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Doug Saunders

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Arrival City

Arrival City

The Final Migration and Our Next World
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Liu Gong Li, China
It begins with a village. To an outsider, the village seems fixed, timeless, devoid of motion or change, isolated from the larger world. We consign it to nature. To those who might glance at its jumble of low buildings from a passing vehicle, the village seems a tranquil place of ordered, subtle beauty. We imagine a pleasant rhythm of life, free from the strains of modernity. Its small cluster of weathered shacks is nestled into the crest of a modest valley. A few animals move in their pens, children run along the edge of a field, a thin plume of smoke rises from one of the huts, an old man strolls in the patch of forest on the crest, a cloth sack on his back.
The man is named Xu Qin Quan, and he is searching for a cure. He walks down the ancient stone pathway alongside terraced fields toward the small glade on the valley floor, as members of his family have done for 10 generations. Here he finds the remedies he has known since childhood: the slender stalks of ma huang, for sweating away a cold; the leafy branches of gou qi zi, for mending the liver. He slices the stalks with his pocket knife, stacks them in his bag and walks back to the crest. There, he stands for a while, looking at the eruptions of dust rising to the north, where a construction crew is turning the narrow, bumpy road into a broad, paved boulevard. A journey north to Chongqing and back, once an all-day affair, will soon take no more than two hours. Mr. Xu watches the dust plumes turn the distant trees ochre. He considers the larger suffering, the pain that has racked their lives and killed their children and held them in decades of food panic followed by years of paralyzing tedium. That night, at a village meeting, he proffers the larger cure. After tonight, he says, we shall stop being a village.
It is 1995, and the village is called Liu Gong Li. Very little about its appearance, its families or its thoroughly unmechanized cultivation of wheat and corn has changed in centuries. It got its name, which means Six Kilometres, during the building of the Burma Road, when the great inland city of Chongqing was the eastern terminus. That name, for decades after the Second World War, was a fantasy, for the original bridge to the big city had been bombed, and the nearest replacement, many kilometres away, was impassable enough to make the journey economically pointless, even if the Communist Party had allowed it. The little village had no connection to any city, or any market. It farmed for itself. The soil, and the rudimentary farming methods, never provided quite enough food for everyone. Every few years, the vicissitudes of weather and politics would produce a famine, and people would die, children would starve. In the terrible years of 1959 through 1961, the village lost a large portion of its population. Starvation ended two decades later, replaced by a scraping, passionless dependency on government subsidies. In Liu Gong Li, as in peasant villages around the world, nobody sees rural life as tranquil, or natural, or as anything but a monotonous, frightening gamble. In the final decade of the twentieth century, when China embraced a form of capitalism, the villages here were suddenly permitted to develop non-arable land for market purposes. So when Mr. Xu suggested his remedy, there was no dissension: all the land would be declared non-arable. From that moment, it stopped being a village and became a destination for villagers.
Fifteen years later, Liu Gong Li reveals itself as a spectre at the side of a traffic-clotted four-lane boulevard a kilometre into the city: amidst a forest of apartment towers, there unfolds a glimmering mirage of grey and brown cubes cascading across hillsides as far as the eye can see, an utterly random crystal formation that has obliterated the landscape. Closer, the crystals materialize into houses and shops, jagged brick and concrete dwellings of two or three storeys assembled by their occupants without plan or permission, cantilevered over one another, jutting at unlikely angles. Within 10 years of Mr. Xu’s prescription, his village of 70 had gained more than 10,000 residents; within a dozen years, it had fused with neighbouring ex-villages into a solid agglomeration of 120,000 people, few of whom officially reside here. It is no longer a distant village, or even a place on the far outskirts; it is a key and integral part of Chongqing, a city of some 10 million people packed in and around a skyscraper peninsula that resembles Manhattan in both its density of population and its intensity of activity. With more than 200,000 people a year being added to its population and 4 million unregistered migrants within its borders, it is very likely the world’s fastest-growing city.*
* The title “fastest-growing city” has a number of legitimate claimants, including Dhaka and Lagos, because it has a number of meanings: it can be the place that adds the largest number of people every year (a measure that favours large cities), the place whose population increases by the largest proportion (a measure that favours small cities) or the place with the highest increase in its rate of growth. However, with a growth rate approaching 4 per cent per year across its wider metropolitan district (whose population is 32 million), Chongqing qualifies by any measure.
That growth is largely driven by the multiplication of places like Liu Gong Li, self-built settlements of rural escapees, known in China simply as urban “villages” (cun), hundreds of which flourish around the city’s perimeter, even if city authorities do not acknowledge their existence. Their streets and blocks are tightly organized by the villages and regions from which their residents come; residents refer to their urban neighbours who’ve arrived from their own rural regions as tongxiang—literally “homies.” At least 40 million peasants join these urban enclaves across China each year, though a good number—perhaps half—end up returning to their rural village, out of hardship, desperation or personal taste. Those who stay tend to be deeply determined.
To an outsider, Liu Gong Li is a fetid slum. The old pathway into the valley is now a busy street overhung with a shambles of thrown-together houses, its dirt laneway lined with phone shops, butchers, huge steaming woks full of pungent peppers at streetside eateries, merchants hawking clothes, tools, fast-spinning bobbins of thread, a cacophony of commerce spiralling away for two kilometres into dizzying back pathways and snaking staircases whose ungrounded perspectives resemble an upturned Escher engraving. Electrical and cable television lines fill the air; raw sewage spills from the concrete, runs down the sides of buildings, cascades along open gutters into a terrible stinking river beneath the concrete bridges at the foot of the valley. Garbage and waste are seemingly everywhere, accumulating in a small mountain behind the houses. A chaos of vehicles with two, three and four wheels clots every lane. There is no space without people, without activity, and none to be seen with greenery. It might seem, from this vantage, that this is a hellish refuge for the destitute, a last-ditch landing pad for the failed outcasts of an enormous nation—a place for those on the way downward.
The true nature of places like Liu Gong Li becomes evident when you walk off the main lane into the rough dirt side streets that descend into the valley. Behind each window, each crude opening in the concrete, is a clatter of activity. On the crest of the valley, near the place where Mr. Xu made his big decision in 1995, you are drawn to a noisy cinder-block rectangle, jammed into a steep corner, exuding a pleasant cedar scent. It is the shop-cum-home of 39-year-old Wang Jian and his family. Four years before, Mr. Wang moved here from the village of Nan Chung, 80 kilometres away, with the money he had saved from two years of carpentry work, a total of 700 renminbi ($102).* He rented a tiny room, accumulated some scrap wood and iron and began building, by hand, traditional Chinese wooden bathtubs, which have become popular with the new middle class. These took two days to make, and he sold them for a profit of R50 ($7.30) each. After a year, he had earned enough to get power tools and a bigger shop. He brought over his wife, his son, his son’s wife and their infant grandson. They all sleep, cook, wash and eat in a windowless area in the back, behind a plastic curtain, in a space that is even more exposed and cramped than the dirt-floor hut they endured in the village.
