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The outbreak of COVID-19 has accelerated a number of existing trends in the United States; along with giving a big boost to remote work and the digital economy, and reinforcing existing socioeconomic inequality, 2020 has also seen the trend of movement from big cities to smaller ones pick up. Whether because larger cities are too expensive or because COVID-19 made them feel not just dense but claustrophobic, residents have reconsidered their environments. While big cities like New York and San Francisco have seen their populations decline over the last five years, some smaller cities – with populations in the tens of thousands rather than the millions – have been seeing an upswing.
Dr. Richard Ocejo, a John Jay professor, sociologist and author, is interested in what it looks like when newcomers arrive in small cities. He’s using Newburgh, New York, a city of about 30,000 in the middle of the Hudson Valley, as a case study, spending time with new and old residents to learn what gentrification looks like in a smaller city. “Newburgh was totally abandoned,” says Ocejo. “Capital had left it, investment had left it, it was just a place to warehouse the poor and struggling. Until New York City became too expensive, then all of a sudden, small, affordable, historic places like Newburgh become valuable again, to a group of people who are looking for these urban lifestyles.”
Gentrifying a Small City
Ocejo sees the characteristics of small-city gentrifiers as distinct from those who have traditionally moved into gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City, like on the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn. People moving to small cities from places like New York are often middle class, mid-career professionals, who are looking to buy property more affordably while still maintaining the lifestyles and habits they developed in the big city. Over the course of several years of field work and interviews, Ocejo has pinpointed some common threads in the narratives Newburgh’s newest residents use to understand their actions.
“They recognize that the reason they left [New York City] was because of being priced out. But when they get to Newburgh, the understanding of what it’s like to not be able to afford a place any more, of having to leave one’s home as a consequence of these larger forces beyond your control, doesn’t resonate in how they understand gentrification as they are perpetuating it in this small city,” says Ocejo. “They don’t see what they’re doing there as gentrifying that will cause this sort of harm that could make somebody leave their home as they had to do. Instead they say, we’ll just do it better.”
Generally, Newburgh’s gentrifiers are opposed to harmful development by “slumlords” or “bad actors;” in contrast, they perceive themselves as providing employment and adding to the tax base. But Ocejo hasn’t seen concrete evidence to back up their narratives. “I don’t know many examples of what we can call a successful gentrification, at least not at any kind of scale,” says Ocejo. “I can’t think of any examples of an equitable integration where there aren’t tensions and conflicts that take place.”
Reckoning with Racism
Ocejo says that some of the challenges he sees playing out in Newburgh are tied into structural racism and the failure of newcomers to acknowledge that they are recreating harmful racial and economic dynamics in Newburgh that caused displacement in New York City. While he observed Newburgh’s newcomers participating in Black Lives Matter protests and marches, he says that the leap to understanding the racist structures that are tied up in gentrification is rarely made. “We don’t talk about gentrification as a racial process,” Ocejo says, “but it is. It’s this extraction of value from racialized spaces, non-white spaces that are taken advantage of through these processes. And that’s not discussed at all.” He says gentrifiers’ inability or unwillingness to confront these issues is exacerbating a key inequality at the heart of the process.
Ocejo does clarify that, although on the whole gentrified spaces tend to end up segregated socially and culturally, there are positives associated with the process. Smaller cities are crying out for even a fraction of the investment New York City has received and, done correctly, municipal revitalization can make a real difference to disadvantaged communities. And in interviews with existing Newburgh residents, he has generally heard people react positively to commercial development in their neighborhoods. However, they aren’t necessarily sure the changes will add up to much real change in their own lives.
“Gentrification is a consequence of much larger forces that are beyond anybody’s control,” says Ocejo. Newburgh’s population of gentrifiers are responding to market forces that are making New York City a difficult place to live long-term without making significant sacrifices or acquiring millions of dollars. But at the end of the day, some groups have the means to make choices about where they will live and whether they will stay or go, while others are unable to make the same choices. It will take structural, policy-based change to make gentrifying urban neighborhoods, and migration in general, more equitable.
Dr. Ocejo has published three papers related to his work in Newburgh and has two additional papers under review. He is also working on the manuscript of a book that will bring together all of his work on this project; he expects it to come out in 2022 or 2023.
Dr. Richard Ocejo is an Associate Professor of Sociology at John Jay College, and the Director of the MA Program in International Migration Studies at the Graduate Center of CUNY. His research, which has been published in a variety of journals including Journal of Urban Affairs, Sociological Perspectives, and more, focuses on cities, culture and work. He uses primarily qualitative methods in his scholarship. Dr. Ocejo is the author of two books: Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy (2017) – on the transformation of manual labor occupations like butchering and bartending into elite occupations – and Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City (2014) – about the influence of commercial operations on gentrification and community institutions in downtown Manhattan.
August 8, 2018 – The Graduate Center of CUNY has the benefit of some of the best immigration scholars in the country. Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, in which this contentious issue will play (and has already been seen to play) a big role, six distinguished faculty experts on immigration sat down to brief the press on a variety of issues surrounding evolving immigration policy under the Trump administration and related issues, including demographics, economics, and the sociocultural experience of immigrants in the United States.
