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Issue Date: April 2005 Issue


The Immigrant Way

Cleveland was once a bustling immigrant center, rich with opportunity, energy and innovation. Now, the city's attempting to rekindle that spirit and spark our struggling economy.
Charu Gupta

When Paramjit Singh first arrived in Cleveland almost 43 years ago, it was the only U.S. city he knew.

A joint venture between an Indian company and a U.S. firm brought Singh, a mechanical engineer, here to learn new technology and designs for material-handling equipment. But when the collaboration unraveled, Singh was left with the choice of staying or returning to India.

Here is contact information for organizations that assist immigrants to the Cleveland area:

Ohio Asian American Chamber of Commerce, Azaad Khaira, 330-519-8977, asiabizcomms@aol.com

Somali Diaspora Association, Abdifatah Samatar, 216-233-4721

Latinos Unidos, Rafael Reyez Davila, 216-219-4500, way2faye@juno.com

Hispanic Business Association, Angel Guzman, 216-281-4422

Federation of India Community Associations, icc@fica-cleveland.org ; www.fica-cleveland.org

Immigrant and Minority Business Development Alliance, Rose Zitiello, Department of Community Development, City of Cleveland, 216-664-4000

Asian Services in Action Inc. (ASIA), 330-535-3263, www.asiainc-ohio.org

Greater Cleveland Partnership, (216) 621-3300, www.clevelandgrowth.com

World Trade Center Cleveland, (216) 592-2447,  www.wtccleveland.org

Already enrolled in an M.B.A. program at then-Western Reserve University, Singh decided he would test his fortunes in Cleveland. He found another job, this time with a company that made crane equipment for steel mills, and continued toward his degree. When he graduated in 1965, Singh stayed with cranes, but entrepreneurial dreams filled the 29-year-old.

His plan was to start a side business while keeping his day job at the crane company. He hoped to start an India-U.S. import/export business as a way to tap into the booming manufacturing industry that surrounded him. The idea was to find Indian markets for American-made goods and to export cheaper machine parts from India to U.S. customers.

After launching his company, Singh joined the local Lions Club for business networking opportunities and went after clients. Sometimes he landed them; other times he didn't.

"Cleveland has been friendly to white immigrants, but not very friendly to nonwhite immigrants," Singh says. "It wasn't blatant, but you felt it. ... Even when you thought you had something concrete to offer, they would pass it off."

The crane-building outfit, meanwhile, was doing well. Singh had traveled the country for that job and come to the conclusion that Cleveland was an "optimal" city for him. His employer's sales soared and Singh was getting promotions and greater responsibility. Thoughts of building a life in India receded to the back of his mind.

But his import/export business languished and closed in 1975. By the 1980s, much bigger giants were falling. The crane company closed in 1984. Singh had gotten out in time, though, leaving three years earlier to start the successful marketing firm he still runs today. But the crane builder was just one of many Cleveland companies that closed, was bought out or opted to outsource jobs at that time, Singh recalls.

"Nobody seemed to say, 'What are we going to do to rebuild our economy?' " he says of the city's leadership. A near-hemorrhage of Cleveland's population followed.

While the number of immigrants entering the country has been rising since the 1970s, Cleveland lost natives from its core and failed to attract newcomers to replace them. In fact, Cleveland's foreign-born quotient has plummeted to 4 percent — the lowest in more than a century.

Immigrants helped build and shape Cleveland's former glory. They started businesses and told their friends and families about the opportunities here. In the past, new immigrants entered downtown and repopulated neighborhoods being vacated by previous waves as those people became successful enough to buy homes in outlying communities. It's a pattern city leaders are hoping can happen again.

However, a 2004 study by the Brookings Institution, a policy think tank, labeled Cleveland a "former gateway" — a city built on immigrants at the turn of the century, a city that ranked fifth in the nation with its 32 percent share of immigrants by the 1920s, but which has today fallen off the map with thousands of people, including immigrants, leaving.

Public, private and charitable sectors of Cleveland buzz with debate about how exactly to channel immigration to create a stronger city. Mayor Jane Campbell underlined foreign entrepreneurs as a key to pushing the population beyond 500,000, even appointing a task force charged with finding them.