* All figures in this book are converted to United States dollars.
But there is no talk of returning: this, filth and all, is the better life. “Here, you can turn your grandchildren into successful people if you find the right way to make a living—in the village you can only live,” says Mr. Wang, in boisterous Sichuan dialect, as he bends an iron strap around a tub. “I’d say about a fifth of the people who’ve left my village have ended up starting their own businesses. And almost everybody has left the village—there are just old people left. It has become a hollow village.”
Mr. Wang and his wife still send a third of their earnings back to the village, to support their two surviving retired parents, and the year before, he’d bought a small restaurant down the road in Liu Gong Li, for his son to run. Mr. Wang’s margins are tiny, because the competition is intense: there are 12 other wood-bathtub factories in Chongqing, one of them also located in Liu Gong Li. “Mine has the highest output,” he says, “but we’re not necessarily the most profitable.” So it will be years of saving, and hoping for the best in the bathtub trade, before they will be able to buy their own apartment, send their grandson to university and get out of Liu Gong Li—although by then, if the dream comes true, Liu Gong Li might have evolved into the sort of place where they’d want to stay.
All down the valley, the grey cubism materializes into a quilt of tiny, officially non-existent industries hidden behind ramshackle concrete slum buildings. Down the street from the bathtub shop is an exceptionally noisy place where 20 employees are making metal security railings; a little farther, a shop making custom walk-in refrigerators; a powdered-paint blending shop; a place churning out computer-guided embroidery patterns on half a dozen massive machines; a factory making electric-motor windings; a sour-smelling place where barely teenaged workers hunched over heat-sealing machines make inflatable beach toys; similar family shops, of every description, making shop displays, vinyl-frame windows, extruded industrial air-conditioning ducts, cheap wood cabinetry, ornamental wooden bed frames, high-voltage transformers, computer-lathe-milled motorcycle parts and stainless-steel restaurant range hoods. These factories, most of whose goods are destined for Asian consumers, were all launched during the previous dozen years by villagers who arrived here or by the former employees of the first wave of villagers.
In every unpainted concrete cube, it is the same rhythm of arrival, struggle, support, saving, planning, calculation. Everyone who lives in Liu Gong Li, and all 120,000 people in this strip of land, has arrived, since 1995, from a rural village. Everyone who remains here beyond a few months has decided to stay for the long haul, despite the filth and the crowding and the difficulty of life, and even though their children are often left behind with family members back in the village, because they have decided that it is a better life. Most have endured extraordinarily long odysseys of self-denial and austere deprivation. Almost all send money, quite often almost all of their earnings, back to support the village and put some into savings for their children’s education here in the city. All are engaged in a daily calculation that involves the unbearable burden of rural deprivation, the impossible expense of full-fledged urban life and the broken pathway of opportunities that might someday form a bridge between the two.
In other words, the main function of this place is arrival. Liu Gong Li, like millions of other new and peripheral urban neighbourhoods around the world, performs a specific set of functions. It is not merely a place for living and working, for sleeping and eating and shopping; it is most importantly a place of transition. Almost all of its important activities, beyond mere survival, exist to bring villagers, and entire villages, into the urban sphere, into the centre of social and economic life, into education and acculturation and belonging, into sustainable prosperity. The arrival city is both populated with people in transition—for it turns outsiders into central, “core” urbanites with sustainable social, economic and political futures in the city—and is itself a place in transition, for its streets, homes and established families will either someday become part of the core city itself or will fail and decay into poverty or be destroyed.
The arrival city can be readily distinguished from other urban neighbourhoods, not only by its rural-immigrant population, its improvised appearance and ever-changing nature, but also by the constant linkages it makes, from every street and every house and every workplace, in two directions. It is linked in a lasting and intensive way to its originating villages, constantly sending people and money and knowledge back and forth, making possible the next wave of migrations from the village, facilitating within the village the care of older generations and the education of younger ones, financing the improvement of the village. And it is linked in important and deeply engaged ways to the established city. Its political institutions, business relationships, social networks and transactions are all footholds intended to give new village arrivals a purchase, however fragile, on the edge of the larger society, and to give them a place to push themselves, and their children, further into the centre, into acceptability, into connectedness. Liu Gong Li makes many things, sells many things and houses many people, but all with one overarching goal, one project that unites its mad range of activities. Liu Gong Li is an arrival city. Here, on the periphery, is the new centre of the world.
At the crest of the valley, a short, steep walk up the curved gravel road from the factory-packed valley floor, is an especially dense conglomeration of concrete buildings. If you enter an alley behind a small restaurant, then cut through a labyrinth of tunnels and narrow passageways surrounded by high walls, you will reach a small grey courtyard. It is a tranquil spot amidst the chaos of the slum, with low wooden stools surrounding a small table. The air is filled with the pungent smells of Sichuan cooking and the remote sounds of motors, babies crying, shouted commands, horns. Crouched near the table is an old man, dressed in the traditional green cloth jacket and beaten canvas shoes of a peasant, and a Nike baseball cap. Beside him is a conical bamboo hat filled with herbs he has gathered on a walk in a little-known green patch at the far end of the valley, behind the five-storey garbage mountain that covers most of the old glade.
This is Xu Qin Quan, the cure-gatherer and village patriarch, still living in exactly the same spot at the centre of Liu Gong Li. The shift to urban life has made him a wealthy man: from his rental earnings, he has housed most of his family members in condominium apartments costing $75,000 each, or 10 years’ earnings for a manager. He alone stays here, close to his medicinal trove. The “village” is still owned collectively by its original residents, and it is still legally a village. This means that none of the hundreds of dwellings here, other than this one, fully belong to their owners, even though many have purchased title deeds from the collective and buy and sell their houses for profit. The thriving property market has driven rents and unofficial land prices upward, giving the village-migrant “owners” a source of capital through rent, sublease and property speculation—none of it official or taxed—which they often use to launch businesses. At any moment, the city authorities could bulldoze the whole district and either throw all 120,000 residents out or move them into apartment blocks with clean, official garment factories next door. China has done this to hundreds of such neighbourhoods, disrupting the lives and economic relationships of families that have invested everything in this urban foothold. Liu Gong Li’s founders are confident that they have at least a decade before this happens.
