National News

New Yorkers, Finding the American Dream in Philadelphia

The scent in the workshop where Brian Christopher makes his wooden furniture is at once inviting and entirely unfamiliar. “It’s a nice mix between sawdust, which I can’t even smell anymore,” Christopher explained, “and then the bakery across the hall — they’re constantly cooking croissants.”

Posted Updated
New Yorkers, Finding the American Dream in Philadelphia
Matt Katz
, New York Times

The scent in the workshop where Brian Christopher makes his wooden furniture is at once inviting and entirely unfamiliar. “It’s a nice mix between sawdust, which I can’t even smell anymore,” Christopher explained, “and then the bakery across the hall — they’re constantly cooking croissants.”

American oak shavings on the floor of Christopher’s one-man business, Bicyclette, and pastries in the oven across the hall at an artisanal bakery, Machine Shop Boulangerie, lend a certain aromatic ambience to the fourth floor of a former vocational high school in South Philadelphia known as Bok.

Christopher used to live in Manhattan and work in Hoboken, New Jersey, before migrating to Philadelphia, where he rented an apartment for half the price and watched his business blossom at Bok, a full-square-block complex that bustles with all manner of commercial enterprises, among them letterpressers and photographers, a hatmaker and a boxing school. Prospective tenants from New York are calling about moving into the retrofitted school, according to the leasing manager. And Italian sportswear company Diadora recently signed a contract to relocate its North American headquarters there from midtown Manhattan.

“One thing I like about Philly is it’s a bit slower paced,” Christopher said. “You do feel like you can slow down, and enjoy yourself a bit more.”

This New York-Philadelphia migration, fueled by a quest for cheaper living, has long existed. But this is not just the same story of young artisans priced out of Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. There’s another kind of New York transplant spreading out into Philadelphia.

Down the street from Bok, Kin Yeung finished prayers at Zhen Ru Temple and told a parallel story. She lived in New York’s Chinatown in 2003, regularly visiting Philadelphia to attend this Chinese Buddhist temple in two modified row houses. She soon saved enough money from her jobs in restaurants in New York to ditch her East Broadway walk-up to buy a house in Philadelphia. A second home soon followed, and now she’s a landlord of five properties, often renting to New York expats. “The houses in Chinatown are too small and little and old,” Yeung said, describing how eight people live in her old two-bedroom apartment. “New York City right now — they cannot afford the rent. Too expensive. No one can live there.”

And it’s not just the housing. Back in New York, a bag of bok choy cost as much as 89 cents. “And here I get it for 39 cents!” she said. Perhaps the best perk: In the yard of her home in Philadelphia, Yeung has space for a vegetable garden.

Yeung is part of a quiet wave of immigrants who stop for a few months or several years in New York before finding a more manageable city 1 hour, 45 minutes down the New Jersey Turnpike. These foreign-born ex-New Yorkers are enlivening Philadelphia’s businesses, restaurants and neighborhoods with a diversity only now beginning to come into focus.

The number of residents born abroad has increased 69 percent in Philadelphia since 2000, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, and immigrants now amount to nearly one-fifth of the city’s workforce. Many arrived via New York.

Bok is topped by two rooftop bars with dynamite views of the surrounding row house neighborhood, where, in a scene straight out of “Rocky,” vendors at the outdoor Italian Market still burn cardboard in garbage cans for heat in the winter. But scattered throughout that old Italian community are a dozen taquerias and an estimated 20,000 Mexican residents. In much the same way, West African immigrants are now dining at halal restaurants in West Philadelphia, and Russians are buying delicacies at the Brooklyn-based Eastern European supermarket NetCost, in the Bustleton neighborhood.

Northeast Philadelphia — an expansive region with strip malls and lawns that New Yorkers might recognize as a relative of Staten Island — is Pearl Huynh’s territory. A majority of the estimated 2,000 Chinese who are members of a new group she founded, the Northeast Philadelphia Chinese Association, migrated from New York City. Huynh was born in Vietnam to Chinese parents.

