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The Cosmopolitan City

by Mark Peres

July 5,2006

I recently had lunch on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach and the conversation turned to the people around us. My friend, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, who was visiting South Florida, was struck by how unlike Miami Beach was from the rest of the America that she knew. There on Lincoln Road we saw Europeans celebrating the World Cup, Spanish-speaking people of all nationality and accent, gay couples embracing and holding hands, Hasidic Jews wearing black in 90 degree heat, and, what we guessed, were dozens of “aliens” selling juice at make-shift fruit stands. It was one big, sweltering, grimy, multi-ethnic collage.

As our lunch ended, my friend turned to me and said, “I always thought I wanted diversity, but I hate this place. I can’t wait to get back home.” When it comes to immigration, there’s the rub. What to do with all the immigrants moving to Charlotte is a conversation that comes up in certain circles every time an unlicensed Mexican has an accident on a highway or when signs on strip malls are entirely in Spanish. We want good diversity – variety, choice, talent – but we don’t want bad diversity – disorder and the sense of being “an alien” in our hometown.

The immigration debate is complex. It is mixed up with class and race – two ingredients that instantly make an incendiary cocktail – and law and labor and money and power. It is a decidedly personal topic. Every resident of this country is an immigrant or is the heir of one – by choice or by chains. Where we fall in the debate has as much to do with where we perceive ourselves in the continuum of assimilation as it does with whether we perceive immigration as a threat or opportunity.

As Charlotte seeks significance, it must decide how to navigate its new crosscultural currents. We want notice as an open city that welcomes talent and diversity – after all, it improves our bottom line – without risking the loss of what helps define us – civility, a common language, familiar customs. We want diversity, but not too much.

Joel Kotkin, a prominent urbanologist who will be speaking in Charlotte in the fall, argues that the great cities of history are cosmopolitan ones. In reviewing the rise and fall of urban areas, Kotkin states that the ascendant cities of the last millennia were all centers of international culture and trade. In succession, Venice, Amsterdam, London and New York reached primacy by fostering economic, technical and cultural contacts with the outside world. That meant welcoming foreigners – and everything foreign about foreigners. That meant providing them safety and security. That meant creating a place for the co-existence of ethnic neighborhoods, art, food, language, religion and ideas.

Charlotte is at an interesting stage as it builds itself the good city. In many respects, it is pre-industrial, pre-empire London. Other cities are preeminent, but the ingredients and aspirations are in place for renown. Like London of those days, Charlotte is emerging as a center of financial trade. Charlotte is assuming a role as a broker, banker and middle-man financier that is becoming greater and more expansive by the day. We have the management and nascent bureaucracy in place for a leading role in the global economy. Yet London did not rise until it threw open its doors to the world, inviting in people from throughout Europe, East India, Asia and the Americas. Soon those very people helped build an empire that ruled their cousins back home.

Kotkin notes that “by the start of the twentieth century, London, once a relatively homogeneous city, had become, in the words of Henry James, ‘the greatest aggregation of human life, the most complete compendium in the world. The human race is better represented there than anywhere else.’”

Charlotte has a choice to make. The city could well become intolerant of immigration – pandering for xenophobic votes and pushing immigrants into back corners so not to disturb its image of itself. Or it could open its doors, risking the disturbance of foreign ways. Our openness to newcomers – not just to white Protestant bankers from other cities – will test what this city really wants.

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