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Global Heartland is about Beardstown, Illinois, a small city and former “sundown town” where as late as the 1960s Blacks were warned – officially, unofficially, routinely and occasionally violently not to show their faces after dark. It had been dominated by factories – since the 1970s mainly meatpacking – and their white workers and politicians. But after 1990, it was transformed by an infusion of immigrant Mexicans, Togolese Africans, Blacks and others. By 2010, whites were reduced to sixty one percent of the total population, and would soon be less than half.

Professor Faranak Miraftab, of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana Planning Department, has told the story of Beardstown’s transformation and its main implications. It’s a fascinating story in itself, but Global Heartland is also significant as a metaphor for change in many cities: in the often sensitive cultivation of relations among diverse groups, and in the understanding of cities and by extension, of nations, at each end of migration flows.


Miraftab tells a story that intertwines her own life as a teacher and researcher with that of her subject. She was an Iranian immigrant attuned to the cost and opportunities of travel across boundaries. She had been an activist alongside her scholarship. She and her sister were part of a student movement in Iran. Her sister was later executed in the repression following the 1979 revolution, and Faranak became a refugee, ending up in Norway. There she did graduate work on housing issues in Chile, refugees in Vancouver. Later she did a dissertation at Berkeley on female-headed households in Mexico. She also wrote about anti-eviction campaigns during South Africa’s emergence from Apartheid in the 1990s.

Miraftab arrived at the University of Illinois in 1999. She was curious about the small cities in central Illinois. They had historically been homogeneously white, and had been bleeding jobs since the end of the 1970s. A key event in Beardstown’s transformation was the arrival of Cargill, an international corporation that acquired the local meatpacking plant following a long strike in 1987. It was able to reopen the plant at wages that had been reduced from $8.75 to $6.50 per hour, but it had difficulty maintaining the predominantly white labor force, and soon resorted to the recruitment of immigrant labor. Recruitment began with Mexicans, whose presence increased through the 1990s. Cargill struggled to maintain a legal labor force. After the 1990s, it began to attract immigrants from Africa, primarily the West African nation of Togo, and still later a small number of American Blacks from Detroit.

Miraftab’s first foray to Beardstown was in 2004. There had been an explosion of literature about “global cities” like New York and Los Angeles and the effects of “globalization.” There was particular concentration on international flows of capital and major growth in some areas, matched by decline in others. Some celebrated this as “creative destruction,” it was welcomed by advocates of growth while decried by those more concerned with the preservation of communities and with the fortunes of the poor.

Miraftab wanted to see these communities for herself and thought there might be something to look at in the smaller towns of the Midwest and in the areas of Illinois around her university. She writes:

As an Iranian who grew up in a bustling Tehran and has lived in many large cities of the world, I was curious to learn about rural Midwestern towns. Thus, I made an excursion out of my first visit to Beardstown, which a preliminary demographic review of Illinois immigration had flagged as an outstanding example of demographic change.

On my way, I followed road signs from interstate and county highways to small towns that invariably seemed abandoned and forgotten. On the main streets, buildings and shops were boarded up, their exterior walls bearing fading advertisements from decades past; few cars if any were parked or being driven along the street; and in some towns, old traffic signs reminded motorists of school zones and crossings, though the schools were gone.

In 2004, most of the small Midwest cities bore the marks common to rustbelt decline: empty stores, houses boarded up, and public sector retrenchment. But Beardstown was different. It had a vibrant business district, new schools, and a diverse population. In Beardstown,

. . . the downtown businesses were open and thriving. Family-owned restaurants offered Mexican and Dominican fare; grocers stocked foods ranging from cassava to tortillas. A school and library had recently been built. Neighborhoods had been revitalized . . . Even more surprising was that unlike other U.S. cities, Beardstown had no economically or ethnically stratified neighborhoods – there was not a Latino, white Anglo, or Black and African neighborhood, no rich or poor neighborhood.

These developments could – and did – sustain an optimistic narrative of urban resurgence. But the city did not get to this point easily. Cargill’s recruitment of Mexicans resulted in abrupt increases in the Spanish speaking population. The shortage of housing was severe. Miraftab reports the recollection of a former police chief: “Sometimes up to seventeen people [lived] in the same house”. The impact on the schools was very great.

One response to the growing number of immigrants was from the Ku Klux Klan. It staged a rally in 1995, attracting 200 in a nearby town. In 1996, a Mexican shot and killed a white person in a Beardstown bar. The shooter quickly fled, but angry whites marched and burned a six-foot cross in the town plaza. Mirfaftab writes:

This 1996 incident marked a significant turning point . . .The shooting and subsequent events profoundly disturbed the local white community, which was struggling with many different aspects of their changing town. . . . [The] local whites had to decide either to contribute to a peaceful transition, or attempt to drag Beardstown back to the sundown era.”