Officials from the Chongqing People’s Congress tell me vaguely that they someday want to turn their entire megalopolis into a place without shantytown settlements, replacing them with neat workers’ dormitories and private apartments built around industrial centres. But they also tell me that they want to urbanize as fast as possible, at a rate of growth that cannot possibly be absorbed without an exponential increase in these high-density informal settlements. There may be several thousand housing towers under construction around Chongqing on any given day (all by private companies), but the budget for housing is dwarfed by the influx of people, and village arrivals are still officially excluded from housing unless they’re able to earn enough money to afford it on the private market. The arrival city is not a temporary anomaly. In inland Chinese cities, these arrival-city “villages” have become intrinsic if unacknowledged parts of the city’s growth plan, its economy and its way of life.
“My tenants are generally people who want very badly to become urban residents, but only a fraction will be able to do so,” Mr. Xu tells me, as his daughters prepare a lavish meal for the June dragonboat festival. “They often don’t make enough money to save anything, and it’s becoming too expensive for them. Unless things change here, a lot of them will have to move back. We all want to quit being peasants, and China wants us to become city-dwellers now, but they’ve made it so difficult to get there.”
Indeed, a great many of Liu Gong Li’s residents are like Wang Zhen Lei, 36, and her husband, Shu Wei Dong, 34, who spend their nights in a two-by-three-metre room, built of drywall sheets hung from thin wood joists half a metre below the poured-concrete ceiling of a couples’ dormitory that is home to a dozen similar chambers, the whole structure cantilevered precariously over a fetid stream. The sole window is barred and covered, except a 60-centimetre slit at the top; light comes from bare incandescent bulbs. Ten hours a day, and often on weekends, they sew garments at work tables in an adjoining concrete room, its walls coated in a shag of lint, equally barren except for a colour TV showing a constant stream of Chinese soap operas. The factory, with 30 sewing tables, is owned by a man who moved from a distant village to Liu Gong Li in 1996, initially as a garment worker himself, and who pays his workers by the piece; they earn between $200 and $400 a month. The dormitory room is provided free (which is not the case in all factories). Mrs. Wang and Mr. Shu’s life here consists of exactly 29 possessions, including four chopsticks and a mobile phone; they have never seen the great city of Chongqing beyond Liu Gong Li’s streets. Each month, they keep $45 for food and $30 to cover expenses, and send all the rest back to their village, to support their daughter’s secondary-school education and to feed their parents, who raise their daughter.
For 11 years, beginning in 1993, the two of them lived in more modern and somewhat less cryptlike worker dormitories in Shenzhen, the all-industrial city in the Pearl River Delta, 1,500 kilometres south. The garment factories there, which made goods for Western companies, had better working conditions and paid more. But they discovered a serious flaw: in Shenzhen, there was no prospect of arrival. No matter how much the couple saved, they could never afford an apartment, and the city offered them no option of purchasing a piece of shantytown housing, of the sort that dominates Liu Gong Li, because none exists in the planned city of Shenzhen. And they had no chance of seeing their beloved daughter, except once a year during Chinese New Year. There was, in short, no future. They moved north, in a painful bargain: they would have a family nearby, and maybe a future for their daughter and their parents in the city, in exchange for working most of the rest of their lives in a pit of lonely darkness.
Like so many people here, and around the world today, they have staked their entire lives on their daughter’s education—something they know is not much better than an even bet. “We all want to have our kids stay in school and get into university so they don’t have to work in a factory like this,” Mrs. Wang says. “But if my daughter doesn’t get in, I would accept the alternative, which is still better than the village—she works in this factory like we do.”
For every 20 families like them in Liu Gong Li, there is one like Xian Guang Quan’s clan. He and his wife arrived as illiterate peasants, spent years sleeping on open-air slabs on construction sites, moved into a concrete hut in Liu Gong Li, and saved. In 2007, they moved across the road into a 10-storey apartment building that was constructed by Mr. Xian, 46, and his crew. It’s a rudimentary structure of unpainted red bricks with a raw-concrete staircase running up the centre, but the Xian family have turned their apartment’s spacious interior into something palatial: attractively tiled floors with big swathes of empty space, bright wallpaper, modernist chandeliers, a big orange sectional sofa, a large plasma TV and surround-sound system. Mr. Xian, a heavyset man with a balding pate and a permanent smile, spends his spare hours on shopping trips downtown or lengthy smoke-filled mah-jong games with his old village friends, a truly middle-class lifestyle, backed by a genuine middle-class income, that belies the six years he spent here, not long ago, exposed to the elements, with no money or possessions.
He came from the village of Shi Long, more than 100 kilometres away, in 1992, shortly after China’s economy liberalized and the government began tolerating some peasant mobility. It was a move of desperation, from a farm where six of them slept in a tiny dirt-floor straw hut. Buildings were beginning to rise in Chongqing, replacing the ancient wood-gable houses with crude high-rises, and there was a demand for construction labour. He had only his hands, his wits and his wife. She cooked for construction crews, and he worked, at first for 50 to 75 cents a day, plus meals of rice, which contained pork every five days, and the right to sleep on the site. They spent their nights wrapped in sheets on the foundations of buildings, joining hundreds of thousands of other homeless workers in the city.
They sent all of their income back to Shi Long, and went years without seeing their daughter. They joined China’s “floating population” of between 150 million and 200 million people. Under the country’s rigid household-registration (hukou) system, people living in the city but holding village registration papers are not entitled to urban housing, welfare, medical care or access to schooling for their children in the city. After reforms to the hukou system at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it became possible for migrants to apply for urban hukou—but this is in practice virtually impossible, and means giving up their village homes. Very few peasants are able to do this in the first generation, because China’s primary-education, child-care, welfare and unemployment insurance systems are not even remotely sufficient to support the precarious life of a new city-dweller. So as many as a sixth of the Chinese population are neither villagers nor official urbanites.
Xian Guang Quan was determined to break into genuine urban life. In 1998, he organized 20 of his fellow village workers into a building crew and began operating as a company. They weren’t registered or accredited to national standards, which would have required an urban hukou. The money became good, reaching the comfortable middle-class level of $15,000 a year, and up to $30,000 in good years. Despite their financial security, Mr. Xian and his wife kept living in a tiny concrete hut they had bought in Liu Gong Li. “We could have lived in a better place when we first made our fortune in the late ’90s, but we didn’t want to take that risk,” he told me. “First we had to put our daughter through school, set up our elders in the village with proper brick houses—we needed large amounts of money for future security in savings.”
