I used to hate cities. Then I learned how much immigration & trade defined the urban experience.
That Baltimore Upbringing, Yo.
I grew up in Baltimore, and if you’ve paid any attention to the news in the last couple of years, you know that Baltimore is not exactly a shining example of what a successful port town looks like. Though gentrification has taken hold in a few neighborhoods, it has little immigration & trade. Sure, upper middle class folks have carved out a few places with trendy bars and upscale restaurants — but when you drive down one of the main thoroughfares that cut through the city, you see crumbling infrastructure, blue-lit police cameras, and rampant homelessness.
They call Baltimore the city of neighborhoods, and it’s true. The University of Baltimore School of Law sits across the street from Penn Station, the major train depot that stops in Baltimore, and there are a handful of well-maintained restaurants that serve the people of Mount Vernon, which also hosts the Lyric Opera House and a major College of the Arts… all within an area that is about four blocks square.
If you leave that square, road quality dips, and male classmates start offering to walk you to your car because they’re worried (right or wrong) about your safety.
Friends in Strange Places
When I visited Philadelphia for the first time in college, I saw no reason to revise my opinions toward the positive: it was loud, crowded, and seemed little different from Baltimore after a cursory night spent with friends.
I continued to avoid cities until I joined the Ubergroup, the writing group whose website I run. When a fellow member needed some help moving to New York, I drove up to his place in Harlem and had my eyes opened to a truly vibrant urban culture for the first time. There seemed to be a functioning ecosystem, people from all walks of life making a living. Shopkeepers even seemed to live inside the city: stores abounded, and unlike many cities I’d read about, it was possible to get fresh produce on what seemed like every corner. The idea that a big city didn’t have to be a food desert was foreign to me.
Despite the stereotypes, people were nice. Strangers held doors for me. Jerry’s neighbors offered me beer after they helped me park. The neighborhood always seemed to be hosting some sort of event in the nearby park. Children waved at me from windows. It felt like something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting — a bygone era of friendliness and healthy city living.
Except it’s not gone, and I was forced to wonder: why is New York so different from Baltimore?
Geography Ain’t Easy…
Part of teaching social studies is about trying to impart an understanding of geography to them. Many students struggle to understand why geography — and geology — matters. I’ve had some success by pointing out how political boundaries often follow physical boundaries, and forcing them to think about why that might be.
If you look at that map of the United States, you will note — as I force my students to note — that most major cities are on the coasts. Of those cities, most have harbors or exist on major rivers. Of the inland cities, Chicago is most notable… and it’s located on the banks of Lake Michigan. Kansas City straddles the Missouri River, which — like the Ohio River — feeds into the all-important Mississippi, home of Baton Rouge, New Orleans and a little town called Memphis.
During the Industrial era, railroads could make or break a town. If you don’t think San Francisco’s position at the western terminus of the first transcontinental railroad matters, you haven’t been paying attention to how important immigration & trade are to the health of a city. But in the days before cars and trains, we had ships. Before airplanes and interstates, rivers supported the bulk of trade.
If infrastructure is the measure of a civilization, then rivers are the veins of its history and mountains its bones.
Would the Cold War have happened if Russia’s western border was protected by a mountain range? Did Union control of the Mississippi River cut short the Civil War? Could the unique Basque culture and language have existed for so many thousands of years, isolated and insulated, if not for the Pyrenees Mountains?
I sincerely doubt it.
The Port brings the People
New York isn’t the only city in America that doubles as a beacon of trade and an icon of culture. A multitude of California cities have that honor, as well: Los Angeles is home to Hollywood, and after New York is the second-largest city in the United States… the third largest in the world, after Tokyo (which I had the pleasure of visiting last month, and is the exception that proves the rule about large cities requiring both immigration & trade.)
There’s some debate about whether San Francisco is better than Los Angeles. San Francisco was no slouch in cultural terms even before Silicon Valley, thanks in part to Angel Island and the Gold Rush… but with the exception of Tokyo — most large cities have something fundamental in common: immigration & trade.
Dublin is the busiest port in Ireland, in addition to being a historical and contemporary center for education, the arts, administration, economy and industry. Barcelona is one of Europe’s busiest ports, and the largest metropolitan area on the Mediterranean… thanks to immigration following the Spanish Civil War. London, too, is a global city, a center of culture home to a large immigrant population and England’s second-largest port.
In America, immigrants have historically entered the country via California or New York. It is not, I think, a coincidence that LA & NYC are among the most productive cultural and financial centers in the world. Publishing’s Big 6 hail from New York. Hollywood hosts all the major motion picture studios. Fashion, of course, is centered on Milan and Paris, both very cosmopolitan cities.
Hybrid vigor? Perhaps.
What Really Matters
Diversity isn’t just a convenient buzzword. If money makes the world go ’round — and the preeminence of port towns, the importance of trade route hubs suggests that it does — then the pressure cooker (never mind melting pot) of immigration is what turns a slum into a center of culture. From Five Points to London’s East End, all the "best" places are rife with recent arrivals looking to fulfill a dream. Be they tourists, artists, sailors or salesmen — immigration & trade makes a city strong.