But others, such as Cleveland State University professor Sanda Kaufman, say the city may better lure its needed infusion of immigrant entrepreneurs by sidestepping the staggering bureaucracy of international visa regulations and concentrating on enticing immigrants away from places such as New York and Los Angeles.

When Cleveland was more like Chicago, Boston or San Francisco, few thought twice before boarding a train for this steel city. Throughout the early 1900s, Chinese immigrants fled West Coast discrimination and created Cleveland's Chinatown. Germans, Irish and Eastern Europeans came here to escape unemployment and, in some cases, famine and civil war. At one point, Cleveland was home to the highest population of Hungarians in the world, second only to Hungary's capital, Budapest. African Americans made their way here for better jobs in the smokestack-filled skylines of the North.

City officers once trolled Cleveland's train depots, looking for new arrivals and directing them toward their ethnic enclaves and settlement houses. They were handed an "Immigrant's Guide" published in nine languages with information on health care, laws and where to find English classes. A 1930s Census report showed Cleveland's population at nearly 1 million, 26 percent of whom were foreign-born. People were coming from all corners of the country and the globe for jobs in the railroads, steel mills, factories and farms. In the 1920s, Cleveland was in the top third of cities around the world generating product patents.

Historians have drawn connections between Cleveland's economic vitality and its high levels of immigration. For many years, a continuous influx of immigrants helped keep neighborhoods vibrant and create jobs.

So what went wrong?

The decline of the steel and manufacturing industries can be seen as early as the 1960s, when Cleveland's population started its decline. A lack of planning, along with urban sprawl and middle-class flight to the suburbs over the last few decades, has concentrated poverty in Cleveland's inner-city neighborhoods. The city now finds itself in the shaky position of supporting legions of low-income residents without its former business or residential tax base. Last year, Cleveland earned the unflattering distinction of poorest city in the nation.

Heated debate over the outsourcing of jobs to countries such as China, India and Mexico, along with a general economic malaise, have left local residents, and even some politicians, wary of inviting or encouraging immigration to Cleveland.

There's a general sense, especially among small-business immigrants, that city officials don't know what to do. Adrian Ortega, a Mexican immigrant, says Cleveland needs to streamline its rules, to think like an urban center and foster small retail businesses — the kind that low-income immigrants often seek.

"The problem is they're trying to develop Cleveland as a suburb and it's not built that way," he observes.

Ten years ago, Ortega decided to open a restaurant. He bought a piece of land and drew up the blueprints. After the necessary stamps of approval from city officials, Ortega started construction. Suddenly, a second letter arrived from City Hall. It said that he would not be able to open his restaurant because there wasn't adequate parking on city streets.

Wait a minute, Ortega remembers thinking. The city already approved the blueprints. Besides, why was parking even an issue? To Ortega, a city wasn't about cars, it was about storefronts and housing and pedestrian traffic. But he had no choice. Ortega, who also had money from a jewelry business, stopped in the middle of construction and found another property.

"Can you imagine if someone had only that as their investment and loan? He would be fried," Ortega says.

Immigrants tell countless stories of pretzel-shaped city regulations that just don't make sense or laws they never knew existed until it was too late.

Rafael Davila, a first-generation Mexican American, recently formed Latinos Unidos to create a political voice among Latinos and help immigrants network and address social issues. Davila says that immigrant and minority communities have to produce and identify opportunities themselves. Along with advocates from Arab-American, Hispanic, African-American, Chinese, Albanian, Slovenian, Vietnamese and Jewish communities, Davila sits on the board of the newly formed Immigrant and Minority Business Development Alliance, which met for the first time last August.

The alliance, which intends to provide better access to available resources, also includes Rose Zitiello, a representative from the city's community-development office. Zitiello helped form the group's agenda.

By including both immigrant and African-American entrepreneurs, alliance members hope to quell suspicions that the two sides are in competition for the same pool of money. Misunderstandings over what immigrants can add to a city's revitalization are pervasive.

There's even friction, at times, between the African-American community and other minority groups, which claim they are overlooked by a black-white dichotomy and a narrow dialogue about race in Cleveland.

