READING, Pa. — By 2044, the U.S. will be a majority minority nation. By 2060, 29 percent of the country will be Latino. This coming demographic shift has been the subject of much hand-wringing and “big thinking” in recent years, but for the city of Reading, Pennsylvania, those numbers are already a reality. Nestled in the center of Berks County, Reading had a Latino population of 60 percent in 2014, up from 37 percent in 2000. It is a city living, at least demographically, in the future.
This is likely not a phenomenon that Reading’s residents, largely descended from German stock, would have predicted in 1908 when the city got its pagoda. Sprouting seven stories off the top of Mt. Penn, with neon-lighted eaves and sturdy stone colonnades, it is probably the finest — if only — pagoda in all of southeastern Pennsylvania and the only one in the world to claim a fireplace and chimney, a bit of Pennsylvania-Dutch pragmatism. Built as a resort but unable to secure a liquor license, the pagoda now serves as decorative fancy, a place to snap a picture, smoke a contemplative cigarette or park a car and cop a feel. From up here, Reading looks the part of a small Pennsylvania city nestled in the patch of greater greenery that is Berks County — the streets are neatly laid out, there are steeples scattered here and there. Up close, though, the reality of the city and its county is much more complicated.
If Reading’s demographics are of the future, then the rest of Berks County is decidedly rooted in the present. Overall, the county is 75 percent white, home to a number of affluent Philadelphia bedroom suburbs, including the one where Taylor Swift spent her childhood. Thanks to its stark demographic divide, Berks is living on the political razor’s edge, as well; Mitt Romney won the county narrowly in 2012, 49.5 percent to President Obama’s 49 percent, even as Obama won nationally by 4 percentage points. But this year in Berks, Hillary Clinton has held an average lead over Donald Trump of 41 percent to 38 percent, according to data gathered by the polling firm Morning Consult, just about where her lead stood in the nation overall, on average, when the data was collected (August through early October).
Berks’s own particular political divisions have much to do with its lack of a cohesive identity. Once known for the Reading Railroad, which went out of business in the 1970s, the county’s sense of self is now divided along the stark lines of urban and suburban interests.
“It has become much more of an ‘us and them’ environment between the city and the county,” Pat Giles, chief impact officer at United Way of Berks County, said. “The city is where ‘those folks’ live and the attitude of the suburban and rural folks is not only do they not care about those folks in the city but they have a very negative opinion of who’s living in the city.”
A 2011 New York Times article naming Reading the poorest city in the nation did not help with matters of perception — journalists from as far away as Europe flocked to the city after that, Giles said, attracting an outsized bit of unwanted attention. But unlike other metropolitan areas with diminished industrial bases, Berks County and Reading in particular have not seen a population decline along with its uptick in poverty. This is in large part due to an influx of Latinos moving to the city from New York.
“The rent is too expensive,” Indiana Hernandez, 33, the manager of Lucy’s Barber Shop on North 5th Street in Reading, said of her reasons for leaving the Bronx. She moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 2006, and she said she liked her adopted city well enough — work in the shop was preferable to the waitressing and factory jobs she had in New York, though she’d rather be doing hair in the front of the shop than sitting in the back room, monitoring the security cameras. Another shop employee, Aidee Maria, 39, said that the Bronx was fine for work, but that Reading’s quality of life was preferable.
“I like the flowers,” Maria said of her new hometown, laughing.
When the topic of 2016’s race came up, both women said they were supporting Clinton and thought she would win. With the help of her iPhone’s translation app, I asked Hernandez if she ever worried about the prospect of a Trump presidency.
“Preoccupado?” she asked, peering at the screen to read what I’d typed in. “Yes! No Trump — he wants the Mexican people out.”
Down the street at Reading’s Latino community center, Centro Hispano Daniel Torres, bustling on a weekday morning, a flyer displayed on the reception desk was equally as blunt about the stakes of the 2016 election:
“This election year, many politicians are trying to scapegoat immigrant and Latino communities, instead of addressing our communities’ real issues and needs,” the flyer began. “Can we count on you to vote for respect and dignity on Tuesday November 8th?” A path to citizenship, public school funding, a $15 minimum wage and climate change action were listed as top priorities.
