ALLENTOWN,Pa. – At the center of the city,at Seventh and Hamilton streets,stands a 100-foot shaft of granite topped with a statue,the goddess of liberty,a figure that has personified American culture here for more than a century.
It is part of the Soldier and Sailors Monument,which is surrounded by a neighborhood that has changed drastically over the last two decades. The sound of the streets is reggaeton,a hip-hop music synonymous with Puerto Rican culture. Walk down the sidewalk,and locals are speaking a Caribbean dialect of Spanish,a stark contrast from 30 years ago.
The county seat of Lehigh County,Allentown may be known more for its role in hiding the Liberty Bell from the British during the American Revolution than its racial makeup. A once predominately white area,with a majority of residents of German,English and Irish ancestry,Allentown has experienced a boom in its Hispanic population.
“The issue of Hispanic migration to the area has helped define what this area is about right now. If you look at the population,almost all the growth has come from that demographic group,” Christopher Borick,professor of political science at Muhlenberg College,said. “If you looked at the Lehigh Valley 25 years ago,it was a very marginal Hispanic population. The city was white working class.”
The flight of Hispanic immigrants to the United States has become a norm for many cities,and over the last decade counties in Pennsylvania have seen a major increase in Latino population.
Numbers tell the story
According to the 2010 Census,Allentown is the fastest growing city in Pennsylvania. In 2010,the census said the city had 118,032 residents,10.7 percent more than in 2000,when the population was 106,632. The state grew by 3.4 percent,or 461,832,to 12.7 million people. The total U.S. population grew 9.7 percent.
As Allentown grew,the white population declined from 68,621 to 56,334. Whites went from 64.4 percent of the population in 2000 to 48.4 percent in 2010.
“A lot of the growth has to do with the Puerto Rican community. They tend to be moving from New York and Philadelphia,areas with high rent,” Emilio A. Parrado,sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania,said. “You also have the growing Mexican population. So there is a combination of people coming from the surrounding areas and from Mexico. The dynamic of the flow is still not clear.”
Nearly 43 percent – or 50,461 – of Allentown’s residents are Latino,up from 24.4 percent in 2000 – or 26,058.
“I moved here with my family from Brooklyn when I was younger,” Kalvin Rivera said. “There were better jobs,and I’ve been here ever since.”
Rivera,23,a DJ at night clubs in the Lehigh Valley,stood outside the Dominican restaurant Jarabacoa City with Shantel Romano,18,also a New York native. Rivera and Romano,both of Dominican descent,met less than a year ago and have been dating ever since.
“This historically is the way people move up socially. You move up by moving out of the city,by following better opportunities and better housing,” Parrado said.
Allentown is not alone in this trend. Counties around Pennsylvania have reported major changes in their Hispanic population. The number of Latinos in Pennsylvania has grown by 83 percent since 2000,or 325,572.
Other states in the Northeast have reported major shifts in the Hispanic population. In Stamford,Conn.,130 miles east of Allentown,the Hispanic population jumped from 19,635 in 2000 to 29,188 in 2010.
“For places like Allentown that has suffered all the problems with losing population,this is certainly revitalizing the community,” Parrado said. “It is not all that different from Philadelphia. Vacancy rates go down,owners rent their house,tax base for the city goes up. All of those are benefits for the area. Having a growing population is a good thing.”
Like many residents who are not native to the area,Frank Cardona,a mechanic at T&E Auto Repair Inc.,said he came to Pennsylvania from Puerto Rico to look for work.
“I was living in Puerto Rico and there were no jobs there. I came over here and started living with one of my wife’s relatives. Since then I’ve been here for 30 years working on cars,” he said.
Lupe Pearce,the founder of Hispanic American Organization in Allentown,said immigrants from Puerto Rico came to the mainland in three flights over the last half century,but all came for jobs.
Parrado said social mobility plays a big factor in those moves.
Thomas Hyclak,professor of economics at Lehigh University,said Allentown’s population increase over the last decade could be attributed to the availability of lower-priced housing in Allentown’s less affluent neighborhoods.
The changing face of downtown
For a majority of Hispanics,that’s the downtown Center Square neighborhood. This area of town has a higher poverty level than the rest of the city,and in 2009 the city proposed to change that with a revitalization project centered on a $158 million arena.
The project has come with mixed reviews. Many residents see it as a way to build the city’s economy by luring a sports franchise to the city. Others said the project does nothing to help the poorer communities that surround the arena. Plans call for the demolition of several buildings,which has forced some residents and business owners out of the neighborhood.
Pearce said landlords see the arena project as an opportunity to bring more people to the center city to rent higher-end houses and apartments.
“There are people who don’t have a steady job. Now we are dealing with the problem of affordable housing,” she said. “Are we really doing something for this particular target population?”
Julio Guridy,Allentown’s city council president,said the arena project has helped spur Hispanic business owners to open new downtown companies,such as Made in Brazil,a restaurant that opened in 2009.
“Years ago it wasn’t like this. Hispanics are not only bringing an economic opportunity to the city,but they are also bringing skills to businesses,” Guridy said. “The Hispanic community is actually adding a lot more to the economy then when they first started coming 10 to 15 years ago.”
Racial tensions rise
With the increase in the Hispanic population,there is the inevitable shadow of racism. Many residents said they feel like outsiders in Allentown because of longer-term residents who have shunned them because of their ethnicity.
“People treat Hispanics here differently than other people. I get treated differently,” Pedro Antonio Torres said. “There’s an increase of Hispanic people but also,on top of that,racism increased.”
Torres,35,is mechanic who came to Pennsylvania from Puerto Rico at the age of 6. He said he expects to feel some racism from others,but it is the lack of opportunities for Hispanics that has him concerned.
“I’m worried about my kids. They are the future here,” he said.
Borick,who is working on a new public opinion survey that will analyze the quality of life in Allentown,said previous surveys have found a major divide among urban,suburban and rural communities.
“We ask a question about race relations in all our Lehigh Valley Quality of Life studies. You will see some difference. White residents tend to see race relations better than minority members of the valley,including the Hispanic community who are more likely to rate it negatively,” Borick said. “I think there are clearly issues of how these groups are assimilating into an area that not too long ago was non-diverse in its nature. There are all kinds of growing pains in arriving at a more coherent close nit community.”
Borick said that,although the survey points to tension in the community,he has not seen a pivotal racial incident that has shaped the views of the neighborhood.
“I think the majority of the people think we get along. For people who have been here for a long time,like me,we want the city to be clean,we want people not to throw trash on the street and not to double park,” Guridy said. “It is not an issue with race it is an issue with civility,it’s caring for others.”
Reach reporter Salvador Guerrero at [email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.