City is Migration

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City is Migration: The Urban Arena Under An Ethnographic-Genealogic Perspective

by Sabine Hess

Germany Munich 1858 Map

Translated from German

‘City is Migration’. With these plain and simple words, the urban scholar Erol Yildiriz demonstrates the structural interrelation between both of these social phenomena. Hereby he intervenes into a contemporary and historical urban research approach that never even broaches the issue of migration or if, only as a set of problems. The equation also works the other way around: when we look at what in the socio- and cultural scientific research on migration is labelled urban, it is apparent that the mainstream of the research on migration is not explicitly urban research. In spite of the fact that most migratory movements in fact are dependent on urban agglomerations, only very few studies examine migratory processes on the ground. On the contrary the strictly conceptual perspectives of the migration research seem to be focused within the context of the city. Today this at first glance unconsidered duo culuminates into two diverging gradings.

The one describes scenarios of a crisis a la parallel society, in which the urban areas and urban society as a tableau are used as a description of the disaster ridden presence of an alleged increasing disintegrated society of immigration. On the other hand is the idealised image in which diversity an cultural plurality is seen as a resource of the metropolis, a source of urbanity and cultural capital. Those two discourses are however, as Stephan Lanz in accordance with his research results from Berlin presents, two sides of the same coin: They work together as concepts of control for a neoliberal urban development that increasingly sees fragmentation and division of populations and spaces as a necessity.

Based on the research results in Munich in connection with the interdisciplinary project ‘Crossing Munich’, I will in the following highlight the conceptual connection between the two subject areas city and migration. The southern German city Munich – known outside the borders of Germany for its amalgam of tradition and the modern, for ‘Laptop und Lederhosen’ as one advertising slogan of the city so aptly states – is in public awareness not really seen as a vibrant city of immigration. However, Munich has next to Stuttgart and Frankfurt, the third biggest percentage of migrants under their resident population, namely up to 35 percent. Thus our research project can also show that the movements of migration, in the city with one of the two main arrival stations of the German guest worker system since the early 1970ies, is a hard-fought topic in which local and national government rationalities, and inter- and transnational family and political projects intersect.

Migration as urban crisis

The public and scientific discourse on migration and the city is determined by problem-oriented questions, especially since the early 1970ies when, as a matter of fact, the increasing immigration was not deniable any more. This regime of the gaze on the urban-migratory space thus functions through stereotypical mechanisms. Thus, the common socio- and cultural scientific research of migration only takes into account particular urban areas and phenomena. The city space gets subdivided after allegedly homogeneous groups, which is defined by ethnic ancestry and national heritage: the discourse is on dangerous and explosive areas, limits of burdens and deprived neighbourhoods wherein socially explosives accumulate. However, the space marked as ethnic enclaves, colony, and ghetto is seldom of interest to migration researchers, but rather to those who work from the perspective of integration. Ethnic concentration is herein equated with segregation which in its turn stands for failed integration. This functions as a blockage of integration and thread to the social peace in both the city and the nation.

Already in the 1960ies this normative equation affected the city planning, meaning that actions were taken based on the concept of regulation social spatial mix whereby several restrictions on settlement were enacted in Munich as in Berlin in the early 1970ies. In Munich however, they were nullified only two years later, as they were seen as in conflict with a ruling by the EC. Even today though, the policy of so-called quotas of occupancy exists within the social housing scheme. In 2007 the director of a building society from Nassau caused a public outcry and storm of protest by putting this normative model of the collective habitation of diversified ethnic groups into question.

In the most recent national and local integration programme, the linkage between diversified socio-spatial mix = integration is again firmly established as the latest new: like the national integration programme of 2007 the Munich integration programme proclaims that “as a socially integrated European city, the sociospatial plurality must still be aspired”. For Munich the programme positively claims that the credo Munich mixture has created no “integrationally challenging concentrations of singular ethnic or groups national.” Also the national integration concept speaks quite clear when it states that “separation and concentration of singular ethnic groups is counteracted”. Regarding this I will later point out that the ghetto and segregation discourse has not always in a culturalist manner made those implicated into perpetrators with reference to culture.

Since the majority of research on migration at present in this country is dominated by the sign of integration and should rather be called integration research, the city as research concept is also implicitly present in the integration genre of research on migration, but often only implicitly. The epistemological and methodological premises consisting of a methodological ethnicism and an ethnic group research design has thus also remained unreflected. Glick Schiller, perhaps somewhat smug writes, that you take an ethnic group, a city and add a problem definition, then you stir and mix it thoroughly, and then the next research project is done.

