US & Canada

Census 2010: Baltimore's fast-growing Spanishtown

Montage of Hispanic community in Baltimore
The Hispanic community in Baltimore is highly varied

First results from the US 2010 census show population growth of 9.7% over the past decade - fuelled partly by a fast-growing Hispanic minority. Further results in 2011 are expected to document the Hispanics' spread into new areas, such as the city of Baltimore.

If New York's Broadway is a place where people go to "make it", then the one in Baltimore's Fells Point area is no different.

Fells Point has been dubbed "the Other Ellis Island" for its role as a port of entry for immigrants to the US - for many years it ranked second only to the island in New York Harbor for the numbers passing through it.

The Germans and Irish who found jobs there in shipbuilding, warehouses and factories were followed by Poles and Italians. African-Americans also congregated in the area.

But today it is a different immigrant community which thrives here.

Upper Fells Point is now known as Baltimore's Spanish Town because of the large numbers of Hispanics who have moved there in recent years.

A short stretch of Broadway hosts Mexican, Peruvian and Guatemalan restaurants, a Salvadorean supermarket, and a hair salon run by immigrants from the Dominican Republic.

In contrast to border states such as Arizona, California and Texas, where most of the Hispanic population has Mexican roots, here the community is very mixed, a majority hailing from Central America.

Heba Portillo
Mr Portillo's shops offers everything from CDs to spices

Heba Portillo, from El Salvador, was one of the first to arrive. A resident of Baltimore since 1991, he opened Spanishtown's first Latino restaurant and also runs a Spanish supermarket, which offers everything from food and CDs to money-transferring services.

"When I got here the Latino community was very small, there were no Latino restaurants or supermarkets," he explains.

"But then a few years later more people came to the city and opened more things. It has changed a lot commercially. We have seen tremendous growth."

The Hispanic community is still small as a percentage of the city's overall population, but it is increasing fast.

In 2000, the community made up 1.7% of the total, while US Census bureau figures for 2009 put it at 3%.

Over the same period the city's population fell by 2%, and the majority black population slipped from 64% to 63% as a share of the total.

Relative infancy

The broad picture of the 2010 census is of a continuing shift of population from the east and mid-west to the south and west, with numbers growing only slowly in many eastern states.

In the state of Maryland, in which Baltimore is situated, population growth has been buoyant by eastern standards - thanks partly to Hispanic immigrants. Reports suggest that Hispanics make up about 7% of the population, but account for about 40% of population growth since 2000.

"People are moving here from all over, not just Latin America but from Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey," Heba tells me. "That means a lot of new infants, a lot of new babies. In 10 years they come, and make a community."

One factor drawing people to Baltimore is the availability of jobs in construction. Fells Point is still an area where day labourers can be seen waiting on the pavement, hoping to catch a day's employment.

Abdel Pietramartel of Casa Maryland, a Hispanic outreach organisation that helps people find jobs, says he has seen a four-fold rise in his organisation's workload over the last decade.

New arrivals from Ecuador, Honduras and El Salvador are choosing the city ahead of places like Washington DC, Virginia and New Jersey, he believes, because the Hispanic community here is in its relative infancy, and the opportunities that brings.

This is also a factor that attracts would-be businessmen. Many Hispanic traders I met say Maryland offers better opportunities and cheaper rent than some of the other states where Latinos have already settled in large numbers.

Figures quoted by the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce suggest that the number of Hispanic businesses has increased to more than 20,000 in the state, a rise of about 10,000 since 1997.

People power

Nicolas Ramos, who came here 15 years ago, arrived with nothing. As he shows me around his restaurant Arcos, which is on Broadway, he retells the story of how he built a life from scratch.

"A group of us drove from Mexico to Texas in a van. [After that] we went through the south, and we really fell in love with Baltimore.

"I called my restaurant Arcos, meaning arch, to represent the connection between Baltimore and Mexico," he adds.

The impact the Hispanic community is making here is also evident in other parts of the city, where some schools are starting bilingual teaching.

A few miles away from Spanishtown is Greektown. Greek cafes and bakeries line the streets here, but nestled in among them are now a number of Hispanic restaurants and bars.

Nitsa, who opened the Greektown Music Store 30 years ago, has seen many changes. Back then the store was more than a place to buy Greek music and decorations, it was a meeting place.

"There are many other ethnicities here now, but many of the original Greek shops are still here too," she says.

"The area has changed, but it's changed for the best I would think."

As the Hispanic community continues to grow so too does its influence.

It is not yet big enough to have a political impact in Baltimore, but long-term this may change, just as it has in Florida, Texas and California, where Hispanics have been settling for generations.

As a result of population growth revealed in the 2010 census Texas is to be awarded four new seats in the House of Representatives.

Nationwide, one in four newborns is already Hispanic and by 2050, the Census Bureau expects Hispanics to make up one in three of the US population.

If the community in Baltimore continues to grow at the rate seen over the last decade it will be a factor no politician can ignore.

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