"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, December 2, 2016

In Norristown, Pa., Hispanics Are The New Italians, For Sure

This is the third of my series of posts to focus on immigration and ethnicity in America, as viewed through my subject towns on Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River.  I began with a discussion of the post-WW I nativist reaction that was generated, in substantial part, by fear of the large numbers of “un-American” immigrants from southern Europe, i.e., Italy.  Last time I began to examine the potential similarities between the two movements.  This post continues that examination, but as the national situation looms in the background of all current immigration conversations, I must add an update.  My previous post, published just before our national election, contained the following sentence:  Whether Congress produces the 21st century version of its previous regressive and racist policy, or pursues a different course, remains to be seen.  Things still remain to be seen, but it appears that the chances of the former being reenacted have substantially increased.  Still, we remain in that limbo of which I spoke.  Conclusions are premature, because to learn more about what is really happening.

Last time I identified the broad, but likely coincidental, trans-century time frame for both immigration periods.  Using conveniently available on-line data for the period between 2000 and 2013, it was also clear that that the smaller towns have accepted not just fewer Hispanics, but fewer by percentage, as was the case during the previous period of immigration.

In another obvious point of comparison, I began to examine the data for a correlation between a town’s prosperity—and thus rents, not to mention property values—and its attractiveness to immigrants.  I reminded my readers that, “Throughout history, with very few exceptions, immigrants have arrived in their new lands with little money.  If you are looking for where they settled, you can pretty much bet it wasn’t the richer part of town.  Today’s version of that principle in the lower Schuylkill valley focuses on towns rather than neighborhoods, and no town among my subject eight is doing better than Conshohocken.  Property values—and rents—are sky high.  West Conshohocken comes close (particularly on a per-capita basis), adding to the reasons for its low percentage of Hispanics.

So far, so good, but this latter judgment requires some further explanation, as the data on town population and immigrant percentages demonstrated.  West Conshohocken, arguably the borough with the highest home values, is also by some margin the smallest river town, and should thus be the most resistant to Hispanic immigrants.  Between 2000 and 2013, however, West Conshohocken experienced the third highest percentage increase of Hispanic population among the eight towns on the lower Schuylkill.  Conshohocken across the river is much larger, and is doing at least equally well, but has experienced a smaller percentage increase in Hispanics.  And what about Phoenixville?  It is doing quite well, yet during the 2000 – 2013 survey period, Phoenixville had the highest increase in Hispanic residents, by either percentage or number, of any town not named Norristown.

Another interesting point of similarity between then and now involves Pottstown.  Pottstown, although the second oldest borough on the lower Schuylkill (1815), did not see any substantial number of immigrant settlers arrive until decades later.  Its population remained largely homogenous—Protestants, largely of German descent—until the late 1800s.  Today, it seems that a similar process is taking place.  Between 2000 and 2013 Pottstown experienced the smallest percentage increase in Hispanics of the eight towns.  Pottstown’s depressed property values should serve as a considerable draw, but they don’t.  Why does Pottstown, despite its larger population and lower living costs, have so few Hispanics? 

Regardless of the above preliminary theses (or, more correctly, questions), the major message the data sends us is that discussion of the differences in the Hispanic population between seven of the eight towns is basically just quibbling.  West Conshohocken’s jump in Hispanic population between 2000 and 2013 added just 45 people to its population.  Even Phoenixville, with the second largest population and the second largest increase in Hispanic residents, had less than 900 Hispanic residents in 2013.  The real numbers are in Norristown, and that is so far the biggest similarity between Italians then and Hispanics now. 

The dramatic difference between the Hispanic population of Norristown and of all the other river towns is actually quite reminiscent of how things played out just before and after the beginning of the 20th century.  Back then, by far the largest number of Italian immigrants to the lower Schuylkill settled in Norristown, with what was effectively a spillover into Bridgeport.  The other river towns gained Italian communities of varying size, but that of Norristown dominated in every statistical category.