Global Heymat

In a German context has recent migration research in the cultural sciences not only criticised such an ethnyfying research design and moved on through transnational perspectives. The omnipresent closed image of the city and the homogeneous society of the city, often based on the pre-modern image of a community, has also been blown up, and the focus on translocal, in the relocalized global scene of the urban space, cultural practises and identity projects opened up. Hereby the urban landscape has expanded all the way to Turkey or to Russia, or if looked at from another angle one could say that it has shrunken to a mosaic point in a plurilocal network of transnational urban everyday worlds.

The global-city research and the cultural swirl-theorem by Ulf Hannerz furthermore found analytical connections in cultural dynamics, forces, economies, creativities and repositioning of cities as global cities brought forth by international processes of migration and mobility. On the other hand the theory of global cities has also shown that the repositioning of cities connected to their economical restructuring created specific opportunities and living conditions and predestined specific migratory movements – like high skilled migration and at the same time the manual labourers of globalization consistent of a feminized precariat of female workers in the informal sector. In her research in Southeast Asia Aihwa Ong has also shown how these political-economical repositionings are also connected with the new flexible and fragmented hierarchical connections in relation to citizenship. In the case of Malaysia it was exactly opposite to what we are used to at home, here the rights of citizens became more and more precarious as foreign skilled and high skilled migrants as they were head-hunted gained full protection and rights.

However, Erol Yildiz and Nina Glick Schiller conclude that the constitutive connection between migration and the urban development, or urbanity beyond global cities, is not yet researched. Glick Schiller also pleads for a new theory of locality in migrational research that analytically matches the significance of urban spaces in the processes of migration – and vice versa the significance of the processes of migration for urban development. Glick Schiller hereby signifies migration as “an important part of politics of scale”. In their volume Urban Recycling from 2009 Erol Yildiz and Birgit Mattauch look specifically into the role of migrants as revitalizing renewers of formerly derelict neighbourhoods. They contradict the usual literature on gentrification which usually considers people from the outside as the vanguard of gentrification. Rather, the gentrifyers would be from “the ranks of the residents themselves, of which many as migrants were drawn into the abandoned and neglecte parts of the city, and managed by their own iniative to climb the social ladder and remake their residential area attractive for further immigration.” Yildiz & Mattausch thereby also encourages us to see that migrants have specific urban competences which they recognize in strategies and tactics of appropriation, staging and reevaluation of work, and to put this at the center of urban politics.

Crossing Munich

The interaction between migration and urban development also became the central question in our Munich research project Crossing Munich. In 2009, the former two years of research lead to a three-month exhibition at the gallery of the town hall. One of our assignments on part of the department of culture was to study the present and history of the Munich migration. We were fortunate to be able to unite ethnographic as well as historic competences into mixed study groups, and towards the end artists joined the project so that we all could be part of common effort to transform the result of the research into artistic works. Step by step we developed our very own theoretical realm, the perspective of migration, which was last but not least influenced by previous projects, like Project Migration and Transit Migration.

Through the perspective of migration we present a research attitude that tries to go beyond the paradigms of integration and ethnicism with which we attempt to approach the migratory movements in an analytical manner. It is based on the ethnographic insight from the research of network and transnationalization, but also historical-structural works, that migration produces a persistent practise and transformative force from where it undergoes a cumulative dynamic in causalities. “To consider the perspective of their autonomy”, according the French historian Yann Moulier-Boutang, you have to “to stress the social and subjective dimensions of migratory movements.” If you follow this idea the perspective of migration demands a research design that is agent centered around pratices, ressources, knowledge and desires, and very much focused on the problem definitions of the migration. In addition the approach calls for a widespread reflexive move which is left out in pure migrant researc. He takes up the theory of the autonomy of migration and places migration as the primary drive of history as the community-building force. This means that one must consequently change the uptill this point domination gaze and conduct one’s own research on migration policy or the economical political restructuring of the city in light of perspective of migration.

With these perspectives as starting point, most of the 14 works by Crossing Munich asked about the interaction of migrant practices and urban policies. These works are grouped into four topics: city images/city dreams, urban policies, cultural productions and constructions, and transnational economies. Finally I will exemplifie this through a presentation on one of the 14 works.

