Last Updated on January 24, 2019
Syracuse has been known for many industrial endeavours, the Salt City because of its first industry (the basis of which was the discovery by the Jesuits of salt springs in 1654), the “Typewriter Capital of the World” because of its Smith/Corona and Remington factories, and in later years due to Carrier’s headquarters, the title “The Home of Air Conditioning.”
Shortly before Messrs. Brown and Lipe (whose transmission company was to become part of General Motors) began cutting gears, the city became home to one of the three original crucible steel companies in the U.S. The making of such “tool steel” was critical for the second stage of the industrial revolution, where American industry came into its own. England had pioneered the making of these alloyed steels. We remember Sheffield for its knives precisely because British steel was so hard and durable.
Due to mid-19th century tariffs that made exporting steel into the U.S. impractical, English steel firms set up American subsidiaries to take advantage of the potential offered by the enormous American market. The Sanderson Brothers, a leading Sheffield firm, took notice of Syracuse possibly doe to the iron ore in the Adirondacks, the existing steel-using farm implement industry. The Syracuse Chilled Plow firm, later bought by John Deere, was valued for its hardened steel point along with the presence of the Erie Canal and the New York Central Railroad to aid product deliveries to the rest of the nation. Along with Pittsburgh, by the 1890s Syracuse supplied much of the nation’s market for hard or “Sheffield” steel.
A century ago, in the days of railroading, city economies when taken together made up the American economy and most cities played unique roles in producing the nation’s marketplace. For example, Milwaukee produced beer and electrical switching equipment, while Hartford was known as the capital of insurance, Rochester held the monopoly on cameras and lenses, DeKalb made the nation’s barbed wire, Toledo its scales, and Waterbury made the country’s brass hardware.
Any city in 1900 was known for one or two products it supplied to the nation’s consumers. Many times American products dominated global markets.
Often overlooked is that industrial history is intimately connected with the more complex story of American immigration. Seldom appreciated is how different the settling of American cities was because of the composition of emergent industries from place to place. The concentration of an industry influenced who came to work and the influx of immigrants from a particular nation, in turn, often led to the creation of new industries. With the coming of the Sanderson mill, Syracuse saw an influx of English steelworkers as well as Germans who came with them and had previously already moved to work in Sheffield. In short order the Germans began breweries and spawned an enormous candle industry. Once, Syracuse could boast of being “the world’s candle city.” As a testament to this claim, the city boasts the Vatican as a customer.
All over the nation, different industries brought immigrants from different parts of the globe. Italians came, in part, to build the masonry cities of the east. Today the populations of Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey are each nearly twenty percent of Italian descent. In the Midwest, with its cities built of wood, citizens of Italian descent even today make up but one or two percent of state populations. Today’s New York dairy farmers trace their roots back to the five thousand Scotch-Irish who came to build the Erie Canal in the 1820s. San Francisco has America’s largest Chinese diaspora largely because of the enormous need for labor to build the transcontinental railway. Similarly, Kansas City is home to one of the nation’s oldest communities of Mexican-Americans who came to build that city’s rail link to Central America.
A popular topic in policy these days is how to revive cities that have lost the genius of their industrial days. The importance of immigration to a city’s history is infrequently examined in terms of its lessons for the future. Rather, we look to “innovative” solutions, none of which seems to have worked to rekindle the economy of cities with any predictability. To gain an insight into the future shape of a city, it is necessary to study the historic relationship between the businesses that were created in the city and its immigrant experience and how they influenced each other.
Michael Porter noticed and described the importance of industrial clusters to urban development. As noted above, every city with a claim to a unique product and a connection to the railroad was likely to spawn an industrial cluster. But, while we have a theory we do not have a road map as to how to remake a successful cluster.
What are some lessons from the past that might be useful in reconceiving our cities? Firstly, officials and experts need to stop focusing on causal narratives that regardless of being true or false don’t hold any real promise for the future. Secondly, cities need to develop new ways of become home to businesses that reach scale and can sustain future growth. Moving an existing manufacturing business by using publicly funded incentives has almost always proven to be an unsuccessful strategy.
Throughout history, highly skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants have been critical to the life of cities in every stage of their economic evolution. Today, cities looking for new industries might see recruiting immigrants as an aggressive but necessary step.
Immigrants are among the most successful entrepreneurs in the U.S. and always have been. New companies are the primary source of new jobs and the more new firms a city can host the better its future will become. Sponsoring could be seen as investment in the city’s economic future
Political refugees and exiles are another group that is frequently ignored with regards to its potential contribution to a community’s economy in productive, job-creating, ways. In nearly every case, these people found life in their home countries difficult because of their impulse to behave in ways that free people everywhere wish to behave. They voiced economic and political aspirations. They have shown an interest in innovation while seeking education for themselves and their children. And, in many cases, they were declared unwanted because they were operating businesses. These are the exact characteristics that make for successful entrepreneurs once they find themselves in the right political and cultural environment where freedom of thought and economic action prevail.
Nearly all cities completely overlook the potential of immigrants and especially minority populations for business creation.