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Where Goes the Neighbourhood?

Chiara Moslow

Part I: The Project


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I’ve just finished the workday in my job at the refugee resettlement agency. This afternoon I had an appointment with a refugee client from Iraq. She cannot work for medical reasons, and her social security income no longer covers her rising rent on Grant Street. I go through Craigslist with her, showing her how to use the website, but there is simply nothing within the city that fits her budget anymore.

For dinner I will have the spicy chicken ramen from Thang’s Family Ramen, a restaurant in the West Side Bazaar on Grant Street, run by a Burma-born refugee, trained in Japanese cuisine in Malaysia. Walking into the bazaar, I see many friendly faces, stopping to greet Raine, who owns Zigma Naturals, and Nadeen, who owns Macramé by Nadeen. I feel welcomed and at home. This is what I love about Buffalo.

After dinner I will head down the street for a craft beer – at a quirky joint in a brand new building, with live music, a community garden and USD 12 toast. This is my experience of the multiple worlds of Buffalo. Do they collide? Compete? Coexist? This paper is part of my attempt to understand.

1. Introduction

1The traditional tale of the American post-industrial city is a well-worn one of former glory turned to economic decline, hollowed out urban cores and concentrated poverty. In the recent decade, however, this narrative has turned to one of revitalisation and renewal. A part of this story has been the role of refugees. Many of these cities have developed established resettlement systems, and become some of the largest resettlement sites in the country. This phenomenon has received extensive regional and national media attention, highlighting Buffalo, New York (NY), Utica, NY, St Louis, Missouri (MO), Lewiston, Maine (ME), and other sites as unexpected champions of refugee resettlement (La Corte, 2016; Chanoff, 2015; PBS Newshour, 2016; Hartman, 2014). The 60,000-inhabitant city of Utica, NY has even been dubbed ‘the town that loves refugees’ (UNHCR, 2005). Scholars have noted that this reflects a large-scale shift in resettlement geographies, away from traditional immigrant destinations such as New York and Los Angeles and increasingly to smaller or less traditional immigrant destinations (Bose & Grigri, 2017; Singer & Wilson, 2006).

2In many ways, resettlement is viewed optimistically as the miracle salve for disempowered cities, refugees the perfect solution for cities reeling from decades of economic decline and population loss (McKinley, 2017). Embracing resettlement is one aspect of a move towards immigrant welcoming, a strategy increasingly engaged post-2008 by many disenfranchised cities hit hard by decline (Pottie-Sherman, 2018). Emblematic of this trend is the Welcoming Economies network, a network of Rust Belt cities established in 2013 to harmonise and hone best practices to ‘tap into the economic development opportunities created by immigrants’ (Welcoming Economies, n.d.).

3While this new positive view on resettlement may be a welcome development for immigration advocates, we should be cautious about taking a superficial eye to this phenomenon. In Buffalo, NY, refugees have been credited with launching the city into the era of the ‘Refugee Renaissance’ (Adelman et al., 2019). At the same time, neoliberal development has increased in the city, and there is a concern for the fate of marginalised residents, both those displaced by exclusionary development, and those ‘left behind’ as the city’s economic fortunes grow. Refugees, as economic and social actors in the urban fabric, play a part in this trajectory of change, but simultaneously risk facing the consequences of uneven urban development. In this context, what position does the resettled refugee hold, in the eyes of different stakeholders?

Image 1 The ‘Global Voices’ mural on Grant Street celebrates many generations of immigrants and refugees in Buffalo (Droze, 2013).

Image 1 The ‘Global Voices’ mural on Grant Street celebrates many generations of immigrants and refugees in Buffalo (Droze, 2013).

2. Choice of case study

4This paper will consider the intersection of resettlement and urban restructuring through a case study of Buffalo, NY. Buffalo is a mid-sized city in upstate New York which has emerged as the largest refugee resettlement site in the state. Buffalo’s mayor is vocal about his desire to welcome refugees and for the city to remain a preferred resettlement site under the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Buffalo is also a member of the Welcoming Economies network. It is therefore an ideal case study of the intersection of neoliberal urban development in disempowered cities and ongoing refugee resettlement.

3. Relevance

5As increasing numbers of refugees are resettled in smaller or peripheral cities (Bose, 2020), there is a need for honest discussion and evaluation of both the challenges and the potential of these destinations as resettlement sites and future homes for arriving families. Although the USRAP was drastically slashed under the Trump administration, President Biden raised the refugee admissions ceiling to 62,500 for the remainder of the fiscal year (FY) 2021, and promised a record high of 125,000 for FY 2022. Resettlement agencies were expecting a sudden increase in arrivals, potentially even surpassing the surge of Syrian refugees which overwhelmed many agencies in 2015 (Interviewee R1). Thus, cities like Buffalo seemed likely to soon host exponentially larger numbers of refugees. What does it mean to keep resettling in these cities, chosen in part for their affordability, when that affordability is no longer a certainty? The ways resettlement fits into, reifies, and conflicts with the mythos and trajectory of disempowered cities has implications for how refugees are received and perceived, shaping the opportunities available to them. Therefore, a critical evaluation of resettlement and where it intersects with geographies and inequalities of urban development is paramount to ensure that resettlement is not pursued blindly.

4. Theoretical basis and contribution

6I situate myself between the literature on post-industrial restructuring in urban settings, and work on migration-development and refugee resettlement. I employ Çağlar and Glick Schiller’s (2018) typology of the disempowered city to help understand the interrelations between regeneration projects in Buffalo and refugee resettlement and how they are navigated by stakeholders within the resettlement infrastructure. I aim to bring together this space between the bodies of literature, and add another case study to the small body of work which considers migrant and refugee welcoming in disempowered cities. Further, by taking a detailed case study approach and focusing on street-level bureaucrats, this work aims to add nuance to a little-studied issue.

5. Research question

7As a starting point for exploration, I pose the following research question: In the context of urban restructuring, what role does ‘the resettled refugee’ play? This is divided into three sub-questions. First (1), how does resettlement itself, as well as narratives of resettlement, fit into both the narrative, policy and practice of development in Buffalo, and the city’s position and identity as a disempowered city? This aims to link my question with ongoing development efforts as well as the historical narratives couched in the idea of ‘rebirth’. Second (2), in this context, what are the ways that resettlement is framed? Lastly (3), how are frames, narratives, and tensions navigated by stakeholders? This final question aims to disaggregate the notion of a unified city and explore the ways that complexities emerge and are dealt with by different actors.

6. Structure of paper

8The structure of this work will be as follows: Part I lays out the project and methodology. Part II gives background on resettlement in the United States (US) and in American cities, then reviews literature on disempowered cities and urban development, migration and development, and refugee resettlement. Finally, part III moves into the details of the case study, beginning with an analysis and discussion of development and resettlement in Buffalo. This is followed by a more in-depth analysis of themes emerging from data.

Table des illustrations

Titre Image 1 The ‘Global Voices’ mural on Grant Street celebrates many generations of immigrants and refugees in Buffalo (Droze, 2013).
Fichier image/png, 941k


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