September 23-29, 2004
Home Away From Home
Documenting the growth of Philly's Latino Community along North Fifth Street.
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If the heart and soul of Latino Philadelphia can be found in North Philly, then North Fifth Street is the lifeline. As a bustling residential and commercial strip at the center of this densely populated neighborhood, North Fifth provides services, shelter and stability to an area long ago abandonedand even forgottenby many city dwellers.
While small Latino communities are scattered throughout the city, nearly half of Philadelphia's 130,000 Spanish-language citizens live in a single neighborhood, encompassing four zip codes, that stretches from North Second to North Sixth streets, and from Girard Avenue to Roosevelt Boulevard. This areaoriginally home to Germans, Jews and Polesbecame a Hispanic enclave when Latinos began arriving in Philadelphia in the 1950s.
Since then, North Fifth has become the anchor for this community, both socially and financially. Colorful homes and storefronts, pungent aromas, bright music and the unmistakable lilt of fluent Spanish now define its unique character. And, even though it is located just minutes from Center City, it has maintained a surprisingly rural identity in the midst of its urban locale.
Though the area still has swaths of abandoned buildings and deserted lots, productive community gardens and vibrant murals depicting tropical scenes have contributed to the neighborhood's revival in recent years. Despite limited resources and imposed social barriers, North Fifth provides Latino Philadelphia with the special comforts that remind them of the places they've left behind.
Philadelphia has always been a city defined by its immigrants. While the 17th and 18th centuries saw the arrival of Eastern Europeans in large numbers, by the mid-19th century, Africans, Asians and Latinos had also joined the ever-expanding melting pot. As neighborhoods moved and shifted, one ethnic community replaced another. Today, the Latino community continues to grow. Puerto Ricans currently represent the largest group of Latinos living in North Philadelphia, outnumbering Spanish-speaking neighbors from South America, Central America and the Caribbean by just less than 3 to 1. According to the 2000 Census, Philadelphia's Puerto Rican population is now the third largest in the nation, trailing New York City and Chicago, respectively.
In this city, where race and ethnicity is most often seen through the narrow lens of its black-and-white residents, Latinoswho represent only 8.5 percent of the city's populationhave found themselves marginalized, and even discounted. But the strong cultural bonds and collective memory they share has reinforced their love and respect for family and encouraged their commitment to entrepreneurism. Their contributions to Philadelphia will be honored both on Sunday, when revelers at the 42nd Annual Puerto Rican Day Parade will march across Ben Franklin Parkway, and through mid-October, as the city celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month.
But whether strolling past a brightly painted mural, taking part in a summertime softball game, attending Mass at a makeshift church or gyrating to the sounds of salsa at a local nightclub, the overwhelming sense of pride and hope on North Fifth makes it one of Philly's most underrated treasuresand perhaps its best-kept secret. --Deborah Bolling