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Pittsburgh region struggles to refill melting pot

Monday, May 14, 2001

By Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the sprawling Carriage Park Apartments complex in Scott, Kishor Pokharna finds an even richer tapestry of his homeland than he can see on return visits to India.

In the past five years, hundreds of Indians have settled among Carriage Park's 953 units after arriving here to work for South Hills technology firms and other companies, many of them operated by Indians themselves. While India itself is separated into states where people have different languages, customs and foods, they all blend together around the tennis courts and clubhouse at Carriage Park, Pokharna says.

Kishor Pokharna and his wife Renu accompany their son Rahul, 4, and daughter Pooja, 6, on a bicycle ride through the Carriage Park Apartments complex in Scott. Hundreds of Indians, after finding work in South Hills technology firms and other companies, have settled in the complex's 953 units in recent years. "You get to see the whole of India here now, and that's the beauty of it, plus all the Americans and Indians living in one place together here in harmony," Kishor Pokharna said. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

But Carriage Park is a rarity in a region which started the 20th century as a melting pot.

In fact, Pittsburgh has entered the new century as one of the least ethnically and racially diverse metropolitan areas in the country.

Now, officials from local foundations and business organizations have started discussing the region's lack of immigration as a problem rather than a mere statistic, although their talks have been spurred largely by the 2000 census numbers showing that Pittsburgh was one of the few large metropolitan areas to lose population during the last 10 years.

Advocates for immigration believe persuading more foreigners to settle here -- including students at local colleges, foreigners living elsewhere in the United States and those still in their native countries -- could give the region more political clout by adding to population numbers, could fill labor shortages in various skilled trades and the service economy, and could make Pittsburgh a more vibrant, cosmopolitan city.

"The bottom line is, this is a relatively new issue on people's minds," said Grant Oliphant, spokesman for the Heinz Endowments, which has just approved grants totaling $800,000 for four local organizations to work on projects related to international immigration.

"It's a challenging issue, challenging us to get outside some of our comfort zones and start thinking about transforming this community to become the ethnically diverse place we believe you have to be in the 21st century," Oliphant said.

Low immigrant growth

While the region's top universities, medical centers and software firms have attracted their share of physicians, engineers and other well-educated professionals from India, China, South America and elsewhere in recent years, there's no across-the-board growth in Asians, Hispanics and other foreigners such as other cities have experienced.

The U.S. Hispanic population grew by 58 percent from 1990 to 2000, but by just 28 percent within Allegheny County, according to census data released earlier this year. The population of Asian background grew faster locally, but is still less than half the percentage of Asians nationally.

Census data and immigration estimates analyzed separately by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University place Pittsburgh at or near the bottom of rankings among large metropolitan areas for both the amount of annual immigration to the area and the percentage of foreign-born workers in its labor force.

Demographers and advocates for the region's growth say some of the factors making Pittsburgh an immigration laggard have been a lack of economic opportunities that would attract a large number of immigrants, an outdated image abroad as a polluted manufacturing center and too little outreach to the international community already here.

There have been concerns that outsiders have not felt welcome in Pittsburgh, especially since the start of the economic downturn in the 1970s.

But interviews with a variety of recent immigrants for this story did not turn up experiences of hostility or discomfort, even though many foreign-born residents were afraid after the shooting spree of Richard Baumhammers focused on racial and ethnic minorities a year ago.

In recent days, Pokharna has become a spokesman for the Indian community in reacting to the jury's conviction and death sentence for Baumhammers.

And despite the fear the shootings evoked, most Indians living in the Carriage Park complex feel welcome, said Pokharna, a self-employed diamond wholesaler who is a naturalized U.S. citizen with a wife and two children.

As more and more immigrants came to the region for jobs, they were attracted to the Scott apartments because they were secure, convenient to workplaces and Downtown, and close to public transportation. The smell of Indian spices now wafts through the hallways at dinnertime, and the complex has its own cricket team to play against other groups of Indians.

"It was like -- boom -- there's lots of Indians here," Pokharna recalled realizing a few years ago. "You get to see the whole of India here now, and that's the beauty of it, plus all the Americans and Indians living in one place together here in harmony."

