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On Los Angeles as an 'Arrival City'

Photo by Keith Skelton/Flickr (Creative Commons)

En route to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention from LAX to Orlando yesterday, I had a chance to read part of "Arrival City," a book by British journalist Doug Saunders that tells the story of worldwide migration through an exploration of the cities that have been transformed by it.

Not surprisingly, Los Angeles plays a prominent role. In one chapter, Saunders chronicles the transformation of a part of the West Adams neighborhood by migrants from Central America, many of them former neighbors from the same rural villages in El Salvador.

He tracks a Salvadoran-born small business owner’s rise from newly-arrived day laborer in the early 1990s to the founding and growth of his successful sign-making shop, while telling the greater story of the demographic and economic shifts in South Los Angeles since the 1992 riots.

I found this passage interesting:

Los Angeles stands out as the premier arrival-city cluster of the United States, with almost half its population born in other countries (and predominantly in rural areas), a position equalled In North America only by Toronto, which plays a similar role in Canada. Los Angeles is described by demographers as a “gateway city,” which is to say that it is a broadly successful arrival city: its poor neighborhoods send out successful middle-class and upper-working-class migrants to wealthier neighborhoods at rates similar to their intake of poor villagers.

People move through its neighborhoods: L.A. flushes out at least a third of its population each decade, becoming an entirely new city in each generation. A major study of the city’s immigrants shows that they arrive very poor, with poverty rates approaching 25 percent, but that these rates fall sharply, especially during the first decade of residence, generally to less than 4 percent.

Nevertheless, the neighborhoods themselves often stay poor or even get poorer. Since about 1990, poverty rates in immigrant-dominated neighborhoods have remained at about 20 percent, despite these gains in the migrant population’s fortunes.

This, as the Los Angeles sociologist Dowell Myers has explained, is actually a result of the American arrival city’s success: Because it is constantly sending its educated second generation into more prosperous neighborhoods and taking in waves of new villagers, in a constantly reiterated cycle of “arrival, upward mobility, and exodus,” the neighborhood itself appears poorer than it really is.

Saunders goes on to write that this paradox leads to “a misunderstanding of the forms of government investment they really need – a serious policy problem in the many migrant-based cities around the world.” He continues:
Rather than getting the tools of ownership, education, security, business creation, and connection to the wider economy, they are too often treated as destitute places that need non-solutions, such as social workers, public-housing blocks, and urban-planned redevelopments.

All of it good food for thought during a six-hour flight across the country.

The worldwide migrant destinations explored in "Arrival City," which was published last year by Pantheon Books, range from large cities like Los Angeles, London and Shenzhen to smaller and lesser-known destinations. Among the latter are U.S. suburbs like Wheaton, Maryland and Herndon, Virginia, where new arrivals famously met with anti-immigrant backlash in recent years.