Photo Essay: The Majority Minority
By Nate Hopper
Bethlehem and Allentown have changed so quickly that some 20-year-olds born in the Pennsylvania cities would have difficulty recognizing their native towns. Between 1990 and 2010, Lehigh County, which contains both cities, has seen its population transform from one in every 20 people being of Hispanic origin, to nearly one in five, according to the respective Census data.
The cities’ new look has created cultural tension and divided some residents. It’s common for new migrants to keep to themselves and speak Spanish—something foreign to residents. But the separation likely won’t stand. Several sociological studies have shown that it takes three generations for members of ethnic minorities to fully assimilate into a new culture. For instance, a study conducted by Harvard sociologists and published in the Annual Review of Sociology in 2005 showed that the second generation—American-born children—are often bilingual, while the third generally speak English.
Regardless of cultural conformation, the population growth could revitalize the Lehigh Valley’s economy, which, like many other cities, has emptied and decayed into post-industrial rust. In 2008, the Lehigh Valley Economic Council commissioned Pennsylvania State University to study the makeup of the businesses in the district. The results showed that people of Hispanic descent owned nearly one in every three of the small businesses in Bethlehem’s South Side and downtown Allentown. It further explained that the new businesses also helped reverse the poverty, crime, and failing schools that had plagued the areas.
In the shops, American flags are often found hanging beside Hispanic ones, symbolic of the growing hybrid culture and galvanization of the struggling cities—a trend seen not only in the Lehigh Valley, but across the nation.