Chicago’s South Lawndale was just like countless other neighborhoods that bottomed out during the urban crisis of the mid-20th century. Settled after the fire of 1871 and built up in the early 1900s, it had prospered as an industrial district offering steady factory work and affordable housing to immigrants from Germany, Poland and Bohemia. But by the 1960s, its white residents were leaving en masse, moving to the suburbs for newer housing and to avoid sharing the neighborhood with black families who were moving in. The writer Stuart Dybek remembered South Lawndale in those years as a place where people “walked past block-length gutted factories [and] . . . half-boarded storefronts of groceries that had shut down when they were kids, dusty cans still stacked on the shelves.”
But some locals saw a solution to the neighborhood’s decline. Among them was Richard Dolejs, a real estate agent and community leader. Instead of moving out, he recalls, “we said: ‘Well, what about the Mexican community? We should apply to that group and try to bring ’em in.’ ” In the early ’60s, he persuaded lenders to write mortgages for the newcomers and hired Spanish-speaking staff to help them with the paperwork. This was not just altruism: Dolejs’s neighbors wanted to sell or rent their houses to somebody, and since a nearby barrio was being destroyed in the name of “urban renewal,” Hispanic Chicagoans needed somewhere new to live.
They found it.
Depopulation, job loss, fiscal distress and soaring crime in America’s cities were among the nation’s most intractable problems from the 1950s to the early 1990s. When that crisis abated, many experts credited the recovery largely to the “creative class,” urban professionals and other people with money. But it owed more to Latino immigrant families who had begun to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods decades earlier, laying essential foundations for the well-heeled to return. As Latin American migrants are today demonized and scapegoated, their indispensable role in solving one of the greatest crises of the 20th century shouldn’t be overlooked.
Like South Lawndale, many other city neighborhoods deteriorated steadily during the urban crisis. Dallas’s Oak Cliff area had thrived starting in the 1940s thanks to military spending on a nearby aircraft and missile factory. The prospect of racial integration, however, led a few whites to launch racist attacks and many more to flee to homogeneous neighborhoods in north Dallas or the suburbs. Oak Cliff’s Mexican American population grew beginning in the late 1950s and 1960s, when Dallas officials ran new highways through another area, disrupting the city’s main barrio and displacing its residents; they were joined by Mexican immigrants beginning in the 1970s.
Latino migrants saved neighborhoods like these from the abandonment and decay that afflicted so much of urban America. While virtually every other demographic group in most cities shrunk, Latin American newcomers replenished neighborhoods. In 1960, my research in census data found that South Lawndale and Oak Cliff were each about 1 to 2 percent Hispanic; four decades later, 91 percent of South Lawndale’s 81,000 residents and 76 percent of Oak Cliff’s 116,000 denizens were Latinos. They were a community lifeline at a time when many landlords, unable to sell or rent their properties but still responsible for mortgages and taxes, hired “torches” to burn them down so they could collect insurance money. Between 1950 and 1980, the North Lawndale neighborhood lost a shocking 10,000 housing units, nearly a third of its previous total. But in adjacent South Lawndale, the number of dwellings held steady as Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants became homeowners.
This was a nationwide phenomenon. New York City lost 820,000 residents between 1950 and 1980, and it would have shrunk more if not for gains of over 1 million new Latinos after 1980. Boston lost 238,000 residents in those decades but gained 100,000 new Latinos since 1980. Cities like Milwaukee and Philadelphia also depended on arriving Latinos — about 85,000 in Milwaukee and 160,000 in Philadelphia — to help stabilize their populations. The clearest example was Chicago, which shed more than 600,000 residents between 1950 and 1980. Nearly 370,000 new Hispanic residents after 1980 saved the Windy City, which is now 29 percent Latino, from losing population as quickly as urban-crisis bellwethers like Detroit and Cleveland.
Three decades of population decline in most urban areas nationwide gave way to a new era, beginning around 1980, when more than two-thirds of the 25 biggest cities gained residents. Much of this increase owed to Latinos. In most big cities, Hispanic populations expanded in the 1970s and reached peak growth rates by the 1990s; meanwhile, the non-Hispanic white populations shrank continuously, with the predominantly white “creative class” stabilizing this demographic only in the past 20 years. As a result, of those 25 biggest cities, 12 have populations that are more than one-quarter Hispanic, including eight that are more than one-third Hispanic and two, San Antonio and El Paso, that are majority Latino. By the same token, research on more than 3,000 U.S. counties and 150 big cities has demonstrated that Latinos were the largest immigrant group contributing to economic growth, as an influx of immigrants generated jobs and propelled revitalization through the housing sector.
This is not just a question of numbers. It is difficult to imagine how many neighborhoods — from the North Corona section of Queens to Detroit’s Mexicantown to Minneapolis’s Lake Street to everything west of Interstate 25 in Denver — could have sustained themselves without the arrival of 25 million new Latino urbanites over the past half-century. Equally important, however, are the ways these migrants imported everyday customs from Latin America and adapted them for their new homes.