This need for poor village migrants to sacrifice much of their earnings to health, education and emergency savings is exactly what has kept thousands of Liu Gong Li residents like Mrs. Wang trapped in an uncomfortable world that is neither urban nor rural, isolating them from their own children, preventing them from becoming full members of the country’s economy. To mutual disadvantage, the Chinese state barely touches their lives. Mr. Xian broke through that barrier by hatching a plan. He gathered 14 of his most successful construction-worker friends, and they each pooled $15,000 to build three 10-storey apartment buildings across the road from Liu Gong Li, in a settlement they gave a pleasant-sounding name that translates rather awkwardly to “Ethnic National New Village.” One building would provide them with an income—they would rent its small apartments to “the farmers,” as he calls the new village arrivals. The second would contain factory spaces for sale, as well as shopfronts on the ground level. And the third would contain 15 large condominiums for him and his partners. With this scheme, and 15 years of deprivation and saving, Mr. Xian and his mates were able to realize the dream of arrival.
It is rare, anywhere in the world, to find a family that grew up on a dirt floor and made it, in the same generation, into the middle-class world of mortgages and shopping malls. Many more people are like Pu Jun, 32, a slender and somewhat awkward man who works in one of the scores of villager-owned factories at the bottom of the valley. This particular factory, unlike its neighbours, is quiet, neat, airy, and plunged into a perpetual darkness that gives it the air of a minimalist cathedral; its 30 employees do the difficult work of refurbishing high-voltage transformers, intricate, toxin-filled devices the size of a car. Mr. Pu is a trained and experienced technician, educated in a trade school near his village in eastern Sichuan and seasoned in Shenzhen’s factories, a background that should be a ticket to middle-class security.
Yet when I met him in the factory one afternoon, he was in a mood of quiet anxiety, discreetly trying to absorb a blow that seemed to throw the whole venture into question. At the moment, he had $150 in his pocket, leaving him wondering how he’d find the remaining $15 for the month’s rent. This from a man who had spent five years spending nothing on himself. He had been able to tell his two young children, only three months earlier, that they could look forward to living with him in the city by the end of the year.
But things had suddenly gone wrong. His father, 61, had come down with an illness that proved hard to diagnose and required constant medication. The anti-seizure pills, in a medical system that is far from free, now eat up a third of Mr. Pu’s income, which is mainly devoted to supporting his children in the village. He had already endured a series of setbacks, including a disastrously failed attempt at shifting his village farm to fruit trees and the unplanned-for birth of his second child. And his marriage had collapsed. This last, in arrival cities around the world, is not uncommon: the transition to urban life places a terrible strain on marriages. But in Mr. Pu’s case it was the end of this estrangement, just a few weeks earlier, that had cost more: his wife, who works as a dim sum server for $150 a month, had built up considerable debts trying to live on her own. “Now has become my worst time ever,” he said plainly. “We lived apart, and when we live apart we fight, and we get to forget each other’s common goals—we forgot that the goal is to build a future together. And suddenly I’m having to support three generations.”
Now, if nothing else goes wrong, he expects it will be three more years before he will be able to live in the same house as his children, send them to school in the city and end his family’s peasant history forever. When work slows, he grasps the worn and creased photo of his son, Ming Lin, 6, and daughter, Dong, 4, and quietly whispers to them. He aches for their presence. “I hope the kids will understand someday—understand why we were away so much, understand why we were never there for them when they were learning about the world, and understand the sacrifice we made. I believe we can make it up to them. We want to provide them with a better future than we’ve experienced. For now,” he says, using a Chinese phrase that is almost a mantra in the arrival city, “we will have to eat the bitterness.”
The ex-villager enclave within the city, located on the periphery of our vision and beyond the tourist maps, has become the setting of the world’s next chapter, driven by exertion and promise, battered by violence and death, strangled by neglect and misunderstanding. History is being written, and largely ignored, in places like Liu Gong Li, or in Clichy-sous-Bois, on the outskirts of Paris, or in Dharavi, the almost million-strong arrival city in Mumbai, or in the Latino arrival city of Compton, on the edge of Los Angeles—all places settled by people who have arrived from the village, all places that function to propel people into the core life of the city and to send support back to the next wave of arrivals. Arrival cities are known around the world by many names: as the slums, favelas, bustees, bidonvilles, ashwaiyyat, shantytowns, kampongs, urban villages, gecekondular and barrios of the developing world, but also as the immigrant neighbourhoods, ethnic districts, banlieues difficiles, Plattenbau developments, Chinatowns, Little Indias, Hispanic quarters, urban slums and migrant suburbs of wealthy countries, which are themselves each year absorbing two million people, mainly villagers, from the developing world.
I am coining the term “arrival city” to unite these places, because our conventional scholarly and bureaucratic language—“immigrant gateway,” “community of primary settlement”—misrepresents them by disguising their dynamic nature, their transitory role. When we look at arrival cities, we tend to see them as fixed entities: an accumulation of inexpensive dwellings containing poor people, usually in less than salubrious conditions. In the language of urban planners and governments, these enclaves are too often defined as static appendages, cancerous growths on an otherwise healthy city. Their residents are seen, in the words of the former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, “as an ecologically defined group rather than as part of the social system.”1
This leads to tragic urban-housing policies in the West, of the sort that made Paris erupt into riots in 2005, London in the 1980s, Amsterdam into murderous violence in the first decade of this century. It leads to even worse policies in the cities of Asia, Africa and South America, to slum-clearance projects in which the futures of tens or hundreds of thousands of people are recklessly erased. Or, in an alternative version offered in popular books and movies, arrival cities are written off as contiguous extensions of a dystopian “planet of slums,” a homogenous netherworld in which the static poor are consigned to prisonlike neighbourhoods guarded by hostile police, abused by exploitative corporations and preyed upon by parasitic evangelical religions.2 This is certainly the fate of many arrival cities, after they have been deprived of their fluid structure or abandoned by the state. Yet to see this as their normal condition is to ignore the arrival city’s great success: it is, in the most successful parts of both the developing world and the Western world, the key instrument in creating a new middle class, abolishing the horrors of rural poverty and ending inequality.*
* Inequality has declined with urbanization in those countries that allow their arrival cities to flourish. Brazil, Peru and Malaysia have all seen inequality fall during their periods of urbanization. China, with its restricted arrival cities, has seen inequality increase. India, with chaotic urban policies, has seen no change. In all these cases, urbanization has sharply reduced poverty and improved the living standards of the poorest fifth of the population.