They called meetings, brought in visitors and got participation from the Catholic Church and other institutions. One outcome was the emergence of Beardstown United.

“It was not a permanent organization . . . but it did highlight the need for institutional intervention. The Catholic Church flew three nuns into town from Mexico . . .The Protestant Church of the Nazarene hired a bilingual pastor who also served as a translator for the Spanish speaking newcomers, a realtor signed up for intensive Spanish classes. . . and the school district hired a dedicated El Salvadoran community-school liaison.

Miraftab could have simply used this grassroots effort to elaborate on the positive narrative and left the story at that. But she had a deeper purpose.


Miraftab wanted to know: WHY? Why did the new population take low wage, backbreaking and dangerous work? How did they survive such exploitative conditions and also contribute to city development?

What sets Global Heartland apart from other studies of immigrant work and residence is Miraftab’s curiosity about, and research into, the relationships and resources that immigrants brought from their communities of origin. From her first visit to Beardstown in 2004, she had sought to interview immigrant workers whose stories would at least be a classic “community study,” but also complement the author’s reading of the global literature and her own extensive experience. Not surprisingly, she also recorded stories of her subjects’ backgrounds in their home countries. Through her study, she learned that many had left for the United States due to loss of work in their home communities or the constraints imposed by the same multinational firms that would now hire them in the U.S., and that they brought with them memories, and a sense of place that they found they could replicate, to an extent, once they arrived in Beardstown. Thus, there was a dual view emerging, one of the experience in adapting to life in Beardstown, the other from the communities of origin.

Some of this – crucial to the story – came when Miraftab traveled to two of the most prominent communities of origin: Michoacan in Mexico (2008) and Lome, in Togo (2010). In each case she was able to bring one of her interviewees in Beardstown on the journey, as guide and interpreter. Neither trip seems to have been over-long, but were a crucial reinforcement to what the author heard from the stories told by immigrants in Beardstown.


The first implication of the dual view – i.e. the determination to look not only at the impact of immigration on the destination communities, but also on the events in communities of origin that motivated immigration flows in the first place – was the realization that all communities had one thing in common: they were subject to a restructuring of “capital” investment flows, facilitated by new trade and emigration policies.

For example, when a Mexican farmer

“. . . could no longer compete with prices of milk, corn, and other agricultural products imported under the unfair trade policies of NAFTA and the dismantling of [the government warehouse] , CONASUPO, he had to put up his ejido [farm] for sale and send his sons . . . to the United States as migrant workers in hope of the small remittances they might send back.”

There were parallels in other communities, nations of origin. In Togo the U.S. State Department offered “Diversity Visas” that:

“…opened a floodgate to supply potential labor force in another location. The educational and vocational terms of the visa accelerate the emigration of skilled and educated Togolese.”

Miraftab supplies a brief account of parallels in emigration from Detroit to Beardstown as well. Deindustrialization led to the relocation of Detroit's previously well-paying unionized jobs across the country or the border. Local policies segregated the workforce into white suburbs and a Black inner city. At the federal level, neoliberal policies of "leaner meaner government" drastically cut urban spending for education, transport, health care and jobs.

As with the Mexicans and the Togolese,

“In each instance, the heart of the process is the dispossession of people from viable local livelihoods and their conversion into a cheap labor supply for global markets, their transformation into workforce that is racialized, displaced, criminalized as illegal and has limited recourse to organizing.”


Miraftab’s investigations in Mexico and Togo had established the factors forcing migrants to seek better jobs and lives elsewhere, but these were not well understood locally in Beardstown. Miraftab caught some criticism while still researching Beardstown (2005-2012) when she stated in an interview with a reporter that the immigrants brought their own significant resources to the local economy. Anti-immigration critics asked, weren’t they just bleeding the locality by sending remittances back to Mexico and other places?

Miraftab makes two claims in response. One was that while Cargill had brought in workers who were in their productive years, prepared to put in hours and survive on the factory floor, the young and old largely remained, and were taken care of in the country of origin. This was the “outsourcing of social reproduction.” She provides an abundance of detail, possible from her research in the Togolese and Mexican communities of origin.

The second claim is also informed by the view from the communities of origin, but perhaps less directly. It seems to be a story of mutual adaptation between immigrants and longstanding Beardstown residents and institutions as the immigrants contribute to everyday life in Beardstown itself. This longstanding, largely white part of the population provides a remarkable story alongside that of the immigrants. Local professionals – teachers in the schools, city workers – accustomed to a homogeneously white clientele, seemed to transform their once established practices and methods. In these ways, the immigrants, bringing their practices to a new location, contributed to their new city’s own capabilities.

