A guest post of mine entitled “Refugees and Landscape” was posted today on Routledge Landscape’s blog. When Routledge asked me to do a guest post to support Immigrant Pastoral (published with them), probably they didn’t expect a post about Mexican-American neighborhoods in the Midwest to segue into Europe’s refugee crisis. The two topics aren’t obviously connected, to say the least. Except that they are.

​Marginalized newcomers, whether refugees exiled from their homelands or immigrants who chose to leave, tend to settle in out-of-the-way spaces in their new homes. What’s an ethnic neighborhood like just before it becomes an ethnic neighborhood? Believe it or not, my dissertation, which eventually became Immigrant Pastoral, began with a similar question: investigating the claim that Latina/os were “turning the lights back on” in the gutted hearts of US cities. I wondered whether this really was due to a preference for urban environments, as some claimed, or if other factors were at play. Did new immigrants arriving in a foreign city really have that much agency over where they settled and what space they ended up claiming for their own?

My answer was that many external dynamics and forces influence this choice, among them property values, available housing and other building stock, discrimination and other backlash, availability of transportation for those without cars, and proximity to jobs and other necessities of life. After a while, it came to seem rather naive to think that a group that’s economically disadvantaged and socially disconnected could somehow transcend the forces that conspire to locate other poor folks within the city’s landscape. It seemed far more likely that new immigrants end up in neighborhoods where they can afford to live, where there’s space for them to live (ie available housing), and where no one objects too much to them living. That last factor mattered in my research, in that some eras saw newly arrived Mexican-American workers living in temporary camps at the edge of town or on other marginal land next to the factories or railroads that employed them. A century later, these camps echo through the space and society of these Established Communities with a legacy of isolation and separation. In contrast, New Communities that I studied showed far more integration, even though their immigrant groups had been in place for far less time. 

There’s an easy judgment to make here about xenophobia, racism, and local elites, but I think that judgment is probably too easy. I think it’s more likely that new residents from foreign countries, who arrive without substantial financial or social advantage, settle into a kind of negative space within a city, “negative” in the sense of artistic composition, where negative space is the background. I don’t see intention in the difference between the workers’ camp and Main Street. Sometimes things just happen when no one is paying attention (which would be a pretty good alternative name for this blog).

Someone should pay attention, though, because as I note in the Routledge post, these initial spatial patterns matter for decades, maybe longer. I also mention Syracuse’s North Side as an Immigrant Gateway neighborhood, which will be familiar to alums of my People in the Environment class. The work of organizations like Northside UP can make all the difference in how (whether?) refugees successfully adapt to life in Syracuse, and their success makes all the difference to the life and health of the neighborhood. What impact might organizations like Northside UP have long-term on the space and place of immigrant neighborhoods? If there had been a community organization in the workers’ camps of the Established Communities I studied, would conditions be different now? How? Unknowable. 

Today’s refugees and organizations are only a chapter in the long history of the North Side as an Immigrant Gateway neighborhood. Locals know the area as “Little Italy,” but it’s hosted many other nationalities before and since, including German Forty-Eighters like my great-great-great grandfather. (Personal note: he succumbed to TB in 1850 and was buried in Rochester, for some reason, and the family moved westward. It’s one of life’s strange coincidences that I moved to Syracuse 160 years later.) Imagine how much longer and richer the histories are of the European neighborhoods where today’s refugees will soon settle. European attitudes toward immigrants are markedly different from those in the US – however xenophobic we may be at any given moment, we’re still a nation of immigrants – and that will factor in as well. Like everything else with landscape, it’s a work in progress, and complicated enough that the negative space merits close watch.