In Al­len­town, is it Sev­enth Street or Calle Si­ete?

Span­ish street signs de­bated

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Michael Rubinkam

AL­LEN­TOWN >> When His­panic res­i­dents of down­town Al­len­town want to grab a bite, get their hair cut or shop for gro­ceries, they often head to Sev­enth Street — but they don’t call it that. To them, it’s Calle Si­ete.

A councilman wants to honor the city’s grow­ing His­panic pop­u­la­tion by in­stalling dec­o­ra­tive Span­ish-lan­guage street signs on one of its main com­mer­cial thor­ough­fares, where a pro­fu­sion of Latino-owned res­tau­rants, bar­ber­shops and corner stores re­flects the rapidly chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics of the state’s third­largest city. His­pan­ics now rep­re­sent nearly half the pop­u­la­tion of 120,000.

But where Demo­cratic Councilman Julio Guridy and other res­i­dents and busi­ness own­ers on Sev­enth Street see the Calle Si­ete signs as a small but long over­due ges­ture of re­spect, oth­ers call the pro­posal un­nec­es­sary and di­vi­sive.

Crit­ics also say the pro­posal for the signs is a dis­trac­tion from is­sues of poverty, drugs, crime and lack of op­por­tu­nity in Al­len­town’s ur­ban core.

“With all the prob­lems this com­mu­nity has, please don’t talk to me about signs,” said John Rosario, 54, who moved to the U.S. from the Do­mini­can Repub­lic about four decades ago and owns a Sev­enth Street in­sur­ance, tax and real es­tate busi­ness. “If you re­ally want to help some­body, roll up your sleeves, come down here and let’s talk about it.”

A city coun­cil com­mit­tee tabled the sign pro­posal for more dis­cus­sion af­ter dozens of peo­ple showed up at a public meet­ing this week to voice sup­port and op­po­si­tion. Guridy hopes to bring it up for a vote in a month.

The de­bate in Al­len­town would have been unimag­in­able not so long ago, when His­pan­ics were a tiny mi­nor­ity. For much of its his­tory, the city, an hour’s drive north of Philadel­phia, was a bustling in­dus­trial cen­ter pop­u­lated largely by Euro­pean im­mi­grants and their de­scen­dants.

As man­u­fac­tur­ing de­clined, so did the pop­u­la­tion. Then, drawn in part by cheap hous­ing, His­pan­ics be­gan swelling Al­len­town’s num­bers again. The Latino pop­u­la­tion has more than dou­bled since 2000.

Guridy said the His­panic com­mu­nity has con­trib­uted to Al­len­town’s ef­forts to re­make its econ­omy and de­serves to be rec­og­nized.

“It is a good thing for Al­len­town be­cause it pro­vides a sense of pride, and a sense of be­long­ing, to the His­panic com­mu­nity, who have been work­ing hard and con­tribut­ing to this com­mu­nity, and who feel alien­ated be­cause they are not rec­og­nized for their con­tri­bu­tions,” he said.

In­side Sev­enth Street’s bustling Los Com­padres Bar­ber Shop, Steven Castillo, 27, views the Span­ish­language signs as a good mar­ket­ing tool, no dif­fer­ent from cities that boast Chi­na­towns or Lit­tle Italys.

“When you want Span­ish food in Al­len­town, where do you go? Calle Si­ete,” he said.

Zack Alali, 48, a Syr­ian im­mi­grant who moved to the United States about 25 years ago, opened Casa Dol­lar on Sev­enth Street to cater to the His­panic pop­u­la­tion. He said Calle Si­ete sim­ply re­flects the re­al­ity of what the street has be­come.

“It’s just a lit­tle ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the peo­ple here,” Alali said. “It’s just a name.”

But the con­tro­versy goes deeper than those two words.

For some, it’s about lan­guage and cul­ture. Shani­qua An­drews, 25, who lives a block from Sev­enth Street and works in a ware­house, said her co-work­ers mostly speak Span­ish and her su­per­vi­sor typ­i­cally gives in­struc­tions in Span­ish. She said she re­sents hav­ing to ask for them in English.

“It makes me up­set,” said An­drews, who’s black. “They should come here with the mind­set that it’s Amer­ica.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Los Com­padres Bar­ber Shop and Sev­enth Street sign are seen in Al­len­town. A city councilman is stir­ring con­tro­versy with his pro­posal to in­stall dec­o­ra­tive Span­ish­language street signs on the ma­jor com­mer­cial cor­ri­dor.

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