Rather than dismissing these neighbourhoods as changeless entities or mere locations, we need to start seeing them as a set of functions. The first arrival-city function is the creation and maintenance of a network: a web of human relationships connecting village to arrival city to established city. These networks, aided by communications technology, money transfers and more traditional family and village relationships, provide a sense of protection and security (always of primary importance in the arrival city); they generate a sense of leadership and political representation; they give the arrival-city enclave a self-identity. Second, the arrival city functions as an entry mechanism. It not only takes people in, by providing cheap housing and assistance finding entry-level jobs (through the networks), but it also makes possible the next wave of arrivals in a process known as chain migration: the arrival city sends cash and provides basic lines of credit to the village, it arranges jobs and marriages across international boundaries and sets up schemes to circumvent immigration restrictions. Third, the arrival city functions as an urban establishment platform: it provides informal resources that allow the village migrant, after saving and becoming part of the network, to purchase a house (through credit and informal or legal deeds), to start a small business (through loans, buildings, relationships),to reach out to the larger city for higher education or to assume a position of political leadership. Fourth, the properly functioning arrival city provides a social-mobility path into either the middle class or the sustainable, permanently employed and propertied ranks of the upper working class. These paths into the “core city” are provided through housing values and legalization, business success, higher-education opportunities for migrants or their children, employment opportunities in elite or “official” urban enterprises or even through simple physical connections to the city and upgrading of streets, plumbing, housing and transit, allowing the arrival city’s own rising real-estate values, and the opportunities provided by sale or rental income, to create an exit path. It has become popular in scholarly and government circles to describe such functions, vaguely, as “social capital.” And that is, in short, what arrival cities are: repositories of social capital, machines for its creation and distribution. The aim here is to show exactly how this capital works in the larger economy of urban success.
An arrival city can be a single set of buildings entirely occupied by village migrants (like Liu Gong Li), or it can be a tight-knit network of people who constitute a minority, even as little as 10 per cent of the population, in a deprived urban neighbourhood (this is the case in most British arrival cities: even ethnic enclaves such as Bradford and Bethnal Green have fewer than 50 per cent migrants).
The modern arrival city is the product of the final great human migration. A third of the world’s population is on the move this century, from village to city, a move that began in earnest shortly after the Second World War, when South American and Middle Eastern villagers left their homes to build new enclaves on the urban outskirts, and is entering its most intense phase now, with 150 to 200 million Chinese peasants “floating” between village and city, vast shifts under way in India and Bangladesh, and huge numbers of Africans and Southeast Asians joining the exodus. In 1950, 309 million people in the developing world lived in cities; by 2030, 3.9 billion will. As of 2008, exactly half the world’s 6.7 billion people lived in villages, most of them in Africa and Asia, including almost all of the billion poorest people in the world, those whose families subsist on less than $1 a day. The wealthy nations of North America, Europe, Australasia and Japan, which were largely peasant-populated as recently as the late nineteenth century, today are between 72 and 95 per cent urban, figures that have not changed in decades. In most of these countries, less than 5 per cent of the population is employed in agriculture; this is still enough to produce more export food than all the peasant-heavy countries of the developing world combined. At the moment, only 41 per cent of Asians and 38 per cent of Africans live in cities—leaving a population of villagers that is unproductive and unsustainable. They are on the land not because it is a better life, but because they are trapped.
This is changing fast. Between 2007 and 2050, the world’s cities will absorb an additional 3.1 billion people. The population of the world’s countryside will stop growing around 2019, and by 2050 will have fallen by 600 million, despite much higher family sizes in rural areas, largely because of migration to the city. India’s rural population, one of the last to stop growing, will peak in 2025 at 909 million, and shrink to 743 million by 2050.3 Each month, there are five million new city-dwellers created through migration or birth in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Between 2000 and 2030, the urban population of Asia and Africa will double, adding as many city-dwellers in one generation as these continents have accumulated during their entire histories. By the end of 2025, 60 per cent of the world will live in cities; by 2050, more than 70 per cent; and by century’s end, the entire world, even the poor nations of sub-Saharan Africa, will be at least three-quarters urban.4 This point, when the entire world is as urban as the West is today, will mark an end point. Once humans urbanize, or migrate to more urban countries, they almost never return.* After this final half of humanity has moved to the cities, there will be migrations again, but never again a mass movement on this scale. Humanity will have reached a new and permanent equilibrium.
* There are exceptions. The post-communist years in Central and Eastern Europe saw urban-to-rural migrations as people fled the collapse of industrial pseudo-economies to the security of subsistence agriculture. Mao’s China was essentially a huge experiment in re-ruralization. In a number of sub-Saharan African countries, the AIDS crisis and military conflicts have similarly led populations to leave the city for villages. There is every indication that these reverse transitions are temporary, lasting only as long as the root crisis.
This migration is, in any measurable sense, an improvement. There is no romance in village life. Rural living is the largest single killer of humans today, the greatest source of malnutrition, infant mortality and reduced lifespans. According to the World Food Programme, three-quarters of the world’s billion people living in hunger are peasant farmers. The rural village is also the predominant source of excessive population growth, with its need for large families to provide labour and stave off ruination. Urban incomes everywhere are higher, often by large multiples; access to education, health, water and sanitation as well as communications and culture are always better in the city. The move to cities also reduces ecological damage and carbon emissions, by decreasing distances and increasing shared technologies: cities, in the words of one major study, “provide an opportunity to mitigate or even reverse the impact of global climate change as they provide the economies of scale that reduce per capita costs and demand for resources.”5 Mortal poverty is a rural phenomenon: three-quarters of the world’s poor, those with less than a dollar a day, live in rural areas. The dramatic declines in the number of very poor people in the world around the turn of this century, with 98 million people leaving poverty between 1998 and 2002 and the world poverty rate falling from 34 per cent in 1999 to 25 per cent in 2009, were caused entirely by urbanization: people made better livings when they moved to the city, and sent funds back to the village. Urbanization doesn’t just improve the lives of those who move to the city; it improves conditions in the countryside, too, by giving villages the finance they need to turn agriculture into a business with salaried jobs and stable incomes.
The arrival city is often barely urban, in form or culture, but it should not be mistaken for a rural place. Urbanites tend to see the arrival city as a simple reproduction, within the city, of the structures and folkways of the village. “Look, on one side villages, on the other side buildings,” the Indian-American writer Suketu Mehta hears his young son observe on first seeing the arrival-city enclaves nestled against apartment towers in Bandra, in northern Mumbai. The father reacts approvingly: “He has identified the slums for what they are: villages in the city.”6 People responded similarly to the realization that Los Angeles barrios are each directly linked to a Mexican or Central American village, and Chinese tend to view their “urban villages” as being, too literally, villages. But this view misinterprets the urban ambitions of the arrival city, its fast-changing nature and its role in redefining the nature of urban life. The culture of the arrival city is neither rural nor urban, though it incorporates elements of both—often in grotesquely distorted form—in its anxious effort to find a common source of security among its ambitious and highly insecure residents. It is a fallacy that people move in a straight line from backward, conservative rural customs to sophisticated, secular urban customs. The period in between, with its insecurities, its need for tight bonds and supportive institutions, its threats to the coherence of the family and the person, is often the time when new, hybrid, protective cultures are developed.
