Adios, Nueva York

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Squint and you could be in Bushwick, the South Bronx or East Harlem. Unsquint and you’re in a place once known–to old-timers’ delight and newcomers’ disgust–as the “All-America” city.

It’s a warm, stroll-the-sidewalks evening in spring, and people from the disgusted group are lugging bags from a nearby C-Town that stocks green-shelled coconuts, the full line of Goya products and sacks of rice as big as pillows. Bachata and salsa music pour from boom boxes, and men with wrenches tinker under the hoods of cars. Young women stand around with big earrings and Marlboros. Boys in Yankees T-shirts, or no shirts, speak Spanish and an English whose r-lessness and pursed o’s sound straight out of hip-hop. A 20-year-old named Leo bares his chest to show a brand-new tattoo still illegible under the swelling and Vaseline (it’s his newborn daughter’s name, he explains). On the ground-floor apartment window behind him, someone has pasted a decal of the stars and stripes and the World Trade Center.

But this isn’t big bad New York. It’s the corner of Second and Linden Streets in Allentown, Pennsylvania, population barely more than a hundred thousand. Here almost nothing is open on Sundays, the phone book is packed with German surnames like Schultz and Stetz, and the local paper gives prizes to contestants who send in grandma’s recipe for shoofly pie.

The inheritors of those recipes are still adjusting to a deluge of recent arrivals who know more about flan than pie–many from places like Bushwick, the South Bronx, East Harlem. The newcomers say they’ve made the journey because they can no longer bear New York: its rents, its chaos and danger to their kids. Hoping to find better, they’ve left the Big Apple for what many call el sue–o americano–the American dream.

Are they finding it? Allentown is 92 miles southwest of New York City, or two and a half hours by Port Authority bus into rolling hills and dishwater-blond whiteness. If the area seems geographically and culturally distant, other towns are as far or farther, yet they, too, are receiving migrants from Gotham–most of them Puerto Ricans. The phenomenon has accelerated during the past few years, and movers have mixed opinions about the results of relocating. No matter how they feel, though, they have profoundly affected a swath of economically depressed cities in the boondocks.

Some migrants are basking in prosperity and optimism. Others are stuck in new barrios, with the gamut of ills associated with ghettoization. Poverty, crowded schools, crime, segregation: all are dilemmas now in places like Allentown, just as in New York, where Puerto Ricans are the city’s poorest, least educated and most jobless longtime ethnic group. The fact that so many are leaving suggests that New York is exporting Puerto Rican poverty–only to resettle it into distant and not always friendly communities.


S’elena Zapata, a quiet 28-year-old from Queens, is one of the recent push-outs. “I miss the city that never sleeps,” she said recently while on break from her unpaid job at an Allentown homeless shelter. “But the rent in New York is outrageous! I had to get away.”

A single mother who spent most of her life in Far Rockaway and Hillside, Zapata is glad she moved to Allentown even though she hasn’t found work there and is on public assistance. She got the idea to leave New York from relatives. Her mother bought a house in Allentown a few years ago, and her stepfather, an apartment-building super in Manhattan, commutes on weekends. A cousin Zapata’s age from Far Rockaway had also moved to Allentown. Zapata has no high school diploma or GED, but she’d worked as a bus attendant on Long Island and was tired of living with her sister in Hillside. Each woman has three small children, and given what apartments cost in New York City–“You have to make $60,000 a year to pay rent, and I’d been on a public-housing waiting list for six years”–Zapata despaired of ever having her own place. The cousin suggested the move and offered to put Zapata and the children up for a few weeks while they got settled. Zapata accepted the invitation.

This all happened a year ago, making Zapata’s departure from New York one of the most recent in a wave that stretches back over years. A 2002 report by the Brookings Institution’s Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy notes that the New York City metro area in the 1990s lost 2.7 million people, or 3 percent of its population, to “domestic migration.”

All kinds of people left, but figures were particularly high for those with less than a high school education, people on public assistance, and for blacks and Latinos. The metro area lost 383,000 blacks to domestic migration between 1985 and 2000, with most relocating to Southern states such as Georgia. During the same period, New York City hemorrhaged 10 percent of its Puerto Ricans: some 195,000 people.

As a result of this exodus and the simultaneous influx of Spanish speakers from elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, Puerto Ricans, who in 1960 comprised over 80 percent of New York City’s Latino population, are now down to only a third of the total.

During the 1990s, lots of Nuyoricans returned to the island (including many born here in the states). Others headed for central Florida, near Orlando. But a striking number have also flooded into several little cities in the Northeast’s rust belt. Reading, Hartford, Providence, Allentown–these and other destinations for ex–New Yorkers are still suffering from the national economic restructuring of a generation ago, and from the movement of industry to cheap-labor countries like Mexico.

