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The Allentown Morning Call

Latino Businesses Thrive In The Heart Of Allentown

On Five Blocks Of Seventh Street, They Cater To A New Market.

By Jose Cardenas Of the Morning Call

9 August 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Allentown Morning Call. All rights reserved.

Standing behind the counter of his fledgling Dominican bakery on Seventh Street in Allentown, Marino Castro predicts he is at the front end of a business trend in center city.

Along the gritty street on this muggy morning, just a short distance from his store, a series of shops with Spanish-language signs hawk goods and services to light foot-traffic.

There's Nancy's Travel and Cashier, the Precio Loco 99-cent story, Los Compadres Barber Shop, El Malecon Cuban restaurant and La Mexicana Mexican Grille, among others.

In the last few years the area has gained several Latino businesses, said Castro, who opened his 3 Js Dominican Cake shop nine months ago after moving his family here from Brooklyn, N.Y.

"In five more years," the 47-year-old baker said in rapid-fire Spanish, "this is going to be all Latino."

Lured in part by a growing Latino population, more Latino-owned businesses have been popping up throughout the Lehigh Valley. And the 20 or so businesses on a five-block stretch of Seventh Street north of Hamilton Street, many of which opened within the last two to three years, are beginning to resemble a bona fide Latino business district like those in bigger cities.

The new businesses are generally owned by immigrants from Latin America who first tried their luck in New York, New Jersey or other parts of Pennsylvania. They came to Allentown after finding not only a growing Latino market but also cheaper commercial rents, home ownership opportunities and a safer environment to raise their families.

"We looked for a city to start a business, and I checked various places and Allentown caught our attention," said Horacio Orduna, 24, who opened his El Mercadito-Mex bodega -- small grocery store -- in April on Seventh Street after moving here from Sloatsburg, N.Y.

He said he researched the market in Philadelphia, Norristown and Hellertown but found Allentown more appealing. "That's one of the reasons you seek to leave the city because the rent, insurance, that's all so different," he said.

Census figures show that the Latino community in the Lehigh Valley increased by 86 percent in the 1990s to about 50,000 in 2000.

Though most Latinos in the Lehigh Valley are Puerto Rican, census figures also show increasing numbers of Dominicans, Mexicans and Central Americans, and that is reflected in the diverse types of new ethnic businesses.

Only now have some business and community leaders begun commissioning studies and gathering information on the Latino community.

Statistics are lacking, but the spurt of Latino businesses on Seventh Street and elsewhere in the Valley is a noticeable trend to those who periodically see a Spanish sign or the flag of a Latin American country or Puerto Rico outside a new business.

"What my experience has been is that the businesses coming in are so small that they don't make it to the radar screen," said Erlinda Agron, a codes coordination specialist in Allentown's Economic Development Department.

Agron said she has noticed the trend because Spanish-speaking Latinos who come to City Hall for permits and other information are often directed to her.

"There are some restaurants, mostly from New York, Long Island, Queens, Brooklyn, New Jersey and other states as well," said Agron. "They say, "Hi, I'm in Allentown because I heard there are many Latinos here."'

Those attempting to gather a head count of Latino businesses include the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of the Lehigh Valley, which is less than a year old.

The chamber's leaders believe the Valley's Latino business community is vibrant and growing. They judge that by the 120 memberships -- a few of them not Latino-owned businesses -- that the chamber has sold.

"It isn't going to take long for you to stop at some of the places and figure out that everyone is [an] immigrant or first-generation," said Lazaro Fuentes, a co-founder of the chamber.

Allentown's Latino business community is one of those "emerging markets" -- Latino communities growing in America's smaller cities and rural areas partly because of migration from the big cities, said Gabriela Lemus, director of policy and legislation for the League of United Latin American Citizens, based in Washington, D.C.

She said the new communities in places like North Carolina and Pennsylvania typically manifest themselves by setting up shops that cater to immigrants' needs: ethnic grocery stores and restaurants or money-transfer services.

In Allentown, by and large the majority of immigrants are from Latin America, said Erika Sutherland, a Muhlenberg College Spanish professor who has worked with immigrant entrepreneurs.

In Allentown, such businesses also are developing on Fourth, Tilghman and Front streets, Sutherland said. Among their needs are business development and financial help.

To that end, Sutherland said Muhlenberg College is working on two federal grant proposals to identify the strengths and needs of the region's immigrant entrepreneurs and possibly develop a community-based help center.

Leaders of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce say they also hope to institute programs to aid small business owners.

Such services would complement the efforts of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, which offers business development classes to small business owners in Allentown and Bethlehem.

The Seventh Street business district, once anchored by Sears and retail shops owned by long-established white-ethnic merchants, appears to increasingly be giving way to stores that cater to Latinos.

Ernie Atiyeh, who operates Atiyeh's Tire and Auto Center on Seventh Street and other businesses, has added a Spanish-speaking staff.

"If there's one thing I'm sorry for is that between myself, my son and my daughter-in-law we don't speak Spanish," he said.

The new businesses developing on Seventh Street could play an important role in the overall revitalization of downtown Allentown, said Ed Pawlowski, the city's director of community and economic development.

"Many of them are Latinos, which is a great trend happening, and we encourage it," Pawlowski said.

Though the city's efforts have focused primarily on Hamilton Street as a corporate center, Pawlowski said, the city also is turning its focus to Seventh Street, where it is close to applying for state grants to develop the corridor as a "neighborhood Main Street" of small businesses.

"I think it naturally will develop as sort of an ethnic retail corridor," he said. "We want to encourage that and help it thrive."

At 3 Js Dominican Cake shop, Castro said that his move to the Lehigh Valley had as much to do with business as with the quality of life for him, his wife and four children ages 12 to 22.

A third-generation baker born in Santo Domingo, Castro operated a bakery in Brooklyn for 15 years. It had six employees and netted $4,500 in profits each week, he said.

But he paid $2,500 in commercial rent and $1,200 for a two-bedroom apartment in an area of the city where his children faced dangers as soon as they left school grounds, he said.

"I had a lot of stress," Castro said. "My family was disintegrating."

Just over a year ago he came to visit a friend in Bethlehem. By December he had moved to Bethlehem, lured by a $750-a-month mortgage and better schools, and opened his cake shop in Allentown, where he felt he could build a clientele.

"There's more tranquility here," he said. "I wanted tranquility and I found it."

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