– PORTLAND – Ethnically diverse low-income families and the transitional public housing that often supports them have enhanced the quality of life for all Portland residents, contrary to the prevailing view of most Mainers eight years ago.

That’s right; it’s been less than a decade since then-Lewiston Mayor Laurier T. Raymond Jr. pleaded with the Somali community, urging newcomers to locate elsewhere due to the city’s maxed-out financial and emotional capacity. Can you imagine a city mayor turning away hoards of new residents and their contributions to the local economy in today’s economic climate?

Mayor Raymond wasn’t alone, however. Many Mainers still harbor a sentiment of distrust, disapproval and hostility toward unfamiliar immigrants. Xenophobia can make you believe all sorts of things; that these new families are a drag on the economy, that they all live in public housing and are unemployed or that the low-income neighborhoods they may inhabit are the most crime-ridden in town.

Take a tour of the neighborhoods with public housing developments in Portland, many of which are home to Somalis and other East African families. Compared to areas of similar income, you will find stronger communities, more thriving social networks and more civic-minded people there than anywhere else in the city. Healthy communities are safe.

Public housing communities in Portland thrive, in part, because of the integration of people with diverse backgrounds. These neighborhoods house third-generation white Mainers alongside people of color from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and East Africa.

When crime happens in any community, it takes place right on the streets, on the sidewalks in front of homes. Renowned urban scholar Jane Jacobs notes public peace on our streets is not maintained primarily by police.

Rather, the somewhat unconscious enforcement of rules and standards of conduct falls to the social network of people who live there.

Look at the North End in Boston, a neighborhood with diversity to thank for its safety. Jacobs explains that despite its Italian heritage, its streets are used by people of every race and background. This makes the neighborhood safe because it benefits from eyes on the street; vigilant people who are the streets’ natural proprietors.

Without diversity though, there will be no mix of people, with varied schedules and routines, to provide constant supervision. There will not be enough eyes watching or enough pedestrians to prevent bustling streets from becoming abandoned ones.

Even in downtown Portland, blocks like those in the North End are hard to find. Look at Monument Square late on a Monday night. Low diversity in land use and a highly homoge-nous population lead to empty streets after the offices and restaurants shut their doors.

Believe it or not, the public housing neighborhoods in Portland have more in common with the North End than One City Center.

As of 2006, Maine was the whitest state in the country, black residents composing less than 1 percent of the population. In Portland, that picture is changing. A more diverse Portland behooves not only those who prefer it, or diners hunting for that new ethnic restaurant on Washington Avenue.

Princeton University sociology professor Douglas Massey has extensively researched residential segregation, which robs neighborhoods of diversity and its benefits. Massey finds this to be the feature most responsible for the concentrated poverty American cities experienced in recent decades.

Diverse residents mitigate the impact of problems such as poverty and crime. While newly arrived families live in public housing, they serve as an additional stakeholder in the neighborhood.

When families transition to market-rate housing elsewhere in Portland, former areas of disinvestment are often salvaged and rejuvenated. Lewiston is a shining example. Both public housing neighborhoods and traditional residential areas have benefited from diverse new residents. Over the past eight years, as diversity has grown, crime has fallen.

Eight years after the local backlash, Lewiston is proof of the positive impact diverse newcomers can have on a distressed community.

Portland should expect nothing different. Cities are composed of strangers, but safe neighborhoods are not. The residents in public housing communities in Portland are often active members of a tightly knit social network.

People in these places know each other and care about their neighborhood. Meanwhile, during the same eight years, a close friend of mine has lived in an all-white North Deering neighborhood in Portland.

He drives a car to work and rarely sees or talks to his neighbors. Sound familiar?

 

– Special to the Press Herald