Nina Glick-Schiller: 'There isn’t a city that I can think of that was not built by migration'

Professor Nina Glick-Schiller (University of Manchester) received an honourary doctorate at the Dies Natalis 2018 by recommendation of the Erasmus Initiative ‘Vital Cities and Citizens’. Her most recent work investigates migration theory based on research looking into the relationship between the migrant and the city. She was also one of the keynote speakers at the conference ‘Empowering cities and citizens’, held on 6 November at Maassilo Rotterdam. It’s there we had the chance to interview her.

Your speech – about that there is no city on earth that was not built or rebuilt by migrants – was in a way controversial. But positive. Is this your theme: ‘let’s also look at the existing good parts of immigration and migration’?
‘Well, it’s only controversial because people don’t even think about who has actually ever built cities. It wouldn’t be controversial if we would know anything about urban history. There is no such thing as cities without migration. Really, every big city has been built by migration. 
A lot of this migration was from the countryside to the city. We don’t see it as migration anymore. But when the villagers showed up, they were seen as culturally really different, very backwards, not acceptable, not civilised. Speaking a strange, almost unintelligible dialect. This was certainly true in Amsterdam, in London, in Copenhagen, in Stockholm, in Rotterdam. Even though the US is supposed to be the place of migrants, there isn’t a city that I can think of in Europe that was not built by migration. 
So, to say “here is the city and now we going to talk about the need to integrate immigrants” is to deny how cities have actually always worked. People who come from elsewhere and were seen as different, they rebuilt the city. They made the city. They made it on all different levels. A city needs people to work in it whether they set up shops, work in production, clean it or lead it. And migrants contribute to every aspect of urban life and always have. 
And when you look at it that way: the whole fear of migrants or the fear of them ruining our culture – these misconceptions should be the controversial parts, really, because these things are not historically true and are not true today.’

Isn't that a typical New York narrative? 
‘New York is made of immigrants. But as I’m saying: this is what all cities are. There doesn’t exist something like a ‘native culture of a city’ and then the immigrants came. The culture of a city is dynamic and transformative. It’s always had new people come in, this has always happened. Also it’s out of cities that ideas come, and cultural creativity comes, and that in turn comes from the mix and dynamic of people coming together and recreating a society.’

This sounds logical
‘It is logical, it is historical. And you can see it right in front of you, everywhere. But people tend not to look. Look who is making the city possible by building it, providing hi tech, and cleaning it every day, or by taking care of the children and producing and distributing what we all need. Look at who is taking care of the goods and services, the transport, et cetera. You will find people from all over the world.’

You almost say that policymakers and scientist should shut up about integration issues – because the people on the streets of the cities are doing it together already? 
‘Yes. Not that it is not good for newcomers to a city to have services. Anyone settling in a new place could use some help.  It is good to have language classes. But even without language classes, people – if they get a chance to work – will learn the language. They may not learn it perfectly, but they will learn it. Even the immigrant mother who stays at home learns the language from her own children, who learn it at school. It is all there in the migration research, but like I said, we ignore the past and the vast body of research that contradicts the fears that politicians generate to gain power.’

'A city needs people to work in it whether they set up shops, work in production, clean it or lead it. And migrants contribute to every aspect of urban life, and always have.'

Professor Nina Glick-Schiller

Are you saying that there are no immigration problems at all? 
‘Of course there are problems. However, it’s because life is a struggle, and some people don’t have enough resources. But this is true for a lot of people in the city, not just migrants. The problem is how to provide enough for people. For people in general – not for migrants. 
Are there some people who have been traumatised by war or traumatised by migration and have special emotional problems? Yes. Are there some people who have been beaten up by their parents who are not migrants, but they’re alcoholics who end up having special emotional problems? Yes. Every part of the population has some people who are extremely troubled. Social problems are not caused by migrants, but by a number of different circumstances. Migrants shouldn’t be seen as the source of social problems.’

The world would benefit from knowing this. 
‘That’s why I’m here. Still recovering from a back operation, I come and I speak, because I would to like to make this point. The problem at this particular time in history is that some politicians are getting into power by telling people the opposite. 
These politicians say: “See, it is the migrants who took your resources.” Instead of saying: “We cut the taxes of the rich so now we don’t have as much money, so there is not enough to go around anymore.” Each country has different ways right now of extracting more and more wealth from the people who have less and less. They are leaving many people without the resources they expected to have.’

This idea is quite left-wing?
‘I think it’s common sense. You have politicians who end up pitting the one part of society against the other. But we should sit down and look at what is really happening to our lives and what is not. It shouldn’t be left-wing but mainstream. Main-wing.’

What do you think of this conference and its subject ‘Empowering cities and citizens’? 
‘It is a very good thing to focus on cities and who gets empowered and who doesn’t. Always ask the questions: who’s city is it? Who is benefiting from the urban planning? And who makes the city? The latter are the ordinary people, the immigrants as well, who make the social fabric of the city. People bring their energy to it and they are determined to make a life: that is what makes a city. 
It is not a few brilliant entrepreneurs in a high-tech building who really make a difference. The people who tell everybody else ‘diversity is good’ but stay in their gated apartments with their friends. Those are the people who should have the integration classes. The people who need integration the most are the leaders.’ 

More information

‘Empowering cities and citizens’ was organised by IHS together with the Erasmus Initiative ‘Vital Cities and Citizens’. Erasmus University Rotterdam aims to advance our understanding of how cultural, social and technological transformations are shaping urban life in the 21st century.
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