Immigrants mostly bypass Baltimore

Newcomers: Hispanics and Asians are reversing population losses and energizing neighborhoods in other cities.

April 08, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Once, Baltimore was a beacon to immigrants, a symbol of hope and opportunity to waves of Germans, Russian Jews, Irish, Italians, Poles and Greeks who stepped off the boats at Locust Point and made new lives for their families in the city's rowhouses.

Not anymore.

Data from the 2000 census suggest, and immigration experts agree, that today's immigrants are mostly bypassing Baltimore. Instead, Hispanics and Asians are flocking to such cities as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio, where they're helping to reverse population losses and revive declining neighborhoods.

"Baltimore at one time was the third-largest immigration port for the United States," said Martin Ford, associate director of the Maryland Office for New Americans. "Now, it's not even the third-largest in Maryland. "

During the 1990s, Baltimore gained fewer than 3,500 Hispanics and 2,300 Asians. A mere 1.7 percent of the city's population described themselves as Hispanic and only 1.6 percent as Asian. And the growth rates of both groups in Baltimore were among the slowest of any jurisdiction in the state.

It's Baltimore's loss, experts say.

Although large influxes of foreigners can strain a community's hospitality and resources, immigration has proven benefits. "In the long run, immigrants seem to be a positive, vital, energizing force economically, and a rejuvenating and exciting cultural element," says Alan M. Kraut, a history professor at American University in Washington.

A scarcity of high-tech and unskilled jobs, the city's struggling school system, crime, racial prejudice and the absence of a sizable immigrant community have all conspired to deflect most new arrivals toward Maryland's suburbs - especially those outside Washington. While the district gained more than 16,000 Asians and Hispanics, Montgomery and Prince George's counties added more than 112,000.

Baltimore has seen some immigration over the past decade, and there are hints that the city has begun to recognize the newcomers' potential. Near Fells Point, people from Mexico and Central America speak Spanish in the streets and have opened Latino restaurants, music stores and a grocery.

In Northwest Baltimore and neighboring Baltimore County, there are more than 7,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union. Several hundred families from the war-torn Balkans and parts of Africa have settled near Patterson Park. And Vietnamese families are buying homes in Pigtown, drawn by factory work in Southwest Baltimore.

"This is a very positive sign for Baltimore. We need to do much more to capitalize on this activity," said Laurie Schwartz, deputy mayor for economic development.

The 2000 census won't provide a precise accounting of immigration in the 1990s until next winter. Enumerations of Asians and Hispanics reflect only race and ethnicity, not country of birth. Many have lived here for generations. Some people counted as white or black are surely immigrants, and many illegal immigrants probably were not counted.

Nevertheless, when bolstered by other data and anecdotal accounts, the census numbers do reflect the scale of new immigration that is transforming many cities.

For example:

Chicago, like Baltimore, saw a continuing decline of its white and black populations during the 1990s. But the city grew by 4 percent, thanks to the arrival of 210,000 Hispanics. They constitute more than a quarter of the city's population.

Philadelphia shrank during the 1990s as whites continued to flee. But strong growth among Russians, Hispanics and Asians slowed the losses. Hispanics are 8 percent of the population, and their new restaurants and businesses are helping to stop some neighborhood declines.

Immigration to New York City pushed the population past 8 million, despite white flight. Hispanics, up by 67 percent, are a quarter of Queens' population, and they outnumber blacks in the city. One in 10 New Yorkers is Asian, thanks to a gain of 15 percent. In the nearby New Jersey counties, Hispanic and Asian numbers grew by 60 percent to 140 percent.

Columbus, Ohio, whose population surged ahead of Baltimore in the 1990s, owes a quarter of that growth to Hispanics (up 159 percent to 17,000) and Asians (up 63 percent to 25,000). The city's Somali enclave grew from just 500 in 1997 to nearly 15,000 today.

Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman welcomes immigrants. "They're starting up businesses ... everything from high-tech to personal services," he said. "It adds energy to our city, fulfills the work force demands of the business community and brings new ideas."

That view is endorsed in slow-growing Iowa, which has an industrial labor shortage. Thousands of Mexicans, Bosnians, Ukrainians and Russians have arrived to work in the state's meatpacking plants. Gov. Tom Vilsack wants even more. "Any place that attracts diversity, attracts growth," said Joe Shanahan, a spokesman for the governor.

`Chain migration'

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