Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Domenic Vitiello

Mexicans and Mexico

Greater Philadelphia’s economic ties to Mexico date to the era of European colonization. However, substantial Mexican immigration to the region started only in the 1970s, in Chester County’s mushroom growing towns, and in the 1990s in Philadelphia. Still, Mexicans became the region’s second-largest immigrant group in the early twenty-first century and were the largest immigrant group in the United States as well. With this surge in population, Mexicans had a substantial impact on the region’s culture and economy, sustaining its agricultural sector and revitalizing once-depressed city and suburban neighborhoods.

[caption id="attachment_27137" align="alignright" width="300"]color photo of front of a mexican restaurant The operators of South Philadelphia Barbacoa (above), Cristina Martinez and Benjamin Miller, started their Mexican-dining business with a food cart and nurtured it into an award-winning restaurant. Philadelphia's Mexican-American population is deeply involved in the restaurant business both as employees and owners.  (Photograph by M. Fischetta for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Greater Philadelphia’s ties to Mexico were relatively modest before the late twentieth century. Philadelphia merchants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did a small trade with Mexican ports, mainly Alvarado and Veracruz. Typically, the Philadelphia ships brought re-exports from Europe and Africa, including cocoa, textiles, jewelry, and wine, and returned with specie, gold bullion, and cochineal for use in dyes. Some Philadelphians, including members of the First City Troop cavalry, fought in the Mexican-American War in 1845-46, in which the United States took the territories between Texas and California. In the twentieth century, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology acquired some ancient artifacts from Mexico, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired paintings, sculptures, and prints by prominent Mexican artists. As the tourism industry expanded in Mexico across the twentieth century, residents of Greater Philadelphia also increasingly visited the country, especially resorts like Acapulco and Cancún.

Small numbers of Mexicans also settled in the Philadelphia region in the twentieth century. In the 1910s and 1920s, as Mexicans increasingly emigrated in search of employment, some came to work in agriculture, construction, and railroads, and a few stayed in the area. During World War II, labor agents recruited Mexican men to work mainly for railroads in the region, part of a national effort to address wartime labor shortages, and again a small number remained. In the 1970s, another small group of Mexican men and women settled in Philadelphia. Some started small businesses in North Philadelphia, including Razo’s Grocery and La Raza restaurant at Second and Allegheny, and established Mexican teams in the Hispanic Soccer League of Philadelphia that played in Hunting Park. Mexican men also worked seasonally in the region, especially the agricultural townships of southern New Jersey, picking blueberries in Hammonton or tomatoes in Vineland and Bridgeton. These became more permanent settlements of Mexican families in the late twentieth century.

Greater Philadelphia became a significant destination for Mexican immigrants in the 1990s, when Mexican migration to the U.S. accelerated and spread beyond the older gateway regions of New York, Chicago, and the Southwest. Most migrants came from working-class or rural backgrounds in Mexico, often places whose agricultural economies struggled after the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. Many also came from the New York metropolitan region, attracted by Greater Philadelphia’s lower costs of living and seeking greater safety and opportunities for their children. By the early twenty-first century, Mexicans had become the second-largest immigrant group in the city of Philadelphia and the broader region, even though Mexicans are commonly undercounted in U.S. Census estimates.

Agricultural Towns

[caption id="attachment_26982" align="alignright" width="300"]color photo showing a bed of white mushrooms in the foreground with a booth worker in yellow shirt in background. The annual Mushroom Festival in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, draws tens of thousands to celebrate the mushroom industry that first drew Mexican workers to the area. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The first large concentration of Mexican immigrants in Greater Philadelphia grew up in the mushroom farming capital of the world in southwestern Chester County, around Kennett Square, Avondale, Oxford, and Toughkenamon. Like South Jersey agriculture, this area drew migrant labor beginning in the early twentieth century, first Italians, then African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and finally Mexicans. Mexican migration to this area began in the early 1970s, when some migrants already working in Chicago learned of the mushroom work from Puerto Ricans who had relocated from the region.

Most Mexican migrants in southern Chester County came from the state of Guanajuato, and many gained legal status in the United States through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. By the early twenty-first century, the population of people of Mexican origin in southern Chester County was around forty thousand. In Kennett Square, in 2014 at least half of the town’s six thousand residents were of Mexican origin.

Starting in the 1980s, Mexican men working in Vineland and Bridgeton also brought their wives and children to live in New Jersey. Some of these families opened small businesses like grocery stores and restaurants. Mexicans succeeded Italians and Southeast Asians as the primary resident agricultural labor force in South Jersey. Many Mexicans also passed through the region in the seasonal migration of farmworkers harvesting fields up and down the East Coast.


Beginning in the 1990s, significant numbers of Mexicans settled in suburban towns in the region, with the largest population in Norristown, the county seat of Montgomery County. The origin story relates that a man of Italian descent visited Acapulco on vacation, met and fell in love with a Mexican woman there, brought her back to Norristown, and she in turn invited family and friends. This began a “chain migration” in which Mexicans from Acapulco, Puebla, and Mexico City came to settle or work seasonally in the town’s construction and landscaping businesses. By 2000, the Census counted three thousand people of Hispanic origin in Norristown, and almost ten thousand by 2010, most of whom were Mexican immigrants and their children, though a smaller Puerto Rican community also contributed to those figures. Mexicans revived the commercial district of West Marshall Street and surrounding blocks and helped regrow the population of this older industrial town that lost residents in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mexican immigrants settled in suburban towns across the Philadelphia region in the first part of the twenty-first century. In Norristown, Pottstown, Hatboro, Bristol, Upper Darby, Pennsauken, Swedesboro, and other working-class suburbs, Mexicans settled usually in small numbers, finding affordable rents in towns that scholars Michael Katz and Kenneth Ginsburg have called “reservations for low-wage labor.” They commonly found work in landscaping, housekeeping, construction, and other services for the more affluent residents of nearby suburbs, as well as their malls and office parks.

Philadelphia and Camden

While Puerto Ricans remained the largest Latino group in the cities of Philadelphia and Camden, the Mexican communities of both cities grew significantly since the late 1990s. Migrants from the state of Puebla came to dominate the Mexican populations of Philadelphia and Camden, arriving first from New York and subsequently attracting newcomers directly from Mexico. People from the rural town of San Lucas in the mountains of Puebla settled in East Camden, via New York. One man from San Lucas invited an acquaintance from the neighboring town of San Mateo Ozolco in Puebla, who ventured across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge one day and found a job at the upscale Mexican restaurant Tequilas in Center City Philadelphia. He settled in South Philadelphia, and by the early 2000s roughly half of the residents of San Mateo had made their way to Philadelphia, along with other Mexicans from Oaxaca, Mexico City, and other states. Between 2000 and 2010, the Mexican population of Philadelphia more than doubled from 6,000 to 15,500, according to the Census.

[caption id="attachment_26341" align="alignright" width="300"] The Cinco de Mayo celebration in Philadelphia features a parade in which participants dress as historic characters from the famous Battle of Puebla. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Mexican immigrants played a large role in the revitalization of Philadelphia and its neighborhoods in the early twenty-first century, including the city’s restaurant and construction booms and gentrification of neighborhoods surrounding Center City. Mexicans opened shuttered storefronts in the historic Italian Market, which the city government had labeled blighted at the turn of the century, and established a vibrant Mexican restaurant scene in this and other neighborhoods. South Philadelphia became home to the second-largest community of Mexicans in the region, after the area around Kennett Square. As in the suburbs and agricultural towns of the region, and in the nation at large, what was initially a community composed mainly of single men transitioned to a community of families, a shift reflected in the opening of dress shops, bakeries, and other family-serving shops in the Ninth Street Market.  Like the region at large, by the 2010s an estimated more than twenty thousand Mexican immigrants lived in neighborhoods across the city, contributing substantially to the reversal of Philadelphia’s decades of population decline.