The most dramatic form of adaptation was the development of dual language curricula in the Beardstown public schools. Outside of Cargill itself, the schools were the first local institutions to feel the impact of immigration. Miraftab cites an increase in the number of (predominantly Hispanic) “culturally and linguistically diverse” students in the school from 5 in 1994 to 290 in 2000. By 2010 those who were not identified as all-white constituted 47.5 percent of students.


"Local professionals – teachers in the schools, city workers – accustomed to a homogeneously white clientele, seemed to transform their once established practices and methods. In these ways, the immigrants, bringing their practices to a new location, contributed to their new city’s own capabilities."


Neither the longstanding white population of the city, nor the school personnel were prepared for these changes, Miraftab writes, but they seemed to meet the challenges creatively, if in small increments. Perhaps they had some history to fall back on by the end of the 1990s, as the response to the KKK initiative of 1995 was met with the determined Beardstown United Movement and subsequent actions.

The “. . .school administrators felt the pressure of having to offer Spanish language for English learners in the classroom,” though they had no adequate staff to do so. They improvised and would identify potential staff from among new residents. Miiraftab describes a “slow metamorphosis” that involved “changing . . . the way they understood language as a medium of communication and the school as a site of cultural mediation.” They responded to a state mandate by delivering the English Learners Program which

“. . . reflected what education scholars refer to as "the perspective of language as a problem." Beardstown schools also followed an ESL model called "ESL pull-out," whereby Spanish-speaking students were removed from the regular classroom for a certain period of time to be instructed in Spanish. This approach was followed by a Transition and Bilingual Education model (TBE), in which English- and Spanish-speaking students were instructed in separate classrooms with the idea that over two or three years, the Spanish-speaking students would transition to an English only class.”

When these initial steps seemed to be segregating students (and parents) in 2004, the school moved on to require both language groups – Spanish and English – to learn both languages through a Dual Language Program (DLP).

What is striking is the lengths to which the Beardstown teachers went to get parents – English and Spanish speakers alike – to buy in:

“The school district agreed to adopt DLP, provided that there was parental consent for every participating child. Beardstown teachers then launched what they called "the teachers' movement"—a door-to-door campaign to achieve 100 percent consent among both English- and Spanish-speaking parents. The teachers—some long-standing, native-born locals, and others new, Spanish-speaking classroom aides—along with a Central American school-community liaison paid a visit to every household that had an elementary school child in Beardstown for one-to-one conversation about the value of multicultural education and DLP. "Sometimes we spent hours or a whole evening with one family.... The conversation often moved from kids and school to town, change and future," said one teacher who took part in the teachers' movement that summer.”


In part because of Beardstown’s history as a “sundown town,” Blacks had simply been excluded, rather than ghettoized, so the city had no racially defined neighborhoods. In the wake of KKK instigated violence against Mexicans in the 1990s, when Cargill began recruiting West African workers it gently directed them to housing in nearby Rushville. But in the face of rising gasoline prices, Togolese workers later began to seek rentals in Beardstown. Hispanics, who had taken advantage of liberal federal mortgage policies over a decade earlier, readily began offering the Togolese rentals.

Soccer was another indication of the community’s transformation, as the immigrant groups “created space” in the community, while finding ways to bond together. During the first decade of Mexican immigration to the city, immigrants played soccer “out of sight” in backyards and vacant lots. Later they began to go to the city’s Park District fields, but upon hearing complaints from local people, they were kicked out. They tried commuting to fields in other cities, which they found inconvenient, even dangerous in light of the KKK agitation earlier. By 2003 they finally got the Park District to provide a field, and soon there were leagues playing in the city.

“Once we had the land, we worked on making it a functional soccer field. Each player paid five dollars per year, and with that we funded the construction of the wooden shed and benches at the field.... Cargill donated trees; the league put in the labor to plant those. The district cares for the grass and mows the field; we the league members clean the fields and pick up trash.”

Within a few years the teams, while initiated by the Mexicans, had West African players and even some white Americans. Miraftab writes:

"When I asked about relations between African and Latino players, Diego said, "Entre nosotros no hay radsmo [there is no racism among us]." Jorge followed up: "Futbol nos unido [soccer united us] because Africans tell us 'desde chiquito they played sin zapatos and nosotros egual' [since they were little they played soccer without shoes and same with us]—we are like each other. We like football and play, and through football we have become more friends. They invite us to their parties, they rent a hall in Rushville for party and invite us; and we invite them to ours. We speak a little of English and they too. It is no problem."