The panel kicked off with CUNY Graduate Center Distinguished Professor of Sociology Richard Alba, who introduced the idea that immigration policy under President Trump is the most restrictionist and selective this country has seen since the inter-war period of the 1920s. However, he suggested that there are a number of structural constraints on this administration’s ability to push immigration restrictions too far. These include business’s need for new workers, both skilled and unskilled; demographic indicators of an impending dearth of young workers; and a lack of political will even among a Republic Congress to enact major immigration legislation.
Next, David Brotherton, a professor of sociology and criminologist from John Jay College, brought up the idea that the “deportation regime” under Donald Trump is not unique in the history of the United States. He noted earlier examples of deportation- or exclusion-oriented federal policy, including the 1996 Immigrant Responsibility Act, Indian Removal Act, and the 19th century Chinese Exclusion Act. Dr. Brotherton went on to discuss the origins of the Trump Administration’s restrictive immigration policies, particularly the president’s campaign tactics of stoking panic in a segment of the population that feels insecure about their place in society. He emphasized that this strategy represents only the latest in a series of moral panics in American history, calling back to the War on Drugs and earlier rhetoric about the dangers of young black and Latino men.
Dr. Brotherton described U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as arguably the “largest police force in the United States.” ICE’s detention and deportation of immigrants is retroactively punishing many non-native Americans for crimes in their pasts; because these individuals have since put down roots in the country, with families, jobs and wider communities that are hurt when they are suddenly taken away, the policy is cruel. For this reason, Dr. Brotherton has acted as an expert witness since 2007, testifying to the effects of deportation on the individuals detained, their communities, and even their representation.
A second immigration project that Dr. Brotherton is currently engaged in is “Social Anatomy of a Deportation Regime,” in which he collaborates with Graduate Center faculty to treat New York City – a sanctuary city, and the only city that guarantees representation to immigrant detainees – as a case study. The project aims to look at this problem from all angles and account for many perspectives.
The next commentator was Margaret Chin, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, who focused on the problem of “glass and bamboo ceilings” that stand in the way of Asian-Americans’ achieving educational equity in New York City. She emphasized the importance of taking race into account when designing programs, such as student tracking and race-conscious admissions.
Nancy Foner, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hunter College, is the author of a number of books on immigration. During the briefing, she strove to correct immigration myths that are being spread by the president and members of his administration. First, that immigrants are criminals; in fact, immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans (excepting immigration infractions), and cities and neighborhoods with higher concentrations of immigrant populations have lower rates of crime that comparable neighborhoods. Second, that today’s immigrant populations aren’t learning English; the “three-generation model” continues to be accurate in describing language-learning patterns in immigrant families. The United States can be called a “graveyard of languages” because immigrants tend to lose their native tongues in favor of English – typically by the third generation, individuals are mostly monolingual in English.
Debunking these myths, according to Dr. Foner, is important to reducing the hostility toward immigrants upon which the administration’s restrictive immigration agenda is predicated. She emphasized that social scientists and journalists alike have a responsibility to help publicize the truth about immigrants and their contributions to society.
According to Philip Kasinitz, a Presidential Professor of Sociology at Hunter College, the underlying strategy of the Trump Administration on immigration is difficult to understand, in that much of the policy is self-contradicting. He noted several key contradictions around the thinking on immigration today. For example, the current moral panic conflating immigrants, illegality and crime comes at a time when crime rates – particularly violent crime – is way down. Americans are also increasingly supportive of immigrants and their participation in society, but increasingly make a distinction between legal and illegal, creating a class of people involved socially, economically and culturally in our society but not politically, a fact that is, in his view, bad for a democratic society. Finally, Dr. Kasinitz talked about the generational factors behind a society that is increasingly diverse, but which at the same time harbors extreme anti-immigrant sentiments.
John Mollenkopf, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology, also noted contradictions inherent to the views of an older, white segment of the population: their anxiety about allowing immigrants into the country is not in their economic best interests, as many are increasingly dependent on low-wage immigrant labor for their care. As a scholar of the acquisition and use of political power, Dr. Mollenkopf opined that the best way to limit the ability of Republicans in Congress to build a base around anti-immigrant sentiment is to mobilize the increasing numbers of immigrant-origin voters and bring new constituencies into the electorate. In New York City, for example, the majority of the electorate is of immigrant origin, but newer immigrants have not yet organized to develop the same amount of political influence as groups that have been in the United States in large numbers for longer.
The panel wrapped up with questions from the audience. In particular, the discussion touched on the movement to abolish or reform U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an idea that has received some popular attention among Democrats in the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections. Dr. Brotherton said that “a critical mass of people has disappeared” in Latin American and Central American communities, and immigrants across the country have changed their routines out of fear of the agency. Dr. Kasinitz clarified that, despite popular belief, the number of deportations has not risen; rather, the length of immigrant detentions has grown substantially due to a lack of capacity in immigration courts to process detainees. All agreed that more dramatic action or a greater groundswell of support for reform is needed to signal that ICE’s actions are not acceptable to a majority of Americans.
For more information about the immigration research coming out of the CUNY Graduate Center, please visit the GC Immigration page.