The most significant of these habits was a preference for walking over driving. In countries such as Mexico, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, few people owned cars, especially in the rural areas from which most immigrants came. This made the newcomers the ideal inheritors of the American urban core, a landscape created before the automobile. While Anglo Americans were leaving in droves for car-dependent suburbia, Latinos repopulated neighborhoods built around pedestrians and public transportation.
This in turn revitalized the inner-city commercial landscape. Urban small businesses had been declining for decades, pressured since the mid-1950s by suburban malls and since the 1970s by predatory big-box retailers. But new Latino residents energized neighborhood commerce. They shopped locally, at stores they could walk to, where shopkeepers spoke Spanish. Businesses like these enjoyed a protected market with a growing clientele: The Kauffman Index, which measures entrepreneurial activity, showed that in almost every year from 1996 through 2018, Latinos were more likely than any other demographic group to open their own businesses.
They also brought life back to city streets. While two generations of American thinkers fretted over the loss of public life, from Richard Sennett’s “The Fall of Public Man” in 1977 to Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” in 2000, Latino neighborhoods experienced a revival of streetside socializing. Once-empty sidewalks, play areas and parks echoed with the sounds of música norteña, salsa and cumbia and the cheers of spectators at neighborhood soccer leagues — and eventually, Anglo Americans learned to shout “¡Goooooooool!” when a team scored.
In Oak Cliff, Latino immigrants helped reverse two decades of falling property values, and by the 1980s, local homes were appreciating faster than in Dallas as a whole. As the city’s share of Latinos jumped from the 1990s into the 2010s, Dallas’s crime rate began a decline that saw homicides drop by 69 percent between 1991 and 2018. Similarly, in South Lawndale, home values more than doubled between 1990 and 2000, and by 2018 the number of homicides citywide had dropped by 40 percent from its peak in 1991. Neighborhood business activity soared; soon journalists, business groups, social scientists and public officials were lauding South Lawndale — now known as Little Village — as an example of a new and revitalized Chicago. Like other barrios, it still had problems with poverty, underfunded schools and delinquent youth, but things had improved dramatically.
Leaders of cities nationwide soon recognized the positive effects of immigration. They organized to welcome newcomers, especially after the 2010 Census showed how many urban areas depended on immigrants to sustain their populations and workforces. Detroit, for example, launched a development initiative called Global Detroit, observing that “immigration has proven, by far, to be the best American strategy to combat population loss.” A few years later, Detroit’s leaders joined with municipal officials from across the industrial heartland to establish the Welcoming Economies Global Network — its motto is “Leading Rust Belt Immigrant Innovation” — with more than two dozen affiliates.
Latin American immigrants have filled essential roles in metropolitan economies, making up a large proportion of home builders, child-care workers, building maintenance staff, and restaurant cooks, servers and busboys. Sociologists and economists have shown that the urban professionals cities covet today need child care and other household help, and that they are attracted to cities by cafes, clubs and restaurants. Without the hands that have built and renovated homes, looked after children, kept office buildings running, and prepared meals, white-collar families wouldn’t live in urban America.
These urban professionals increasingly require not just Latino labor but Latino space, as they seek out neighborhoods with “character” and “authenticity.” In numerous barrios — from San Francisco’s Mission District to Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights to New York’s Washington Heights — urban professionals have paid barrios their highest compliment by gentrifying them. A few years ago, Chicago immigrant José Luis Arroyo recalled a young white man who walked up and asked to purchase his house, saying he had lived there before his family moved away. “These Americans left because they thought we were going to destroy their neighborhood,” Arroyo told researchers for the Chicago Mexican Migrant Oral History Project. “These young peoples’ parents got scared and moved away, and they took their children with them. And then these children grew up and became professionals and came to visit the barrio. And now they want to move back!”
The revitalizing influence of Latinos and other immigrants now extends far beyond cities. Many of the pathologies of the urban crisis are today afflicting rural America, where a lack of economic opportunity and a catastrophic opioid epidemic have emptied out small towns and left vast numbers of workers disabled. Once again, Latin American newcomers have led the way in addressing the rural crisis by providing much-needed labor on Pennsylvania farms, in Iowa meatpacking plants and at Wyoming nature resorts and repopulating the surrounding small towns. Of the nearly 2,300 rural counties in the United States, 94 percent saw increases in Hispanic residents between 1990 and 2000, and from 2000 to 2010, Latinos made up 58 percent of all population growth in nonmetropolitan counties.
A nation of immigrants is what we have been, and it is what we shall remain. The newest Americans trust us to be the nation we said we were for all those years: a city upon a hill, the North Star, the last best hope of Earth, Mother of Exiles. Perhaps they can help us recognize ourselves; for they are just the latest in a proud lineage of migrants seeking their promised land.