Because people fail to recognize the function arrival cities serve, and owing to their poverty and improvised form, they are often condemned as permanent and irredeemable slums. True, many arrival cities begin as slums, but not all slums are arrival cities. In fact, the most insalubrious and dismal slums are usually not sites of rural–urban transition. The infamous slums of East London in the nineteenth century, like Bethnal Green, were “flypaper” neighbourhoods that captured and trapped those who had fallen out the bottom of inner-city society, with few village migrants among their population.7 This is the case today in many of the inner-city slums on the Pacific coast of the United States and Canada, such as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and San Francisco’s Tenderloin. And if the path to arrival becomes permanently blocked, arrival cities can become depressed and destitute after a generation or two. In sub-Saharan countries like Chad, Ethiopia and Niger, close to 100 per cent of urban residents live in slums that have existed for decades, so the village-arrival function is sometimes swamped or forgotten (though even here it’s not hard to find recent village arrivals and distinct arrival-city enclaves within the slum). The African-American ghettos of the United States in the twentieth century began as classic arrival cities, as the U.S. post-slavery exodus known as the Great Migration sent hundreds of thousands of southern rural ex-slaves in an optimistic search for the centre of American society. But their arrival cities failed—because property ownership was unattainable in urban districts owned by indifferent or intolerant outsiders, because arrival-city residents were excluded from the economic and political mainstream by racism and bad urban planning, and because of the absence of government support and institutions. They turned into something else, places of failed arrival—a threat that hangs over many arrival cities today.
Nor do all rural–urban migrations create arrival cities. Emergency migrations, caused by war or famine, lack careful investment and planning among villagers and the tightly woven networks of support and linkage that characterize normal village-arrival patterns. But they tend to be temporary, with most refugees returning to the village when the crisis is over (though some usually remain, or begin patterns of seasonal migration, sowing the seeds for genuine arrival cities later). Some rural populations, like Filipinos in North America, do not form distinct urban enclaves because of the nature of their employment, typically in domestic service—though a “virtual” arrival-city function exists.
Nor are all people living in arrival cities poor. As these enclaves improve and develop their own migrant-rooted middle class, they become magnets for people moving out of the crowded inner city, and they develop their own prosperous middle classes. Many of the most desirable neighbourhoods in New York, London, Paris and Toronto began as arrival cities, and there are arrival cities that have become fully middle-class in Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul and other successful capitals of the developing world; if managed well, many of this generation’s villager enclaves will end this way.
There is another, even more damaging popular myth about the arrival city, which holds its cluttered streets responsible for spiralling urban growth, overcrowding and sprawl. People look at the new shantytowns covering the hillsides, the migrant neighbourhoods being ploughed into forest, and they imagine that the tide of people from the countryside is creating unmanageable megacities. In fact, rural-to-urban migration, in spite of its huge scope, is not the major cause of urban growth. For each 60 million new city-dwellers in the developing world, 36 million are born to established city-dwellers. Only 24 million come from villages, and only half of these have actually migrated; the rest become urbanites because their village, like Liu Gong Li, has been incorporated into the city.8 Arrival cities are not causing population growth; in fact, they are ending it. When villagers migrate to the city, their family size drops, on average, by at least one child per family, often to below the steady-population rate of 2.1 children. Without massive rural-to-urban migration, the world’s population would be growing at a far faster pace.
This is a crucial point. Sometime around 2050, according to the most recent United Nations projections, the population of the world will stop growing. After peaking at nine billion, for the first time in history humans will stop being more numerous each year, and the prospect of a Malthusian population crisis will end.9 This will be a direct product of urbanization: because of migration, smaller urban families will outnumber large rural ones, and, in turn, the flow of money, knowledge and educated return migrants from the arrival city back to the village will push down birth rates in rural areas. We have already seen this in quickly urbanized countries like Iran, where the “urbanization of the village” has sent both rural and urban birth rates down to negative territory. After urbanization is accomplished, average family sizes around the world will fall below 2.1 children, and the problems of crowding and competition for resources will be replaced with the much more sustainable (though still challenging) problems of non-growing population. The date of this transition is projected, in the most likely scenario, for 2050; the UN’s less optimistic scenarios place the peak a decade later, and the peak population a billion higher. What makes the difference is the arrival city, which has accomplished the things that bring fertility rates down: educating girls and women, improving health and creating physical and financial security. The arrival city is a machine that transforms humans. It is also, if allowed to flourish, the instrument that will create a permanently sustainable world.
Tower Hamlets, London, U.K.
On a warm evening in 1995, the Tafader sisters escape the cramped and noisy confines of their tiny two-bedroom row house in Coverley Close, an enclosed brick square amid a forest of public-housing towers. Under the glow of the nearby office towers, they sit against the low wall alongside the 15 to 20 older children and teenagers who populate its 14 houses, their doors all open, talking late into the night in East London English laced with phrases from the piquant dialect of their parents’ Bangladeshi village. The smaller children race about on the pavement, oblivious to the frequent din of police sirens and occasional explosions of violence on the busy road outside. Early in the evening, they’d organized a badminton game on the concrete court; now they sit and talk late into the evening, their parents largely absent in all-night jobs. Fine-featured, sharp-eyed Razeema, the oldest of the three girls and an outspoken leader of her siblings, baffles them all by talking at length of her family’s village, which she has visited a few times on school holidays. “I want to move there someday, when I am finished school, and grow all my own food in the quiet countryside,” she says, interrupting the talk of Madonna and Mariah Carey with her agrarian idylls. The other children laugh at this, as they do at her newfound habit of wearing a headscarf. “You’re welcome to it,” her sister Sulama, two years younger, tells her, laughing. “By the time you get there, everyone else in the village will have left to come here.” Salma, the youngest, does admit that she dreams of living in the countryside, albeit in England, in a big house with no neighbours. For now, the little concrete square and the shops around it, owned by people they know, feels like a welcome cocoon to protect them from the two forces that press on their young consciences at every moment: the push of the traditional life of their family village, and the pull of the impenetrable and often unwelcoming city just outside their courtyard.*
* At their request, I have slightly changed the Tafader family’s names. Other names and places in this book are unaltered.
