New immigrants enrich Canadian cities

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
February 7, 2004

New immigrants take a good city and make it better. They take a dull or derelict district and make it lively. They take a struggling economy and make it boom. They help explain why a Toronto thrives while others dive.

After the Second World War, a wave of Greek immigrants came to Canada, most of them settling in Montreal and, especially, Toronto. The Toronto immigrants settled in the Danforth, a lower-middle class area that was being abandoned by English, Irish and Scots who had first come generations earlier. These Anglos were now leaving their run-down homes for a better life in the suburbs.

Because the Greeks came in force and could sponsor friends and family members from their villages in the old country, they attained the critical mass needed to maintain their customs and reestablish their churches and other social institutions. They created a “Little Greece” that became the largest Greek neighbourhood in North America. The Danforth’s Greek fruit markets, Greek coffee shops, Greek restaurants, Greek bakeries and other establishments – some 600 businesses in all catering to a Greek clientele – soon also became a magnet for visitors from across the city. This little economic enclave also established trade and tourism ties with Greece that helped it withstand recessions while other neighbourhoods declined.

As street life infused the Danforth, the children of the Anglo-Saxons who had left for the suburbs became interested in what had been their parents’ haunts. First, these children – many of them affluent professionals – came back to visit; then, they came back to live. With their gentrification of the area, property values climbed. Greek families – the great majority of whom had arrived as unskilled labourers, to work in maintenance, in restaurants, in factories and as domestics – often cashed out, buying larger homes in the suburbs with the killing they made on their homes.

Yet although many Greeks moved out, their businesses remained and so did the magic of the neighbourhood, which remains one of Toronto’s liveliest. The Greeks left the area better than they found it, as immigrants generally do.

With Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, the cast of characters may be different but the plot line varies little. Until Italian, Chinese and East European immigrants moved in after the First World War, this Anglo slum – the home of Vancouver’s Skid Row – appeared doomed. With the end of the Second World War and another influx of immigrants – more Italians, then Chinese, then East Indians – the area took off. The new immigrants spruced up the homes and opened new shops, making “The Drive” prosperous and one of Vancouver’s liveliest areas.

So, too, with Montreal’s St. Lawrence Boulevard – the north-south corridor that marked the dividing line between the city’s French and English populations. Russian Jews transformed “The Main,” as the street is known, into a densely packed strip of factories, shops, restaurants, synagogues and housing in the 1920s. After they moved out, Greeks, Hungarians, Portuguese, and very recently, Latin Americans moved in. Each new immigrant group refreshed the district and kept it alive. Without new waves of immigrants, it would have slowly decayed and become derelict.

Winnipeg, until the First World War a great city that aspired to surpass Chicago as a gateway to the West, has long been in decline. Once Canada’s third-largest city with a booming population of immigrants seeking to make a new life, the city’s inability to attract immigrants has seen it slip to 8th in population. Whether Winnipeg slides further, or regains its former glory, depends entirely on the city’s ability to make itself once again worthy of immigrants.

One city that won’t supplant Winnipeg is Regina, a city that never much succeeded in attracting immigrants and that never became lively and cosmopolitan. The number of immigrants residing in Regina and their share of the population has steadily declined, giving Regina a declining population and a precarious economy.

Immigrants don’t always integrate well, or quickly, and immigration alone doesn’t guarantee prosperity – ill-advised economic policies can partly or entirely negate the benefits of immigration. But almost any local economy will function a bit better with a few immigrants. And a lot better with a lot of immigrants.

Fourth in a series.; Next: Poor v. rich immigrants; Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Toronto-based Urban Renaissance Institute, a division of Energy Probe Research Foundation. E-mail: Next: Poor v. rich immigrants

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