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Click on picture to see a slideshow of scenes along the eight miles

Photos by Maria Pouchnikova.

If you don’t live in Northeast Philadelphia, and you follow the news, you might think that the city’s recent population growth is due mostly to hipsters and Millennials moving into Center City and environs.

But take a drive up Castor Avenue from Oxford Circle to Bustleton Avenue and beyond, and it soon becomes clear that a lot of the new growth is driven mostly by immigrants, and the larger families that they tend to have. Philadelphia has once again become a gateway city for foreigners. And it’s in this eight-mile stretch of post World War II housing that many of these newcomers are settling—bringing new cultures and new traditions to old neighborhoods.

Overall, census figures show that just 12 percent of Philadelphians are foreign-born. But in this part of the city, which includes neighborhoods west of Roosevelt Boulevard from Oxford Circle to Woodhaven Road, the concentration of immigrants approaches 30 percent and higher.

The area around Castor Gardens, Rhawnhurst, Bustleton and Somerton are home to an estimated 40,000 immigrants, or one out of every five immigrants in the entire city. There is even one census tract in Bustleton where immigrants make up more than 50 percent of the population.

It’s not just the sheer number of newcomers that defines this new wave of immigration, which is, after all, what built Philadelphia. It’s the diversity among those who are coming. Just a generation or two ago, immigrants in this part of the city were mostly limited to Eastern Europeans. The city had a significant Asian population, but they were mostly Chinese, and they didn’t stray far beyond Chinatown. There certainly weren’t any Buddhist or Hindu Temples, or Mosques, either. And most of the city’s blacks were born in the United States, not in Africa.

These days, however, immigrants are coming from places as diverse as India, Korea, Liberia, Brazil, Haiti, the Philippines, Mexico, Cambodia and Iraq. The stretch of Castor Avenue, between Levick and Magee, which had been historically a middle-class Jewish neighborhood, is a good case in point: It’s now emerged as an international melting pot of businesses that serve people from all of these places, and more.

“Really, it’s a mini-United Nations that we’re growing up there, and we’re thrilled about it,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the city’s new Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs. “Word has spread that Philadelphia is a good place to go if you’re new to the country.”

None of this has escaped the notice of city government. The city now has 200 registered interpreters, and Mayor Michael Nutter has appointed both a Commission on Asian American Affairs and an Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Just this month, Philadelphia made national headlines when Nutter signed an executive order that limits cooperation between the Philadelphia Police Department and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, declaring that Philadelphia police will no longer detain immigrants for

Source: Philadelphia Planning Commission

Source: Philadelphia Planning Commission

possible deportation unless the federal government shows up with a warrant.

All this is in addition to the Welcoming center for New Pennsylvanians, which has been working to help integrate new immigrants for more than a decade.

“With all these things in place, Philadelphia is now among the most progressive cities in the country when it comes to immigrants,” said Nina Ahmad, a native of Bangladesh who founded her own biotechnology company, PrymeJenomix, and is now chair of the Mayor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs.

Hope for the future

While they have a new mix of faces, this influx of immigrants is coming to the United States for the same reasons as generations before them—they’re escaping war, political unrest, or they’re looking for economic opportunities they can’t find at home. They’re choosing Northeast Philadelphia, in most cases, because it’s close to the more expensive urban centers of New York, Boston and Washington D.C., but offers an affordable quality of life.

“And then, too, the fact that Philadelphia has a strong community college also helps, because education is very highly valued in Asian communities, and those who can’t afford a four-year college see it as a good starting point,” said Ahmad.

Their dreams, and their futures, are exactly what city planners are hoping will eventually help turn Northeast Philadelphia’s commercial corridors, some of which had been experiencing a slow decline, into new regional anchors for shopping and entertainment.

“The Italian Market is the model we’re thinking of,” said Michael Thompson, who headed the Philadelphia Planning Commission’s recent planning research for this section of the city. “We’re thinking about how we can help create a concentration of businesses along the corridors there that could attract people from all over the region, and not just the neighborhood.”

So far, it’s slow going. The first step in the plan, Thompson said, is working through the Department of Commerce to help business owners in these neighborhoods establish business associations that government can work with, and use as a conduit to distribute whatever grants might be available.

But many of these newcomers come from cultures that have good reason to be suspicious of government, and some also feel the need to hide their citizenship status. So, they’re not exactly lining up.

“We have resources that are available, and that can be used to help, but we can’t just give money to a store or a store owner; it has to be allocated through an association, and a fair process,” said Thompson. “And that’s something that we have yet to be able to accomplish.”

But those who are following the trends closely say that given the number of immigrants moving in, a powerful concentration of new businesses along commercial corridors seems all but inevitable—with or without help from city government.

“Really, many of these people are here fairly recently, and we know from the research done with the Mexican immigrants in South Philadelphia that, on average, it takes about 10 years for a new immigrant to open a business here,” said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, director of outreach and program evaluation for the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians.

According to Rodriguez, even the city’s tourism leaders are taking note of the city’s growing international flavor, and beginning to hatch a plan for identifying, and perhaps marketing, immigrant neighborhoods like these.

“There’s definitely an increased awareness both in and out of government that we’re now in a place where we can really position Philadelphia as a global city—for residents as well as for visitors and investors,” said Rodriguez. “So far it’s just something we’re talking about, but it seems as though the Pennsylvania Convention and Visitor’s Bureau is going to be leading it.”

“We’re just astounded by the numbers, everybody is,” said Thompson.

The census numbers are stark enough. Still, those who live and work in these neighborhoods say, not surprisingly, that the census undercounts their communities’ actual numbers.

“Right now the city is supposed to have about 60,000 Ukrainians, but just based on the sheer amount of people we interact with, I’d say that number is extremely low,” said Anatoli Murha, business development and marketing manager at the Ukrainian Selfreliance Federal Credit Union, which has 9,300 members. “Just go and look at the newspaper rack at Bell’s Market. There are a dozen papers there, some of which claim a readership of 15,000 to 20,000 per week.”

“The official number for Asians is something like 30,000,” said Ahmad. “I think I can pretty much guarantee you that the actual number is at least twice that.”

What it all means

Whatever the actual numbers are, it’s clear a rapid shift is underway. A 2008 Brookings Institute analysis shows that in the six years from 2000 to 2006, greater Philadelphia’s immigrant population grew by 113,000, nearly as many as had arrived in the decade of the 1990s—which in itself was a boom decade. Further, it shows that nearly 60 percent of all foreign-born people who are living in Philadelphia’s metropolitan area arrived in the United States after 1990.

Perhaps more important, however, is that the report attributes nearly 75 percent of the region’s labor force growth since 2000 to immigrants—more than twice the growth due to immigrants in the 1990s.

As has historically been true, much of that labor is showing up in the form of entrepreneurship. And the new entrepreneurship, like that of many generations before, brings a new layer of culture and tradition with it. For instance, there’s now a stall at the King of Prussia Mall where you can indulge in an ancient beauty art, practiced in South Asia for centuries, of using thread to pluck the eyebrows.

“When I saw that, I thought to myself, oh, now were are really mainstream,” said Ahmad. “I never thought I would see that outside of Asia.”

For now, it’s a transition that’s being felt in some neighborhoods and not others. But, inevitably, it will affect the entire city, as we become ever more diverse and complex. Newcomers from all over the world are now establishing themselves here, and raising children and grandchildren who will grow up to become leaders both within and outside their communities.

Deeply woven into the history of our city, it is a process of arrival, acculturation and assimilation underway since 1682.