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International Cleveland: the nation's poorest city adds a new twist to the historic perception that immigrants displace native workers.

Cleveland is a city in despair. Its businesses are leaving; buildings are falling apart; public schools are ever losing money. Along with abundant talk and complaints, there are in fact a few action plans on the table. One idea is to create high-tech corridors of biotechnology and other such industries through "internationalization"--drawing foreigners with advanced degrees to Cleveland in the hopes they will eventually start their own firms. This plan is no stranger to dying Rust Belt cities trying to reinvent their traditional manufacturing-heavy economies.


The current mayor, with significant allies in Cleveland's business community, has put her weight behind this strategy. Its trickledown theory aspires to help lower-income communities of color by generating a new economy filled with ancillary jobs, many in the service sector. But as some in Cleveland try to rescue both the city's and their own ailing fortunes, skeptics remain of internationalization's true advantages to the many poor African Americans in Cleveland, which last August was dubbed "the nation's poorest city" by the Census Bureau. The heart of internationalization--pumped by well-educated, upper-class immigrant recruits primarily from Asia--also seems to be driving deeper wedges between African Americans and these more recent, affluent immigrants. It's a new twist to historic perceptions that immigrants displace native workers, this time in a new economy not yet fully formed, but one that could have no place for low-skilled workers.


Trickling Down or Not

Policy-oriented efforts to attract immigrants were first mentioned in Mayor Jane Campbell's 2003 state-of-the-city address. "Great cities in this country--including Cleveland--have been built by foreign-born immigrants," Campbell said. "A strategic attraction of immigrants will again be Cleveland's priority." Campbell's goal was to take the city beyond its current 500,000 population mark--and so bring back businesses, tax revenue and possibly heydays. One beacon for many cities formerly built on basic manufacturing has been California's Silicon Valley, which in the late 1970s revitalized by attracting intellectual capital, mostly in the form of highly educated immigrants.

This commitment rests firmly in the belief that as newcomers generate startups and spend their money in restaurants, car dealerships and daycares, jobs will appear on many levels, the city's business and residential tax base will expand and all of Cleveland's residents will benefit. Business and immigrant advocates are rallying behind the plan as well. Danny Williams, the African-American executive director of Cleveland Growth Partnership, a regional minority business development engine, is one ally. "Any time you can attract talent from any location to fuel the business growth that any city needs, that's good, "Williams says. "If that's coming from outside the country, that's fine." Williams thinks internationalization will open new global markets and eventually help African-American business owners.

May Chen, a Chinese American who started a nonprofit services agency for Asian immigrants, also sees benefit from Cleveland's international push. "It's really important that we have new technologies, new factories to support the economy," says Chen, who has seen many of her struggling Asian-American clients lose manufacturing jobs when companies shut down.

Then Chen's brow furrows slightly. If an "International Cleveland" were to be successful, would those in power share newfound resources with the urban poor? "Hopefully, [the city] would invest in those who are already economically disadvantaged, experiencing a sub-standard of living," Chen says.

Some workforce and labor experts argue that when it comes to the poor, any potential benefits could be far off. Often, cities in Cleveland's position offer tax incentives to lure companies to locate within their city limits, versus another. All this means fewer revenues for the city--and fewer dollars for government programs like public education. "It is a challenge if that's the approach you use," says Williams, who admits that though internationalization is poised to directly help African-American entrepreneurs, the same isn't certain for poor people.

Steven C. Pitts, a labor specialist at University of California-Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education, says getting the attention of a "mobile resource" like well-heeled immigrants requires homegrown practices that set Cleveland apart. "The question is why should they come to Cleveland over Chicago?" Pitts asks. There can come a point where cities and their leaders give too much away, either in the form of subsidies or higher salaries; then the benefits for the public at large begin to diminish.

But both Pitts and Williams agree that internationalization could work for Cleveland--though only in the long term. "If those [immigrants] come and become interested and engaged in the city and get involved in the social fabric," says Williams, "then you have a real good chance of that presence being a net positive to everyone."

A thriving, high-tech economy with well-paying jobs does not have to be mutually exclusive from helping the region's disadvantaged. Not only could it supply service jobs, but "it also provides growth opportunities for local workers who want to be part of the new, creative economy," argues Ben Johnson, the director of the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit group that favors immigration. "Those who want this now have to leave Cleveland."

