A City Transformed: The Racial and Ethnic Changes in Philadelphia Over the Last 20 Years

Jun 01, 2011

A City Transformed: The Racial and Ethnic Changes in Philadelphia Over the Last 20 Years, analyzes 1990 and 2010 Census data and finds that Philadelphia has experienced significant changes in its ethnic and racial composition over the last two decades, with many neighborhoods undergoing sweeping transformations.

Since 1990, the city’s white population has fallen by nearly a third. The black population 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.

The changes were especially 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, thanks to an array of new arrivals.

In 1990, the Northeast had only small contingents of blacks, Hispanics and Asians. In 2010, it had substantial numbers of all three groups. 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.

The biggest change in the ethnic and racial makeup of Philadelphia has been the decline of the white population. Over the last two decades, the number of non-Hispanic whites in the city fell by 31.9 percent. The number of white residents lost by the city, 263,254, is larger than the entire population of Buffalo, N.Y.

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 example, the number of blacks in zip code 19120—which includes the neighborhoods of Olney and Feltonville and abuts Montgomery County—rose from 9,786 in 1990 to 33,209 in 2010, an increase of 239 percent.

During the two decades, the city’s Hispanic population, which swelled by 110 percent, 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 changed little during the 20-year period. The big growth occurred elsewhere, throughout the lower parts of Northeast Philadelphia and in sections of South Philadelphia.

The expansion of the Asian population, up 127 percent, was more uniform citywide, with the largest increases recorded in parts of Northeast Philadelphia and South Philadelphia as well as the Univer¬sity City section of West Philadelphia.

Over 20 years, the city as a whole lost 3.8 percent of its population, though all of the decline was in the 1990s, with a 0.6 percent increase 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.

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