She has lived on Long Island, in Flushing, Queens, and in Chinatown, working as a software developer on Wall Street. Laid off in 2010, she moved to Philadelphia to be near family and began a new life owning and renting properties — and working as a volunteer, helping the legions of Chinese new to the city.

“I see many of them moving down from New York, and they’re kind of low-income and have language challenges,” she said. So every morning, Huynh sends messages to her members via WeChat, a Chinese messaging service, with YouTube English language lessons and announcements about neighborhood events and national holidays. She also educates them on the zoning rules regarding private gardens, and translates their mail during drop-in hours at the local library. Huynh said she had helped eight Chinese renters from New York apply for a Philadelphia property-tax exemption that enabled them to be first-time homebuyers. According to Pew, a majority of Philadelphia immigrants are actually homeowners, compared with an average of 37 percent across a selection of other cities.

“It’s like a flow of immigrants come from New York,” Huynh said. “I’m really proud I’m able to help them.” Sylva Senat, who comes from Haiti by way of Brooklyn, can witness this renaissance from the roof deck at Maison 208, his sleek French-inspired restaurant and lounge. Senat fell for food when he took a culinary class at John Dewey High School in Gravesend that turned into an internship at Sign of the Dove, the former Upper East Side hot spot. He went on to become sous-chef at Jean-Georges at the Trump International Hotel & Tower New York.

But while working as a chef, Senat also spent some time in Philadelphia — his sister and brother lived there. “Philly became kind of like the getaway from New York,” he said. His sister tried to convince him to move. He said she’d tell him, “It’s a lot more affordable, there’s a lot more things to do here, it’s a little more fun, it’s not as crazy as New York.”

Senat tried out at Buddakan, a game-shifting restaurant from the Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr. During his tryout, Senat spent two days in Old City, where restaurants and retail mix on colonial-era cobblestone alleyways. “I just fell in love with it,” Senat said. “It didn’t take much for Stephen Starr to convince me to stay in Philadelphia.”

Senat and his wife got an apartment right there in Old City. “We are definitely New Yorkers at heart; we like the busyness, and we like the bustle,” he said. “Once we got to Philadelphia it was like, ‘OK, not all major cities are as crazy as New York, and they don’t have to be in order to be great.'”

Senat said his friends in New York have inquired about Philadelphia, because they realize it’s just “easier to do things” in a city with about 1 million fewer people than Brooklyn. He relishes walking into a restaurant in the nicest part of town at 11:15 on a Sunday morning and immediately sitting down for brunch without a reservation. “It wasn’t like a big, you know, ‘Let’s plan this for six hours and let’s do it for two hours,’ which I think kind of happens in New York,” he said. “You have to be very specific about what you want to do and where you want to go, or else: ‘OK, now we’re wandering around New York City.'”

Immigrant or hipster, there’s a chief reason for choosing Philadelphia over New York: Cost of living. The American dream feels more attainable in Philadelphia at the moment. Asked about the flight of immigrant New Yorkers who are being priced out of the city, Seth Stein, a spokesman for New York City’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, acknowledged the “challenges of income inequality and the affordability crisis that many New Yorkers face.” But Stein said that New York is still “the ultimate city of immigrants,” with health care and legal services offered to those newcomers.

Reasonable rents aside, Philadelphia is not an immigrant utopia. A ProPublica/Philadelphia Inquirer investigation recently concluded that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office based in Philadelphia is one of the most aggressive in the country, with high numbers of arrests of immigrants without criminal records. Peter Gonzales, who runs the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, a nonprofit that assists new immigrants in Philadelphia, said Mayor Jim Kenney’s pushback against ICE has helped neutralize the deportation threat. Kenney sued Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the Trump administration’s efforts to withhold federal grants to sanctuary cities. In early June, Philadelphia prevailed, and Kenney did what can only be described as a happy dance on Twitter.

