Rolling Out the Welcome Mat for Immigrants

While the national dialogue around immigration policy and legislative reforms remains pitched, cities and regions are leading the way in welcoming immigrants and newcomers. As part of this fall’s Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange, the Economy League took a close look at local efforts that have helped to establish our region as a reemerging immigrant gateway. In October, we brought 40 cross-sector leaders from across the region to receiving communities in Southwest and West Philadelphia and Upper Darby Township to see how they are spurring business growth and neighborhood revitalization by supporting immigrant populations.


Upper Darby Welcomes Newcomers with Open Arms


Just over Philadelphia’s western border, Upper Darby has earned a reputation for embracing and investing in its immigrant communities. Already the most populous and densest township in Pennsylvania, Upper Darby has grown to have the second largest foreign-born population in the state behind Philadelphia. The most recent Census data estimates more than 16,000 foreign-born individuals in Upper Darby, representing one in five township residents. Recent waves of South and Central American, West African, South Asian, and Indian immigrants have yielded a diverse population hailing from 100 counties and speaking 70 languages. Regional residents who previously would have come to Upper Darby to shop around the 69th Street Terminal or catch a show at the Tower Theater today are as likely to visit for a global tour of its Peruvian, Vietnamese, Mexican and Korean restaurants and ethnic boutiques.


A set of public sector leaders in Upper Darby have made welcoming immigrants a priority and worked together closely around it. Top officials who are vocal about the importance and role of immigrant communities in Upper Darby include Mayor Tom Micozzie, Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood, and Chief Administrative Officer Tom Judge. They are joined by eager collaborators at the Upper Darby School District and Delaware County Chamber of Commerce, among many others.


The township created the Upper Darby Welcome Center in 2003 to connect immigrants with a wide array of services, making a point of locating it several blocks away from the municipal building to make sure newcomers were comfortable seeking assistance regardless of immigration status. Upper Darby’s commitment to a diverse and welcoming community was on display again last week as local police and Muslim leaders marched and stood together at a press conference to affirm their partnership and express their concern about growing vitriol directed at the Islamic community elsewhere in the U.S.


Complementing this public sector leadership are nonprofits that support Upper Darby’s immigrant populations. The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians opened a satellite branch at the Upper Darby Welcome Center in 2007 focused on connecting newcomers with employment. Multicultural Community Family Services (MCFS) was founded in 2003 to serve refugees from war-torn African countries including Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Liberia. MCFS has since broadened its services for at-risk immigrants and their families under the dynamic leadership of founder Portia Kamara, who herself came to Upper Darby as a refugee fleeing civil war in Liberia.

Whereas the volume of newcomers that have made Upper Darby their home over the past few decades has led to tensions in other receiving communities, local leaders are proud of the harmony that exists in Upper Darby both across immigrant communities and between newcomers and long-term residents. The lack of tensions and violence in Upper Darby schools is particularly notable given the melting pot nature of the community. The school district has won praise for its effective integration of newcomer students into mainstream classes and it innovative supports for refugee students. Adjusting for the socioeconomic status of its student body, Upper Darby proudly boasts that it is outperforming vaunted neighboring districts in Lower Merion and Radnor.


Breathing Life into Neighborhood Commercial Corridors


Nearby neighborhoods in Southwest and West Philadelphia provide additional examples of immigrant communities helping to revitalize commercial corridors and foster broader economic growth by tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit of newcomers. Although just 10 percent of the region’s population, immigrants were responsible for 95 percent of growth in Main Street businesses focused on neighborhood retail, services, and tourism in Greater Philadelphia between 2000 and 2013.


Along Woodland Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia, the Southwest CDC provides support to help corridor merchants grow their businesses. The avenue is a three-mile strip the stretches between the University City medical complex to the east and Cobbs Creek to the west. More than 175 shops and businesses lie within Woodland Avenue’s commercial core between 58th and 68th streets.


The growth of immigrant communities along the corridor – led by newcomers from Western African nations – is helping to breathe new life into portions of the avenue that until recently had seen extensive blight and vacancies. While the Southwest CDC’s micro-loan programs and workshops in partnership with business support organizations such as Finanta and Entrepreneur Works are available to all, businesses owned by newcomers have driven much of the recent growth and lower vacancy.


The 6500 block of Woodland has several thriving grocery stores packed with West African foods and produce, beauty products, and DVDs. The sense of community across these immigrant-owned businesses is strong, from the large blue bins outside of shops storing items being sent back to their home country to the use of “su su” funding circles that pool local funds to help the next up-and-coming business.


Bringing Back West Philly’s Main Street


In West Philadelphia, the 52nd Street corridor has also benefited from an influx of immigrants. Traditionally known as West Philly’s Main Street, efforts are underway to restore 52nd Street to its former glory. With support from the City of Philadelphia Commerce Department, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and The Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation, a commercial corridor manager started two years ago to organize and support corridor businesses around a common economic development agenda.


A major recent focus along 52nd Street has been incorporating the corridor’s long-standing informal sidewalk economy of vendors with fold-out tables and metal racks into larger revitalization efforts. In exchange for confirming they have a bank account, liability insurance, and city licenses, the City is giving sidewalk vendors custom-designed kiosks and designated places along the corridor. While the move toward kiosks was initially seen by many native- and foreign-born business owners as an effort to move them out, active engagement by the corridor manager and city officials have helped businesses overcome initial skepticism and embrace the changes.


These and other immigrant integration efforts in the region are poised to go even further in 2016, as Philadelphia inaugurates a new mayor who has been an outspoken advocate for the importance of newcomer communities and the region hosts the Welcoming Economies Global Network conference.