What About Education?

For now, however, other African American voices are raising the specter of the short term: tomorrow and next week or next year.

Don Scott is a self-described pragmatist and a retired African American born and raised in Cleveland. His wife is running for a city council seat this fall. Last year, Scott was among the few African Americans who attended a series of three panels on how immigrants have--and can--influence economic development in Cleveland. "I thought they were a very good set of programs to have," Scott says. "But one of your first thoughts is how does this affect my community. Is it good or bad? What may be good for the Asian community is not necessarily good for the black community."

As the city has been making its transition from assembly-line manufacturing to the more lucrative and fast-growing spheres of biomedical research and computer software, those like Scott are concerned that too much immigration will come at the expense of educating and training the next generation of African-American computer programmers and biomedical engineers.

"Most of the diversity touted these days is focusing on the Asian continent," says Michael Nelson, the head of 100 Black Men's Cleveland chapter. "We have to do a better job of educating our home-grown workforce. I'm not complaining about [immigrants] getting opportunities. My complaint is that we're not preparing our own kids for those jobs."

Labor specialist Pitts says that though a new high-tech economy might create many minimum-wage service jobs in the near future, it won't satisfy the desire to truly participate in the wealth and knowledge creation taking place. "What you [will] have is an economy that is spitting out bad jobs, and some good jobs [for underprivileged people], but you will have very few jobs that high school graduates can get."

The new economy Cleveland hopes to create, with top jobs in research and engineering, seems to have no immediate place for these same high school graduates. And Cleveland's public schools so far are producing few who go on to higher education in math and science. In the last ten years, Ohio's number one employer has changed from General Motors Corp. to Wal-Mart Stores Inc., according to the state's Department of Development.

"You have to understand our position," Scott says. "The best jobs are in biomedicine, but they haven't trained [African Americans] for those jobs. So they have to bring in foreigners to do those jobs."

Persistent Poverty

The virtual extinction of Ohio's behemoth steel industry has fed an "outsourcing" myth, fanning age-old divisions between African-American and immigrant communities--tensions that tend to flare during tough economic times. (Labor specialist Pitts makes a distinction between outsourcing, which means shipping some operations abroad, versus the loss of whole industries in Ohio after the U.S. lost to Japan and Italy when it came to building more cost-effective machinery.) Since Cleveland's decline, as factory jobs have vanished and nothing has taken their place, low-income residents, and African Americans in particular, are questioning an approach that to them seems too immigrant-sensitive.

Danny Williams of the Greater Cleveland Partnership has watched such anti-immigrant attitudes gather, though he says they are not always grounded in fact. An apparent growth in programs that cater to immigrants can be misconstrued as African Americans not receiving similar attention, Williams says, and "immigrant entrepreneur workshops are seen as not doing enough for blacks."

With mayoral elections scheduled for November, all candidates, including the current mayor, will have to strike a balance between any big-picture initiatives like "Internationalization" and the more bread-and-butter issues facing African-Americans.

African Americans make up 51 percent of Cleveland, the 2000 Census reports. Asians comprise about one percent of the city. Poverty has been steadily rising to 31 percent last summer, according to a 2004 Census report. In December, Cleveland's unemployment rate went above 11 percent--almost double that of the state and national average.


"Any mayoral candidate that doesn't address head-on issues of black unemployment and education is going to have a tough time." Williams says. "If these are collateral issues, through immigration, it's not going to resonate. Black voters are going to want to hear direct answers."

A Tough Sell

Meanwhile, City Hall's drive toward internationalization continues. A set of "trade calls" by the mayor has targeted companies now based in Israel, India and China--all emerging economies with interest in locating branches in the United States--and asking them to consider Cleveland.

The city also wants to champion a new biomedical research center on the Case Western Reserve University campus, which would serve as a hub for foreign companies.

What isn't being done, however, is convincing Cleveland's African-American population that this is the right direction.

Stan Miller, a Cleveland native and former corporate executive, now directs Cleveland's NAACP chapter. He says African Americans have little information on how Cleveland's new economy will include them. The specter of "International Cleveland" seems one-sided and designed only to include immigrants.

"There's a mistrust," Miller says. "However this immigration scheme works. African Americans don't understand how it works, and [think] that they're going to lose ... The news is talking about jobs going off-shore and immigrants coming to the U.S. and getting better jobs than the natives ... Until we have given a fair opportunity to folks in our country to fully participate in the economic vitality of this community, immigration will be a very, very tough sell in the African-American community."