"The whole mentality about minorities in Cleveland always caters mainly to the black community," says Davila. "Others tend to be ignored." On the other hand, any strictly immigrant initiative often leaves some black entrepreneurs feeling left out.

Danny Williams, a senior vice president of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, has watched such attitudes coalesce, though he says they are not always grounded in fact.

Williams suggests the city solve the problem by lending a hand in joint ventures between immigrants and African Americans. Meanwhile, immigrant community leaders want to see more grants and other governmental support for ethnic organizations in general.

For now, local immigrant groups are trying to develop and survive on their own. Before the minority business alliance, back in 1995, Chinese American May Chen started Asian Services in Action Inc. (ASIA), a nonprofit social-services agency for East Asian communities. She'd noticed that high levels of poverty and language barriers kept these immigrants from making themselves heard or knowing what services were available and how to access them.

As the racial landscape of Cleveland changes, Chen says foundations that offer grants aren't being as responsive as they could be. She suggests they re-envision their services and resources.

"Maybe they need to find new groups that are reaching out to immigrants or require existing groups to reach out to new immigrant groups," Chen suggests.

One example of that happening is a $5,000 grant the Cleveland Foundation awarded to the nascent Somali Diaspora Association last year.

The city's efforts to attract immigrants were highlighted in Mayor Campbell's 2003 State of the City address.

"Great cities in this country, including Cleveland, have been built by foreign-born immigrants," Campbell said in that speech. "Consider that only New York and Chicago welcomed more immigrants than Cleveland at the turn of the century. A strategic attraction of immigrants will again be Cleveland's priority."

A year later, those ideas were crystallized in a list of recommendations by the mayor's Civic Taskforce on International Cleveland, which also set the tone for "branding" the region as an international gateway, according to Chris Ronayne, the mayor's chief of staff and former planning director, who was on the task force.

The most notable part of this international strategy was last summer's International Children's Games. Campbell went on to declare 2004 "the year for international Cleveland." Aside from the games, the task force's ideas included organizing trade missions to foreign countries, creating a coalition of organizations that work with immigrants and international businesses, publishing a newsletter on international Cleveland and lobbying for changes in federal visa laws.

But CSU professor Kaufman says Cleveland needs to think even bigger when it comes to domestic approaches. Though she agrees that people don't yet know about Cleveland as a destination, Kaufman's solution is to market heavily in other cities where immigrants traditionally enter the United States. She says there are nonprofit and faith-based organizations that often serve as a link between new immigrants and cities with jobs and established ethnic communities.

"[These organizations] need to have information about Northeast Ohio that they can put in front of immigrants," Kaufman says. "Let people know that New York is crowded and expensive, so how about a cheaper alternative?

"The point is to increase Cleveland's population, so I don't think it's particularly helpful to invite any one group," she adds. And with American visas becoming more and more difficult to obtain, Kaufman says she believes city officials should focus on immigrants after they've already made their international passage.

"There's nothing we can really do as a city to help people with visas," she notes. "It's much better to look at people who have already made it here."

Talk of this work is just that: talk. For now, City Hall is sold on the international route.

"The mayor believes internationalism can truly be a driver," says Ronayne. He admits, however, that while the city has been active on the internationalization front, it still has to try to reach immigrants already living in the United States. "We could do a lot more on this," he says.

Ronayne says the city is moving forward on its internationalization goals. He describes a set of "trade calls" by the mayor that targeted companies now based in Israel, India and China — all emerging economies with interest in locating branches in the United States. Campbell asked them to consider Cleveland.

A 2002 visit to Israel, organized with the Ohio-Israel Chamber of Commerce and David Goldberg, president of Ohio Savings Bank — and against U.S. State Department travel advisories — included four bioscience companies. Tel Aviv-based Symbionix, which develops surgical simulation technology, found a home at The Cleveland Clinic after it received a $1.3 million low-interest loan from the city.

No other trips abroad are planned, Ronayne says. Instead, the mayor went to Washington, D.C., in 2003 and met with members of the Chinese, Brazilian, Israeli and Irish consulates.

