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The impact of residential segregation on the development of social capital and social mobility of immigrants. The example of the Mexican population on the West Side of St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. (2003 –2007)

Time frame

2003 - 2007

Project staff

Dr. Eva Dick


Background, Objectives and Approach

Academics and practitioners in the United States alike consider residential segregation as a negative factor of urban life. It is believed to be a key structural cause for problems experienced by the urban poor and minorities, e.g. joblessness or drug abuse. Policy makers in the US have shown great concern about residential segregation as a consequence of discriminatory housing policies and practices until the mid 20th century. Therefore, they have developed a wide spectrum of programs aiming at the spatial dispersal (or “desegregation”) of poor and minority households.

However, since their early days in the 1970s desegregation programs in US cities have shown limited success. They have seldom achieved their dispersal objectives and sometimes faced fierce resistance from the targeted communities. Furthermore, there started to develop a certain  recognition of possible benefits of spatial clustering to the development of group-based resources or social capital among minority households. While US studies on segregation have mostly focused on black/white segregation, such binary view is no longer adequate due to the increasingly multi-cultural reality of US cities. Immigrants from predominantly Latin America, but also other regions of the ‘Global South’, have settled in US-cities that have formerly attracted few of them. Hence the need for a reassessment of segregation in US-cities under conditions of immigration.

 Against this background, the objective of the research project concluded by Eva Dick in the context of her dissertation was to shed light on the impact of residential segregation on the development of social capital and social mobility of immigrants. Furthermore, it aimed at formulating recommendations for housing planning and community development that help promoting the positive, while discouraging the negative aspects of residential segregation, in ethnically and socially (increasingly) diverse urban environments. Evidence was drawn from a case study on the experiences of the Mexican immigrant and “Chicano” population of the Latino neighbourhood “West Side” of St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. The empirical research included a mix of primary and secondary research methods, e.g. interviews, observation, neighbourhood walks, document review and statistical data analysis. Semi-structured interviews with Mexican or Mexican/American residents of the “West Side” and housing and community development experts were at the heart of the study. The study results suggest that the impact of residential segregation on the development of social capital and mobility is greatly contingent on individual characteristics, as well as on conditions of the neighbourhood and overall social and political framework. For instance, while for recent immigrants the proximity to co-ethnics tends to be instrumental for attaining economic and educational opportunities (the first job, access to training), for second- or more generation immigrants the intrinsic or emotional value of this proximity is more important. The study further suggests that assessing the “value” of ethnic social capital by its contribution to – objectively measurable - social mobility leaves out an important element which is the one of – subjectively experienced – well-being. Well-being, defined by the enlargement of choices and capabilities, as well as an affirmative, as opposed to neutralizing attitude towards social and cultural difference should thus also orient future housing policy and planning responses to segregation. Housing dispersal as a policy strategy in its own right  is considered inadequate against this normative background. Enhancing and diversifying home ownership options in the ‘ethnic’ neighbourhood constitute only one example for increasing immigrant’s asset-building and thus housing capabilities without compromising their legitimate, partly culturally determined housing-related preferences.