Mexican Civil Society

As Mexican communities grew in Greater Philadelphia, organizations that served their needs—social service organizations, Catholic missions, migrant-led hometown associations, and immigrant rights groups—began to emerge, providing a range of services, from English as a Second Language classes to legal aid in Spanish. Some adapted from initially serving Puerto Rican constituencies, like the health and educational programs of La Comunidad Hispana in Chester County and Acción Comunal Latinomericana de Montgomery County (ACLAMO) Family Centers in Norristown and Pottstown. Others grew out of the Catholic Church, like Mission Santa Maria in Chester County and the Church of St. Patrick in Norristown, which offered bilingual services and hosted events for Mexican Independence Day and the feast day of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. CATA–the Farmworkers Support Committee–established by Puerto Ricans in South Jersey in 1979, advocated for Mexicans in the Bridgeton and Kennett Square areas. The Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health and the newer Restaurant Opportunities Center supported Mexicans working in the construction, landscaping, and food industries. Legal aid organizations assisted people without U.S. legal status who were brought to the region as children in applying for legal employment status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program of President Barack Obama (b. 1961).

[caption id="attachment_26289" align="alignright" width="300"] Dancer wearing traditional dresses performed at the Carnaval del Puebla in South Philadelphia in April 2016. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

In South Philadelphia, JUNTOS emerged as a community organizing and immigrant rights group supporting day laborers, immigrant parents advocating in public schools, and hometown associations. The hometown association from the village of Oyometepec in Puebla raised funds and organized community members in Mexico to plant trees for reforestation. Grupo Ozolco raised funds to build a high school and repair the main church in San Mateo, and with JUNTOS it established a bi-national cooperative in which members in Mexico grow and process indigenous blue corn and members in Philadelphia sell a corn flour called pinole to restaurants, cafes, and bakeries. JUNTOS members also helped found the Puentes de Salud health clinic, its community-led health promotion corps, and the Casa Monarca cultural center. Other cultural organizations in South Philadelphia included the San Mateo Carnavalero, which organized traditional festivals and participated in the Mummers Parade, as well as Philatinos Radio and other media ventures aimed at the Mexican community. The Mexican government opened a consulate on Independence Mall, where it established the Mexican Cultural Center as well.

Politics and Immigrant Rights

While many Philadelphians recognized Mexican migrants’ social and economic contributions to the region, the fact that most Mexican immigrants were in the United States illegally made their migration controversial. The United States recruited labor from Mexico for over a century, while never providing sufficient visas for this labor force to come legally. One controversy occurred in South Philadelphia, where Joey Vento (1939-2011), the owner of Geno’s Steaks, drew attention in early 2006 over a sign he placed in his establishment: This is AMERICA. WHEN ORDERING PLEASE “SPEAK ENGLISH” (emphasis in the original). Vento became a national figure in the illegal immigration restriction movement that erupted that year, demanding that his Mexican neighbors assimilate more quickly. That same spring, Philadelphia became the first city in the nation to mount immigrant rights protests, led by JUNTOS, in response to the U.S. House of Representatives passage of a bill aimed at criminalizing unauthorized immigrants and their supporters. Later that summer, first Hazleton in the Poconos and then the Philadelphia suburbs of Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, and Riverside, New Jersey, passed “illegal immigration relief acts” seeking to punish landlords and employers of unauthorized immigrants. Riverside soon repealed its ordinance, and federal courts later struck down these laws.

By contrast, local governments in Philadelphia and Norristown sought to welcome and protect immigrants in the U.S. illegally. In 2003, Norristown passed an ordinance recognizing the Mexican consular ID card as valid documentation for accessing local services such as public schools, libraries, and health clinics. Town council members convinced local banks to do the same for Mexicans to open bank accounts locally. In the early 2000s, the administration of Mayor John Street (b. 1943) issued a directive reminding Philadelphia police that they may not ask people about their immigration status, a policy originally established in the 1980s to protect Central American asylum seekers. In the late 2000s and 2010s, the city’s mayors and city council repeatedly reaffirmed Philadelphia’s Sanctuary City status, refusing to cooperate with increasing federal detention and deportation efforts under Presidents George W. Bush (b. 1946) and Obama. The only hiatus in this Sanctuary City policy came when Mayor Michael Nutter (b. 1957) repealed it at the very end of his term, though incoming Mayor James Kenney (b. 1958) reinstated it on his first day in office. The New Sanctuary Movement, a coalition of city and suburban congregations supported by JUNTOS, was largely responsible for inspiring and sustaining this commitment.

As Philadelphia’s connections to Mexico grew markedly during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Mexican immigrants, many of whom were undocumented, contributed mightily to the city and region’s cultural and economic vitality. Although immigrant arrivals from Mexico declined after the recession of 2008, their number continued to grow and those already in Greater Philadelphia deepened their ties to local communities as they raised new generations of Mexican Philadelphians.

Domenic Vitiello is Associate Professor of City Planning and Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is former board chair of JUNTOS and is co-editor with Thomas J. Sugrue of Immigration and Metropolitan Revitalization in the United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

Hilary Parsons Dick is an Associate Professor of International Studies at Arcadia University. She completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2016, she was a Wenner-Gren Hunt Fellow, during which time she completed her first book, Words of Passage: Discourse, National Belonging, and the Imagined Lives of Mexican Migrants (forthcoming, spring 2018, The University of Texas Press).

Danielle DiVerde has a B.A. in International Studies and Spanish from Arcadia University. She has worked as research assistant to Hilary Parsons Dick for three years and is currently a Lead Customer Service Representative and Latin America Specialist at MEJDI Tours.

Veronica Willig has a B.A. in International Studies from Arcadia University. She has worked as Hilary Parson Dick’s research assistant for two years and is currently serving as an AmeriCorps Community Projects Coordinator with YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School.

Liberians and Liberia

Greater Philadelphia has had close links to Liberia historically. Free blacks and abolitionists from the region helped colonize and underwrite the nation of Liberia’s founding in the early nineteenth century. Yet Philadelphia and Liberia had little connection between the mid-nineteenth and late twentieth century. Most Liberian settlement in the region resulted from the Liberian civil war of 1989-96 and 1999-2003, when people fleeing conflict were resettled as refugees but granted Temporary Protected Status. This produced a diverse Liberian community in the region, with active civil society organizations working to rebuild Liberia as well as resident communities in Philadelphia and its suburbs. By 2010, Greater Philadelphia was home to the largest Liberian community in the United States, and Liberians were the largest group of African immigrants in the region.

