityscapes.
I found this pattern in Chicago, St. Louis and Buffalo. The one exception was Baltimore, where rates of business ownership were lower in immigrant communities than in other, similar neighborhoods. In Chicago and St. Louis, local business ownership in immigrant neighborhoods topped 8 percent, well above citywide averages. In Baltimore, that number was at 4.8 percent, according to my research — lower than the city’s overall self-employment rate. And consistent with fewer small businesses, employment figures in immigrant neighborhoods weren’t stellar either.
The people are here, but the businesses haven’t followed. And without them, the wellspring of neighborhood benefits is plugged at the source.
It’s not clear why small businesses haven’t followed the influx of immigrants. It may be that there simply aren’t yet enough new Baltimoreans living in any given area and it will take time for them to establish vibrant business communities in the city. It doesn’t help that since Mayor Catherine Pugh’s election, the new Office for Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs has been kept on the backburner.
But whatever the reason, there are steps that you and I can take to support our local immigrant businesses. We can order empanadas for takeout instead of Dominos. We can get alterations done by the tailor down the street instead of the department store off the highway. We can try new things while shopping at immigrant grocery stores. Have you ever had lychee? It’s a refreshing Chinese berry, perfect for hot summer afternoons. Trek on down to the local Asian market and give it a try.
This goes beyond just “shopping local.” These choices keep our money in our communities, but they also are an investment in the human capital of our neighbors. In so many cities, immigrants have been key in bringing back growth. Together, we can help achieve that here too.
As far as community investment goes, corporate giants like Under Armour have done and are doing great things for the city — and I’m proud to wear their shorts on Sunday mornings jogs. Baltimore’s bid for Amazon’s HQ 2 reflects the city’s commitment to landing big businesses that can help bring back growth and jobs. But for me, I do my part when I’m in the Baltimore region by taking my laundry to Mrs. Kim at Dandy Cleaners in Arnold. Her alterations keep my outfits sharp, and her Korean barbeque recommendations keep my takeout delicious.
Jake Hamel is a Maryland native and immigration researcher at the Yenching Academy at Peking University; his email is email@example.com.