A.K. Sandoval-Strausz: Did Latinos Save the American City?

Historians in the News
tags: immigration, urban history, Latino/a history

The resurgence of many American cities over the last 30 years came as a surprise. After a brutal mid-century, defined by deindustrialization and white flight, cities from Oakland to Boston saw their fortunes revive. Population rebounded, crime fell, business activity hummed.

There are a variety of explanations for this phenomenon. Lifestyle preferences among a chunk of younger Americans shifted, as they embraced the smaller homes and car-light lifestyle of urban living. Some retirees scrapped their big suburban houses for smaller condos or rentals in the city, where they could more easily walk to get groceries and see friends. A handful of urban centers, like New York and San Francisco, were able to shift the preponderance of white-collar jobs to their region’s central city.

All of those factors contributed. But the single biggest reason why some American cities rebounded beginning in the 1990s was because of immigration. In areas like Northeast Philadelphia and East Boston, as domestic white Americans continued to leave the city, foreign-born arrivals moved in and kept the streets vibrant.

Penn State University professor A. K. Sandoval-Strausz dives into one aspect of the urban immigrant experience in his 2019 book Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City. He zeroes in on two different Hispanic neighborhoods, covering the Sun Belt and the Rust Belt: Chicago’s Little Village and Dallas’ Oak Cliff. But in addition to telling these specific stories, Sandoval-Strausz expands his scope to take in the larger canvass of how immigrant groups affect business corridors, crime rates and electoral politics.

Governing talked with Sandoval-Strausz about the differences and similarities between recent immigrants and their 19th-century counterparts, the importance of walkability to barrio life and why America needs even more immigrants to thrive.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Governing: The subtitle of your book is “How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City.” When did immigration from Latin America begin to reshape urban America?

A. K. Sandoval-Strausz: The cities of the United States began a long decline after about 1950. That was the peak population for pretty much all industrial cities. Then as a result of government policy, and individual and institutional racism, a lot of mostly white people began to leave American cities. This process went hand-in-hand with the loss of jobs, loss of tax revenues and the rise of crime. By the 1970s and 1980s, it looked like the big American city had simply come and gone.

That is not what happened. American cities began to turn around in the 1990s. Crime rates dropped dramatically. Populations in many places grew. Today, big problems in many cities involve not enough affordable housing for everyone because so many people want to live there.

But a lot of the explanations for why this happened focused on, frankly, people with a lot of money who are mostly Anglo. I'm referring to the rise of the Richard Florida school of thought, which emphasizes mostly white professionals. This did not seem to be accurate from my research.

Read entire article at Governing