To encourage a wide range of international companies to invest in Cleveland, the city also wants to champion a new biomedical research center on the Case Western Reserve University campus. Ronayne says such a facility would serve as a hub for domestic and foreign companies and provide a central location to develop core business strategies for such enterprises.

A "Global Enterprise Center," which would share offices in a new World Trade Center Cleveland building near Jacobs Field, is in the works, Ronayne adds. It will be another one-stop shop for foreign entrepreneurs. The GEC will generate resources for internationally owned companies and facilitate their development here.

"These two initiatives Cleveland is participating in, we believe, position us as a destination for foreign businesses as an 'international business center,' " Ronayne says.

He adds that the city also plans to change zoning to allow 24-hour labs, apply for state and federal capital construction grants and steer high-tech entrepreneurs toward available venture capital. Collaboration with such area organizations as World Trade Center Cleveland, Case, the Greater Cleveland Partnership and the Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland will be key, according to Ronayne. He does acknowledge the worries some have about immigrants and city residents vying for the same pieces of the pie.

"There is a concern that 'Will there be enough jobs for everyone?' We posit that [internationalization] is truly a 2+2=5 for everyone," he says.

To see how different ethnic communities have been affected by Cleveland's efforts (or lack thereof) to keep them here, we peer inside the lives of six immigrant entrepreneurs who moved here looking for opportunity. Their stories span the spectrum of successes and failures, not just the extreme highs and lows most associated with the immigrant experience. From Indian American Narinder Singh Sital's string of small businesses to Jose Luis Verde and Adrian Ortega's successes as Mexican-American entrepreneurs to Somali refugee Mahad Mohamed's crumbling dream of opening his own restaurant, the following stories offer a true glimpse of the immigrant experience here.

Narinder and Prem Sital
Indian Americans

As Narinder Singh Sital turns off the lights, he shakes his head and waves his hands in the air.

"Everyone thinks there is money in America," says the Indian immigrant. "The picture looks so rosy from there."

Narinder and his wife, Prem, own a small deli in downtown Cleveland. It's the fourth business the couple has opened since moving here from Columbus seven years ago and the family's seventh overall.

Two months ago, the pair embarked on their eighth venture: a fast-food stall called "Indies" — an Indo-spelling of "Wendy's" — at the Colonial Marketplace Food Court. Narinder, 61, a former botany professor, and Prem, 57, who has a master's degree in political science, hope that Cleveland can sustain them.

The Sitals have been closing one operation to start another since settling in Columbus 20 years ago. They have tried a tailoring shop, an Indian grocery and a convenience store, all in Columbus. But the 17-hour days and seven-day weeks at the convenience store proved too grueling.

When Narinder saw a newspaper advertising commercial spaces for lease in Cleveland, he moved his family here and bought an existing convenience store at BP Tower with financing help from a fellow Indian immigrant.

But Narinder says his search for religious and ethnic institutions was difficult. There is little crossover between different Indian-based languages and religions, except for the Federation of Indian Associations, a coalition of about 20 groups that represent six ethnicities and four religions, and nationalist events like an India Independence Day.

The Sitals show a different side of the Indian immigrant story than those who have been coming to the U.S. since the early 1970s on work or study visas to enter the finance, technology and medical fields. They are among a more recent wave of immigrants who left behind their careers in favor of opening corner delis, motels and gas stations.

But a general lack of information available to new immigrants has resulted in some bad business decisions on Narinder's part, such as a failed endeavor at downtown's Halle Building.

"They tell us 700 people come, twice a day the [food] court gets filled. We never even saw 200 people," he bitterly recalls. "Whatever we made, whatever we had, we lost in the Halle Building."

Now, all his money is tied up in the City Club and Colonial Marketplace lunch counters. "Business-wise, we struggle," he says. "We sell, we buy, we struggle."

Prem sits quietly, a knowing smile on her face as her husband answers questions about life and work. Her smile seems to say, "Life is hard, so why the fuss?" Then, she does speak, albeit briefly. "It's mentally disturbing if you don't have money every day," she notes. There have been days, even months, like that.