This being “the good old days,” the municipal government, real estate agents and local landlords were able to conspire and place the new arrivals in the dirtiest, least developed (and served) part of the town, the East End.  This ghettoization of Italians was practiced for over half a century.  As late as 1950, there was still an unwritten rule that Italians could not live west of DeKalb Street or north of Fornance Street.  The Italian-dominated eastern end of town never received the attention other parts (mainly the north) received, as Italians continued to suffer discrimination.  Despite the fact that the Humane Fire Company—one of Norristown’s earliest—was located in the eastern part of town, no Italians were allowed to join.  The concentrated Italian population did eventually grant them considerable voting power within what was then Borough Council, although its prime beneficiaries (Paul Santangelo dominant among them) did little to advance Norristown.

It was a long, hard struggle, but the Italians overcame, and the evidence of that is everywhere.  Norristown’s Christopher Columbus Monument was financed by the Italian community, out of ethnic pride and because, by the second half of the 20th century, any list of the area’s financial, business and political elite was crowded with Italian surnames.  Throw in the sports and entertainment figures, and the reputation of Norristown Italians has spread far and wide.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the migration of Italians to Norristown is that as many as 90 to 95% percent of them came from the same village, Sciacca, in Sicily.  This was an example of what scholars refer to as “chain migration,” whereby the first to arrive send back such glowing reports that others follow, and continue to do so.  It represents a continuation of the old localism in a new environment; those Italians who settled just outside Norristown, in Plymouth Township, came from a different area, on the Italian mainland.

Might Hispanics be doing the same thing?  Where do they come from?  We don’t know at this point, because there are a lot of things we don’t know about this new wave of immigrants.  The issue of “legality” ensures that much goes unsaid, at least to official ears.  We do know a great deal about Italians in Norristown; they have appeared in more than one Ph.D. dissertation.  Mind you, I am not criticizing the current state of scholarship, because those studies and Ph.D. dissertations were written almost a half century after the peak of the Italian immigration period.  I can’t but think how significant comparable studies of the Hispanic migration might prove.
It took a long while for Italians to overcome, and today there is much less discrimination (particularly of the lawful variety) to restrict and restrain the new immigrants.  Hispanic businesses began to appear more quickly, and have proliferated in the West End.  Walk down the four blocks of West Marshall Street on a nice day, and you will experience the very picture of growth: new restaurants, cafes retail stores, and even music floating out onto the sidewalk from the activity within them.  These people certainly didn’t arrive depending on the “free benefits” that immigrants are supposedly receiving.  They brought with them a drive, an energy to succeed and make things better for their children.  Rather like the Italians, and for that matter, every immigrant group that has arrived on our shores.  The more things change…

And here’s the real kicker:  there may be a lot more Hispanics in Norristown than anyone realizes.  My analysis during the previous posts has been based on the population figures of a group of websites designed to sell homes in these towns.  I think that ensures the most accurate information available, but just how accurate is it?  Using those figures, the 2013 Hispanic population of Norristown was listed at 26.3% of 35,407 residents.  That’s 9,312 people (discounting the partial person).  The website updates those numbers to 2014, and lists the Hispanic population at 9,128, a small drop.  But an article about Norristown earlier this year quoted a Municipal Councilman as saying that there may be as many as 12,000 to 15,000 additional people living in town.  If so, they are uncounted by anyone, and not in the figures we have been using, or anyone else’s, for that matter.  Even if they are not all Hispanics (as many might quickly assume), there could be twice as many Hispanics in Norristown as the unofficial estimates count.

This is the crux of the problem.  We just don’t know enough about the local reality in Norristown—or anywhere else—to make rational, long-range plans.  Actions at the national level will ultimately determine the overall shape of any “answer to the problem,” but that just leaves local municipalities in the lurch until then.  In the meantime, however, given that Hispanics now constitute at least one-third of Norristown’s population, regardless of what figures you use, one thing should be clear:  Norristown’s revival must include Hispanics as a basic building block.  They are essential.