[caption id="attachment_24057" align="alignright" width="215"]A membership certificate for the Pennsylvania Colonization Society, an organization that supported the colonization movement. (Library Company of Philadelphia) A membership certificate for the Pennsylvania Colonization Society, an organization that supported the colonization movement. Some free blacks from Philadelphia resettled in Liberia. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Liberia was established and colonized by free blacks from the United States, including some from the Philadelphia area, beginning in the 1820s. Some slaves in the United States came from the territories that became Liberia, though more came from neighboring Sierra Leone and Ghana. The colonization movement had deep ties to Greater Philadelphia, though many of the region’s abolitionists condemned colonization and likened it to re-enslavement. Princeton native Robert Finley (1772-1817) founded the American Colonization Society, which underwrote and oversaw Liberia’s early development and the settlement of some thirteen thousand black Americans. Its partner, the Pennsylvania Colonization Society, started in 1826 and in the early 1830s established Port Cresson (later Buchanan, Liberia), named for a society member and Philadelphia Quaker philanthropist, Elliot Cresson (1796-1854). At the bank of the St. John River, the settlement aimed to stem the outflow of more than one thousand slaves per month. Other partner institutions sponsored emigrants as well, including Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, which hosted two former slaves at its campus for training aimed at their migration to Liberia. The abolitionist and physician Martin Delaney (1812-85), who had been born free in Virginia, joined others in Pennsylvania pushing  for emigration to Liberia into the 1860s, citing the poor prospects for blacks in the United States and the imperative of creating a black republic in Africa.  

An independent nation since 1847, when it broke with the Colonization Society, Liberia had relatively little connection to the Philadelphia region from the late nineteenth until the second half of the twentieth century. As postcolonial African emigration took off in the 1960s, some middle class Liberians moved to Philadelphia and other parts of the United States to attend universities, including Temple, St. Joseph’s, and the University of Delaware. Many students returned home, but others stayed for a time. In the 1980s they formed the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), with chapters in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio, hosting social events and helping families cover funeral expenses.

Civil War Refugees

The Liberian civil war of the 1990s transformed the Liberian community in Greater Philadelphia and the U.S. Growing out of longstanding tension and exploitation by Americo-Liberians of the majority African population, the initial rebellion led by Caribbean-born Charles Taylor (b.1948) out of the American Firestone Tire Company rubber plantation ultimately spread to Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast. Liberians fled to neighboring countries, including Ghana, and to the United States, where many resettled as refugees. As one community leader noted, by the 1990s the Liberian population of Philadelphia and the U.S. was no longer “only college kids.” It had come to include people of varied ages, educational backgrounds, urban and rural origins, and personal and family problems resulting from the war. Liberians resettled in other U.S. regions also moved to Philadelphia, joining relatives and friends. By 2010, the U.S. Census counted roughly eight thousand Liberians in Greater Philadelphia, making up the largest nationality group among almost forty thousand  African immigrants in the region. African community leaders estimated much higher numbers, including as many as fifteen thousand Liberians in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

A result of resettlement and of black people’s segregation in American cities, most Liberians settled in working-class neighborhoods with other African and Caribbean immigrants and African Americans. Liberians of various education levels and occupations lived especially in West and Southwest Philadelphia, where a “Little Monrovia” formed along Woodland Avenue around Sixty-Sixth Street, and in nearby Delaware County suburbs including Colwyn, Darby, Upper Darby, and Lansdowne, as well as in Wilmington and Trenton. Like other African immigrants, Liberians worked a diverse range of jobs, from journalism, social work, and arts education to low-paid, irregular work as parking attendants, house cleaners, and home health aides, reflecting their bifurcation by class. Relative to other groups, in 2010, the median household income of Liberians in the region was $51,000, below the native-born in general ($72,000) but above African Americans ($35,000). Some 42 percent of Liberian households were homeowners (compared to over 70 percent of native-born households).

Liberians and Sierra Leoneans fleeing the civil wars in the 1990s and early 2000s were not accorded permanent refugee status and the ability to remain in the U.S. indefinitely, except in rare cases, although many were resettled through the federal refugee program by agencies like Philadelphia’s Nationalities Service Center and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Rather, the U.S. government granted them Temporary Protected Status, a designation for people from countries, typically at war, where refugee agencies expect displaced people will be able to return when conditions improve. The federal government allowed Liberians’ Temporary Protected Status to expire in 2007, placing them on Deferred Enforced Departure, a status renewable by the White House every twelve or eighteen months, but granted Temporary Protected Status again during the Ebola epidemic of 2014. Liberian community leaders and Philadelphia City Council, at the urging of West Philadelphia Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell (b.1945), regularly lobbied for renewing both statuses, with counterparts in other U.S. regions and Liberia. Under both statuses, Liberians received work permits, but under Deferred Enforced Departure they were not eligible for federal financial aid and could not leave the country. The impermanent nature of both statuses created instability in the lives of many Liberians, though many also attained permanent residency and some became U.S. citizens.

Like other refugees fleeing civil war, Liberians experienced a variety of trauma, compounded by resettlement and life in largely segregated and impoverished neighborhoods and schools of working class neighborhoods. Some Liberian residents of Philadelphia and Delaware County were charged as war criminals, and many testified from Philadelphia as witnesses of episodes in the war for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, assisted by the Transnational Law Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania. People from the fifteen counties of Liberia, associated with different sides and events in the war, lived in Greater Philadelphia, meaning that sometimes in the supermarket or on the street Liberians encountered countrymen responsible for the deaths of their family members during the war. Liberian and other black immigrants have also experienced tensions with one another and with African Americans. The most publicized event occurred in 2005, when a 13-year-old Liberian boy was attacked and his skull fractured by African American youth on his way home from school in Southwest Philadelphia. To protect themselves from such attacks, Liberian high school students in the region and nationally formed a gang named LIB.

Civil Society

[caption id="attachment_24142" align="alignright" width="300"]A scene of traditional African dancing portrayed by African performers, at the ACANA festival stage at Penn's Landing. To confront the challenges facing Liberians across the Philadelphia region, the African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA) was formed in 1999. Each year ACANA hosts a festival at Penn's Landing, promoting social services and community development as well as art and the culture of Liberians and Africans throughout the region. (ACANA)[/caption]

In response to these and related challenges, Liberians developed a vibrant set of community organizations. The African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA), formed in 1999 and based in Southwest Philadelphia, became the largest African immigrant-run social service, arts and culture, and community development nonprofit in the region. Its annual festival at Penn’s Landing has drawn thousands of people each summer, while its adult education, youth anti-violence, health and wellness, and legal services programs have addressed a range of needs among African, Caribbean, and African American constituents in the region. ACANA partnered with Project Tamaa of the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center to serve young Liberians, Sierra Leoneans, and Guineans and their parents and teachers dealing with trauma. Another organization, Multicultural Community Family Services, founded in 2003 and based in Upper Darby, has run job readiness programs, a soccer league, and other community services especially for youth from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the United States. The Agape African Senior Center in West Philadelphia, established in 2000 by a reverend from Liberia, has offered English classes, orientation to the neighborhood, and other basic supports for refugees and immigrants.

Other organizations in the region reflected the diversity of the Liberian community and its strong connections to other immigrant and receiving communities. These included professional and alumni associations, such as the Association of Liberian Journalists, Association of University of Liberia Alumni in the U.S.A., and Monrovia College Alumni Association in the Americas. Liberians played key roles in founding Philadelphia’s two most important Pan-African organizations, the Coalition of African Communities in Philadelphia (AFRICOM, established 2001) and the Mayor’s Commission for African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs (established 2008). The Mayor’s Commission helped organize trade missions, including visits by Philadelphia area entrepreneurs and officials to Liberia as well as hosting Liberian dignitaries in Philadelphia.

Some Liberians who came to Philadelphia in the 1990s were prominent performing artists. Refugee resettlement caseworkers bemusedly recounted the story of waiting at the airport for a refugee couple, only to be told by the husband when they arrived that his wife, a famous singer, had booked tour dates around the United States and had a connecting flight, so could not accompany the caseworkers to the apartment they had arranged for the couple. The Philadelphia Folklore Project, based in Southwest Philadelphia, has supported Liberian dancers and musicians, as has ACANA. The Folklore Project helped former members of the Liberian National Cultural Troupe establish the activist Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change.

