South Philadelphia’s Italian Market has long been the go-to spot for pasta and cannoli. But in the past two decades, a new set of business owners have moved into the neighborhood, bringing Mexican, Vietnamese and Korean food with them.
The transformation follows a national trend: new immigrants are increasingly becoming the face of community businesses across the country and, in some cases, a lifeline for dying neighborhoods.
Nationally, immigrants make up 13 percent of the population, but represent an outsized 28 percent of Main Street business owners, according to a report released on Wednesday by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and the Fiscal Policy Institute.
While immigrants are known to punch above their weight when it comes to entrepreneurship, the trend is particularly pronounced for Main Street businesses, which the report defines as retail (jewelry stores, florists, grocery stores), accommodation and food services (restaurants, bars, hotels), and neighborhood services (beauty salons, barber shops, dry cleaning stores).
Foreign-born newcomers helped grow community businesses in virtually every major American city over the past decade. But the report gives us a close up look at success stories in three different cities.
“Ten years ago, the Italian Market was in decline,” Jennifer Rodriguez, the executive director of the city’s immigrant and multicultural affairs office, said in the report.
Now, she says, Hispanic and Asian businesses are revitalizing the area. “You see a new mix of barber shops, tortilla shops, bakeries, restaurants that have sprung up.”
Philly’s population peaked in the 1950s but the city continued to bleed residents for the next half-century, taking a toll on small businesses along the way. The population grew slightly in the past decade, however, thanks to new immigrants, and business growth followed suit.
The city now boasts 13,000 immigrant-owned business, with Indians making up the biggest portion of proprietors (the same is true nationally).
Minneapolis has a similar story — it lost heaps of residents to the suburbs in the latter half of the 20th century and rebounded with an influx of immigrants in the past decade and a half.
One of the biggest immigrant-led revitalization success stories in the Twin Cities is the Midtown Global Market. A coalition of non-profit organizations sunk millions into renovating part of an abandoned Sears distribution center. Now it serves as an incubator for small businesses and the arts. The market hosts many small businesses, such as an Andean jewelry shop and African art store.
Mihailo Temali, the founder and chief executive officer of the Neighborhood Development Coalition, one of the groups overseeing the project, said it allows them to tap into existing resources in the area.
“We start from the premise that all low-income communities include entrepreneurial people,” he said in the report. “We look for people who have talent and try to remove the barriers that prevent them from succeeding.”
Unlike Philly or Minneapolis-St. Paul, the immigrant population in Nashville has exploded in the last two decades. In 1990, immigrants made up just 2 percent of the population. Now they account for 12 percent.
Almost three in 10 Main Street business owners in the larger Nashville metro area are immigrants.
The demographic change hasn’t been without its rocky patches. In 2009, for instance, an effort to make English the city’s official language gained traction (even if it ultimately failed).
The initiative actually had an unintended effect: it encouraged some residents to be more proactive in welcoming immigrants. In 2014, Mayor Karl Dean established an office to aid “New Americans.”
“The mayor was very concerned that passing an English-only law would have put up a ‘go away’ sign at the city border,” Shanna Singh Hughey, the director of the new office, said in the report.
While Indian immigrants make up the biggest percentage of foreign-born small business owners, Hispanics are also important to the city’s entrepreneurial growth. Nearly one in 10 community business owners are Hispanic immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama or Colombia.
Graphics by Fusion’s Gabriella Peñuela.