The Tafader family’s journey from a dirt floor to the centre of British life, a passage whose main instrument of transformation was an infamous arrival city on the edge of the world’s financial capital, took less than 40 years, though its challenges were in many ways tougher than those facing a Chinese peasant, the urban surroundings no less improvised and awkward, the odds of finding a place in a foreign city with an alien language seemingly far longer. In the 1960s, the entire clan lived, as it had for decades, in a cluster of wood shacks, without electricity or even a road, around a treed patch amidst rice paddies in a rural corner of Bangladesh. The family saved to send Yousef, at age 17, to England, in search of any work he could find. Like most arrivals, he drew on contacts from fellow villagers who had moved back and forth doing industrial and shipping-port work over the previous decades. By the time Yousef arrived, the British manufacturing economy had collapsed, so he settled for a near-slavery job as a house servant for a Pakistani family; they kept his passport locked away. All his earnings went back to the village. He managed to quit after almost a decade and followed tens of thousands of other post-industrial Bangladeshis in remaking the British food-service industry, opening a small curry restaurant on the cheapest patch of land he could afford in the depressed London of the 1970s. His restaurant savings allowed him to bring his wife over, to start a family in London, and to start saving to buy a house.
The tens of thousands of curry houses, almost all of them Bangladeshi-owned, may have become an ethnic cliché, as well as turning chicken tikka masala, an invention of a 1960s Bangladeshi arrival city in Scotland, into Britain’s favourite dish, but it also proved a salvation. The easy ability to open a small business in Britain, to get credit and purchase property and obtain restaurant licences without prejudice, allowed the Bangladeshis to avoid destitution and dependency, to accumulate capital and provide legitimate employment to new arrivals as British immigration laws toughened, and to build futures for their children over the hot tandoori ovens. Small businesses of this sort are at the heart of almost any successful arrival city, and their absence, or the presence of laws that keep immigrants from opening them, is often the factor that turns arrival cities into poverty traps.
The Tafaders are among the 300,000 Bangladeshi villagers who have migrated to Britain since the 1960s, at least 90 per cent of whom have come directly from the remote, very poor, completely agricultural northeast district of Sylhet.* Almost half a million Bangladeshis and their British-born children now live in Britain, half of them in London, and half of these on the eastern edge of the City of London, in Tower Hamlets, where they form over a quarter of the population across the council and in some wards are a majority. Much of the function of the Tower Hamlets arrival city is devoted to the transfer of cash, information and people: the high streets are jammed with money-wiring shops, Islamic finance offices, Bangladeshi travel agencies, internet cafés, immigration consultancies, marriage-arrangement offices. All of these businesses, and much of the spare-time activities of the residents here, are devoted to establishing a homeostatic relationship between village and city. This is what arrival cities do.
* This is the pattern of arrival cities everywhere: nations do not migrate, but rather regions and villages do. About 80 per cent of the Pakistanis in Britain are from tiny, fully rural Bihar state. Most of the million Poles in Western Europe are from villages in Silesia and the southwest. Mexicans in the United States mostly emerge from a handful of rural regions.
Each year, rural Bangladesh receives almost $11 billion in remittances from migrants and their descendants living abroad, a sum equivalent to all of Bangladesh’s export earnings, far larger and more effective than all the foreign aid coming into Bangladesh each year, the largest single chunk of it coming from the Bangladeshis of Tower Hamlets.10 As in arrival cites all over the world, this flow serves two important functions: it transforms the constant tide of villagers into financially secure and culturally successful urbanites, and it transforms the village, through infusions of cash, into a more urban and cultured place that can support itself. As the arrival city becomes older and more established, the remittances decline in amount and frequency, but even in 70-year-old arrival-city favelas in Brazil, sums are still sent back to the village every month—allowing the village to become a post-agricultural, economically secure place.
For the Tafader family, change came slowly. After living for 10 years in a dismal high-rise East London housing estate with overtly racist neighbours, their restaurant earnings gave them enough to buy a small house, also with two bedrooms, in Coverley Close, which was developed in the 1980s to fill a cleared-out slum backlot in what had been one of the squalid quarters made famous in Dickens. This placed the Tafader family in the most dense and ethnically concentrated pole in London’s Banglatown, one of Europe’s great arrival cities, spreading eastward from its symbolic edge in Brick Lane across the dense expanses of Spitalfields, Bethnal Green, Stepney and West Ham and soon sending its more successful members into Essex, covering much of the eastern fringe of the city.
By that summer of 1995, it seemed as if Banglatown was collapsing on itself. Bloody clashes between neo-Nazi skinheads and Bangladeshi gangs filled the papers. Tower Hamlets was suffering a full-scale outbreak of tuberculosis, a disease mainly prevalent in developing-world slums. Studies found that a third of families there were living on less than £4,500 a year; two-thirds of children were poor enough to qualify for free school meals, neglected housing was literally crumbling in on families, and the borough ranked lowest in Britain for standard of living, health and quality of education. Overcrowding was five times worse than the national average, with numerous reports of three children sharing a bed, and male unemployment was more than double the national rate.11 Britain had come to view this arrival city as a social problem, an island of gang violence, religious extremism and backwardness, made infamous through clashes with racist skinheads, the riots and protests against The Satanic Verses and the Iraq War, the bristle of minarets supplanting the steeples and synagogues of its cockney past. The new arrival cities of Europe and North America have plumbing, sewage and internet access, but they are sometimes as alien and threatening to their native populations as the slums of Asia are to their cities’ established residents.
Over the next 15 years, as the second generation came of age and the first generation put its savings to work on education and housing, things changed dramatically in Tower Hamlets. Today, you can still come by on many evenings and find the Tafader sisters in front of their family’s tiny house, talking with the neighbours. The oldest daughter, Razeema, 33, has moved out with her new husband, Asad, to live in a minuscule one-bedroom flat, but she drops by most evenings, to do her laundry and visit her sisters. Except for their ages, it might still be 1995. The changes become apparent in the morning, when the girls leave for work. Razeema walks to the local government office, where she is a parent-outreach officer for the school board; 30-year-old Sulama takes the bus to a secondary school, where she is a math teacher; and 28-year-old Salma rides the tube to Whitehall, where she has a government management job organizing a new identity-card program. Their brother Zahir, 32, has a steady job as a car salesman, and leads a somewhat adolescent life of leisure and entertainment; their youngest brother, 26, is severely autistic, and cared for by his aging parents. The wall of their tiny front room is covered with big photographs of the three girls in their university graduation robes. The Tafader girls have degrees in biology, education and public administration; they speak with the rounded vowels of the educated middle class, leavened with East End inflections: in lighter moments, their sentences end with “innit.” They consider themselves feminists, and don’t want children until they’re much older, if at all, and one of them abandoned an early marriage because she found it demeaning, though they are also devout Muslims. Their headscarves are the norm in East London, but a subject of ridicule in Bangladesh, whose mild practice of Islam tends to leave female heads uncovered. The adoption of Islamic practice is a second-generation trend, an example of the hybrid culture of transition common to arrival cities, something that offers these rootless children of arrival a source of security and identity as they enter mainstream society.
