Musa Trawally remembers being disappointed when he first arrived in Philadelphia in 1997. A transplant from Liberia, where he was fleeing the nation’s long-burning civil conflicts, he had a very definite idea of what the United States should look like. The redbrick row houses and fading industrial buildings of south-west Philadelphia were not what he had in mind.
He had “too much expectation”, recalled Trawally, who is now project manager of the African Cultural Alliance of North America, a community development corporation. “[From] what I had heard about the United States at the time, I thought it was all glass houses. I was disappointed that this is what they call the United States.”
Part of the issue was that there weren’t many other Liberians, or immigrants of any kind, in his neighbourhood then. There were tensions between the native-born majority and the few foreign-born residents like him. And there wasn’t much to make him feel at home. Trawally remembers going to a corner shop at 64th Street and Woodland Avenue, where a Korean shopkeeper was the only merchant who sold many of the ingredients he needed to make the dishes he missed.
What a difference 23 years makes.
Woodland Avenue today is a thriving commercial corridor, with almost every storefront filled by grocery stores, eateries and hair braiding salons that cater to a diversity of Philadelphians. A multiplicity of food carts and trucks are wedged into the thoroughfare, evidence of a consumer demand so great it can’t be contained within the walls of the existing buildings.
The flags of every African nation, and some Caribbean countries, hang from the lamp poles for seven long blocks – the result of a survey that the African Cultural Alliance of North America and the city’s commerce department initiated years ago. “We asked what memory [respondents] want to see on the commercial corridor that will remind them of where they came from and, at the same time, balance what America is all about,” said Trawally . “People wanted to see their national emblems on the commercial corridor, so now they see a Ghanaian flag, or the Kenya flag, or the Senegalese flag and say, ‘OK, I feel at home here, I do business here, I live here.’”
It wasn’t inevitable that Woodland Avenue would become the vibrant commercial hub that it is today. There are plenty of other business corridors in Philadelphia’s outlying neighbourhoods that are husks of what they used to be, with storefronts seemingly permanently sealed off by riot gates, if not abandoned entirely. More than a few have gaps in the rows of buildings, where abandoned structures have been razed.
Cecil B Moore Avenue in north Philadelphia and much of Germantown Avenue, which winds through the north-western neighbourhoods, are both pocked with vacancy and have been for decades. The shopping district around Kensington and Allegheny avenues is now in the midst of an open-air drug market. Even before the pandemic, Point Breeze Avenue, at the centre of Philadelphia’s gentrification wars, still had as many empty storefronts as healthy businesses.
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The difference between these neighbourhood’s and Trawally’s corner of south-west Philadelphia is that they have not succeeded in attracting immigrants. That’s a story that can be told across Pennsylvania, and America. Attracting foreign-born residents to American cities is one of the most successful strategies for urban revitalisation, and it is one that is uniquely threatened by a possible second term for Donald Trump.
When Trump launched his presidential bid in 2015, he did so with a speech villainising immigrants from Mexico as “rapists” and criminals. His administration has been marked by extremely aggressive attempts to repel residents of what the president terms “shithole countries” from moving to the US. The number of refugees the country accepts shrunk radically, even before the pandemic, while asylum-seekers are unceremoniously expelled and the deportation enforcement wing of the federal government has been given free rein.
The irony is that Pennsylvania, arguably the key state Trump must win, would be in far worse shape economically if it had not become home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants like Trawally. Every single city would have decreased in population without an influx of foreign-born residents, who have transformed neighbourhoods such as south-west Philadelphia as well as smaller cities and towns such as Reading, Allentown and Hazleton.
“Pennsylvania got hit hard by white flight and deindustrialisation. There were decades and decades where lots of folks thought the age of the city was over,” says AK Sandoval-Strausz, an associate professor of history at Penn State University.
Pennsylvanians do not have to look too far afield to see examples of where those dynamics are still at work. Pittsburgh and the former industrial towns around it have mostly failed to attract immigrants. Despite all the hype around the Steel City’s comeback, with new corporate residents such as Google and Uber, a decade hasn’t passed since the 1940s in which the city didn’t lose population. It is half the size of its post-Second World War peak.
On the other end of the state is Philadelphia, which bucked 55 years of population decline and began growing again in 2006. New skyscrapers downtown, and a burgeoning population of native-born millennials and boomer empty-nesters, caught the most attention. But without immigrants, those groups would not have been enough to buoy the population to replacement rate. Without the surge in immigration that began in the 1980s, the city would have lost more than 25 per cent of its 1950 population.
