Migrant infrastructure: Transaction economies in Birmingham and Leicester, UK

This is a blog post to accompany an article I wrote for Urban Studies with Suzanne Hall and Robin Finlay which can be accessed by clicking: here.


This blog was written to accompany the online publication of our paper ‘Migrant Infrastructure: Transaction economies in Birmingham and Leicester, UK’ which forms part of the ‘Super-diverse streets’ project, an ESRC-funded research exploration of the intersections between city streets, social diversity and economic adaptations in the context of accelerated migration (ref: ES/L009560/1). The project period spans from 2015 to 2017, and focuses on five high streets within the UK’s most diverse cities, including: London, Leicester, Manchester, Birmingham and Bradford.

The paper is an exploration of how highly variegated migrant groups develop a ‘transaction economy’ (Simone, 2004) within the dynamic terrain of the urban high street. Simone’s concept of the ‘transaction economy’ derives from the streets of inner Johannesburg which he describes as a crossover of traders, squatters, syndicated, religion, Internet cafes and beauty parlous. This is useful because it is through these intersections of histories and geographies that a loose infrastructure of the street emerges and whereby residents recalibrate the city.

Through our reading of the street we explore highly precarious yet skilled resourcefulness to the backdrop of a receding state, growing inequality and diminishing resources. In the context of everyday life of diverse and marginal urban places we are particularly interested in how high streets are operationalized by individuals and groups in the city who are caste outside of a dominant cultural register.

The paper – in two sections – is an ethnographic perspective of migrant infrastructures of Rookery Road, Birmingham and Narborough Road, Leicester.  Our methodology of migrant infrastructure expands through the analysis of three interrelated properties including historic depth (power), socio-spatial texture (materiality) and locality (place). Historic depth recognizes how global systems of power and regulation endure in the formation of current infrastructure. Socio-spatial texture examines why certain migrants ‘land’ in certain parts of the city, connecting racialized and ethicised patterns of distribution.  Finally locality situates the respective high streets as marginal but not explicitly enclaved; where official scrutiny is high, land values low and formal regeneration efforts lacklustre enabling such locals to be a stopgap for participating in the city.

In both streets whilst local particularities emerged, we saw how transaction economies emerge from repertoires of resourcefulness in the context of marginalization and to the backdrop of the receding (welfare) state. Field work revealed that in parallel to this pull-back from the state an emergent economy replaces it with acts of care and council. The street infrastructure extends to understanding how the economic and the civic intersect. Amongst the terrace houses adjacent to Rookery Road are a number of institutional and public spaces that provide various forms of care. Spaces formally constituted by religious membership simultaneously provide outreach beyond the prescriptions of faith or persuasion. A large Gurdwara just off Soho Road that intersects with Rookery Road provides 2000 meals a week where it used to provide 80 a day. At the northern end of the road within the grounds of the Methodist church a women’s charity, staffed by two full time and two part time personnel, cater for over 5000 women offering services ranging from a crèche to free meals.  These socio-spatial infrastructures of care are kept in place by ethnic ties yet meet the demands of a diverse community. Such efforts are sustained by a comparatively flat urban land market that allows for incrementally built community-orientated buildings.

These spaces cater not just for migrants but as the leader of the Gurdwara for “every Tom, Dick and Harry”. Whilst such basic provisions of care cross socio-cultural divides all streets revealed a connection of the receding (local) state and the provision of resources for, specifically, migrant needs. Amongst the more rudimentary features of Rookery Road – internet cafes, corner shops etc – is a growing presence of one-stop immigration ‘shops’ (image below): places to charge and process access to forms of citizenship.

On Narborough Road the ‘filling in of forms’ was repeatedly raised in fieldwork conversations as an intimidating bureaucratic procedure that overwhelms many migrants who feel ill-equipped to communicate in the context of elaborate official procedure. As a result, proprietors on Narborough Road have developed many varied venues in which form filling is undertaken with assistance. These ranged from more formal arrangements such as accounting firms to informal assistance in restaurants like this restaurant in one of other streets, Stapleton Road, Bristol (image below).


The paper explores duration of stay, language proficiencies, incremental adaptations and forms of reciprocal labour, in order to broaden an understanding of economic value; engaging with the notion of ‘diverse economies’ the paper is a call for a more varied measure of economic value. Concluding comments ask how might an understanding of the migrant infrastructure pursued through the interrelated properties of historic depth, socio-spatial texture and locality, assist the research to engage with global mobility, urban reconfiguration and epistemological border crossings?

Simone A (2004) People as infrastructure: Intersecting fragments in Johannesburg. Public Culture, 16(3): 407-429.


About juliakingat

British / Venezuelan, Architect & Urban Researcher; PhD Candidate

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