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NORRISTOWN RISING: Latino community spurs economic development

By Brendan Wills, The Times Herald, 11/14/15, 4:40 PM EST

Marshall Street and Astor Street

The corner of Marshall Street and Astor Street is one of many areas in Norristown where the Latino community is making an economic impact. Adrianna Hoff — The Times Herald

NORRISTOWN – Obed Arango recalls walking down Marshall Street in 2003 and compared it to walking through a war zone — complete with shoddy pavement and boarded up buildings. Three years later, the boarded up buildings sprouted colorful signs advertising the flavors of Mexican cuisine, baked goods, clothing, and more.

For Arango ­— a professor of Socio-Anthropology at Montgomery County Community College who moved permanently to the area in 2006 after 16 years as a professor at University Nationale in Mexico — the transformation of West Marshall Street was a sign that the Hispanic community was becoming a force for economic revitalization in the municipality.

“I was very happy to see the immigrant and growing Hispanic population were becoming a positive force for the town — revitalizing the economy. The transformation of Marshall and Main Streets go hand in hand with the economic development of those small businesses,” Arango said about the decade from 2000 to 2010 where the Latino population went from slightly under 10 percent to close to 30. “The Hispanic community was present — literally in the tax revenues — but also present in the creation of jobs.”

Though the population of Hispanics in all of Montgomery County is something like 4 percent, Arango said the makeup of the county — economically and geographically — contributed to the influx of Mexican immigrants who added to the Dominican and Puerto Rican Norristown populations that had been in the county for around 30 years before 2000.

That influx was a direct response to growing industries that needed workers, Arango said, pointing to the mall, restaurant, and construction industries. Norristown sits in the epicenter of the county with more mall-square-footage than any other county in the country, Arango said.

“The growth in town responded to the necessity of workers to sustain that industry. But on the other hand the immigrant community has dreams — strong dreams — those dreams bring initiatives, entrepreneurship, and with that, new emerging businesses,” Arango noted. “I am sure that the statistics here in Norristown correspond to the national statistics that four (in 10) small businesses today are from Latino origins … The revitalization is such that you walk the street today — Marshall Street, that was very much destroyed — today is renewed.”

That same influx also saw a change in the makeup of the Montgomery County Latino population, which for years was made up of single males but shifted to families, through the creation of new families and the reunification of families split up when the males in the family immigrated.

As the Latino family took root in Norristown they brought with them traditions that in turn contribute to the economic spur. Take Marshall Street east a few blocks over to DeKalb and St. Patrick Church is thriving in a time when church closings and consolidations have rocked communities across the county.

Father Gus Puleo, Norristown native and pastor of St. Patrick Church, said on some days he celebrates more Baptisms than some local churches celebrate in a year.

Puleo also pointed to Marshall Street as evidence of the Hispanic influence on Norristown, calling it the Hispanic business section.

“When we do our Procession of Our Lady of Guadalupe we make sure we go through that section of town because that’s where all the people are, that’s where all the businesses are, that’s where the center of activity is,” Puleo said, noting how he is called to bless each new business and testifying that there a quite a few them.

Puleo listed other traditions unique to Hispanic culture, including the presentation of a child and Quinceañera celebrations.

Quinceañera, a girl’s presentation to the community when she becomes a woman at the age of 15, in particular brings with it a set of businesses necessary for a traditional Latino community to celebrate.

Puleo said the celebration means a “beautiful big dress, beautiful big Mass, flowers. You can see how business is spurred by these traditions. Afterwards there’s a party so there’s a hall, there’s a caterer, there’s a food,” all of which generates business. The walk down Marshall Street features shops catering to all of those needs.

The Latino community also brings with it a different, more vibrant church experience every Sunday at St. Patrick where Puleo said a balcony must be opened to accommodate the numbers present for the 12 noon Mass celebrated in Spanish.

“The idea of a church in Latin America is very different than the idea of church in America,” Puleo said. “It’s a social thing. That’s where the people hang out, that’s where all the things happen, that’s where all the people talk, that’s where the people get jobs, that’s where the people get help,” Puleo said.

To help aid the community both Puleo and Arango point to the need for education, particularly help with learning English, so that Hispanics can further contribute to the economy.

St. Patrick holds regular English as a Second Language classes for youth and adults, along with SAT prep classes for disadvantaged youths. Puleo said the idea is to help current workers become more productive and to encourage kids in the parish pursue college after high school.

