Philadelphia: A City In Motion

  • October 11, 2019
  • by Tom Infield

A bump in population is just one of the positive changes over the past decade. But challenges remain for the city.

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The Castor Avenue business corridor may be the most ethnically diverse section of Philadelphia, with immigrants from almost every part of the planet settling into the once largely Jewish community.

“We’ve got Brazilian, Honduran, Guatemalan, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Liberian, Nigerian, Indonesian, Puerto Rican—all of them,” says Vick Singh, who owns Rainbow Market at 6433 Castor Ave. “I am from India, but this is a Brazilian store,” Singh says. “All I sell are Brazilian products.” He’s learned Portuguese from his interactions with customers and points to the checkout counter and says proudly, “This is my school.”

Singh, who is Sikh, is on good terms with the Chinese Buddhists who founded a storefront temple next door. Down the street sits a Pentecostal Christian church. Businesses in a three-block stretch include Cafe Albania, the Asian Bank, a Korean foot spa, a Colombian restaurant, an Indian restaurant, a Vietnamese/Cambodian nail salon, and the Bull Boi Meat Supermarket (“Falamos Portugues,” says the sign, and “Hablamos Español”). A traditional Philadelphia soul food emporium is also part of the mix.

This is ZIP code 19149. The influx of the foreign-born has made it one of eight (out of the city’s 46 residential ZIP codes) that have grown by 15 percent or more since 2000, according to an analysis of census data in the latest “State of the City” report from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research initiative. The report also found that home sale prices in 19149 rose faster between 2010 and 2018 than in any other area of the city’s large Northeast section.

Castor Avenue has attracted a mix of immigrants who have put down roots and started businesses, a boon to the Northeast neighborhood. Such increases in population and construction are among the dozens of indicators documented in the “State of the City” report from Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative, which has provided a data-driven look at the city’s trends each year for the past decade. 

The increased population, in large part from the arrival of immigrants, is just one of the factors leading to profound change in Philadelphia over the past decade—and for each of those 10 years, the Pew “State of the City” report has analyzed the data and identified the trends underlying that evolution. Beyond population, the reports look at housing, jobs, poverty, public safety, health care, transportation, arts and culture, and taxation. The goal of the annual report is to provide “straightforward facts about what’s happening in the city,” says Frazierita Klasen, vice president for Pew’s work in Philadelphia, where Pew has been based for seven decades. “We want a city that is thriving and is supportive of residents and visitors alike,” Klasen says. “But we’re here to report a true and accurate picture.”

Distributed to hundreds of elected officials and policymakers, along with civic leaders, academics, journalists, and others, the “State of the City” also is available to the public on Pew’s website.

“There is tremendous value to revisiting Philadelphia—its conditions, challenges, and opportunities—on a regular basis, both to remind us how we stack up relative to other cities and how we stack up to our own recent past,” says David Thornburgh, president of the Committee of Seventy, a nonprofit civic leadership organization. The report, he adds, “gives us a pretty good unvarnished sense of where we are. Sometimes the data may point to a conclusion that is a little more sobering than in the popular consciousness, and sometimes it is a little more encouraging.”

The objective approach to data gathering has been welcomed by city policymakers. “It was the best free, comprehensive research we could ever put our hands on,” says former two-term Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D). “We may not have liked all of the things it said, but at least we knew it was accurate. It wasn’t partisan.”

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The recent arrival of immigrants along Castor Avenue is the sort of trend that emerges from Pew’s data analysis but isn’t always widely recognized in Philadelphia as a whole. For example, more media attention has been paid in recent years to the surge of Millennials that has transformed Center City and its adjoining neighborhoods (another trend noted in Pew analyses).

The city’s total population grew by 6 percent between 2006 and 2018, to 1,580,221—about 60,000 more residents than in 2000. Despite the increase, what was the nation’s third-largest city in 1950 now ranks sixth behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix.

The proportion of foreign-born residents has risen to 13.8 percent, more than doubling the 6.5 percent of 1970, when Philadelphia was shedding population at a rapid rate. Nearly 40 percent of the new immigrants between 2012 and 2016 came from Asia. A third came from the Americas, a sixth from Europe, and a tenth from Africa.

“On a citywide basis, Philadelphia’s population has been rising for more than a decade, a strong sign of civic well-being,” the report says. “But the growth has been concentrated in the center of the city and in pockets of the Northeast where immigrants have settled. In large swaths of North, Northwest, and West Philadelphia, the population has been declining or has stayed about the same.”

The signs may be in English, but many businesses along Castor Avenue are owned by people who speak primarily Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, or Bahasa Indonesian—languages that add to the diversity and vibrancy of the city.

Larry Eichel, who directs Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative, notes in a foreword to the latest report that “when we published our first ‘State of the City’ in 2009, Philadelphia saw itself as a place still mired in decline, having endured a discouraging half-century of jobs disappearing, families leaving for the suburbs, and the poverty rate rising. Some positive changes were already starting to happen. But many hadn’t yet shown up in the data and hardly any had penetrated the city’s collective psyche. Today, Philadelphians have become accustomed to the idea that good things can happen here.”