Black and Immigrant Tensions

It doesn't help that there is little direct interaction between Asian and African Americans. Wealthier Asians tend to live in the suburbs and are employed in professional, high-paying jobs that African Americans don't have.

Cleveland's suburbs saw a nearly 20 percent increase in immigrants since 1990, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, and today number almost 100,000. A majority are affluent, well-educated professionals from India, China and Africa who are bypassing downtown Cleveland for the suburbs.

Ratanjit Sondhe is a prominent Indian immigrant and businessman who has built a small highway construction materials empire in a Cleveland suburb. Sondhe is on the board of the Urban League of Greater Cleveland and is spearheading one of the organization's economic development initiatives for African-American business owners. But there are not many in the prosperous Indian immigrant community who are working with African Americans. "Indians live in the suburbs, and when they pass through the city, they only see the worst of the black community, and they stereotype them," Sondhe says.

Other Indian community leaders echo this sentiment. Paramjit Singh, a well-to-do engineer who is active in the local Indian community, acknowledges the majority view but distances himself as well. "The community is affluent, but we seem to fail in our dealings with people in the lower echelons of society," Singh says. "We wouldn't be here but for the civil rights movement and the leadership Martin Luther King brought. Yet, the average Indian will not consider making friends or associations with blacks. We consider ourselves white. I think it's the wrong attitude."

African Americans notice the slights and have their own opinions of immigrants. Ted Lattimore, 85, a retired watchmatcher, is taking an adult computer class at a Cleveland community center. "It seems like [immigrants] want to be better than us and think they are," he says.

Ikel Maxwell, 59, has been looking for work as an interior designer for the last five years and is also taking the same computer class as Lattimore. "I think immigrants think we're lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothing," she says. "I don't think they see us as a threat. Maybe because they assume a lack of intelligence on our part."

Don Scott put it this way: "What happens from our perspective is that when [immigrants] come here, they tend to adopt the racist attitudes against us that the whites have. So we say the hell with Asians."

On the other hand, some African Americans like Maxwell also hold the view that immigrants, especially undocumented Latinos, are able to access welfare and other government services without paying taxes. In fact, there is little tax support for undocumented immigrants. Except for emergency Medicaid, undocumented immigrants do not qualify for public services like food stamps, social security, welfare, Medicare or public housing, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

Investing in the People

Perceptions aside, some deep thorns remain, say labor experts. While internationalization proponents boast a vision of uprooting poverty once the tax base is strengthened, whether or not any revenues will end up helping the poor remains an open question. "Increasing the value of a city is an economic issue," says Pitts of U.C. Berkeley. "Using those revenues to help the poor is a political story that involves policy and [willing] politicians." Pitts says politicians rarely redistribute the economic pie in favor of low-income communities.

Zach Schiller, a senior researcher with Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit research organization, looked at northeast Ohio's biotechnology sector three years ago. His report, based on national and local data, doubted how much a biomedical industry, with its slow growth rate, would help working-class Clevelanders and African Americans.

"If we're bringing public support to these industries, we need to be realistic about what is it likely to achieve," Schiller said in a later interview. "We need to make sure that it's ... providing a good livelihood for people of all races. We have to find ways in our economic development strategies that aren't just making jobs for people with college degrees and then hope that trickles down to the rest of the community. I don't want to come across as though I'm bashing this industry, but I think we need to be clear when looking at this."

Almost everyone stresses that a focus on high-tech business expansion must occur at the same time as one on local human resources. To level the playing field for less-educated, less-mobile workers, labor specialist Pitts argues for more unionized workplaces and policy prescriptions that impose certain standards on employers, like adequate healthcare.

But the fundamental issue of the short term remains. What kind of jobs will Cleveland's new economy provide for its native residents? "I think we're still struggling with how this works," says Shari O. Garmise, an assistant professor at Cleveland State University's College of Urban Affairs who has studied workforce, technology and economic development throughout the country. "It doesn't get solved in just job creation, but also human capital investment."

Charu Gupta is a Cleveland-based freelance journalist who writes on economic development, minority communities, education and immigration.
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Title Annotation:feature
Author:Gupta, Charu
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3OH
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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