December 18, 2010 | Morning Call | Original Article

Minorities now the majority in Allentown


In 1994, Allentown leaders were so threatened by the number of Latinos moving into the city that council made national headlines by declaring English the city's official language.

Well, that hasn't discouraged Latinos from choosing Allentown as home.

According to numbers released last week by the American Community Survey, Allentown has now become a "majority minority" city, largely because the Latino population has grown to 36.7 percent of all city residents.

Blacks, Asians and Latinos now account for 50.2 percent of the city residents — a 39 percent increase over the last census in 2000. And Spanish is now the primary language in 29 percent of all households.

The latest numbers have some asking if it's time city leaders start embracing Allentown's growing diversity.

"Are we serving our full population?" said City Council President Michael D'Amore. "I think if we are being honest with ourselves, we know the answer to that is no. But before we can do anything about it, we have to admit it."

Allentown has been wrestling with racial and ethnic tensions for more than two decades, in part because of how quickly the Latino population grew — from 5.1 percent in 1980 to 11.7 percent in 1990, according to the Census.

That growth prompted late Allentown Councilwoman Emma Tropiano to declare — erroneously — that "99 percent" of city crime was caused by Latinos. She followed that with a controversial law declaring English the city's official language.

Since then, voters have elected two Latino council members, and last month the Allentown School District for the first time named one of its elementary schools after late Latino Allentown businessman and education advocate Luis J. Ramos.

Ready for change?

But Tropiano's law remains on the books and is part of a city home rule charter that can only be changed with a referendum question. In 2006, an effort to replace the so-called "English-only" law with one stating that "Allentown is a city that celebrates the diversity of its residents" was unsuccessful because D'Amore, who co-sponsored it, voted against letting it out of committee. He explained that he received 200 calls from angry people who wanted the English-only law to stand, and even Latino leaders asked him to back off because the debate was making them targets, rather than giving them a voice.

The latest numbers come from the American Community Survey, which is taken between 2005 and 2009. The 11-billion fact database released Tuesday gives a striking look at how Allentown is changing. Because the numbers are based on a sampling of residents who answered survey questions, and not the Census numbers that will be released over the coming weeks, it is less than exact. In Allentown's case, the survey numbers have a 2 percentage-point margin of error.

The survey shows that the Latino population has grown 50 percent in the past decade, from 24.4 percent of the city in 2000, to 36.7 percent in 2009. So what do city leaders do now that the city has the second-largest concentration of Latinos in the state, behind only Reading's 53 percent?

In the Allentown School District — whose student population is 67 percent Latino — Superintendent Gerald Zahorchak has been translating the weekly newsletters and other materials into Spanish, said Muhlenberg College professor Erika Sutherland, who coordinates the translations.

The mailings are conversational in tone, with Zahorchak trying to explain his vision for the district. Other times, they alert families to policy changes on cell phone use or the district dress code, Sutherland said.

"The school district has made tremendous strides," she said.

And whereas before there was one Spanish-speaking coordinator to facilitate communications between parents or guardians and district officials, now every school has one, Sutherland said.

That said, the coordinators are swamped with work and could use help, and the district doesn't employ enough teachers who speak a language other than English, she said.

Boom on Seventh Street

Many hail the influx of the Latino population as an economic driver for Allentown, particularly along Seventh Street.

"You have small restaurants, you have barber shops, bodegas and some other businesses," said Alvara Diaz, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of the Lehigh Valley. "If we didn't have this group coming in, that strip would be blighted. Storefronts would be vacant."

Businesses throughout the Lehigh Valley want to tap into the growing economic power of the increasing Latino population.

Next month, the Hispanic Chamber is partnering with the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce to host a seminar on marketing to Hispanics. At the same time, the Hispanic Chamber is working with its members to try to attract more business from outside the few blocks where they're located.

For Angelica and Angel Hernandez, who opened up Taqueria Amigos along Seventh Street a year and a half ago, business has been good from the neighborhood and beyond.

Customers of all ethnicities visit the Mexican restaurant, said Angelica Hernandez, who came with her husband to Allentown seven years ago.

Angelica Hernandez said she's seen the changes in the city, from grocery stores now carrying items commonly used in Spanish cooking to no longer having to travel to Reading or Easton for traditional Mexican fare.

Latino leaders say it's time for the city to adapt and take advantage of its distinctiveness.

Olga Negron, executive director of the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations of the Lehigh Valley, lived in Austin, Texas, before moving to the Lehigh Valley in 1996. In Austin, Latinos, who make up 35 percent of the population, are a more influential part of the community because Austin encourages culture, restaurants and events that not only celebrate Latino heritage, but also attract tourists.

"It's an attitude of inclusion that takes advantage of the Latino community, rather than trying to deny that it exists," Negron said. "Allentown is missing an opportunity."

D'Amore doesn't disagree. But he contends that Allentown simply wasn't ready to do that in 2006, when he first proposed changing the charter to remove the English-only provision. He says his reversal back then gave the issue a "less painful death" than if he'd pressed the debate.

But is the city ready now?

"Honestly, I don't know if we're ready," D'Amore said. "But it's probably a question we should be asking again."