Allentown’s biggest claim to fame derives from Billy Joel’s 1982 song, with its lines: “Well we’re living here in Allentown/And they’re closing all the factories down.” They closed the factories in Lawrence, Massachusetts, too; in Providence, Rhode Island; and a host of other mill and steel towns from metro Boston through Connecticut to Pennsylvania.

Capital and industrial flight led to population exit as well, creating swaths of empty homes that could be bought or rented for a song. Meanwhile, housing costs in greater New York City went up and up, cruelly outstripping wages.

New Yorkers–including African Americans but mostly Latinos–started moving to the rustvilles in the 1970s, when municipal economic crisis and massive disinvestment turned working-class areas like the South Bronx into crime-ridden slums that felt impossible to live in. By the late 1980s, the New York economy was recovering, but housing costs were starting to go through the roof. That’s when out-migration started to snowball. In 1990, for instance, the census found about 2,000 people in Dutchess County, where ramshackle Poughkeepsie is located, who indicated they’d moved there during the past five years from the Bronx. A decade later, over 3,000 more migrants fit the same description. Meanwhile, the number of New Yorkers moving to Lawrence, Massachusetts–a depressed old mill town 234 miles from New York City–more than doubled, to over 4,000, and almost all were Latino. Figures are just as dramatic for down-and-out burgs like Providence, Hartford and Bridgeport.

Allentown’s numbers are even more startling. From 1990 to 2000, migration there from the Bronx tripled as Latinos followed friends and family who’d come earlier. According to a book about Allentown’s Latinos by Muhlenberg College professor Anna Adams, these early arrivals were drawn to a pioneer enclave dating to just after World War II. That’s when Pennsylvania farmers conducted drives in Puerto Rico to recruit agricultural laborers. Hundreds came, and by the early 1970s, some 1,200 Puerto Ricans were living in Allentown.

It was so orderly and prosperous back then that a good-government group called the National Municipal League twice recognized the community with something called the “All-America City” award. Drivers into town passed a sign touting the prize. At the time, Puerto Ricans made up barely 1 percent of Allentown’s population.

Then the demography changed so fast that by 2000, the census counted some 26,000 Latinos–almost a quarter of Allentown’s residents. Most newcomers are still Puerto Rican; indeed, Allentown’s Puerto Rican community is the second fastest-growing such enclave on the U.S. mainland, after the one in Orlando. Most Allentown Puerto Ricans come from the New York area, according to data analyzed by SUNY-Binghamton geographer Mark Reisinger, who has spent the last two years studying the Latino push into Allentown.

As Nuyoricans have arrived in the city’s aging central area, longtime white residents have moved to new houses and big lawns a few miles away or have picked up entirely for distant areas. They’ve left behind Hamilton Street, a downtown thoroughfare once so elegant that people would don Sunday clothes just to go shopping. Today Hamilton is desolate, with boarded-up businesses and others, still open, that sell 99-cent dresses and bent tubes of toothpaste labeled in non-Western alphabets. Nearby residential streets are so Latino that store signs are in Spanish, and English is rarely heard.


When S’elena Zapata arrived in Allentown last August, at first she was charmed. The city is 80 times smaller than New York, and the difference is palpable even in the crowded barrio. Birds chirp there, the air smells fresh and summer is good for children. A giant water park sits on the fancy edge of town, just a quick drive away. “And there’s Chuck E. Cheese,” adds Zapata–a cheap kiddie wonderland that comes with pizza for parents and is virtually unknown in New York.

Even better, she found a two-bedroom apartment for only $470 a month–less than half the $1,000 or more she’d have paid back in Queens. Perhaps in a few years she would be able to buy one of the old row homes that march down blocks and blocks of Allentown like military parades, with their columned porches all joined and their price tags often less than $60,000. With the future on her mind, Zapata unpacked, enrolled the children in school and started job hunting.

But she came up short. That’s no surprise, given the Allentown area’s high unemployment rate among Latinos–14 percent, almost three times the figure for the general population. Zapata had hit town hoping to work with buses like she used to on Long Island. Once in subway- and trainless Allentown, though, she learned she’d need a car to commute to the bus barns, and she lacked enough savings to buy one. The money she did have was soon gone. She went on welfare.

Her best bet now is to find work as a hospital housekeeper, hotel maid, clerk or factory operative in el pollo–Spanish slang for the chicken and turkey deli-meat plants that ring Allentown. These jobs are the most commonly available for newcomer women. Men also work in el pollo, or at temporary agencies that send them out to warehouses. Such jobs pay between minimum wage and $10 an hour.

