Chinese Immigrants Reshape a Neighborhood

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

As the bus approached Philadelphia’s Northeast, where houses are arrayed with attractive gardens and even more attractive price tags, passenger Wen Chen pitched a friend in New York City.

“Philadelphia houses are so cheap,” she chatted into her cell phone in Chinese. “It’s easy to buy.”

The 38-year-old waitress, who moved here a year ago, was on her way home from a visit to relatives via a newborn bus line that runs from the Roosevelt Mall on Cottman Avenue to Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Launched a month ago, with a fleet of two and an owner who doubles as driver, Universe Bus Line is one sign of a slow, quiet resuscitation of a neighborhood by an intravenous flow of immigrants, many of them relocating from New York City.

Immigration advocates have long argued that Philadelphia, a former hub for factories and foreigners, could stem its population loss by recruiting immigrants. Other cities, such as Boston, have used immigration as a strategy for urban renewal.

It appears immigrants are arriving even without a plan to lure them. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report released last week, the foreign-born last year were 11 percent of the city population, a jump from 9 percent in 2000.

In Oxford Circle and other areas of the Northeast, cheaper housing appears to be the draw.

At least four realty agencies have opened near Cottman Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard in the last two years. The Chinese characters on their storefronts hint at marked ethnic change in the neighborhood. In 2000, only about 190 people born in China lived in or around Oxford Circle, of 10,000 citywide. Two of the realty agencies alone have sold three times that number of houses to Chinese-born clients.

Target Realty has sold more than 400 properties in three Northeast zip codes since opening an office on Bustleton Avenue in March 2004. Its brokers say rowhouses that would have fetched $80,000 in early 2004 now go for double that, and real estate that idled on the market for months gets snapped up in days. Almost all the buyers are Chinese-born New Yorkers.

“They can’t even buy a bathroom in New York for the [same] price,” Yvonne Hu, the company’s owner, said. “There are multiple offers because there’s so much demand.”

Word-of-mouth, long part of the creation lore for ethnic enclaves, has driven the move. House hunters approach Jack Kong – whose Cottman First Realty has closed on 250 houses since opening in 2004 – with a specific request.

“They’ll say, ‘I want 19149,’ ” he said. “They’re looking for that zip code… because their friend says so.”

That zip code puts transplants within walking distance of the Roosevelt Mall, the Universe Bus Line, and the fledgling Wing Hing grocery, where smoky circles of elderly Chinese men play backgammon at a folding table every day.

The influx has been so dramatic that nearby Solis-Cohen Elementary School converted book closets into classrooms and added two trailers in a parking lot for 250 more students – half of them new residents.

“The people who’ve resided here for a long time are passing away or moving to retirement communities,” said Joseph Baum, the school’s principal. “And they are being replaced by families with children.”

The Chinese student population alone doubled to about 200 – 20 percent of the school – in the last year. Most came from New York, said Yiquan Xuan, a Chinese-speaking counselor’s assistant at the school.

A dozen families who relocated said they left cramped, rented quarters in New York to become homeowners here.

Wen Chen, the Philadelphia booster on the bus, has been longing for a home more like the one she had on the banks of the Ming River in Fujian, the province once home to many of the Northeast newcomers.

After 15 years in the United States, the mother of two preadolescent boys was ready for her own house in a quiet neighborhood. As she and her husband hunt for it, they are living with relatives and working at China Ruby, a Cottman Avenue restaurant.

For the $1,000 a month they paid to share a house in Brooklyn with two other families, “in Philadelphia, you can own the whole house,” she said. “Everything is yours already, so it’s much better.”

Jin Xiu Wang, 32, and her husband, Jin Hui Zhu, 32 – a cashier and a cook at Chez Elena Wu in Voorhees – bought a $100,000 rowhouse a few blocks from Solis-Cohen in March 2004. The family of four had been paying $1,500 for an apartment.

“In New York, the place is too small. [Here,] it’s very nice,” Wang said, pointing to the front yard, with tomatoes ripening in a tidy vegetable garden. “Enough for the kids to play.”

The newcomers, like the bus that picks them up in front of the McDonald’s at Cottman and the Boulevard, are bypassing a stop in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. It costs too much for them to buy within the borders of that gentrifying, overcrowded enclave, the historic gateway for Asian migrants.

“There’s not enough [affordable] housing,” said John Chin, head of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp.

Sept. 11 sparked the migration south. The terrorist attacks hit New York’s Chinatown, close to ground zero, hard. Garment factories shut down. Restaurants lost half their customers and let workers go. Several businesses – and their owners and workers – relocated here.

It may be too early to tell how the newcomers will affect Oxford Circle. But there are traces of new vitality and new stresses in the graying neighborhood, which has lost old-timers to suburbs, retirement homes and mortuaries.

“There are more kids,” said Roger Harvath of Huntingdon Valley, a mortgage loan officer in the Northeast.

He grew up a few blocks away from Solis-Cohen, and his grandparents, now dead, spent their lives there. He has witnessed flight by older residents.

“They look around, and they see this is not the neighborhood they grew up in,” he said. “It used to be some African American and mostly white. Now, the Asian and the Hispanic community is increasing.”

Xuan sees a demand for more resources – for English classes, after-school programs, Chinese culture clubs, and medical care in Chinese.

“The parents have no English. They work long hours,” she said. “They need help.”

Xuan needs help, too. On her two days a week at Solis-Cohen, she arrives to meet a swarm of parents. They ask her to read the school calendar and for favors such as taking a child to the doctor on her day off.

But benefits counter the costs: For one, the influx has been good for business.

Universe Bus owner Kwai Louang Chuek saw an untapped market, so he started a company. Other cut-rate buses, these ferrying between the two Chinatowns, support a culture of commuters who live in New York and work here – or the reverse.
Another start-up shuttles the hundreds of Chinese women who package clothes at a Marshalls factory at Red Lion. Still others have seeded cell phones, construction companies and buffets throughout the region. Five Fujianese business associations have been created in Philadelphia in the last five years.

Kong, of Cottman First Realty, said New York investors want to develop Asian strip malls in the Northeast mimicking the ones that line Washington Avenue. Most of the enterprise, however, is more modest.

Chinese wedding planner Meirong Song, who just moved to Northeast Philadelphia, stood in front of her storefront under the Manhattan Bridge recently. Indicating the businesses of Little Fujian bustling around her, she shouted: “Too many people. Too much headache. Too much competition.”

She is thinking of moving her business to Philadelphia, too.

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