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Where We Live | Northeast Philadelphia

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Posted on Wed, Nov. 17, 2004
 I M A G E S 
Katya Panteleyva dances at the Golden Gate nightclub, which features Russian music. Photographs by Laurence Kesterson.
Katya Panteleyva dances at the Golden Gate nightclub, which features Russian music. Photographs by Laurence Kesterson.
Inna Bogdanova sings in Russian at the Golden Gate nightclub.
Inna Bogdanova sings in Russian at the Golden Gate nightclub.
More photos...

Quietly, quickly, diversity moves in

Inquirer Staff Writer

Northeast Philadelphia - a melting pot?

Not so long ago an enclave almost entirely of white, U.S.-born Americans, today the neighborhood is home to Ukrainian and Israeli merchants rubbing shoulders with Pakistani immigrants and Arab car dealers. Nearly 800 Russian-owned businesses call the neighborhood home. Some 37 languages are spoken in the halls of George Washington High School.

"Where I grew up in Bustleton, it was all white," said Randi Boyette, 45, still a resident. "There was one African American family in our neighborhood. Now I live in the Lower Northeast... and it's like the United Nations. It's very, very different now."

In little more than two decades, an immigrant-fueled influx has transformed Northeast Philadelphia. The change occurred with such speed and such little fanfare that most Philadelphians still don't realize it, while others marvel that it happened without major outbursts of ethnic or racial tension.

"As diverse as it is now, there's still a lot of tension. People still do not collaborate, do not merge, don't mix very well," said Faith Willoughby, director of the Beacon after-school program at Washington High School.

"But the tension is going down," Willoughby said. "There was a point when the kids would leave school and go to a different place to hang out. Now all of these groups are intertwining more and socializing together."

Soviet Jewish refugees were the first newcomers to put their mark on the area. They were resettled there by U.S. Jewish groups in the late 1970s, then many more followed in the late 1980s and 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today, Russian-speakers - many of them Ukrainian - number an estimated 60,000 throughout the Philadelphia region, with Northeast Philadelphia as their social, commercial and religious hub. They have created newspapers, Web sites, shopping centers, nightclubs, and stores of every kind.

But the Russians, Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans, while still the largest immigrant group, have been defecting in large numbers in recent years to nearby Bucks and Montgomery Counties, following the classic suburbanization pattern of financial success.

Now others, including Meskhetian Turks from the former Soviet Union, are following in their footsteps to the Northeast, a neighborhood that now has its own organizations to handle the newcomers.

"We're serving more and more people from Asia," said Janna Doudoukalova, 43, director of the New World Business School, a branch of the New World Association of Emigrants from Eastern Europe, on Glendale Avenue. "A lot are coming from Yugoslavia and Iran and Iraq and Africa and the Far East. It's not Russian anymore."

The trend was visible in the 2000 census. The neighborhood was home to 20 percent of Philadelphia-area residents identifying themselves as Brazilian or Portuguese, 18 percent of Israelis, and 15 percent of Indians or Pakistanis. Ten percent of Arabs, including 20 percent of Iraqis and nearly 39 percent of Palestinians, also lived there.

"The biggest thing to happen in this neighborhood is the fact that it was this white enclave that has now become diverse," said Boyette, regional education director for the Anti-Defamation League, which has sponsored diversity seminars at Washington High School.

"It's an area that is relatively newly diverse, and I would love them to get off on the right foot," Boyette said. "So far, it's working."

Contact staff writer Thomas Ginsberg at 215-854-4177 or

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