Often it’s not enough to keep a family out of poverty. In fact, according to the Brookings report, the poverty rate in Allentown’s central district, where Zapata and most other Latinos live, registered about 19 percent during the last census. That’s more than triple the rate in nearby suburban neighborhoods and hardly less than New York City’s overall 21 percent.

Perhaps more distressing than the economic hardship numbers are data showing that as time goes by, Allentown’s new and old residents are living farther and farther apart from each other. Zapata’s neighborhood exemplifies the trend toward segregation. Her apartment is on North 7th Street, which until a few years ago still had many residents with German and Italian last names. Now, “it’s a lot of Hispanics and blacks,” Zapata notes, and she estimates that whites comprise only 10 percent of the people on the block. Even fewer are left on nearby streets.

Meanwhile, out in neighborhoods near the water park, there’s hardly a Latino to be found. Allentown is right up there with New York as one of the country’s 10 most segregated cities when it comes to Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites living apart from each other, according to a 2001 study by Shannon McConville and colleagues for the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at University of California Los Angeles.

Ironically, a desire to live among non-Hispanic whites–“Americans,” Latinos call them–is a reason many migrants make the move in the first place. “New York symbolizes ghettos and chaos,” says Arlene Dávila, a Puerto Rican–born anthropologist at New York University who studies Latinos and suburbanization. “By going to places like Allentown,” she says, “you are symbolically entering a white space. In your own mind that means you’re not in a ghetto, so you’re not so tainted, so racialized.”

Or so goes the thinking, and it has seduced other observers of the migration. In 1994, the New York Times Magazine published an article about Latino relocation to the hinterlands that focused on Noel and Alicia Torres, a couple from Bay Ridge who had just moved that year with their four children to Allentown. As a tractor-trailer driver, Noel didn’t have to worry about finding new work, and he and his wife–who like many Puerto Ricans are Pentecostals–saw the move as a way to rescue their kids from the New York City school system’s teachings that “it’s OK to have sex anytime.” The Torreses bought a row house “on a tidy, all-white block” filled with “Pennsylvania Dutch exactitude,” according to writer Laurence Stains.

Stains noted the city’s widespread racism: An aging, Italian-American city councilwoman blamed Latinos for ruining the community, lambasted them for putting sofas on their porches and lobbied successfully for a local English-only law. The article quoted Latinos complaining of having to shop with their hands clasped behind their backs so store owners wouldn’t falsely accuse them of shoplifting. Still, Stains praised the Torreses’ newly adopted city as “the Great White Way,” and he predicted Latinos would soon intermarry in Allentown and “disappear into its homogeneity.” For backup, he quoted James Shenton, a Columbia University ethnic specialist, who opined that “you can’t maintain a barrio out there.”

That was Professor Shenton’s final public take on the matter, and he died last year. But the consensus today is that the barrio has been maintained and then some. Allentown’s high (and rising) segregation rate attests to that, as does the general agreement among locals that dating is increasingly common among young Latinos and non-Latinos, but intermarriage remains rare.

As for the Torres family, their block is now utterly nonwhite. “We’re not so happy here,” said Alicia in Spanish during a recent interview. “There are too many Latinos now.” Latinos per se aren’t the problem, says Juanita Galarza, who moved with her husband and three kids from Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, in the late 1990s and now lives a few blocks from the Torreses. “It’s people coming lately from New York,” she says. “They move here and don’t change their lives. They play their loud music; they sell you-know-what on the corner. I see them coming and I cross the street.”

One newcomer is Haydee (not her real name), a Puerto Rican woman in her fifties whose body and face are plumped smooth with the edema of heart disease. Haydee has a gravelly voice and a penchant for minor scams such as bartering pirated cable TV service in exchange for contraband cardiac medication. She’s from Brooklyn but lives part time with a partner in public housing in Allentown, which is illegal because she’s not on the rolls. She engages in this subterfuge to maintain an address in New York so she can keep getting her Supplemental Security Income payments from there, where allotments are higher than in Pennsylvania.

Like Haydee, Leo Garcia–the young man with the baby-name tattoo–still goes back and forth. When he’s in Allentown, he does temporary warehouse work. But he’s from Bushwick and hangs out a lot there and in Harlem. He seems well acquainted with the problem of “drama”–his word for crime. It’s worse in Allentown than New York, Garcia says, partly because of drugs. In the 1990s Allentown became an entrepot for heroin and cocaine shipped from New York to points west, and today the crime-blotter pages of the local paper, the Morning Call, regularly report arrests of people with Brooklyn and Bronx addresses busted for drug dealing in Allentown. Gangs are a related problem. “In New York the police are strict about them,” says Garcia. “But here, the Bloods, Latin Kings and–etas are shooting and shit, over little things. That’s why we call Allentown ‘The Nest of Hell.'”

