Ailing Midwestern Cities Extend a Welcoming Hand to Immigrants

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DAYTON, Ohio — Fighting back from the ravages of industrial decline, this city adopted a novel plan two years ago to revive its economy and its spirits: become a magnet for immigrants.

The Dayton City Commission voted to make the city “immigrant friendly,” with programs to attract newcomers and encourage those already here, as a way to help stem job losses and a drop in population.

In north Dayton — until recently a post-apocalyptic landscape of vacant, gutted houses — 400 Turkish families have moved in, many coming from other American cities. Now white picket fences, new roofs and freshly painted porches are signs of a brisk urban renewal led by the immigrants, one clapboard house at a time.

The momentum for change in Dayton came from the immigrants. In 2010, Mr. Shakhbandarov told the newly elected mayor, Gary Leitzell, that he was thinking of asking Turkish immigrants across the United States to settle here. Most of the Turks in Dayton are refugees who fled persecution in Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries.

Officials quickly realized that this city of 141,000 already had a small but fast-growing foreign-born population: more than 10,000 Muslims from different countries; refugees from Burundi and Somalia; college students from China, India and Saudi Arabia; Filipinos in health care jobs; and laborers from Latin America, many here illegally.

Turks chose Dayton, Mr. Shakhbandarov said, because the cost of living was low and there were universities nearby for their children. The newcomers have started restaurants and shops, as well as trucking companies to ferry equipment for a nearby Air Force base. And they have used their savings to refurbish houses in north Dayton, where Turkish leaders estimated that they had invested $30 million so far, including real estate, materials purchases and the value of their labor.

Mr. Shakhbandarov stood proudly at the entrance of the Turkish community center that recently opened downtown, gesturing to the lobby’s beige floor tiles, imported from Turkey to make visitors “feel warm” when they arrive. Turks bought the center, empty and dilapidated, from the city with a favorable loan. Now it houses a neighborhood preschool and martial arts classes, joined enthusiastically by girls in head scarves.

 

A Muslim organization, the Islamic Center of Peace, bought a blocklong shopping center, not far from downtown, that was so decayed the city had started to demolish it. The center’s president, Ismail Gula, envisions a bustling international shopping, recreational and religious center that will serve anyone in the city.

“I want my community to prove we are part of the community at large,” said Mr. Gula, a longtime Dayton resident who was born in Libya.

Recent research suggests that Dayton’s experience is not accidental. In a national study published last month, Jacob L. Vigdor, an economics professor at Duke University, found that over the last four decades, immigrants helped preserve and in some cases add manufacturing jobs in cities where they settled, sustaining employment for Americans. They also added to local housing values. For every thousand immigrants who moved into a county, 270 Americans moved in after them, Mr. Vigdor found.

Dayton’s immigrant experiment is particularly close to home for one lawmaker who will most likely have a major impact on the debate in Washington: the Republican speaker of the House, John A. Boehner. His district wraps around the city on three sides.

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