Meet the New Immigrants Reviving a Philadelphia Neighborhood
Feature reporting and photography, published in Next City, November 10 2017
Half a dozen children bounce on a trampoline on the cramped front lawn of a Northeast Philadelphia rowhome, a big sister in a hijab keeping watch from the front steps. "Mohammed," giggles a toddler, "take off your zapatos if you want to jump on the trampoline."
The next block over, a mother pulls her son by the arm up the steps to their own, identical rowhome. He struggles against her grip and shouts sulkingly to three girls at the bottom of the stairs, “You’re black too, you know.” One of the girls — all of them are African-American — around the age of 10, calls back coolly, “At least we’re not Indian.”
Behind the neat facades of brick rowhomes marching block by block across Oxford Circle, a neighborhood is changing. Another block over, a woman stands on the steps of her home of 26 years and points across the street. Until just a few years ago, she says, that house and that house and that house, nearly all of them, were inhabited by white, mostly Irish-Catholic, Philadelphia natives like herself. Many were senior citizens. As they’ve passed away, new families have moved in from far further afield: Bangladesh, Syria, the Dominican Republic. The ice cream man is Palestinian, she says. He’s the one who taught her about Islamic restrictions on touching dogs, when she wondered why the neighborhood kids sometimes rushed to pet hers and other times shied away. “So I’m learning,” she says.
In a neighborhood where the number of foreign-born families has increased dramatically over the past two decades, everyone has a lot to learn. Since reaching its lowest point in a century in 2006, Philadelphia’s population has been steadily growing. But contrary to popular perception, the people driving that change aren’t upwardly mobile, white millennials snapping up the new cookie-cutter condos downtown. The vast majority of Philadelphia’s population growth is occurring in outlying “middle neighborhoods” — places that fall in the middle of the spectrum for incomes and housing prices, experiencing neither gentrification and displacement, nor shrinkage and stagnation, data compiled by Reinvestment Fund in partnership with Next City shows (full data set available in a brief by Reinvestment Fund here).