All around the close, the children who joined the sisters sitting against the wall in 1995 are following similar paths. Their neighbour, a man who looks far older than his 60 years, owns two adjoining houses, which he bought after a terrible ordeal. He came over alone in the late 1950s, saved for years to set up a garment sweatshop and employ several dozen Bangladeshi villagers, and then was bankrupted when that industry collapsed in the 1970s, forcing him to become a bricklayer and odd-job man, too poor to bring his family over. But his collection of East End London property proved his salvation, multiplying in value many times over and allowing him, after 30 lonely and health-destroying years, to bring his extended family over and live comfortably. Now his children, nephews and nieces—more than 10 of whom have lived in these houses at one time or another—are doctors, teachers, civil servants, computer scientists. The children of the close are united in a set of aspirations: to be accepted in the centre of British society, to own a house, and never to work in a curry restaurant. Almost all of them, especially the girls, have managed this.
What has made the children of this small street flourish, and others flounder? It may partly be the street itself. “I think more than just luck. It’s something to do with living in a close,” says Salma Tafader. “We all know each other’s names, our parents know each other from when we’re babies, we all went to the same schools, did the same activities, the same camping trips. You looked out for each other.” Around the world, it appears that a good part of the success or failure of an arrival city has to do with its physical form—the layout of streets and buildings, the transportation links to the economic and cultural core of the city, the direct access to the street from buildings, the proximity to schools, health centres and social services, the existence of a sufficiently high density of housing, the presence of parks and neutral public spaces, the ability to open a shop on the ground floor and add rooms to your dwelling.
Many Tower Hamlets Bangladeshis still live in the sort of housing the Tafaders escaped, the council-estate housing tower in a blank concrete square. Although many successful families come from such quarters, they say the physical design is holding them back. Laila Nura, 32, who lives in the Peabody Buildings in Bethnal Green, says, “I don’t have any connection to jobs, I can’t see a way to buy my house, and I have nothing that can let me start a small business—I was better off back in the village in Sylhet.” The only reason she hasn’t moved out is because her children are doing very well in school and applying for high-level jobs in computer programming.
The Bangladeshi arrival city of London may be portrayed, with some truth, as a place of crime, religious extremism and ill health, but it has also functioned for its second generation as a great integration machine. The London-born Bangladeshis, the children of the curry-house owners and sweatshop workers, have marched into the centre of British society. They perform better in school than less concentrated immigrant groups, and considerably better than the local white English population. In Tower Hamlets, 46 per cent of Bangladeshi students achieved passing grades in five General Certificate of Secondary Education courses, only slightly below the national average of 51 per cent, and far better than the 30 per cent achieved by the borough’s white students.12 And once they finish their educations, they have a far easier time moving out of subsistence-level employment. Studies have shown that it is much easier for immigrants to start a small business in London than in other European cities, making it far more likely that the arrival city here will be a toehold rather than a trap.13 The curry restaurant was the quintessential, and largely very successful, form of entrepreneurship for village arrivals, a self-built economic and cultural rescue package, but the second generation have turned their back on the food trade, with its crushingly hard work, high risk and ethnic stereotypes, instead entering finance, government, education and information technology, with a significant and increasingly visible number of arrival-city children in national politics, media and academia. Most  still send money back to the village, but increasingly only on holidays. There are now as many Bangladeshi Britons departing Tower Hamlets for middle-class districts of London each year as there are arriving from Sylheti villages. This neighbourhood, in other words, is a functioning integration machine.14
So it is with some accuracy that one group of scholars referred to the East End as “the traditional waiting room for admission into British society.”15 Indeed, the greatest public worry about Tower Hamlets during the past decade has involved the white English working-class residents, who are falling so far behind the village-migrant families that they are becoming an isolated, dependent and angry underclass—a big problem, but an inversion of the one facing arrival cities of continental Europe, where it is the migrants who are the lost underclass. Still, the arrival city has not worked for all the villagers here. Many end up trapped, working at dead-end jobs, living in housing-project estates, uneducated, barely literate, unable to grab hold of the wider society around them. While upward social mobility is the norm for immigrant enclaves in London, a significant part of the Bangladeshi population does not manage fully to arrive.16
Razeema’s husband, Asad, a first cousin (her mother’s sister’s son), worries that this is his fate. He is a villager who learned little English before his family found him a bride in London—in large part because tightened immigration laws had made the arranged marriage a necessary tool for reuniting villages, even though it revived a conservative practice that had been nearly obsolete among Bangladeshis. He now works at that new East London institution, the fried-chicken takeout named after a southern U.S. state (with the word “halal” appended), working the fryer 10 hours a day. Like a number of young men here, he does not seem to have a place in either British or Bangladeshi culture. He is a sad byproduct of the arrival process, a result of policies that do not fully comprehend how these neighbourhoods function.
Still, the London arrival city has functioned better than those in Berlin, Paris or Amsterdam, and offers considerable lessons for the Latino arrival-city enclaves in the United States. After the terrible educational failings of the 1980s and early ’90s, there is now a robust and well-invested education system with many special programs aimed at immigrants and dedicated teachers versed in arrival; all the Tafader sisters credit their state secondary school with giving them their advantage. There is genuine citizenship: 85 per cent of arrival-city residents have U.K. citizenship, compared with 42 per cent of Turks in Germany. And the difference is not just in legal citizenship but in de facto citizenship: despite the screaming headlines in the tabloids, British society, especially in the big cities, increasingly sees the arrival city as a source of fellow citizens, not as an alien threat. In Britain, 82 per cent of Bangladeshis say their ethnic and religious background does not affect their job prospects, compared with 54 per cent of Turks in Germany.17 The eastern side of Tower Hamlets, in Spitalfields and Brick Lane, has become a popular eating and gallery-going attraction for well-off Britons and a residential colony for artists, turning the arrival city, for the established urban population, into a destination rather than an isolated exile to be avoided.
For all that, the more successful members of Banglatown’s second generation are eager to escape. For them, the work of the arrival city is done, and its support networks are no longer needed. “I think you can only take so much of Tower Hamlets before it does your head in,” says Salma, the youngest and most successful of the Tafader girls. “I need a mix of people, not just Bangla.” Razeema still dreams of leaving England—though as a successful professional. Sulama intends to stay in East London, own a house and help improve the community. This is the gauge of an arrival city: if people are flowing through it, transformed into full-fledged contributors to the life of the city whether they leave the arrival city or stay there, then it is working. To understand how this can be made to happen, it is worth taking a detailed look at the birth, life, success, failure and death of the world’s arrival cities.

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