Editor’s note: Attracting new immigrants is key for every Rust Belt city if they are to reverse decades of population decline. In this post, contributor Lewis Lehe examines why Pittsburgh has had a hard time attracting Hispanic newcomers. (If you enjoy this piece, make sure to check out Lehe’s last contribution to Rust Wire, these videos that explain congestion pricing.)-KG
Pittsburgh’s population has shrunk over the last decade, falling by 24,000 persons between 2000 and 2008. In the 2009 Democratic primary race for mayor, Councilman Patrick Dowd even made reversing population decline a signature issue of his campaign, (as you can see in this video).
We can get by without steel mills, but new residents are sorely needed to support the legacy costs of public servants employed when Pittsburgh had double the public to serve.
While Pittsburgh’s population dips, the U.S. Hispanic demographic drives American population growth and is projected to triple by 2050. Immigration accounts for recent trends, but projections also depend on higher Hispanic birth rates.
Last month, Bloomberg reported:
”Hispanic birth rates climbed 27 percent from 1990 through 2010, according to a Bloomberg analysis of yesterday’s Census Bureau estimates. That compares with a 7.5 percent decline in the birth rate of the overall population and an 8.3 percent decline for blacks.”
This could mean that Hispanic inflows to an area are also a good guarantee of future population growth. Already, Hispanics have transfused fresh blood into vacated corners of cities far from the Mexican border. In Birmingham, Alabama—the steel town where I grew up—a medley of Mexicans, Panamanians, and other recent arrivals peppered one stretch of blight with specialty groceries and flashy night clubs.
The University of Pittsburgh boasts a world-famous Center for Latin American Studies, so it always struck me as odd that Pitt students have to study abroad to actually meet Latin Americans. Pittsburgh slept through the last decade’s wave of Hispanic immigration like a drunk at a quinceanera. Of course, Pittsburgh won’t mirror El Paso, but even relative to nearby Rustbelt cities, the Steel City’s Latin flavor is pretty mild.
||Hispanic Share (%)
(Source: American Community Survey 2009)
Compounding the sense of vacancy, Pittsburgh’s Hispanics don’t cluster in a neighborhood but rather occupy small pockets in Beechview, Brookline, Oakland, and the South Side. Saul Guerrero, owner of La Jimenez Mexican grocery stores in Beechview and Oakland, said most of his customers travel from surrounding counties.
It’s hard to say the City of Champions hasn’t made a good hustle, though. For a city with such a small Hispanic population, Pittsburgh hosts a large number of Hispanic organizations, including the Latin American Cultural Union, Pittsburgh Hispanic Center, Hispanic Family Center, Colombia in Pittsburgh, Salud Para los Ninos, Pittsburgh Hispanic Catholic Community, Pittsburgh Venezuelan Association, and Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The Hispanic Center, in fact, was founded with the goal of bringing Hispanics to Pittsburgh. (This 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article chronicles some of the Hispanic Center’s challenges.)
The welcome mat is certainly welcome, but for many Hispanics an area’s strongest draw isn’t marketing so much as the presence of fellow countrymen. As part of my exhaustive research process for this post, I drank two pitchers of Yuengling with Cesar—a restaurant worker and occasional yard man—who has never been anywhere else in the United States except for Pittsburgh. He moved here directly from Mexico, because he knew someone who lived here. Hence, Pittsburgh faces a chicken-and-egg dilemma: you need Hispanics to attract Hispanics.
Plentiful jobs can ignite an upward cycle of immigration and growth, and Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate has stayed nearly 2% below the national average. But western PA lacks the poultry processing, endless suburban construction, and seasonal farm employment that often occupy Hispanic hands. The region’s flagship industries are health care, education and finance—not exactly promising lines of work for someone buttoning down a shaky grasp of English. Today’s trickle of Hispanic labor might continue to satiate the city’s restaurant, housekeeping, and landscaping industries.
I would like to believe Hispanics could reverse Pittsburgh’s population loss—partly because I like Latin cultures, but mainly because I like Pittsburgh. The evidence, however, suggests only slow growth in the Hispanic population. We can say gracias for what we have, though. The four Mexicans I interviewed for this piece all emphatically described Pittsburgh as refreshingly tranquilo. Samantha Guerrero commented, “One of the best things that can happen is that the [Hispanic] community remains scattered,” because exclusively-Hispanic neighborhoods can foster gangs and allow immigrants to procrastinate learning English.”