In addition to their local activities in Greater Philadelphia, many Liberian community organizations have worked transnationally to rebuild and remain connected to Liberia. The ULAA and members of its Pennsylvania chapter have been deeply engaged in the reconstruction of Liberia’s national government and civil society, supporting democratic elections and reforms. Immigrants and refugees from each of Liberia’s counties formed a nonprofit county association in the U.S., in which Liberian community leaders in Philadelphia have been active. The county associations have provided scholarships for school and university students in Liberia; helped finance, plan, and build schools, medical clinics, and roads, water, and telecommunications infrastructure, usually in collaboration with county governments; sent medical and school supplies; and launched agricultural enterprises. In these ways, Liberians in Greater Philadelphia have worked to revitalize the towns, counties, and nation of Liberia, as well as the city and suburban neighborhoods in which they settled.

Domenic Vitiello is Associate Professor of City Planning and Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and an associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. He has been a member of AFRICOM, served on the board of the African Cultural Alliance of North America, and refereed the annual African Communities Soccer Tournament in Philadelphia and Delaware County.

Community Development

[caption id="attachment_23758" align="alignright" width="300"]Demonstrators to save Chinatown are shown here in 1973, holding up their signs as Lynne M. Abraham from the Redevelopment Authority and James Martin of the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation testify at a hearing at City Hall in Philadelphia. The community development movement encouraged neighborhood activism, such as that exhibited here in 1973 by opponents of expressway work in Chinatown. Their signs voiced their objections at a City Hall hearing as city officials testified. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

During the community development movement, which arose in the 1960s in large part in response to years of disruption spurred by government-imposed urban renewal, Philadelphia became an important center of activism and institutions devoted to locally-based improvement programs. Community development programs sought to provide greater control over the future of neighborhoods at a time when declining populations and tax bases were weakening municipal government’s capacity to deliver services and attract capital investment. The outcome of community development plans often depended on the extent to which government and community could agree upon sharing responsibility for making policy, developing programs, and allocating resources.  These were especially difficult challenges in an era of scarce public resources.

Shared control over neighborhood development emerged in Philadelphia well before President Lyndon Johnson (1908-73) made “maximum feasible participation” a central component on his declared War on Poverty. Working in collaboration with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the Philadelphia Housing Authority between 1952 and 1957, Friends Neighborhood Guild formed a housing cooperative devoted to advancing racial integration through the development of high-quality affordable housing in an impoverished community. It succeeded in both goals through the rehabilitation of nineteen deteriorated buildings in the vicinity of Eighth and Franklin Streets to create eighty-four new housing units. Subsequently it marshaled construction of Guild House, a 91-unit elderly housing complex located at 711 Spring Garden Street. Similarly, Bright Hope Baptist Church, working with a redevelopment plan approved by City Council in 1958, completed the design, organization, and marketing of 635 new single-family homes built in low-density style on 153 acres of land in North Philadelphia. Known as Yorktown, the new neighborhood helped create a base of middle-class African American homeownership in an area undergoing serious decline and clearance for the expansion of Temple University to the north and construction of public housing projects in West Poplar to the south.

Philadelphia became one of five cities funded in the Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas program, which piloted the federal War on Poverty’s Community Action Program. In 1962, the city formed the Philadelphia Council for Community Advancement (PCCA), to implement grants from Ford, the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, and later federal War on Poverty programs. Led by a coalition of public, labor, business, university, and African American civil rights leaders, PCCA initially focused on North Philadelphia, helping to establish and fund early housing and shopping center development by the Opportunities Industrialization Center, founded by the Rev. Leon Sullivan (1922-2001). PCCA went on to build cooperative and other affordable housing and support the growth of community development corporations around the city, though by the early twenty-first century its work became limited to housing counseling services devoted to helping homeowners avoid foreclosure.

Neighborhood-Based Organizations

Despite the shortcomings of the War on Poverty, not the least its Model Cities program instituted in 1966, the federal policy of ensuring “maximum feasible participation” prompted the creation of a number of community-based organizations. Among the first in Philadelphia and Camden, both called the Black People’s Unity Movement and both inspired by the Black Power movement, were self-help organizations determined to do more than simply serve as repositories for federal or other public funding. Not adverse to receiving public-sector support, these and other organizations, including Mantua Community Planners, Mill Creek Council, and Advocate Community Development Corporation, completed affordable housing ventures and operated a variety of health and human service programs in response to identified community needs. Such neighborhood-based organizations continued to contend, however, with unwanted effects of externally generated redevelopment during the late 1960s through the 1970s. Much of this opposition focused on the use of eminent domain to acquire private property and the associated displacement of residents and businesses. During this period, a number of additional groups formed to promote activism or to provide support for community-based initiatives.

Some of these groups organized exclusively to address a single issue. For example, a broad coalition of neighborhood-based organizations spearheaded a long-term campaign against the Crosstown Expressway proposal, a plan first introduced in 1947, which would have taken land between Lombard and South Streets to support the construction of a highway connector between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.  The withdrawal of the expressway plans in 1974 was a milestone in the history of organized community activism in Philadelphia. Another highway revolt against the Vine Street Expressway and its planned ramps did not prevent the road’s construction but altered it and saved Chinatown. Across the Delaware River the prospect of a state prison on the waterfront prompted formation of Concerned Citizens of North Camden in 1978. Failing in the effort to block the prison, Concerned Citizens nonetheless moved from that defeat to create its own neighborhood plan and to secure the city’s acceptance for it.

Other groups formed to provide support for grassroots initiatives on a citywide basis. In 1969, the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects founded the Architects Workshop, a program designed to provide planning and design services to community-based organizations. Largely supported by pro bono services contributed by private architectural firms and by VISTA volunteers working under the aegis of the War on Poverty during its early years, the program provided assistance to more than ninety community-based organizations annually during its most active period. The Philadelphia AIA withdrew from the program in 1977, though a group of architects revived its function in 1991, founding what became the Community Design Collaborative.

In 1973 activist Edward A. Schwartz (1943-2012) established the Institute for the Study of Civic Values in Philadelphia to promote civic engagement. The institute’s key role in supporting community development constituencies gained the organization citywide and, to some extent, national recognition and enabled Schwartz to win a City Council at-large seat in 1983.  Similarly, in 1985 Camden residents formed a citywide organization, Camden Churches Organized for People, as a means of bringing neighborhood concerns to the attention of city government.

As population declined and the number of abandoned houses grew, groups of squatters moved into several hundred vacant buildings, primarily in North and West Philadelphia, during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The North Philadelphia Block Development Corporation, organized by activist T. Milton Street (b. 1941) in 1977, began assisting families in breaking into and moving into vacant houses that had been seized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a result of mortgage foreclosure. Street subsequently broadened the group’s approach to support squatting in city-owned and privately owned vacant houses, as a response to the inadequacy of city policies to systematically address property abandonment and the need for affordable housing.

As squatting gained momentum in Philadelphia, HUD Secretary Samuel R. Pierce (1922-2000) entered into negotiations with a leading squatter coalition, the Inner-City Organizing Network (ICON) and pledged to help squatters find housing in HUD-owned properties. In 1982, the City of Philadelphia began awarding funding to ICON to support housing rehabilitation activities, a practice that terminated when the organization found that role beyond its capacity.