The question of the constitution of the space of the city, thus took a central position in Crossing Munich, especially the shape of visibility and invisibility or rather visualization and invisualization. In this way the ghetto discourse can be seen as a central visualization instrument of the city space which local genesis we have developed in the work Westend_urban lab in which we confront the ghetto discourse with the history of development and everyday life of Westend. Westend is one of the proletarian-migrant influenced neighbourhoods in Munich which in the 1970ies early ghetto discourse was always mentioned when one wanted to compare Munich to Bronx or Berlin. Contrary to other migrant districts, the Westend was not renovated and upgraded before the 1990ies. Today the Westend is considered as one of the In-neighbourhoods of Munich, not least because of its multicultural flair.

The work could show how Westend, as a inner city though far into the 1980ies industrially influenced neighbourhood, almost systematically were transformed into a migrant neighbourhood even though it has never described as marked by ethnic segregation. Different groups, engaged migrants as well as German citizens have lived together under the challenge of a social impoverishment policy. This has resulted in a vibrant initiative and association culture which has also fought the policies of reorganization and expulsion – and which since the 1990ies via a social pedagogical effort in relation migration has been municipally funded. Additionally the work also shows that the by us so called ghetto discourse has had many different meanings historically, and only in connection with the reality of migration in 1973 it has entered the municipal guest worker stop. After the early 1970ies in Munich the work continues with different stories from newspapers of the desolate living conditions of guest workers. Samples made by the counsel for social housing and the health authorities revealed the social misery predominating in the proletarian districts which also struggled with buildings made by cheap old fabrics. Following this the greedy landlords and employers, whose responsibility it was to offer the guest workers accommodation, were accused. However, in November 1971, barely two years later, the tone changed: it became alarming and ethnic. Now the practise of the landlord was no longer the cause of social misery. In certain parts of the city the high concentration of guest workers was diagnosed as the cause of the problem especially concerning housing, hygiene, integration and social peace. Meanwhile the situation of housing became a significant thematic through migrant actions.

The visibility of the resident population of migrants and their miserable living conditions that the earlier ghetto discourse had evoked, made the then young and engaged Lord Mayor Hans Joachim Vogel from SPD to place a stern focus on integration policy in 1971. From the beginning he admittedly linked this to the threat scenario of the ghetto projects. In 1972 he initiated the first scientific study of the alien situation which was later deemed as a problem study. This study also supports the double discourse on integration and moments of repressive limitation: hereby the situation of immigration was recognized as something that cannot be completely controlled. Hereby it was stated that there was a great need for action because the city with its 220,000 aliens had met its limit of capacity. And in no other discourse than the ghetto discourse could this limit of capacity be visualized and dramatized so well. In 1973, shortly before the announcement of the recruitment stop, the Munich ghetto discourse took a turn into a real restrictive direction as the then Social Democrat District Administration Officer demanded a recruitment stop and a zone prohibition on migrant settlement to preserve the affected neighbourhoods from the tipping whereby the ghetto discourse pointed to a municipal recruitment stop. Interestingly the debate got seriously animated again only in the 1990ies with the Conservative SPD Lord Mayor Kronawitter’s policy as he in 1993 declared the crisis of the cities in Der Spiegel. This time he argued that the limit of integration capacity had been reached.

Also the current debate on the willingness and ability of the immigrated population towards their own integration is closely related to the discussion on the terrain of urban communities where a district as Neuköln is seen as an example of an existing parallel society spun out of control. To counteract this increasingly ethnifyed and racialized and it in itself highly disintegrating debate would be a noble task for a current scientific research on urbanity and migration.


Bayer, Natalie/Engl, Andrea/Hess, Sabine (Hg.) (2009): Crossing Munich. Texte zur Migration aus Kunst, Wissenschaft und Aktivismus. Ausstellungskatalog. München

Glick-Schiller, Nina (2009): A Global perspective on Transnational Migration: Theorizing Migration without Methodological Nationalism. Working Paper No. 67, University of Oxford, 2009. In: http://www. Glick%20Schiller.pdf

Hannerz, Ulf (1992): Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning. New York. Lanz, Stephan (2007): Berlin aufgemischt: abendländisch, multikulturell, kosmopolitisch? Die politische Konstruktion einer Einwanderungsstadt. Bielefeld. Yildiz, Erol/ Mattausch, Birgit (Hg.) (2009): Urban recycling. Migration als Großstadt-Ressource. Basel.

Translated from German