Miraftab notes the increasing acceptance of the Latino and African presence was also reflected in the growing popularity of Mexican Independence Day celebrations in Beardstown (since 1998) and African Day in nearby Rushville (since 2008), and evidenced through patronage of food stalls and attendance at parades. She also describes the integration of Mexican and African families through childcare practices, and suggests a slow acceptance among white residents:

“My interview with a resident in her nineties revealed broader effects of interracial intimacies. She had a Latino neighbor on one side and an African on the other side. While she did not leave home much, she mentioned, "They are nice people, very nice people, very helpful. If they see me carrying something they offer help. They always say hello." But these were infrequent interactions. What was most puzzling for her was how her feelings about blacks had changed since her granddaughter started dating a young black man. She asked me to follow her to her kitchen so she could show me a picture of the couple she had posted with a magnet on her refrigerator. With her finger crooked and deformed by arthritis, she dislodged the picture and offered it to me to take a good look. It was of a nice smiling couple embracing, one dark and one blond. The girl was in the front and the boy in the back with his arms wrapped around her. They both had big smiles. The grandmother said, ‘Now that my granddaughter has a black boyfriend ... I get a funny feeling, some kind of a connection with the black people It's weird I think, it's kind of scary. Perhaps it is blood, because she is with him so I feel different. It's a feeling I can't explain.’”


One of Miraftab’s observations is that, by travelling to the immigrants’ home countries and communities, she was able to see what was developing in Beardstown from multiple perspectives. These contrasted with the relatively more single-dimensioned views that might have been imposed – were imposed – by the white power structure or Cargill executives. On pages 201-202 she writes:

“The formal structures of representation in Beardstown remain largely unaffected by its dramatic demographic and social changes. Most of the immigrants do not have legal citizenship and so cannot vote or take part in the formal politics of this town. The same bigoted mayor, Robert Walters, has been elected into office for four terms, and the city council remains all white and all English speaking and includes only one woman. There is no formal planning agency or entity, nor are professionally trained planning staff involved in development decisions in this town. The council meets twice a month, typically for less than half an hour, and members of the public rarely attend. The mayor is the obvious kingpin in this structure. According to one local authority, ‘There has never been a time when the council voted down one of the mayor’s proposals in council.’”

That can read: “Don’t expect much from government” – or from city planning.

This, by itself, should not surprise progressive planners. As progressives, planners have always hoped for better government, but have learned not to be too naïve about it, to be ready for a long gestation for good ideas to reach fruition. But can city planners – who tend to come back to questions about what city hall ought to be doing – still draw some lessons?


  1. A lot can develop at the grassroots level. Mexicans, having arrived in Beardstown at the end of the 1980s as renters, eventually took advantage of the exodus of white homeowners, became owners themselves and then landlords to the next waves of immigrants. This was an innovation that Miraftab called “inter-ethnic renting practices.” Immigrants, who were used to playing soccer but confronted with parks devoted to baseball diamonds, began converting rubbish strewn vacant lots until eventually the parks converted to soccer fields. They organized national festivals similar to those in their countries of origin, and patronized the development of shops selling ethnic foods and other goods.

  2. Progressive city planners, in City Hall or outside, might have supported all this if anyone hired them (apparently, no one did). But how? Miraftab’s description can be taken as affirmation of her claim that simply seeing the immigrants not only in their place of destination but also in their communities of origin provides a perspective that can allow natural tendencies to develop. It is a dual perspective, as she argues and demonstrates. There is no suggestion that the benign outcomes in Beardstown – achieved against the “sundown town” history and the KKK incursions alongside the pragmatism and good will evident in various local people and institutions - will be replicated.

  3. She does not provide a manual. One looks in vain, through Miraftab’s accounts of life in Michoacan, Lome or Detroit, for detailed precedents for what later developed in Beardstown. Her trips were relatively short, plausible as providing perspective, not details that might be replicated, imported intact. The accounts, however, do suggest a population with some vigor, and make real the proposition that, in various ways, they were able to give voice once any leverage appeared locally. There is a provocative suggestion as to the advantages, and disadvantages, of the small city situation. But there are limits as to more general conclusions, say as to how the reception of immigrants may go in other places, other small cities.

  4. Small city specialists could carry the work of Global Heartland further. For instance, what characteristics of the Cargill firm, both the local plant and the multinational, were helpful? They recruited diversity, but did they also help accommodate it? They seemed to tolerate a racist mayor, but did they encourage the wider views in the school system? How different was their behavior in Beardstown, from what it might have been in a metropolitan environment?

There are many towns that have become home to new immigrant populations, and greater professional awareness of how to better serve such populations offers progressive planners chances to contribute. At a minimum, it is, as Miraftab exemplifies, a matter of seeing what is actually going on – if possible through the dual lens that she adopted by making contact in the communities of origin.

Is it possible for such towns to develop capacities within city government to contribute to, or at least stay out of the way of, the grassroots efforts such as Miraftab describes? How to do that is another facet of the wisdom progressives can hope to bring to city planning. If so, her book will be part of the foundation.



We feature stories on inclusive urban planning practices, grassroots organizing, and civic action. Our contributors and readers are activists, reporters, practitioners, academics, and community members.


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