Garcia’s perceptions are half right. According to FBI statistics, Allentown’s per capita murder rate last year surpassed New York City’s, its overall violent crime rate was only slightly lower, and it had a far worse record for property crime, including burglaries and vehicle thefts. But when New York City is broken down into neighborhoods, crime rates in several poorer ones where many Latinos live surpass Allentown’s.


Thankfully, disorder seems nonexistent in the local public education system. Compared to New York, this is Leave It to Beaver. No phalanxes of security guards or metal detectors mar the city’s two high schools, and visitors can walk in right off the street without signing in. “I like the schools here,” says S’elena Zapata. “They don’t seem like they’ve given up on kids. The teachers and principals are strict.”

But others point to serious flaws, including the fact that until this year, so many students were doing poorly on standard achievement tests that the Allentown School District was put on a Pennsylvania-wide “distressed list” and ordered to take extraordinary measures to raise scores. Underachievement may be related to rapid in-migration, which has created overcrowding and other problems. Allentown’s biggest high school, for instance, is supposed to hold 2,200 students but in past years has swollen to 3,500. Many schools are “having classes in hallways and closets,” says Miriam Lavandier, a Dominican-American who moved from the Bronx in the late 1990s with her two teenaged children (“I was sick of the hustle-bustle and graffiti and smelly people”) and now directs the health services component of a community empowerment nonprofit in Allentown.

Another education dilemma: “Schools here don’t have the resources New York schools do to help children with special needs,” says Maria Torrales. She’s social services coordinator of Casa Guadalupe, a center-city organization that helps Latinos and international immigrants who are new in town. “Kids with disabilities like dyslexia have a harder time getting services here. And there are not many teachers and counselors who speak Spanish.”

Indeed, while almost half the citywide student body is Latino (and about 15 percent are black), less than 8 percent of the professional public school staff–teachers, counselors, principals and the like–are nonwhite, according to the Allentown School District human resources department. Latino community leaders complain that little is being done to fix the problem; the district says one reason it can’t recruit more minorities is that few have the required Pennsylvania certification. Efforts to get over the diversity hump have been “glacial,” says Nicholas Butterfield, human relations officer for the city.

Lavandier thinks the dearth of minority educators hurts kids like hers and reflects racism that’s more subtle than back in the 1990s but still around. The English-only city councilwoman who hated porch sofas is deceased now (and two councilmembers are Latinos). Most people interviewed for this article said it’s been a few years since they last heard racist comments directed against them in public. And the “All-America City” sign on the highway–which Latinos including Lavandier angrily interpret as meaning “All-white City”–has disappeared. Still, there’s a sense of muted but lingering animus. “When we moved here in 1997, my daughter’s grades went way down because she was traumatized,” says Lavandier. “She said the teachers were mean, particularly a middle-school teacher who discriminated against minorities. She almost quit school because of this.”

At William Allen High School, ESL instructor Abdullah Karahoca–who is half Puerto Rican and originally from Brooklyn–winces while noting that few Latino students participate in clubs and sports. “It’s very difficult to get them to connect with the school as their own,” he says. He and Lavandier worry about the fact that almost two-thirds of high school dropouts in Allentown are Latinos.

It’s hard, though, to imagine any child of Lavandier’s quitting school. Besides being active with Casa Guadalupe, the Hispanic Leadership Council and other Latino civic groups, she has a master’s degree and used to work for the dean of academic affairs at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. She’d know how to keep her daughter from dropping out, by seeking alternative classes, lining up counseling, making waves with school honchos. That’s the difference between migrants to Allentown like Lavandier and those like Zapata. One group is poor and undereducated. The other, middle-class and professional. Which is to say, full of moxie.

So far, newcomer Latino professionals seem to be a much smaller group than the poor: “I’d say 25 versus 75 percent,” reckons Lavandier. According to statistics kept by the state public assistance office in Allentown, increasing numbers of low-income people are receiving benefits in the area who list New York as their last address. In August 2001, the month before 9/11, the office received 76 applications for public assistance. During the same month last year there were 132 such applications.

But many residents think it’s the middle class and the educated who are really pouring into town, especially since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City. “Pretty much everyone I talk to who are professionals–professors, people who work for nonprofits–have come in the last two or three years,” says Nestor Velasquez. He is vice president of Allentown’s Spanish radio station, WHOL, and works in an advertising agency owned by his wife, Wanda. “People say they don’t want to stay in New York,” says Lavandier. Adds Junior Aponte, an area landlord and property manager, “A lot are afraid to go through the tunnels.” In addition to New Yorkers, Latinos with income and education are coming to Allentown directly from places like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in Latin America.