Those who have, get

But even if the region is fairly friendly to newcomers, it's hard to attract many immigrants when you don't have many to begin with.

The biggest source of relocations to America is family members joining those who have already immigrated. Immigrants also tend to go where the domestic population is growing, because that's where the best job opportunities are, noted Jeff Passel, a demographer for the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

"Right now, most [U.S.] immigrants are coming from Latin America, and the second biggest source of immigrants is Asia. Pittsburgh doesn't have a large number of either one of those," Passel said. "It doesn't have the kind of settled, recently arrived immigrant community to help attract others."

A study by the Urban Institute estimated about 2 percent of metropolitan Pittsburgh's population is foreign-born, compared with 10 percent for the nation as a whole.

Of an estimated 52,000 immigrants in the six-county area, about 27 percent were estimated to have arrived in the previous decade. By comparison, twice as high a percentage of immigrants arrived in Columbus, Ohio; Atlanta, Minneapolis and Kansas City within those 10 years.

The Hillman Foundation, Pittsburgh Regional Alliance and some local groups representing international citizens have joined the Heinz Endowments in discussions this year about how to address the issue. Philanthropist Elsie Hillman hosted a luncheon for business executives and policy makers last month at which Shashi Tripathi, the New York-based consul general of India, told them where part of Pittsburgh's problem lies.

"The image of Pittsburgh as a steel city still persists," Tripathi said. "I think Pittsburgh has a lot going for it -- it's green, it's lovely -- but I think you need to send the message across that this city and state need people. I don't think that message has yet gotten out."

The grants approved by the Heinz Endowments in recent weeks include $150,000 to the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh to reach out to local international groups and provide community education about diversity; $200,000 to the Pittsburgh Council for International Visitors to help arrange local business internships for some of the several thousand international students studying in Pittsburgh; $200,000 to the El Centro Hispano-Latino organization to assist members of the Hispanic community taking jobs locally; and $250,000 to Duquesne University's Center for Competitive Workforce Development to study how to develop more job opportunities for immigrants and low-income individuals.

Filling blue-collar jobs

High-growth areas such as Nashville, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C., have been attracting large numbers of Hispanics and other immigrants into jobs in the construction, hospitality and food-processing industries. While Pittsburgh's general labor needs are not as wide, economic analysts say there would still be plenty of opportunities for machinists, welders and other tradesmen if they could be persuaded to come here.

Up to now, local immigration has tended to skim the cream of other nations, attracting well-educated professionals who blend in among the middle-class and affluent populations of city neighborhoods and suburbs. The local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is preparing a report that will note that the average Hispanic household in Allegheny County had income measuring 89 percent of the income of non-Hispanic white households in 1990, while Hispanics nationally have incomes worth just 61 percent of those of white households.

But Roger Cranville, vice president for international business development for the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, said it's just as important that the region attract blue-collar workers as those who are highly skilled if it wants to replace its aging work force.

"When people get here, they love the place -- it's just getting them here that's the problem," he said.

Complicating the picture is that even if the region could persuade masses of foreigners to resettle here -- and no one has figured out a strategy for doing that -- national immigration restrictions would make it difficult for many to come.

The three primary visa allocations are for individuals sponsored by family members already living in the United States, for workers sponsored by businesses for specific jobs they can hold for up to six years and for refugees granted political asylum. About 800,000 legal immigrants a year have been permitted into the United States in recent years, most of them through family ties.

Immigration advocates say they're unfamiliar with any cities that have started out with low immigration levels and campaigned successfully to become a magnet for foreigners.

"I don't know if a community could just do outreach and get people to come," said Angela Kelley, deputy director for policies and programs for the nonprofit National Immigration Forum. "I bet if you could get a core community, though, more people would follow."

The local foundation and business representatives working on the issue say that because the issue crosses political lines and doesn't fall into any traditional department of local government, it's up to them to pull together the necessary forces to attack the issue. Because they started from scratch, however, their initial work has just been to try to raise community awareness of the topic.

"We're making this up as we go along," explained Schuyler Foerster, president of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.

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