Despite his lukewarm success so far, Narinder has no plans to leave. His shops turn a profit and his children are near. "We will stay because we have our business set here," he says. "We're not like that, where we move from one city to another."

Mahad Mohamed
Somali American

Everything is half done. The stovetop works, but the oven doesn't. A few bags of meat are in the freezer, but nothing more.

This could be Juba, a carryout African restaurant housed in a run-down strip mall near the airport. It's a venture into which 61-year-old Somali refugee Mahad Mohamed and two partners put $10,000 in 2003. Two years later, and now close to $24,000 in debt, Mohamed is still trying to realize his dream.

In 2002, the Somali-owned USA Taxi company invited Mohamed, then unemployed and living in Minnesota, to Cleveland, where he met dozens of other Somali taxi drivers like him looking for the food of their homeland.

"It was very difficult for them with other food," Mohamed says, "so I thought I would offer some food that was delicious to them."

He recounts a tale full of red flags about how not to start a business. But no one noticed his troubles and Cleveland lacks an agency or even a place where immigrants can find information that could have helped.

Instead, Mohamed enlisted the aid of a purported "consultant." Together, they found a site and applied to the city for a restaurant permit and occupancy license. That's when the trouble began. The building did not meet electrical, fire-safety and cleanliness standards.

Still, Mohamed sank $10,000 into the Rocky River Drive location. He spent thousands of dollars on new wiring. Then, he bought appliances through the "consultant," paying $2,500 for a used stove and $3,000 for a used freezer. When neither worked, he tried to contact the "consultant" and the equipment's original owner, but both were long gone.

"If I had known all this before signing [a] lease, I perhaps would have signed a different site," Mohamed says, this time through the translation of Abdifatah Samatar, a fellow taxi driver and president of the Somali Diaspora Association, a nonprofit that Samatar started to provide social services to this mostly refugee community.

Samatar explains that immigrants such as Mohamed, with a weak grasp of English and a fragile understanding of state and federal regulations, don't know about the Small Business Administration. And, for now, the Somali or African immigrant communities in Cleveland don't have enough members or money to help either.

Samatar hopes his organization will one day be that resource. But right now, the SDA —opened with a $5,000 grant from the Cleveland Foundation and housed in a two-room office — has no funds to offer.

"We share the same problems as other immigrant groups," Samatar says. "It's very difficult to get a loan, Muslim or not."

As a Muslim, which many Somalis are, Mohamed's options are even fewer because his religion prevents him from charging or paying interest. Samatar wants to see a grant program that provides start-up money to be repaid without interest.

For Mohamed, his business plan dissolves a little more each day. Problems at the airport have led many Somali taxi drivers to leave the city. If this trend continues, Mohamed will lose everything. For now, he continues the search for the last $5,000 he says will finally allow him to open his restaurant.

"I think I will be open by the end of the year," he says, then climbs into his cab and drives toward the airport.

Adrian Ortega and Jose Luis Verde
Mexican Americans

Sometime in 1998, just as Jose Luis Verde turned on the power to his tortilla factory, Adrian Ortega switched on the lights at his second Mexican restaurant.

Today, Ortega owns three Mexican restaurants in Greater Cleveland and receives tortillas fresh daily from Verde's now three-times-as-big factory floor.

Verde grabs a bright yellow corn tortilla just out of the oven, rips off a piece and samples it. He tosses the rest, knowing he'll be back later to pack some for home.

"We are Mexican. We are used to eating corn tortillas daily," says Verde, 37, who opened his Fiesta Guadalajara tortilla factory in Tremont six years ago. "I was getting them frozen. There was no fresh ones available in Cleveland."

Across town, along the stretch of Lorain Avenue that buzzes with Middle Eastern and Latino shops and restaurants, Ortega's dreams of business ownership started in 1995.

"There was a need in the city, a big need, for the few Mexicans that were in town to have a place," he says, explaining that the language barrier often kept Latinos from being able to buy the cuts of meat they wanted.

Ortega, 45, opened Mi Pueblo, a restaurant with an adjoining butcher shop, grocery store and wire-transfer counter. "All services needed by people who don't speak the language yet," he says.