Nonprofessionals with entrepreneurial dreams and grubstakes are also arriving. Some are from Mexico, as well as Central and South America. Even more are Caribbean: “All of a sudden about two or three years ago, the Dominicans started helping each other and opening little businesses like barber shops and bakeries and bodegas,” says Velasquez.

Elvis Diaz came with bigger plans. This January, he and two cousins–all from the Dominican Republic by way of New York–opened a C-Town that’s now Allentown’s biggest Latino-oriented grocery store. Diaz, who previously owned a C-Town in Brooklyn, recalled in Spanish how he was delivering spices to stores in Pennsylvania last year and “noticed the huge Hispanic market in Allentown.” Today, he says, “People from New York come here and go, ‘Wow! A C-Town!'” All of the merchandise, he notes, gets trucked in from the Hunts Point market in the Bronx. As for Diaz, he just sold his house in Corona, Queens, and moved to Allentown. “I keep going, ‘Wow! The quiet!'”

Sidebar: Movin’ Out

    From 1990 to 2000–the last years the government counted–New York City lost almost 108,000 Puerto Ricans. And between 1985 and 2000, some 383,000 black New Yorkers left the city. The U.S. Census documents migrations such as these every decade, by asking people what counties they’ve lived in during the past five years, then crunching the answers to see who has moved away from where.

    The findings: Many blacks are heading south. Puerto Ricans, meanwhile, are going to Puerto Rico, central Florida and to several small rust-belt cities in the Northeast. Data below illustrate the 1990s’ farewell.–DN

    Migration from New York City to selected counties and states, 1995 to 2000

    Orange County, FL
    Main destination city: Orlando, pop. 896,344
    New York City residents who moved to the county: 14,102
    Ratio of Hispanics in city, 1990: 9%
    Ratio of Hispanics in city, 2000: 17%
    Most NYC transplants to Orlando came from Queens and Brooklyn. Orlando is gaining Puerto Ricans faster than any other mainland U.S. city.

    Essex County, MA
    Main destination city: Lawrence, pop. 72,000
    New York City residents who moved to the county: 4,001
    Ratio of Hispanics in city, 1990: 31%
    Ratio of Hispanics in city, 2000: 60%
    Most New York-to-Lawrence migrants came from the Bronx. Lawrence has a higher ratio of Latinos to non-Latinos than any U.S. city outside the Southwest. It is also the country’s most segregated city when it comes to Latinos and non-Hispanic whites living apart from each other.

    Lehigh County, PA
    Main destination city: Allentown, pop. 106,000
    New York City residents who reported moving to county: 3,255
    Ratio of Hispanics in 1990: 12%
    Ratio of Hispanics in 2000: 24%
    NYC migration is primarily from the Bronx. Allentown has the mainland U.S.’s second fastest-growing Puerto Rican population.

    Berks County, PA
    Main destination city: Reading, pop. 81,000
    New York City residents who reported moving to county: 2,250
    Ratio of Hispanics in 1990: 14%
    Ratio of Hispanics in 2000: 37%
    Besides Puerto Ricans, Reading has a large Mexican population. Manhattan had the highest number of movers.

    Providence County, RI
    Main destination city: Providence, pop. 174,000
    New York City residents who reported moving to county: 6,157
    Ratio of Hispanics in 1990: 7%
    Ratio of Hispanics in 2000: 14%
    Puerto Ricans continue to move to Providence, but increasing numbers of Dominicans are also coming from New York. Primary origin: the Bronx.

    2000 U.S. Census; “Puerto Ricans Stateside 2000,” Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund; “The New Great Migration,” Brookings Institution.

    Sidebar: Worlds Apart

      The following are the U.S. metro areas with the highest rates of segregation between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white residents–where the concentration of Hispanics within certain census tracts is far higher than their representation in the general population of the metro area. (Ranked in order of severity.)

      1. Lawrence, MA
      2. Reading, PA
      3. Providence, RI/Fall River, MA
      4. Bridgeport, CT
      5. New York, NY
      6. Newark, NJ
      7. Hartford, CT
      8. Los Angeles/Long Beach, CA
      9. Springfield, MA
      10. Allentown/Bethlehem/Easton, PA

      Segregation increased from 1990 to 2000

      Source: “Examining Residential Segregation Patterns,” Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, University of California Los Angeles”; Lewis Mumford Center at SUNY-Albany.

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