Community Development Policy

Through something of a cruel irony, federal anti-poverty programs intended to spur community development were folded into a much broader and less targeted funding mechanism by Republicans under the name “community development.” With passage of the federal Community Development Act of 1974 funding previously associated with eight programs was consolidated into a single annual block grant award. With that change in policy, municipalities and counties gained broad discretion in determining how Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding would be allocated.

The 1974 Act mandated citizen participation in the planning and implementation of CDBG-funded activities and the convening of annual public hearings as a required part of the preparation of the CDBG funding proposal. To address these mandates, Philadelphia government staffed a Citizen Participation unit, convened a citizens’ advisory committee consisting primarily of representatives of neighborhood organizations, and created a CDBG budget line item for “community-sponsored projects.” In addition, the city allocated CDBG funding to support the operation of Neighborhood Advisory Committees, community-based organizations that, like the Project Area Committees formed in the urban renewal period, were created for the purpose of providing information about government-sponsored planning and development activities and encouraging grass-roots participation.

[caption id="attachment_23759" align="alignright" width="300"]Members of the Clergy United to Save Our Schools, an interfaith community group, hold a press conference outside of City Council offices in City Hall. The members are (from left) Rabbi Pinchos J. Chazin of Temple Sholom; Reverend Gabriel S. Hardeman, representing the A.M.E. churches; Reverend Lawrence Miller Jr., cochairperson of the groups; Burt Siegel, of the Jewish Community Council; and Reverend Joseph Kakalec, president of the Philadelphia Council of Neighborhood Organizations. In this photograph from August 1978, members of the Clergy United to Save Our Schools, an interfaith community group, hold a press conference outside of City Council offices in City Hall. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

From the start of Philadelphia’s CDBG program, activists voiced significant concerns about the extent to which city officials would use their new discretionary powers in a manner responsive to their concerns and the extent to which external political considerations would influence decision-making about the allocation of CDBG funding. One response was the creation of the Philadelphia Council of Neighborhood Organizations (PCNO), a broad citywide coalition of community groups, founded in 1976 with the support of the Institute for the Study of Civic Values. The new coalition worked closely with the institute in advancing initiatives to make mortgages available in previously underserved neighborhoods, to address the city’s growing vacant housing problem, and to support city funding of neighborhood projects. Joseph M. Kakalec (1930-2007), a Jesuit priest who served as president of PCNO until 1982, played a key leadership role in convening and coordinating a coalition that was both broad-based and reflective of Philadelphia’s racial and ethnic diversity.

During the early years of CDBG program implementation in Philadelphia, activist groups such as the North Philadelphia Block Development Corporation joined with more established organizations such as the Housing Association of Delaware Valley to oppose CDBG funding decisions that bypassed neighborhood needs to support downtown development projects, police services, and public administration. This advocacy, ultimately supported by HUD administrators, resulted in a redirection of CDBG funds to provide more financing for affordable housing and community-based projects.

Affordable Housing Ventures

Although the National Housing Act of 1968 shifted government programs toward greater private sector control, two provisions—sections 235 and 236—opened the door to community participation. These provisions, through the Federal Home Administration, made mortgage insurance available to finance owner-occupied housing and rental housing, respectively. FHA insurance, combined with rental assistance subsidies obtained through the federal Section 8 voucher program, financed the production of many rental housing development ventures in Philadelphia neighborhoods. In a number of instances, these projects were organized in a manner similar to the Yorktown model, in which a private developer worked in partnership with a community-based organization or institution. Such was the case in West Philadelphia, where Mt. Olivet Senior Housing, a rental housing venture sponsored by Mount Olivet Tabernacle Baptist Church and Mount Vernon Manor Apartments, nurtured a collaboration between community members and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

Several neighborhood-based organizations, assisted by consultants and service providers, also developed affordable housing as independent producers or as active participants in joint ventures with for-profit partners. National Temple Non-Profit Corporation, which developed more than three hundred apartments, townhouses, and single-family homes in North Philadelphia west of Broad Street, was the most productive of these groups.

Community Development Institutions

Many new opportunities for direct community engagement in real estate development and service delivery emerged in Philadelphia during the second term (1988-91) of Mayor W. Wilson Goode (b. 1938). Under the leadership of Edward Schwartz, the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development, the municipal agency created in 1976 to administer CDBG funding and other housing programs, financing and service contracts between the city and community-based organizations expanded significantly. In subsequent years, the agency made community development block grant funding available to support the completion of neighborhood strategic plans, to establish a citywide network of housing counseling agencies, and to create a systematic Request For Proposals approach for awarding development financing, in which first consideration would be given to proposals received from community-based organizations.

A primary boost to neighborhood-based development in the era of declining public resources was the formation of community development corporations (CDCs), which became the predominant community-based institution in the larger community development sector. Formed first in the mid-1960s as part of the War on Poverty, such organizations multiplied particularly in the Reagan era.  Characterized by significant bonding capacities to draw neighborhood residents together in common purpose, they diversified their work from producing and managing affordable housing to engaging in workforce and commercial corridor development, community organizing, public health and food access, and various other projects and services. CDCs survived largely by marshaling external resources. These included not just government and philanthropic entities but the private sector as well. To further enhance their power to draw investment and desirable development to their neighborhoods, CDCs in Camden and Philadelphia joined to form their own associations devoted to presenting a unified voice in policymaking and budgetary circles.

[caption id="attachment_23757" align="alignright" width="300"]Aerial view of the the Yorktown neighborhood in 1963. Bright Hope Baptist Church, working with a redevelopment plan approved by City Council in 1958, completed the design, organization, and marketing of 635 new single-family homes built in low-density style on 153 acres of land in North Philadelphia, known as Yorktown, shown here in 1963. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Community development in Philadelphia and nationally has been supported by another set of important organizations, Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), independent nonprofit organizations with their own sources of capital to reinvest in poor neighborhoods.  A Philadelphia affiliate of the national Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and a new organization, the Delaware Valley Community Reinvestment Fund (later renamed The Reinvestment Fund, or TRF), opened for business in Philadelphia in 1981 and 1985, respectively. Both organizations supported affordable housing ventures and other development and service programs in the region. They helped secure funds from the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program (authorized by Congress as an element of the Tax Reform Act of 1986), as well as the HOME Investment Partnerships Program (a component of the National Affordable Housing Act of 1990), among other sources.

Beginning in the late twentieth century, concerns about the effect of rising property values on housing affordability influenced some advocates to work toward the creation of community land trusts, organizations that would acquire real estate, sell existing or newly developed houses on the property at prices affordable to low- and moderate-income households and retain ownership of the land under them in order to help ensure that subsequent resale prices would be affordable as well. As one outcome of the late-1970s squatters’ movement, the North Camden Land Trust formed to manage the rehabilitation of vacant houses (assisted with financing provided by TRF) that were not in habitable condition. During the next decade, two land trusts formed in Philadelphia: United Hands Community Land Trust, organized by the Kensington Joint Action Council, and the ACORN-sponsored Community Land Association of Pennsylvania. Although these organizations were successful in rehabilitating vacant properties for affordable housing for a time, these initiatives were not able to overcome funding, organizational development, and capacity-building challenges in order to sustain operations over a longer term.

A Recharged Housing Market

During the years leading up to and following the advent of the twenty-first  century, Philadelphia’s real estate market grew stronger, influenced in part by national trends and in part by the success of a ten-year tax abatement, offered as an incentive to developers, initially in Center City and subsequently on a citywide basis. By one estimate, Philadelphia house prices increased by more than 150 percent in nearly every section of Philadelphia between 1979 and 2015. 

