Pew Study: Philadelphia Experienced Significant Changes in Racial, Ethnic Population over Last 20 Years

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A City Transformed: The Racial and Ethnic Changes in Philadelphia Over the Last 20 Years, a new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative, finds that Philadelphia has experienced significant changes in its ethnic and racial composition over the last two decades, with many neighborhoods undergoing sweeping transformations.

The city's white population has fallen by nearly a third. The black population, while changing little in size, has shifted to new parts of the city. The Asian population has more than doubled. And the rapidly-growing Hispanic population has expanded far beyond its traditional home in eastern North Philadelphia, mostly into the Lower Northeast.

In some ways, the increasing diversity of Philadelphia has tracked the broader, national trends. For instance, the city's Hispanic population grew by 110 percent over 20 years; the rate for the nation as a whole was 125 percent. The Asian population grew 127 percent locally, 114 percent nationally.

“Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, Philadelphia was a city that could be understood in terms of whites and blacks,” said Larry Eichel, project director of Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative. “Looking at this Census data from a 20-year perspective shows the degree to which this has changed.”

The report findings are based on an analysis of 1990 and 2010 Census data for the city as a whole and for each of the city's residential zip codes. 

The changes were particularly striking in Northeast Philadelphia, which went from 92 percent white in 1990 to 58.3 percent white in 2010. Despite losing one-third of its white residents during the period, the Northeast grew in population by 5.4 percent overall, thanks to an array of new arrivals.

In 1990, Northeast Philadelphia was only 3.4 percent black, 2.3 percent Hispanic and 2.1 percent Asian. By 2010, it was 18 percent black, 13.9 percent Hispanic and 7.3 percent Asian. The Lower Northeast neighborhoods that experienced the largest decline in white population—among them Frankford, Fox Chase, Mayfair and Oxford Circle—gained population overall, recording 20-year growth rates in excess of 10 percent.

“In some parts of the city, the transformation in racial and ethnic makeup has been remarkable,” Eichel said. “And some of the areas that have changed the most have grown the fastest.”

The biggest change has been the decline of the white population. Over the last two decades, the number of non-Hispanic whites in Philadelphia fell by 31.9 percent. The total number of white residents lost by the city, 263,254, is larger than the entire population of Buffalo, N.Y. More of the drop (181,444) occurred in the 1990s than in the 2000s (81,810).  In five zip codes—ones that include such neighborhoods as Oak Lane, Elmwood, Overbrook, Eastwick, and Olney—the white population fell by more than 75 percent. At the same time, though, the white population was growing in Center City and nearby areas, 11 zip codes in all. 

The city's African-American population grew by 3.3 percent from 1990 to 2010, a percentage that suggests relative stability. But during that period, there was a significant shift in the black population, away from the core areas of North and West Philadelphia to Southwest Philadelphia, Overbrook, the Lower Northeast and elsewhere. For instance, the number of blacks in the Frankford zip code (19124) grew from 5,204 to 26,230.

Philadelphia's Hispanic population moved beyond the North Fifth Street corridor, that community's longtime social and commercial focus. In fact, the number of Hispanics in the neighborhoods along the corridor barely grew during the 20-year period. The big surge occurred elsewhere, throughout the lower parts of Northeast Philadelphia and sections of South Philadelphia. In the zip code that includes Mayfair and Oxford Circle, 19149, the Hispanic population went from 955 to 9,303.

The expansion of the Asian population was comparatively uniform citywide, with the largest increases recorded in parts of Northeast Philadelphia (4,904 in Fox Chase, for example) and South Philadelphia (6,581 in zip code 19148) as well as the University City section of West Philadelphia (4,252).

Several neighborhoods, defined in this report by zip code, were all but remade in ethnic and racial terms:

  • Port Richmond (zip code 19134) had 7,112 Hispanics in 1990; two decades later, it had 26,807.
  • The Elmwood section of Southwest Philadelphia (19142) saw its black population rise from 6,586 to 22,518 and its white population fall from 21,144 to 2,598. 
  • In Fairmount North (19121), which includes Brewerytown, the white population nearly quadrupled, going from 1,490 to 5,524, while the black population dropped from 44,646 to 28,683.

In these 20 years, the city as a whole lost 3.8 percent of its population, despite gaining 0.6 percent in the 2000s. The headcount in Center City rose 42.9 percent. Neighborhoods along the North Broad Street corridor—from Susquehanna Avenue north to the city line—declined by 17.7 percent. More modest reductions were recorded in West Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia, Northwest Philadelphia and South Philadelphia.

About the report
All of the numbers in this report are based on a counting method used by the Census in which all Hispanics or Latinos, regardless of race, are counted solely as people of Hispanic origin. In this counting regimen, “white” means non-Hispanic white and “black” means African American.

To conduct this analysis, the Philadelphia Research Initiative asked the Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project (MPIP) at Temple University to compile the 1990 and 2010 Census data for Philadelphia by zip code. The 1990 data was allocated from Census tract to zip code using geographic correspondence tables developed by the Missouri Census Data Center. For the 2010 Census data, MPIP had to make methodological assumptions about where to place several thousand Philadelphia residents about whom insufficient information was available. For that reason, the 2010 totals listed here will differ slightly from the zip code numbers to be released by the Census Bureau later this year. The Census did not provide official zip code totals in 1990.