But starting a business in Cleveland wasn't easy for either man. It took Ortega three tries before a bank gave him the loan to open his original Mi Pueblo. The first bank took a full year to ponder his request before shooting it down.

"I went there because [I was told] they were better with small businesses and minorities," Ortega recalls. "But it didn't turn out that way."

One thing in Ortega's favor was the English he'd acquired since coming to the United States at age 16. In general, Latino community activists argue, bank loans are almost impossible to obtain unless one speaks English. And many banks, hospitals and social-service institutions have yet to hire bilingual employees.

When Verde decided to open a tortilla factory, he started with the city, but found the system too slow for his taste.

"It would take three to six months for a loan and there was all this paperwork," he recalls, then adds that the city has became more small business-friendly since 1998.

Instead, Verde decided to take out a second mortgage on his house, paying a slightly higher interest rate, and secured his loan directly from a local bank. Within weeks, he was up and running in a 3,600-square-foot building.

Today, Verde's new factory building is close to 14,000 square feet and churns out 900 dozen tortillas per hour (up from the 200 dozen per hour the day he opened). He employs six workers who process and package the tortillas while Verde does his own billing, inventory and delivery.

His next move is to buy a new tortilla machine that will produce 3,000 dozen tortillas per hour to meet demand for his product. He talks about opening a factory storefront, owning a Mexican restaurant in the Warehouse District and renting apartments above the factory.

For Ortega, this is also just the beginning, as long as the city can figure out how to market itself to the "little guy."

"Who's going to open in Cleveland?" Ortega asks. "Who's going to risk it in a neighborhood in Cleveland that is dilapidated? It's an immigrant."

Theresa Wang
Chinese American

When Theresa Wang and her husband found jobs in Greater Cleveland six years ago, they bought a house in Solon because of its school system. But when they reached Solon, they realized they were among only a handful of Chinese immigrant families there.

Today, Wang gasps at the numbers. There has been a suburban explosion of highly educated Chinese immigrants, who first came to the United States for graduate studies. In the past decade, Solon in particular has seen incredible growth in their numbers.

Solon now has the largest Chinese language school in the region. Founded in 1995 with 30 students, its enrollment now tops 400. (Wang, who is Taiwanese, sends her two junior high-age children to a separate language school in Mayfield Village.) Most parents are immigrants from mainland China, and have good jobs in medicine, engineering and technology.

High-paying industries located on the East Side draw Chinese-American professionals there. Wang's husband, who has a Ph.D. in medical engineering and works for a medical equipment maker in Highland Heights, came to the U.S. in 1989 to study for his advanced degree. Wang, who then had a bachelor's degree in language and literature from a Chinese university, followed him. Once here, she decided she needed more education if she wanted to work in the U.S. She entered a graduate business program and majored in accounting, ultimately finding work as a loan officer at an Akron-based mortgage brokerage.

In time, she earned a roster of Chinese-American clients and branched out on her own. She opened her own business, purchasing a brass placard that reads: "First Integrity Financial Services" in both English and Chinese. She rented office space in Solon, less than 15 minutes from her home.

Almost every week, Wang's life intersects with poorer Chinese immigrants, many of whom have come to the United States under family-reunification visas, but with much less education. They live near downtown Cleveland's Chinatown, often at the poverty level, and, like their predecessors, still come to work in family-owned businesses.

Cleveland's Chinatown, located along Payne, Superior and St. Clair avenues and stretching from East 30th to East 40th streets, is a constellation of restaurants, bakeries and laundries, all with signs first in Mandarin Chinese. Roughly in the center is Asia Plaza, which houses jewelry kiosks, community organization offices such as Japan Society, an herbal medicine seller and the flagship Li Wah Restaurant.

The city's first Chinese language school is a few blocks away, located in a church basement. Its roster of students has been slowly declining in number. Unable to charge more fees from working-class parents, the school is struggling financially. From a peak of 120 students in 1990, it now has about 65.

One reason is that many families, after learning of the Solon school, are sending their children there. But Chinatown remains a commercial hub for Greater Cleveland's Chinese immigrant community. It's still where Wang and her wealthier compatriots drive in once a week to shop, eat and stock up on groceries.


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