Edges of America

“Edges of America” is a book and  documentary film project my film collective is working on. This project follows me as I work to unwind the complexity of our modern immigration debate, or more accurately, the bare-knuckled lies, mis-characterizations,  street brawls and attempted bombings that are masquerading for public debate on immigration today. This book and attendant film project is focused on the stories of folks in the “twin cities” of Lewiston/Auburn, Maine and “the logical city” of Oakland, CA.

In the late 90s-early 2000s, the city of Lewiston, ME experienced an unexpected growth spurt, with the sudden arrival of thousands of “new Mainers”, mostly comprised of refugee immigrant populations. Most of the refugees  originally came from Eastern African nations such as Somalia, and had arrived in Lewiston via Portland, ME, and prior to that cities like Atlanta, Georgia. The lives and experiences of many of these new arrivals were marked by the scars of war and humanitarian crisis, with many having filtered through international refugee camps and fled conflict zones to find stability for themselves and their families. Lewiston was predominantly a city inhabited by white folks when the influx of refugees began, but that white population is a mix of Irish, French immigrants and English and Yankee settlers. Each successive wave of immigrants that’s arrived in the area that became the city of Lewiston, ME has brought with it tensions, challenges, and enormous economic and cultural benefits to the city. This current wave of immigration is no exception. The dramatic changes to the fabric of the community that the unheralded arrival of African refugees resulted in has featured tremendous growth, tension, opportunity, and friction. Such is the hidden history of Lewiston, and of the broader tale of immigration in the United States – a story of similarly complex and challenging issues that faces each new wave of immigrants as they arrive. Their stories have made and continue to make the America we know today and the America that can thrive in the future.

Oakland, CA is a city that was founded by Spanish conquistadors with land grants from the Spanish king, land that of course was stolen from the native Americans, who were enslaved and/or killed. It’s history of immigration is extensive and intense, with American Yankees flooding and overwhelming Mexican California during the gold rush, and waves of immigration from all over the world during a long history of industrial and economic expansion. During WW2, poor blacks and poor whites from the south arrived in large numbers, bringing racial tension with them. Latino and Asian immigrants have also had a major history in Oakland. Since the 70s and 80s, high-tech has turned Oakland into a boom town once again, and in many ways the long-time residents are becoming victims of that success. Long time residents, especially large numbers of minority groups, are being pushed out of the city by rising prices and overcrowding. At the same time, many new immigrants, including large numbers of highly educated immigrants from Asia and central Asian countries like China and India, as well as many refugees from Latin American countries, are arriving in Oakland in large numbers to build the high-tech companies of the future, and to provide services to the workers who endeavor to build these high-tech businesses. How can we, as a society, balance the pros and cons of these complex issues?

The dynamism, challenges, excitement, and fear the cities of Lewiston/Auburn and Oakland have experienced were and are the source of innumerable stories , many of which still need to be told. The stories of these communities and the impacts of immigration are the stories of America as a whole. As our larger society becomes increasingly polarized around issues like immigration, the victories and setbacks in Lewiston, ME and Oakland, CA have much to teach us about moving forward as a united, democratic America.

I live in Oakland now, and I moved here as an economic migrant, fleeing the poverty and lack of opportunity back in Lewiston, ME, and my teenage brother moved in with me not too long after I arrived. The rest of my family followed me out to California after a couple years of my brother and I living here and making a go of it. I joke that my parents got tired of hearing us tell them how great the weather was, in the middle of what for them was the brutal winter, and the final straw was having lost their snow plow – my brother and I. My family had moved to Lewiston/Auburn when I was 13, and I came of age growing up in that area. I formed my first rock bands there, and found my artistic and political voice as a teenager on its streets. I lived in Lewiston and Portland as a young adult, working in the farming, fishery, and land management industries. The area was generations removed from the good textile and shoe mill jobs that had fueled the region in years past, and the economy can best be described by the terms like “post-industrial” and “rust belt” that are used today to describe so much of the “forgotten” United States. I often found creative, difficult ways to make money, such as hauling scrap metals like steel for $80 a ton. I moved to Oakland in 1997 to pursue a career in music, but I maintained ties to Maine in the form of close friendships.

Living in Lewiston wasn’t always easy, in fact it was often pretty hard in a lot of ways. But life there informed my understanding of what and who America is, the strengths and weaknesses that make our nation what it is. Out here in Oakland, CA, my home for the past 23 years, it can sometimes feel like I’m living on a different planet than the one I grew up in back in Lewiston. However, although there is a lot of opportunity in Oakland, life here has long been a hustle for basic survival, compared to the lower prices and easier living that was possible here when I first arrived in 1997. As Oakland charges forward into a high-tech, big money future of global marketplaces, it’s struggling with finding ways to make sure the massive economic growth the high-tech boom has provided to some – especially to new arrivals with specialized skill sets and technical educations – can be shared by residents who were born and raised in the East Bay, have lived for years in the area, or are trying to survive here in service jobs that serve the wealthy high tech workers. Most of these folks are people who don’t have these specialized post-industrial high-tech skills. As a result, many of the poor, working class, and even many middle class people are being pushed out of the city and into suburbs.

Meanwhile, many people back in Lewiston are feeling completely abandoned by the post-industrial economy, and the city’s ability to flourish seems to hinge on whether or not the revitalization that the influx of immigrants represent can be embraced by the community as a whole. It seems to me that immigration offers the same promise it always has for the United States, as the folks who are most desperate to take advantage of the opportunities that hard work can deliver in the United States are often the most successful in doing so. I really do believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, but only if resources are distributed equitably. At the same time, I recognize that change is just naturally difficult sometimes, and even economic prosperity has the potential to create unintended negative outcomes. It’s my hope that by working on this project, I’ll learn something about how we might all do a better job of hearing each other out and learning how to find a way forward that works for everyone. I feel like the entire world has something to learn from the experiences of Lewiston and Oakland.

Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom. – Thomas Jefferson


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