That decade-long perspective also provided an opportunity for the research initiative to take an extra step back for a longer view of how Philadelphia has evolved over the past 10 years. In addition to the annual “State of the City” report, the team this year produced a companion online analysis, “10 Trends That Have Changed Philadelphia in 10 Years.” As in all the research initiative’s work, data was central to the findings.

“We’re trying to put in one place a comprehensive look at what the data says about Philadelphia on a number of fronts,” Eichel says. “We hear a lot of people saying things are great or things are terrible. But this is what the numbers tells us, what the data tells us—the degree to which things are getting better, getting worse, staying the same. Everything is in the numbers.”

The 10 trends are topped by the growth of the population, fed by immigration and the influx of young adults attracted by city amenities. This growth has led to a surge in residential construction, with builders and investors making the decision to trust the resiliency of growth by laying bricks and mortar.

“Construction has thrived, with the annual number of residential building permits more than tripling since 2009,” Eichel notes. “Home sales have risen every year since 2011.”

The trend analysis finds positive change in the city’s long-troubled public schools: The four-year high school graduation rate rose to 69 percent for the class of 2018, a one-fifth jump from a decade earlier. That’s the good news; the bad news is that the graduation rate still lags well behind the national average of 84 percent.

Another Philadelphia change has been the reduction of its jail population. Traditionally, the city has had one of the country’s highest levels of incarceration. But the number of people in jail fell by about 40 percent over the past decade, from 8,932 in 2013 to 5,251 in 2018—perhaps the most dramatic sign of a broad attempt by the city to reshape its criminal justice system. (City jail inmates typically differ from state prison inmates, serving shorter sentences or awaiting trial.)

Also on the criminal justice front, overall violent crime was down for a third consecutive year in 2018. But homicides have increased each year since 2013. Between 2016 and 2018 alone, the number of homicides jumped 27 percent, to 351, the most since 2007.

Health trends include a high rate of overdose deaths from opioid painkillers and street drugs. More than 1,200 people died of drug overdoses in 2017. The total fell slightly in 2018, but Philadelphia still has one of the highest opioid death rates in the country.

Police say the opioid crisis is fueling, in part, the rise in homicides because of illegal street trafficking in heroin and fentanyl. Other societal problems, such as a steep rise in homelessness, also have been exacerbated by the drug crisis.

But there’s good news in health care, too: Infant mortality is dropping, for reasons that aren’t clear, according to Eichel, who notes: “The country as a whole has been doing better on this, but Philadelphia’s improvement was bigger.” The analysis of health-related trends also found that “in recent years, the percentage of individuals without health insurance declined in Philadelphia and other cities in states that have exercised the [federal government] option to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act.” In Philadelphia, in which a large share of residents is eligible for Medicaid because of low income, the proportion of people with no health care coverage has dropped to 7.1 percent of the population.

All of the good things that have happened in recent years come with a caveat. Philadelphia’s persistently high poverty rate may be its most significant and perplexing problem, Eichel says.

“According to the latest data,” the analysis says, “Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate among the nation’s 10 largest cities and the third-highest among the comparison cities studied in the ‘State of the City’ report, behind only Detroit and Cleveland.”

Despite gains in jobs and a lowered unemployment rate in the past decade, poverty has not decreased: The rate has been stuck in the 26 percent rage for the past five years. “The troubling thing is the sheer magnitude,” Eichel says. “That’s close to 400,000 people.”

In fact, the “deep poverty” rate—defined as the share of households with incomes 50 percent or more below the poverty line—rose from 11.1 percent in 2008 to 14 percent in 2017 despite the expansion of the national economy.

Statistics like these provide a nuanced view of Philadelphia and, in the words of Shawn McCaney, executive director of the William Penn Foundation, “demonstrate that over time, in big urban centers, change is possible.”

He calls the annual “State of the City” reports “indispensable background research for anyone who is interested at all in a deep understanding of the key social, economic, and demographic trends in Philadelphia.”

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Providing that information, after deep research, was the goal when the research initiative was created in 2008. Eichel has been the director from the inception, coming to Pew after more than three decades as a journalist at The Philadelphia Inquirer. In addition to the “State of the City” reports, the initiative has produced data-based analyses on a range of urban issues, from commuting costs to budget and revenue concerns and public safety issues. Many of the reports compare Philadelphia’s experience with other similar large cities, attracting the attention of leaders in other urban centers.

But the focus is always on Philadelphia, a city that has had a pretty self-deprecating view of itself.

One of the biggest changes the reports reflect, Eichel says, is the way Philadelphia sees itself. This was a city that several decades ago had a highway billboard that read “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” And the Philadelphia of 2019 is a different and more prosperous place from a decade ago.

“Relative to the likes of New York, Boston, and Washington, Philadelphia has been anything but a boomtown in recent years,” Eichel says. “But compared with its own past, it’s done rather well. For a lot of Philadelphians, that alone feels pretty overwhelming.”

Top: A sweeping view of Philadelphia’s skyline greets drivers and pedestrians who head into the city across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from Camden, New Jersey. (Lexey Swall for The Pew Charitable Trusts)