Philadelphia will host the Democratic National Convention this year in July, where various speakers will likely talk about immigration reform. Several politicians might discuss Philadelphia’s own immigrant population since there is a growing presence of Mexicans and Central Americans in the city’s south side. However, one neighborhood that might never come up at the convention is Fairhill, a predominately Puerto Rican and deeply blighted community on the city’s north side.
Fairhill is Philadelphia’s poorest community. It has the unfortunate label of the “Badlands,” known for drug-related violence and having an open-air drug market. Puerto Ricans began to inhabit the area in the 1950s. During the 1960s, more Puerto Ricans migrated to the area after White residents gentrified them out of Spring Gardens and Northern Liberties, the previous Puerto Rican settlements in the city. As with the vast majority of North Philadelphia, the impact of deindustrialization has visible effects in Fairhill. As of 2016, over 60 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Unemployment is at 26.2 percent. The average household income is about $21,000. Nearly 50 percent of adults have no high school diploma. It has highest violent crime rate in the city. A child born to a family in Fairhill today can expect to live to 71, which is a lower life expectancy than Iraq and Syria according to Philly News. Anywhere between 15 and 20 percent of the housing units are vacant. Every public and charter school in the neighborhood is underperforming. And for decades, the community has been a haven for the heroin trade, which many residents view as an opportunity to make a livable wage.
Despite the persistent of these issues, Fairhill hasn’t received much attention from Latino journalists or Latino-media outlets outside of Philadelphia. Unlike Hazleton, Pennsylvania, which is a small town where the once-feared Dominican immigrant population reportedly transformed the town, Fairhill isn’t a story of newcomers clashing with old-time residents only to become accepted, integrated members of the community. In From Puerto Rican to Philadelphia, historian Carmen Teresa Whalen argued that Puerto Ricans became “displaced labor migrants” as the city transformed from manufacturing into a service economy. National public discourse interpreted their poverty as the result of an underclass culture, a term coined by sociologist William Julius Wilson in 1987. He referred to the urban poor as people who “not only suffer from lower socioeconomic status, minimal education, and lack of opportunities, but they are further victimized by a lack of community safeguards and resources” (conservatives would later use it in racialized terms to label African American and Latino poverty as the result of dysfunctional behavior).
In a 2008 BBC documentary, “Law and Disorder in Philadelphia,” host Louis Theroux investigated crime in North Philadelphia. In this clip, he speaks to Puerto Rican residents in the Kensington area, which borders Fairhill.
During this current presidential election cycle, many writers have argued that Latinos are not single-issue voters nor are they a monolithic group, but there is still a tendency among these critics to portray Latinos as newcomers. In a USA Today op-ed, the chairmen of The Latino Coalition Hector Barreto said, “Yes, our heritage matters to us, but because we are also assimilating and acculturating, we are also sensitive to conversations and positions around tax reform, trade, foreign policy…” Florida Senator Marco Rubio noted that immigration isn’t the only issue Latinos care about. During a Republican primary debate, he followed his statement with “the most powerful sentiment in the Hispanic community, as it is in every immigrant community, is the burning desire to leave your children better off than yourself.” This newcomer narrative isn’t just a viewed held by the masses, it is also expressed by those in leadership positions who are attempting to control public discourse regarding how society views Latinos. Although a significant number of Latinos are immigrants, as of 2014 34.9 percent were foreign born, many are not. As long as this newcomer perception persist, communities like Fairhill will be casted into the shadows since the plight of Puerto Ricans in North Philadelphia contradicts this narrative.
I argued in a recent article “viewing Latinos as recent arrivals dehistoricizes social and economic issues within the community.” Although immigration is a crucial matter, when all Latinos are mischaracterized as “immigrants,” issues such as concentrated poverty, mass incarceration, and discrimination are viewed as temporary problems. They are seen as the consequences of Latinos’ recent arrival. The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that not all disadvantaged Latino communities are immigrant communities might lead those who have the biggest podium to construct a romanticize view of Latinos.
