Immigrants Are Saving the Italian Market

Foreign-born small business owners are resuscitating Philly's commercial corridors.

Photograph by Matt Stanley

Photograph by Matt Stanley

The millennials get all the press whenever Philadelphia’s population growth comes up, but the city’s booming immigrant communities are actually doing as much or more to power the city’s revival.

This is a new and heartening development for Philadelphia. The city’s share of foreign-born residents fell dramatically between 1960 and 1990, even as immigrant populations in other U.S. cities grew.

That trend has reversed in recent years, which is really encouraging. Still, as of 2009, Philadelphia had just the sixth lowest rate of foreign-born residents of the 20-largest U.S. cities. The city would be better off if it rated higher on that scale.

Why? A lot of reasons. Here’s one: immigrants are bringing Philadelphia’s dying commercial corridors back to life, as illustrated in a new study by the Fiscal Policy Institute exploring the impact immigrants have had on Main Streets across the country.

In some respects, the report simply confirms what most of us observe in our day-to-day lives all the time. Immigrants own about 58 percent of the dry-cleaning shops and 45 percent of the nail salons nationwide. They manage 61 percent of the gas stations and 38 percent of the restaurants.

There are 31 metro areas across the nation where immigrant-driven “main street” business growth comprises 100 percent of all such growth, a product of both immigrant investment in such businesses and disinvestment in main street businesses by U.S.-born business owners.

The study zooms in on Philly, and finds that although immigrants comprise just 10 percent of the city’s population, they own about 28 percent of “main street” businesses (think mom and pop stores and restaurants).

This is obvious in a place like the Italian Market, which would be in very rough shape today if not for the Mexican and Asian immigrants who have taken over the stalls and shops vacated by ethnic white U.S.-born merchants. Ditto for West Philadelphia’s 52nd Street, which now has a remarkably diverse corps of merchant owners hailing from around the world.

What can cities do to foster immigrant business growth? It turns out Philly has actually already embraced some of the strategies the report recommends, such as a dedicated immigrant affairs office in City Hall. But there’s always more to be done. Check out the report for a complete list of recommendations.