“The American cities that have revived, immigrants did it first,” says Sandoval-Strausz. “There’s gentrification and yuppies moving in to be around all the cultural amenities and they certainly help. But if you want to look at cities without much immigration, like Detroit and Baltimore, those are the cities still in deep, deep trouble.”
Like pretty much all American cities, more domestic-born Americans move out of Philadelphia every year than move in. The city’s population growth since 2006 has been the result of immigration and new births. The effects on corridors such as Woodland Avenue or 7th Street in south Philadelphia, where Cambodian and other Southeast Asian immigrants have opened a myriad of small businesses, have brought neighbourhood-scale commerce back to communities in a way that mega-projects never could. Notably, foreign-born American residents are twice as likely to form a small business as native-born people.
There are also smaller municipalities, such as Hazleton, that have attracted immigrants. This modestly sized city in north-eastern Pennsylvania had an entirely white population of 27,300 in 1980. Today it’s home to 24,800 people, of whom only 40 per cent are white. By Sandoval-Strausz’s estimation, that means the town would be about a third of its 1980 population without residents from abroad. (That’s a population decline, on a smaller scale, faster than that of Detroit.)
“This influx of immigrants has helped the surrounding areas, because what they’re doing is opening up a lot of businesses,” says Ivan Garcia of Make the Road PA, a pro-immigrant advocacy group. “We see a lot of Mexican shops opening up, we see a lot of Dominican stores opening up, because people want to eat what they’re used to at home. Without them, a lot of these places would be ghost cities.”
That is not to say that immigrants have been warmly accepted by all in Pennsylvania. Indeed, the backlash to immigration can be clearly seen in Hazleton, where the former mayor Lou Barletta instituted a draconian law that sought to levy fines on residents who employed or rented housing to immigrants staying in the country illegally. His effort was thrown out in court, but the furore around it made Barletta a star.
But while that point of view is present, it is unclear exactly how far Trumpian sentiment on this subject will go in Pennsylvania in this election cycle. In 2018, Barletta ran for the US Senate and was beaten by double digits. Following the election, exit polling by the Immigration Hub found that voters were turned off by the strident anti-immigrant rhetoric deployed by Republicans in the election. More recent polling from the advocacy group found a similar lack of support for Trump’s hardline position.
It is impossible to measure the effect of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies on Pennsylvania or its municipalities right now. The last comprehensive census was issued in 2010, and the annual updates issued since are based on much narrower datasets. (Although small cities such as Erie and Lancaster, which have made resettling refugees a cornerstone of their population stabilisation, are clearly facing headwinds.) But experts say that four more years of Donald Trump will have a negative effect on Pennsylvania’s efforts to regrow its population.
“The Trump administration has tried to dismantle virtually every part of the immigration system and diminish the numbers in every corner of it,” said Domenic Vitiello, an associate professor of regional and city planning at the University of Pennsylvania. “Those efforts have had effects simply on the numbers of people coming, including for a tremendous number of families that have been trying to bring over and reunite with their close family members.”
On Woodland Avenue, Trawally said that his group is still seeing newcomers. South-west Philadelphia has become a magnet for people from Liberia, Senegal and other West African nations, just as South Philly attracts people from Southeast Asia and Central America, and the Northeast brings residents from almost everywhere. (Philadelphia is unusual in that no single immigrant group is dominant, but small clusters of residents have established themselves in a multiplicity of neighbourhoods.) According to Vitiello, property ownership also shows immigrants have been the “main driving forces” in large parts of the city’s housing market.
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Unlike when Trawally arrived in 1997, there are now institutions established to help people assimilate to life in one of America’s oldest cities. In addition to efforts by the city’s welfare and commerce offices to ease the transition to a new setting, there are immigrant-run institutions such as the African Cultural Alliance of North America. On the Woodland Avenue business corridor, they have even established a mutual aid programme to boost the fortunes of any one business that may be flagging due to the pandemic and its attendant downturn.
“A lot of us also have been able to establish ourselves here, go to school here, to prepare ourselves for the American dream which gradually we are now experiencing,” says Trawally. “It has been a combination of blending our culture with the Western lifestyle, and then navigating through that.”
The vitality and prosperity of cities like Philadelphia, and of older states such as Pennsylvania, depends on their ability to attract people. Without new waves of immigration, divestment will undermine historic neighbourhoods, commercial corridors will languish and public budgets shrink. To avoid this fate, a new immigration policy is needed. And a new president.