Allentown, Pennsylvania, is a good microcosm to examine these issues. According to the 2010 Census, Allentown was the fastest growing city in the state, and it is the state’s third most populated city with about 120,000 residents. Latinos make up 42.8 percent of the population, which is up from 24.4 percent in 2000. On the other hand, Whites have declined from 64.4 percent to 43.2 percent, and African Americans have increased from 7.8 percent to 12.5 percent. The rapid growth of the Latino population has triggered interest from journalist who have written about the city in the Atlantic, USA Today, and Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer. Although the city has received good publicity, these authors portray the Latino population as an immigrant community that emerged only 15 years ago. One article quoted Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski who said, “They brought energy, they brought vitality, they buy houses, like any immigrant group.” His comment ignored the fact that most Latinos in Allentown are not immigrants. In fact, as of 2014 only 15.5 percent of all residents were foreign born. The Latino experience in Allentown reveals how local leaders portray Latinos as immigrants to link the population growth with economic opportunities, which erases history and contemporary realities.
Puerto Ricans began settling in Allentown during the 1940s; however, since the 1970s, most Puerto Ricans starting arriving from bordering state. Due to gentrification and crime, low-income Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and African Americans from New York and New Jersey have moved to Pennsylvania (and other states in New England) for affordable housing and safer communities. Allentown has also received low-income Puerto Ricans and African Americans moving from Philadelphia. This is an overlooked migration pattern because of the large numbers of Puerto Ricans migrating to Central Florida. Nevertheless, it’s noteworthy because many Puerto Ricans in this exodus are second, third, and fourth-generation migrants.
Unlike most migrations, these groups didn’t move for employment opportunities. As a result, they find themselves unemployment, underemployed, or working multiple low-wage jobs. With few adequate employment opportunities, Latinos in the state face troubling realities. As of 2011, 39.3 percent of Latinos lived in high-poverty neighborhoods, which is the highest in the country. Pennsylvania has the third-highest incarceration rate for Latinos. According to the Prison Policy Center, while Latinos make up 6 percent of the population, they account for 15 percent of its prison and jail population. Educational achievement is also low. In 2012, 64 percent of Latino males graduated from high school within four years.
The plight of Latinos in Allentown regarding poverty, poor housing, and underfunded schools is too pressing to be misinterpreted as a problem defined by immigration. As of 2014, Allentown’s poverty rate stood at 26.3 percent. Concentrated poverty, which the U.S. Census defines as areas where 40 percent or more of the residents live below the poverty line, hovers around 50 percent in several neighborhoods. As more white residents leave the city for the suburbs, they leave behind vacant homes. Since many of the structures were built around the late 1800s and early 1900s, they have become dilapidated and are filled with lead paint. A 2014 Pennsylvania Department of Health annual report discovered that 23.11 percent of children tested for lead poison in Allentown had high-blood lead levels, the highest in the state. Additionally, the city has declared many homes unfit for human habitation. It is common to see blocks with several abandoned and bordered-up homes.
Residents haven’t willingly moved into these places. A 2013 study by a community action group discovered that real estate agents steered White housing applicants outside of Allentown. Lori Sywensky of Northampton County Community Development said agents told White applicants, “You don’t want to go to this school district! You don’t want to live in this neighborhood! If they were Hispanic [or African American], they were being shown only places within the city of Allentown.” Even worse, rental units comprise 52 percent of the city’s residences mostly owned by absentee landlords. These issues shouldn’t have surprised city officials when the city avoided two near riots in 2006 and 2007. Yet local residents have forgotten about these incidents and very little effort has been made to avoid a similar event.
The lack of funding for the school district is another source of frustration. The Allentown School District, which has almost 17,000 students and is 68 percent Latino, is one out of the three most fiscally disadvantaged districts in the nation. Nearly 90 percent of the students are low income. The city’s two high schools have a 62 and 76 percent graduation rate. Because of layoffs, students have study hall multiple times per day and schools are severely understaffed. In 2014, there was one librarian that oversaw all 15 elementary school libraries. This limited the opportunities for children to visit their school library and check out books.
Students have unsuccessfully sought to alleviate these problems. In September, high school students organized a district-wide student walkout where they called for the resignation of the superintendent, a student representative on the school board with voting powers, and summer youth employment opportunities, but none of the demands were met. For the rest of the semester, the school district witnessed several violent incidents involving the city’s youth. One event made national headlines when several students assaulted police officers during an after-school fight that left four officers injured. Violence has always plagued the schools, but this year the local newspaper, The Morning Call, did a special report on Allentown schools with the caption: “Allentown teacher: ‘I feel like a correctional officer.’” This headline furthered marginalized the students and portrayed the schools as chaotic.