[caption id="attachment_23760" align="alignright" width="300"]Members of the Mantua Community Planners, seen here in their workshop at 3625 Wallace Street, were (from left) Chuck Baker, David C. Porter, Charles Collins, and Carolyn L. Walker. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries) Members of the Mantua Community Planners review documents in 1968 at their workshop at 3625 Wallace Street. The participants are (from left) Chuck Baker, David C. Porter, Charles Collins, and Carolyn L. Walker. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The revitalized real estate market, combined with shifts in federal funding away from housing for the poor, presented new opportunities and challenges for nonprofit and neighborhood-based organizations. Some leveraged private financing and entered into joint ventures with private developers. For instance, Project HOME purchased a nine-story apartment building near Rittenhouse Square and developed it for 144 units of mixed-income housing. The State Department authorized the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation to secure $33 million in financing through the federal EB-5 Immigrant Investment Program to support the development of Eastern Tower, a mixed-use high-rise development project at Tenth and Vine Streets, though the CDC abandoned its initial plans to include affordable housing in the project.

As property values rose, community development advocacy focused on housing affordability and on the inadequacy of the city’s policies for acquiring and conveying vacant property. Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP) played a leading role in organizing coalitions to advance two related initiatives: the Philadelphia Campaign for Housing Justice, in support of an inclusionary zoning mandate that would require private developers to contribute a portion of their profits to an affordable housing fund; and the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land, focusing on the creation of a Philadelphia Land Bank as a resource for stabilizing low-income communities. Philadelphia’s land bank legislation was approved in 2013.

The concept and institutions of community-based development owed much to the social and civil rights activism of the 1960s.  Although limited in power, activists in many inner city neighborhoods in the Philadelphia area remained committed to assuring as much community control over development decisions as possible. Because poverty and inequality persisted in many high poverty neighborhoods in the region, their services remained in demand into the twenty-first century as they continued to seek revitalization through community empowerment. 

Howard Gillette is Professor of History Emeritus at Rutgers-Camden and co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Domenic Vitiello is Associate Professor of City Planning and Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate editor of  The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. This essay incorporates information gathered and compiled by John Kromer, former City of Philadelphia Housing Director and former Director of the Camden Redevelopment Agency.

Community Development Corporations (CDCs)

Community development corporations (CDCs), initially a federal initiative intended to direct resources to beleaguered neighborhoods where local activists would take the lead in identifying and solving their most pressing problems, first formed in Philadelphia at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. As federal funding for such efforts dried up in the Reagan era, activists in Philadelphia and other areas hit hardest by the effects of deindustrialization turned to other private as well as public resources to sustain such grassroots efforts to meet community needs. 

[caption id="attachment_24284" align="alignright" width="300"]color photo of orchard planting at Evelyn Sanders Townhouses in Fairhill. This gardening project in 2010 at Fairhill's Evelyn Sanders Townhouses helps fulfill the development's commitment to environmentally sensitive and sustainable design. The Sanders site was developed and managed by the Women's Community Revitalization Project, one of a growing number of CDC housing developments that are LEED certified. (Photograph by Domenic Vitiello for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

CDCs originated in the 1960s under the Special Impact provision of the federal War on Poverty. Owing their origin to a 1966 amendment to the Economic Opportunity Act that designated the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn as a pilot experiment, the concept quickly spread. Given problems associated with Philadelphia’s anti-poverty program, not the least its Model Cities program, the city received no federal funding for the Special Impact Program. Instead, the early model for community development was a network of Opportunities Industrial Centers, organized and effectively funded nationally during the Nixon administration by the Reverend Leon Sullivan (1922-2001).

Philadelphia’s first CDC emerged in 1969, when residents who had been fighting the Vine Street Expressway’s potential destruction of Chinatown formed the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. Over time, its activities extended beyond protest to the development of hundreds of affordable new housing units and the transformation of Chinatown’s landscape with the Friendship Gate and other streetscape improvements. Another CDC formed in 1970 when the Tasty Baking Company, the largest employer in its upper North Philadelphia neighborhood, formed the Allegheny West Foundation as a vehicle for local investment. The foundation rehabilitated hundreds of housing units and a block of properties for mixed residential and commercial use on North Twenty-Second Street.

Two-Tiered Approach

[caption id="attachment_24290" align="alignright" width="300"]color photo of entrance arch at Hing Wah Yuen mixed-income townhouse development, Chinatown North, Philadelphia. 2005 photo. An archway marks one entrance to the fifty-one unit Hing Wah Yuen mixed-income townhouse development, spearheaded by the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation and completed in 1998. (Photograph by Domenic Vitiello for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The concept caught on both in Philadelphia and in Camden, where neighborhood-based activity took many forms. Most CDCs combined “hard development”—rehabilitating housing and commercial real estate, starting businesses, and creating jobs for local residents—with “ soft components” related to human services such as child and elder care, home-ownership counseling, recreational activities, and drug and alcohol abuse programs. The West Oak Lane CDC founded in 1980, for instance, acted as its own general contractor with its own construction crew to rehabilitate the neighborhood’s 600 abandoned houses. It also created twenty-five new jobs when it opened its own Dunkin’ Donuts franchise. The organization survived as a housing subsidiary to the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation (OARC), which assumed the larger goal of making the neighborhood desirable to middle and working-class households. Over time the OARC directed programs in housing development, home improvement, education, economic development, and workforce development, while adding “softer components” such as arts and cultural event planning, grass-roots community planning, and even tourism promotion.

Many CDCs arose out of earlier grass-roots advocacy of the 1950s and 1960s, including civil rights, anti-urban renewal, and related movements. For example, in 1970 a group of Puerto Rican veterans of the Vietnam War founded the Asociacion de Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM, the Association of Puerto Ricans on the March), which extended their  activism to urge government to address the Puerto Rican community’s housing, employment, and health needs. Reflecting broader trends in the history of CDCs, APM expanded its work over the years from a focus on health and mental health programs to become one of the region’s premier nonprofit housing developers with a staff of over one hundred and a diverse range of services. Also following trends in federal policy and funding, APM’s housing development shifted from rental housing for the poor to moderate-income homeownership to a mix of affordable and market-rate apartments.

[caption id="attachment_24329" align="alignright" width="300"]color photo of a group of people The St. Joseph's Carpenter Society, a community development corporation, led efforts to improve housing conditions in East Camden. Here, the society was targeting shortcomings at the Westfield Acres housing complex in the mid-1990s. (Photograph by Howard Gillette Jr. for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

In Camden, Catholic parishes, left with the loss of their white working-class members, established community development corporations with the goals of engaging their new neighbors and stabilizing for them the often tumultuous experiences associated with concentrated poverty. The St Joseph’s Carpenter Society, seeking to strengthen the housing market in East Camden, undertook an expansive rehabilitation program, which included home-ownership training funded by the city’s only major remaining corporation, Campbell Soup. In the impoverished and environmentally compromised Waterfront South neighborhood, another CDC, Heart of Camden, drew on the skills, donations, and connections of former residents who had moved to the suburbs but remained committed to serving area residents through Sacred Heart parish and school. In addition to housing rehabilitation, Heart of Camden instituted associated resources for enrichment, including a full service fieldhouse created from an abandoned movie theater, a theater on the site where the director’s grandfather once operated a neighborhood tavern; an urban farm; and a community art gallery center carved out of an abandoned fire station.

In Wilmington, the Central Baptist CDC formed to revitalize the city’s Eastside, emphasizing a combination of workforce development and housing stabilization. Through its Urban Acres Produce organization, it sought to assure convenient access to healthy foods in low income sections of the Eastside and Northeast sectors of the city.