Immigrants are taking note, Gonzales said, getting a message from both their local politicians and their neighbors that they’re welcome regardless of ICE’s actions. “The tension is causing a lot of trauma and distress that people are experiencing, but it’s also bringing people together to fight back,” Gonzales said. One of the activists fighting back is Prudence Powell. She was an unauthorized 12-year-old when she moved from Jamaica, in the Caribbean, to Jamaica, in Queens. At 17, pregnant with her son, she dropped out of high school. Powell struggled with poverty as she took off-the-books, part-time jobs in New York. At 21, she moved to Philadelphia and found her footing. She became a “Dreamer” through the DACA program for unauthorized young people, earned her GED at Temple University and began volunteering at the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition nonprofit. She now works there full time.

“Being in Philly has really opened up doors, sharing my story has opened up so many doors, DACA has opened up so many doors,” she said. And so has the affordability of life outside of New York. “New York is the first place you go, and then you branch out to Philly or Allentown or York or Baltimore,” Powell said. “New York is always the first stop.”

About 27,000 people move from New York to Philadelphia each year, according to the census, amounting to one of the largest migration flows between metro areas. A separate Baruch College study came up with a smaller overall figure but still concluded that more New Yorkers are moving to Philadelphia than the other way around.

Part of New York’s function, the study said, is to “receive large flows of foreign migrants and to redistribute people across the nation.” Those redistributed to Philadelphia will find a town on a winning streak. The population of the city is growing for the first time in decades, buoyed by both immigrants and millennials in Center City drawn by the luxury of living, working and drinking within the same few blocks. The skyline is rapidly expanding on both sides of the Schuylkill, punctuated by the nearly complete Comcast tower, the tallest building in the city.

The biggest good news for Philadelphians, though, is that the Philadelphia Eagles are finally Super Bowl champions. Public schools closed for the victory parade in February. That’s when Jason Kelce, the team’s center, donned a bedazzled lime green costume lent to him by a Mummers brigade, a Philadelphia-specific kind of performance group made up mostly of blue-collar men. He hollered at the thousands of assembled fans about how a team of underdogs defied expectations by going for it with a trick play on fourth-and-goal and won the championship.

“You know who the biggest underdog is?” he asked. He was speaking just feet from the statue of Rocky Balboa, one of fiction’s great underdogs. This is a town that lost both the capital of the United States and the home of the United Nations to New York, so there’s a bit of a chip on the civic shoulder. “It’s y’all, Philadelphia!” He then led the faithful in a profane chant that ended with, “Philly, no one likes us, we don’t care!” The thing is, people do like Philadelphia. Immigrants like Philadelphia. New Yorkers, apparently, even like Philadelphia. But Philadelphia nonetheless feels forever slighted by her northern neighbor.

Down the list of transgressions, but not that far down, is the bitter memory of an article that ran 13 years ago in The New York Times Style section claiming Philadelphians occasionally refer to their city as the “sixth borough.” The writer, Jessica Pressler, lived in Philadelphia at the time but, according to the bio on her own website, “was virtually run out of town, and was fortunately granted asylum by New York.” She was excoriated for insinuating that Philadelphia was some appendage of New York.

Looking back on it now, Pressler said the piece “tapped into this resentment” that Philadelphia has toward its “big brother that lives really close and is cooler and gets all the attention.” But that perception may now be outdated, and for one major reason. “New York has gotten in that time so prohibitively more expensive,” she said.

“People don’t see leaving New York as a failure anymore like they used to,” Pressler said. “Now it’s like, ‘That’s a smart thing to do, why would you suffer here?’ You’re going to be able to walk to work and have a grocery store and have a patch of grass — that’s really cool.”

She now lives in Queens but said that two neighbors, both of immigrant backgrounds, recently told her they were moving to Philadelphia. “That sounds like a good idea,” she told them. “That sounds really nice.”

1 / 8

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.