Friday, December 19, 2014

Sandals and turkeys in South Dakota

This week, a team from BBC visited South Dakota and found a large Karen refugee community living in Sioux Falls (video of the story here). Most of the refugees work in a turkey processing plant, an increasingly common trend in small cities and towns across the Midwest. The short video highlights several key characteristics of new immigrant and refugee destinations. First, despite the dangerous and often demeaning nature of labor in meatpacking plants, the Karen interviewed by the BBC are happy with their work. While there are almost certainly dissenting views in the plant, I've often found that meatpacking workers are relatively happy with jobs that pay pretty well and provide some stability in a tough labor market. Second, there are tensions immediately underneath the surface in Sioux Falls, like many new destinations. A white resident describes his lack of comfort living next to Karen families that don't interact with him and have slaughtered a hog in the backyard. I've heard similar complaints about unfamiliar practices in Quad City neighborhoods from more established residents, and the fear of the unknown (and unknown plants and gardening practices) is a big obstacle that local refugee community gardeners have to overcome as well. Dialogue is absolutely crucial but is really difficult, as the man in the video suggests, when there is a language barrier. Finally, one of the Karen men talks about continuing to wear sandals in the winter even though his kids have bought him boots. This has come up, unprompted, in multiple interviews so far in Iowa and Illinois. Why are people so obsessed with refugees wearing "proper" shoes in winter? Maybe boots should be my primary measure of assimilation?

Thursday, August 14, 2014


I'm from St. Louis. St. Louis County, nowhere close to Ferguson, but a suburb with its own history of segregation, white flight and educational disparities. This past year, I prepared my geography students for a field trip to St. Louis by inviting Colin Gordon, author of the terrific book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, to speak on campus here. Gordon, a historian who uses maps more effectively than a lot of geographers, shows us how racist housing policies, white flight and fragmented government contributed to St. Louis' decline course of the 20th century. It's not a big stretch to see the intense segregation and marginalization in north St. Louis County as the foundation of the anger and mistrust toward the authorities felt by Ferguson residents, a point a number of journalists have made since Mike Brown was killed on Saturday (see Wonkblog, The New York Times, the Post-Dispatch for just a few examples).

Even though I understand the causes of the event in Ferguson, I have been shocked to watch it unfold on Twitter and the news over the past four days. I'm shocked that a teenager was killed by a police officer in broad daylight. I'm shocked that the police rolled in with military gear to confront grieving (and rightfully angry) protesters. I'm shocked that the streets of Ferguson look like Bolivia, a country where I've done fieldwork and has a terrible history of military and police abuse towards protesters. I'm sure what St. Louis can do to make this right, especially given the outrageous response of the local police and the MIA Missouri governor so far, but it's clear that we need a new approach to urban policy. We need to start connecting extreme educational disparities (including Normandy School District, right next to Ferguson), the criminalization of young African American men, the drug war and the militarization of police departments, and the history of racial segregation and dispossession to what is actually happening in our cities and suburbs. A good place to start confronting this history is Ta-Nehisi Coates' provocative piece, "The Case for Reparations", and some of the terrific books in his narrative bibliography. There are no easy solutions in these accounts, but the events in Ferguson this week demonstrate that things aren't going to get better just by putting our heads in the sand and ignoring the past.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A City of Refugees

This summer I've started researching the geography of immigrant and refugee settlement in eastern Iowa and western Illinois. I'll be blogging here about how immigrant settlement patterns have transformed the urban landscape, local economies and identity in the Midwest.

This New York Times article on the evolution of Utica, NY into a city of refugees is an excellent introduction to the issues that small cities and towns face across the Rust Belt and rural Midwest. As deindustrialization devastated local economies, immigrants and refugees have often "stemmed the decline", as a non-profit director in Utica put it in the article. The impact of immigration in small towns can be highly visible in several ways, most notably in the revitalization of commercial districts and the creation of new businesses. The association between immigration and entrepreneurship has led cities like Dayton and St. Louis to actively recruit immigrants through a more welcoming image and business-friendly public policies.

The scale of the transformation in places like Utica, which has almost one-forth of its population made up of refugees that have settled in the city since the 1970s, can be much more dramatic than in large cities like New York City. Immigrants can be seen as a threat to an established identity and bring different challenges with them (particularly ESL and interpretation needs). Some newcomers are successful relatively quickly, while others take longer to get established. What stands out in the case of Utica, and is particularly applicable to the Quad Cities, is the sense of possibility that newcomers bring to declining or stagnant cities. While national debates on immigration certainly shape responses to immigration (see the response to the proposal by the Davenport mayor to host unaccompanied refugee children in the Iowa Quad Cities), my research so far suggests that localities are more likely to accept demographic changes when there seem to be limited options for revitalization.