Local Associations

To enhance the impact of such localized efforts, community development corporations in both Camden and Philadelphia formed their own associations. According to a 2012 report from the Econosult Corporation, members of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, formed in 1992, had completed 1,500 development ventures at a cost of $2.2 billion over a twenty-year period, generating a total economic impact of $3.3 billion. In 2004 the Camden Non-Profit Housing Association reorganized and hired an executive director to assume the role of supporting the city’s thirteen community development corporations under the name of the Camden Community Development Association.

[caption id="attachment_23775" align="alignright" width="300"]Fishtown's Garden Center, built by the New Kensington CDC. Established by the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, the Garden Center is an example of the rebuilding of Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

With the benefit of access to a number of external resources, entrepreneurial CDCs were able to organize and implement development and service activities that had previously been managed exclusively by government agencies, businesses, or citywide and regional service organizations. Examples included the development and operation of a new supermarket (by APM); the construction of transitional and permanent housing for formerly homeless people, including on-site human service programs (by the Project HOME and People’s Emergency Center CDCs); and the implementation of an ambitious open space greening and development strategy (by New Kensington CDC) that facilitated the creation of Greensgrow Farms, a nationally recognized urban agriculture venture.

In order to help address the need to support community development corporation operating expenses, City Council member W. Wilson Goode Jr. (b. 1965), son of a former Philadelphia mayor, introduced a CDC Tax Credit Program, approved by Council in 2002, through which a business that contributed funding to a qualified CDC annually over a ten-year period would receive equivalent reductions in Business Income and Receipts Tax liability during that time.

Born in a period of neighborhood activism, CDCs proved largely adept at responding to local needs in light of diminished public resources. Seeking to lift the fortunes of those living in areas weakened by years of disinvestment, they could point to many accomplishments, even if the areas they represented continued to suffer the long-term effects of urban restructuring.

Howard Gillette is Professor of History Emeritus at Rutgers University-Camden and co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Domenic Vitiello is Associate Professor of City Planning and Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. This essay incorporates information compiled by John Kromer, former City of Philadelphia Housing Director and former Director of the Camden Redevelopment Agency.

Immigration (1930-Present)

For most of the decades since the United States’ immigration restriction acts of the 1920s, Philadelphia was not a major destination for immigrants, but at the end of the twentieth century the region re-emerged as a significant gateway. Beginning with changes in U.S. law in 1965 and accelerating by the 1990s, immigration added large, diverse groups of newcomers to the city and suburbs. Immigrants and refugees dramatically altered the region’s economic, social, and political life and its geography of race and ethnicity. While the city and region remained more black and white than the global cities of New York, Los Angeles, or Miami, newcomers from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Eastern Europe significantly diversified the population of Greater Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_6657" align="alignright" width="300"]The Golden Block (El Centro de Oro) developed around North Fifth Street and Lehigh Avenue in the 1970s as a business center catering to the growing Spanish-speaking population of Philadelphia. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania) The Golden Block (El Centro de Oro) developed around North Fifth Street and Lehigh Avenue in the 1970s as a business center catering to the growing Spanish-speaking population of Philadelphia. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

During and after World War II, with limited foreign migration, internal migrations transformed the city and region. From the 1940s through the ’80s, two major demographic trends – the Second Great Migration of African Americans and mass suburbanization of the region’s white population – were joined by a third smaller, but significant development, the Great Migration of Puerto Ricans. Between 1940 and 1980, the nine-county region’s black population grew from 330,000 to more than one million. The Puerto Rican population expanded from 3,000 in 1950 to almost 55,000 in 1980, and by 2010 to more than 120,000, the second-largest Puerto Rican population in the country, behind only New York. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are not an immigrant group, but as migrants to the mainland they became the largest group of newcomers to Philadelphia since the 1920s whose first language was not English.

Puerto Ricans and African Americans settled mainly in the old rowhouse neighborhoods in Philadelphia and working class suburbs like Norristown, places earlier immigrants and their children left in the post-World War II era. Unlike earlier generations, however, the new migrants entered a region whose manufacturing economy crashed in the 1950s through the ’80s, as the jobs that had sustained these communities disappeared. Socially, economically, and spatially, in this period the region became a different destination for new immigrants. Although the federal government re-opened the borders with new immigration regulations in 1965, immigrant settlement in Philadelphia intensified and diversified only after 1980 and to a greater extent after 1990. New immigrants came from a much wider range of countries outside of Europe, with large numbers of Indians, Mexicans, Southeast Asians, Africans, Chinese, and Koreans in the city and suburbs. They entered a new regional economy, with the bulk of jobs dispersed in the suburbs, including high-paid posts in service and scientific sectors like health care, higher education, finance, computers, and pharmaceuticals. These jobs have attracted well-educated immigrants, while working class immigrants have found work in food and domestic service and other low-wage jobs. These trends marked significant changes in immigration to the region and nation, as today’s newcomers are far more diverse socially and economically than the working class immigrants from Europe a century ago.

1980s Immigration

In national context, late twentieth-century Philadelphia illustrated distinct patterns and challenges of newcomer settlement in a low-immigration region that remained largely white and black and continued to struggle with the legacy of deindustrialization, patterns shared with other Rustbelt regions and re-emerging gateways like Baltimore and Milwaukee. When new immigrants began to arrive in sizeable numbers in the early 1980s, they did not immediately follow local jobs to the suburbs. Instead, most initially settled in the old, economically debilitated urban core, where they found a city divided sharply between black and white with a small but growing Latino population, primarily Puerto Rican, and an old Chinatown struggling to survive urban renewal. Almost exclusively white suburbs encircled the city. Yet many of the less upwardly mobile descendants of old immigrants remained in the city, vying, sometimes violently, with blacks for power, turf, and the political upper hand. For new immigrants, the precipitous fall in the city’s population that coincided with deindustrialization meant readily available housing, but often amid racial and economic tension.

Such was the case for the many Southeast Asian refugees resettled in Philadelphia after the Vietnam War. The resettlement agencies tended to find open housing in borderland areas, where the combination of gentrification and job loss had already pushed lower-income residents out. Vietnamese, Cambodian, and other Southeast Asian refugees in Philadelphia often found themselves wedged between struggling African American communities and significantly wealthier neighborhoods. Settled in West Philadelphia, in North Philadelphia’s Olney and Logan sections, and in South Philadelphia, refugees struggled to make an already difficult cultural adjustment amid existing black-white racial animosity and economic tension. The consequences of life in these borderlands were harsh. According to the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, Asian Philadelphians comprised roughly a quarter of the victims of interracial incidents in the city in the late 1980s; at the time, Asians comprised only three to five percent of the city’s total population. A small group of Hmong refugees resettled in Philadelphia faced such adversity that they fled the city, mostly for established Hmong settlements in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Yet most Southeast Asian refugees in Philadelphia persisted, increasingly leaving West and Southwest Philadelphia for South Philadelphia and East Camden, where working class Cambodians and Vietnamese still concentrate, while middle-class Vietnamese families more often moved to suburbs like Upper Darby and Cherry Hill.

By 1990 Koreans also made up a sizeable proportion of Asian immigrants in Philadelphia, illustrating different conditions of migration but also some similarities in settlement experiences. Middle-class Koreans, frustrated with opportunities in their own country, took advantage of the 1965 immigration law’s skills-based employment preference system. Others obtained professional training in the United States and remained in the area. Once settled, Korean immigrants sponsored their relatives’ visa petitions, a broad pattern shared with other immigrants. Many Koreans with high levels of education struggled to transfer their credentials or to overcome an initial language barrier, and hence gravitated toward small business ownership rather than professional jobs, often experiencing considerable downward mobility for a time.