Arango runs CCATE, a non-profit that seeks to empower the Hispanic community. Recently expanding into the third floor of Centre Theater on DeKalb Street, CCATE hosts various programming to increase Norristown children’s literacy, increase their exposure to technology, and encourage creativity through music and the arts.

Another nonprofit with an expertise in providing education services to the Latino and larger Norristown community sits right at the heart of the “Hispanic business section” on Marshall Street.

ACLAMO Family Center also provides literacy programming catered to entire families throughout the day, exposure to technology for children along with teaching parents internet safety, and early childhood learning in addition to social services for the elderly and disadvantaged.

Taking the reins of ACLAMO in July as the Executive Director and CEO, Nelly Jiménez-Arévalo said Norristown has welcomed her with open arms. Born in Venezuela, Jiménez-Arévalo is an attorney with 18 years experience managing nonprofits, working in Chester County and Philadelphia before coming to Norristown.

“First of all, I have felt very welcome in the community. I think people want to talk to us and that people want us to be a little bit more vocal about the issues that affect us. That’s what I’ve been trying to do – make sure that we are relevant,” Jiménez-Arévalo said about her goal of integrating the Latino community into Norristown.

“We have been meeting with people trying to find out what we can do to become productive and to become part of larger plan that affects everyone in the community,” she said. “Yes we have our unique challenges, but we also share a lot of the other challenges that other communities have. We want to be a part of that larger community.”

“When I talk to my neighbors … many of them are very thankful because the services they receive in ACLAMO make it easier for them to buy or rent a business in Norristown,” Jiménez-Arévalo said, noting the Latino drive to become a thriving part of the community. “People in our community are not only coming to Norristown but they are renting here, they belong here, they are opening businesses. They are coming to this area and investing. They have the best interest on hand to make sure Norristown is in a good position.”

For Jiménez-Arévalo, partnerships are the way that Norristown will revitalize – not only with other organizations but also with departments in the local government.

“I think everyone will tell you right now the police relationship with the Latino community has changed for the better – that I heard not only from the police but from a lot of people in the community,” Jiménez-Arévalo, pointing to the bilingual Community Affairs Liaison Gina Davies as an example of the Norristown Police Department taking steps to embrace the Latino community.

“(Police Chief) Mark Talbot has been very welcoming to me and ALCAMO. I like the fact that they now have a bilingual staff member doing community relations so she can do a connector or a bridge between the police and the Latino community,” she said. “For me that’s an issue that affects everybody … if we can communicate with the police and help them they can support us and we can freely talk about the issues are of concern.”

Arango too said there is a need for the various departments of government to reflect the makeup Norristown’s population, noting how proactivity from police and other agencies in recruiting Latinos will help with communication throughout the municipality.

Jiménez-Arévalo said she could not speak any higher of the Norristown Fire Department in their proactivity engaging the Latino community with plans for meet-the-firemen events in the works and much work already installing smoke alarms throughout the Latino neighborhoods.

With the bustling activity on Marshall Street, the Latino community has a stake in keeping the streets clean, and to help in that initiative Jiménez-Arévalo has spoken with Municipal Administrator Crandall Jones and is looking to partner with the municipality to establish some clean projects throughout town.

“Sometimes it doesn’t look as pretty as it should be. Because Norristown is a beautiful, very diverse town, we should keep it clean,” she said.

Jones did not respond to calls seeking comment on the relationship between the municipality and the Hispanic community.

Though Norristown and the Latino community are heading in the right direction towards a rejuvenated Norristown, Jiménez-Arévalo said that much can still be done, especially providing services to help Latinos overcome language barriers.

“Sometimes there are no words to express your feelings … if (you’re not speaking) in your native language. There you will find the negativity about immigrants,” Jiménez-Arévalo said. “When you hear the TV, or you hear politicians talking on a bigger scale and how that ripples down to people and people are frustrated and that gets to the soul of a lot of our families. They become afraid, they don’t want to talk, they don’t want to try because people may make fun of them or they might mistreat them. I think that sometimes we forget that these are people. The people that we serve are people. They have limitations and they have strengths.”

Investing in those people is an investment in Norristown, she said.

“If families cannot provide support for their children then that is our future. It doesn’t matter how you feel about immigration,” she said. “These children — if they don’t have the support, and if their parents don’t have the skills — these children are not going to have the chance to grow up to be successful citizens. Many families come here and they are going to stay here and they are going to live here and they are going to open business and they are going to be part of your community. They are going to be your neighbors, so we want them to be successful. We want the community to embrace them.

“We still have a lot to do, but I think we are going down the right path.”

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