City officials have attempted to reverse the city’s economic stagnation. Since 2012, city officials have spent nearly $1 billion in a special tax district in the downtown area called the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) and the construction of a waterfront district. Currently, a hockey arena, restaurants, hotels, and luxury apartments are operating. Although a worthy endeavor, development has largely been uneven. The gentrification of downtown has led some absentee landlords to increase their tenants’ rent by citing the NIZ. This has occurred despite the fact that demands for housing are in the downtown area, and not in the poor sections of the city.
Additionally, for many tenants, rent already consumes over half of their monthly income, which has led to overcrowding as households increase their numbers of occupants to keep up with the rent. The development of luxury apartments has displaced several families. Also problematic is that the communities around the downtown area are the poorest in the city. As of 2016, 14 percent of the homes are vacant, 37 percent of residents live in poverty, 31 percent of adults don’t have a high school diploma, and 51 percent of the adult population is out of work. Recently, local residents said that despite the development in downtown, their rental conditions have not improved. “We get calls daily of people crying to us on the phone,” said Julian Kern, president of Allentown Tenants Association. Only time will tell whether the NIZ will truly transform the city for all residents.
Allentown is far from the only city in the state with these problems. Reading and Lancaster began downtown revitalization efforts in the early 2000s and early 1990s, yet poverty still remains an issue. Reading, which is 58 percent Latino, has a poverty rate of 39.6 percent as of 2014. The city made national headlines in 2012 when it was dubbed “the poorest U.S. city.” Reading is also one of the three most fiscally disadvantaged school districts in the nation with a 61 percent graduation rate as of 2013 and is plagued with violence. Lancaster, which is 39 percent Latino, has a 31 percent poverty rate as of 2015. The city gained notoriety for having privately-owned security cameras throughout the city. Even though there are only about 59,000 residents, approximately 169 security cameras are on the streets as of August 2015. Southeast Lancaster, where most of the minorities live, isn’t just the poorest section of the city; it also suffers from disinvestment and disempowerment. In March, Lancaster County President Judge Dennis Reinaker announced that the section would have their district judge seat eliminated to save the county money.
Although immigration is a pressing issue and needs to be resolve, the present-day problems in these cities and many others like them begs the questions: do these communities matter? Does a Latino child in Allentown who has high-elevated blood levels of lead poison due to living in substandard housing matter? What about the parents of children in Allentown and Reading who are not only concern about the children’s substandard education, but for their physical safety? They certainly do matter, but if the practice of viewing all Latinos as newcomers continues then these communities will be casted into the shadows because they don’t fit the upward-mobile immigration narrative.
The tendency to portray all Latinos as immigrants didn’t emerged within the past few years. In Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement, historian Sonia Song-Ha Lee documented that middle-class Puerto Rican leaders in New York City used the same dialogue about Puerto Ricans to juxtapose themselves from African Americans in the 1970s. Even though Puerto Ricans were worse off than African Americans economically, politically, and socially, the Puerto Rican elite highlighted the successes of a small minority to portray Puerto Ricans as a successful immigrant group. The fear of having their concerns associated with the needs of African Americans led some Puerto Rican middle-class professionals to label Puerto Ricans as docile to justify having a separate political base from African Americans.
Hopefully this is not a continued practiced, but it is disappointing to note that while many national Latino organizations will discuss poverty, incarceration, police harassment, and other issues, these conversations have largely focused on the undocumented population even though these issues have plagued Latino communities for decades (there has been recent efforts to expand the discussion to the native-born population).
If the practice of neglect comes from obliviousness or trying to avoid airing out dirty laundry, then it does a disservice to many people in these communities who have demonstrated resilience. In Philadelphia, Black and Latino youth have formed a dirt-bike ATV subculture. Although riding dirt bikes on the streets is dangerous and deemed illegal, riders have argued that it helps them stay out of trouble.
Several high school students in Allentown created a youth group called the United Youth Party to “improve the community and lives of the youth by engaging them in positive activities and empowering their voice.” Hip-hop has also been a method for Allentown’s and Lancaster’s youth to avoid staying out of trouble. These efforts aren’t enough to alleviate social ills, but they reveal the desire of disadvantaged people attempting to rise above societal expectation. Their struggles and resilience should be acknowledged because they demonstrate the diverse history and concerns that Latinos have.
Originally from Allentown, Pennsylvania, Aaron G. Fountain, Jr. is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Indiana University-Bloomington. He tweets from @aaronfountainjr.