Racial Tensions and Tolerance

Korean entrepreneurs helped sustain commercial districts in North Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, Germantown, and the old streetcar suburb of Upper Darby. In each of these areas, Korean storeowners did business with the region’s working-class, especially African American, populations. And like in other cities, where black-Korean tensions boiled over into riots, conflict sometimes defined relations in Philadelphia. Yet the relationship between Korean storeowners and their clients, as elsewhere, was most often defined by tolerance and civility. In addition to these storeowners, a considerable set of working-class Koreans also migrated to the city, often through family sponsorship. Most worked in the local garment industry, in laundries, or in small stores, frequently employed at Korean- or Chinese-owned enterprises. Many remain in the city, but more have moved to the suburbs of Delaware County, Cheltenham, or North Wales and nearby towns in central Montgomery County. Since the 1990s, Dominicans have bought and run a large portion of Koreans’ inner city stores. 

Also fueling the growth, diversification, and suburbanization of the immigrant population in Philadelphia, a diverse mix of immigrants and refugees arrived from Africa, hailing from over thirty countries with Liberia and Nigeria the largest groups in the region. Highly educated Africans began arriving soon after the 1965 immigration law was passed, and many went on to sponsor the migration of family members. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing in the new millennium, first Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees, and then people displaced by wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan, settled in the metropolitan area.  Most came from large African cities and settled in West and Southwest Philadelphia, Delaware and Newcastle Counties, and Trenton, while some Sudanese moved to Northeast Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_6656" align="alignright" width="300"]photograph of the first AFRICOM meeting The first meeting of the Coalition of African Communities in Philadelphia (AFRICOM) was held in 2001 at the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Black immigrants and refugees further illustrated the complexity of newcomers’ diversity of experiences. Although African immigrants to the United States had the highest educational attainment of any other immigrant group, they struggled on the whole to transfer their skills to the U.S. Africans in Philadelphia established employment niches in nursing homes, home health-care for the elderly, parking lots, and taxi service. Liberians, Sierra Leoneans, and later Haitians were granted Temporary Protected Status, meaning the U.S. government expects them to ultimately return to their countries, adding to an already diverse range of legal statuses. African and Caribbean immigrants and refugees largely settled in black neighborhoods, suffering most of the same ill effects of segregation and discrimination as their African American neighbors. Pan-African organizing and civil society, however, succeeded in forging a politics of shared prosperity by the early twenty-first century, partly in response to violence between young native and immigrant blacks.

Northeast Philadelphia Immigrants

Joining black immigrants in reinforcing black-white segregation were Eastern Europeans who settled in the 1980s and ’90s especially in the predominantly Jewish sections of Northeast Philadelphia and surrounding suburbs. Many were refugees and their families, from the USSR, Russia, and Ukraine. Poles settled in the old Polish enclave of Port Richmond. Albanian Muslims were resettled in Fishtown and South Kensington, overlapping a small Palestinian enclave that had formed after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. 

In the 1990s, Indian and Mexican immigrants finally supplanted Italians and Germans as the largest foreign-born groups in the region, as Greater Philadelphia experienced more substantial and diverse immigration continuing into the early twenty-first century. Mexican settlement in South Philadelphia and Norristown signaled the health of the downtown and suburban service economies, including the Center City restaurant scene and regional construction boom. The region’s South Asian population, predominantly Indian, mostly came for middle class jobs and higher education, settling in Northeast Philadelphia, King of Prussia and other suburbs. Some working class Indians and Bangladeshis also settled in West Philadelphia and Millbourne, a tiny borough in Delaware County and the first majority-Indian municipality in the U.S. Chinese immigration in this era also included both professional and working classes, who lived in the historic downtown Chinatown and “satellite Chinatowns” in Cherry Hill and South and Northeast Philadelphia. Like Africans, these groups illustrated the bifurcation of immigrants’ economic and residential experiences in the late twentieth century.

In 2008 the city of Philadelphia gained population for the first time since the 1950s, propelled mainly by immigration, which also helped reverse population loss in Norristown and other older suburbs and towns. According to a Brookings Institution report that year, among similar metropolitan areas Philadelphia had “the largest and fastest growing immigrant population.” Immigrants made up roughly nine percent of the region’s population, still lower than the national average though the area was an increasingly important destination. Many of its foreign-born moved to the area after originally having settled elsewhere in the U.S., especially the New York region, often choosing Greater Philadelphia because of its lower costs of property and starting businesses compared to other major urban centers.

Foreign Born Population- 2000By 2000, the map of foreign-born population in the region illustrated major centers and corridors of settlement. Higher-income immigrants clustered along the route 202 corridor with its concentration of jobs in pharmaceuticals and other technology sectors, running from the suburbs of Trenton in the northeast corner of the region to the west-southwest through Bucks, Montgomery, and Chester counties and turning south to the suburbs of Wilmington in Newcastle County. Super-diverse, “global neighborhoods” had emerged in South and Upper North Philadelphia and in Upper Darby just west of the city. As the map shows, since the 1980s a Mexican community helped sustain Kennett Square in southern Chester County as the world capital of mushroom production, as well as agriculture in Bridgeton, Vineland, and other parts of South Jersey.

The Immigration Debate

In the early twenty-first century, Greater Philadelphia also became a national center of immigration debates and movements. Beginning in 2001 the city had a “sanctuary” policy of protecting unauthorized immigrants by forbidding local police from asking for immigration papers. In 2003, Norristown passed a law recognizing the Mexican consular identification card for access to municipal services and banks. On February 14, 2006, Independence Mall was the site of the first “Day Without an Immigrant” rally of mainly Mexican restaurant workers. By that spring, headlines juxtaposed large immigrant rights marches against disputes over an “English-Only” sign in the storefront window of the city’s famous Geno’s Steaks. That summer and fall, first the town of Hazleton in the Poconos, then Riverside, New Jersey, and then Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, passed “illegal immigration relief acts” to punish landlords and employers of unauthorized immigrants. Riverside repealed its act when it saw people leave, local businesses suffer, and out of embarrassment from negative national press.

In some ways the recent dynamics of newcomer settlement and debates over immigration recall the era of mass European immigration a century earlier, though much about the new immigration is indeed new. For example, the experiences of recent Mexican immigrants resemble those of earlier generations of Italians, from their roles as cheap labor in booming food and construction industries to the fear they have encountered among receiving communities about housing overcrowding and integration. Yet the legal status of many new working class immigrants was quite different, partly since immigration restrictions barely existed for Europeans a century ago. Receiving communities’ politics of immigration remained fragmented and polarized, yet their responses took new forms. Moreover, newcomers of the early twenty-first century settled in a region with new geographies and structures of opportunity. Finally, the newest immigration was more diverse than older eras of immigration, in every way. It began to push Philadelphia and many of its suburbs beyond the black-white binary of their twentieth century population and neighborhood identities.

[caption id="attachment_6444" align="alignright" width="575"]This chart shows the changing ethnic makeup of the Philadelphia region from 1970 to 2006. This chart shows the changing ethnic makeup of the Philadelphia region from 1970 to 2006.[/caption]


Daniel Amsterdam is Assistant Professor of History at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Domenic Vitiello is Assistant Professor of City Planning and Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. This essay is based partly on their work with colleagues in the Philadelphia Migration Project at the University of Pennsylvania. 

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