“I think the challenge that the Latino community has is that they just don’t understand the power that they have,” Michael Toledo, executive director of the center, said. “Just the sheer numbers of Latinos that live in the city — the Latino community could absolutely take hold of this city and be agents of positive change if they wanted to.”
The Latino vote in Reading may in fact be what’s pushing Berks further left than it was in 2012.
For now, the primary job of the center, Toledo said, was to help the newly arrived to the city acculturate, something the organization has been doing for 50 years, ever since a group of Puerto Ricans moved to Reading to work the nearby mushroom fields. Toledo’s grandfather was one of these first arrivals to the city, and he has lived in the area all his life.
“What we’re going through right now is no different than what the Irish went through, what the Italians went through,” Toledo said. “But it took those years to acculturate, to assimilate, to be a part of the fabric that is our community.”
The challenges remain steep, though. Reading’s poverty rate is at 40 percent, teen pregnancy is far more common here than it is statewide or nationally, and the graduation rate in the city’s schools is only at 60 percent. Giles said improvement of the school system was one of her priorities; Reading’s young Latino population is the city’s economic future.
“There was a point in time where it was like, ‘Oh my gosh what are we going to do, look at all these people coming here who don’t speak the language, look different, are draining resources,’” she said. “Now I think people are much more willing to recognize that this is our reality and we need to take the best advantage of the fact that we have a younger demographic, we have a growing demographic and more small businesses have been created.”
In other words, the new normal was slowly sinking in. The racial animus of the 2016 election, particularly with respect to immigrant Latino populations, has highlighted what is sure to be at the nexus of the country’s 21st century culture wars: what America should look like, should sound like.
Schools Giles said again, would be the key to a better future for the city, her profession’s mandated hometown optimism bubbling up to meet yet another out-of-town reporter’s skepticism. “I think that’s going to improve, and that in and of itself is going to support a lot of other positive things happening.”
Then she sighed. “I just don’t know it it’s all going to happen quickly enough.“
A 15-minute drive from the Centro Hispano in Reading is Wyomissing, a suburb of shady tree-lined streets, ostentatious Halloween displays and old stone houses set on wide-hipped lots — the stuff of assimilationist American dreams.
Joe Mandrusiak, the GOP field organizer for Berks County, works out of a small office park in the town, which boasts a median household income of $73,000. Most of his efforts, Mandrusiak said, were focused on areas such as Kutztown — median household income $46,000 — at the northeastern part of the county, right near Lehigh County’s Allentown.
“In Berks County outside of Lehigh there were a lot of manufacturing jobs,” he said, an area where it now seems to Mandrusiak as if every third house sports a Trump sign. And internal polls, he said, showed Trump with a lead in the county. “Folks are struggling to get by, and that’s a driving factor for Donald Trump that we see.” Despite a shared sense of economic hardship, though, residents in the outer borough see their struggles as a piece apart from Reading’s.
“To speak bluntly, I think it’s sad to see what Reading has turned into,” Mandrusiak said. “Lots of folks I talked to, whether it be in this Wyomissing area or the southern part of the county, rural parts of the county, they don’t even like to travel into downtown Reading anymore.”
Kevin Murphy, president of the Berks County Community Foundation, had a more optimistic spin on the area’s economic state, one that doesn’t center around a revitalization of Reading but rather embraces the county’s high-suburbia culture.
“I realize the affection for thinking of Pennsylvania as ‘The Deer Hunter,’ but that’s not the story of Southeastern Pennsylvania,” he said. “The story of Southeastern Pennsylvania is a booming economy with high-tech, huge medical research productions.” That New York and Philadelphia are becoming more difficult places for middle-class families to call home was only to Berks County’s advantage. He spoke of horse farms in the area, of new bike paths, Amish buggies and picturesque small towns. “We think we can attract, and we do attract, a kind of entrepreneurial class that’s attracted to the quality of life and the proximity to markets,” Murphy said.
Not all of the county’s towns were doing quite so well, he said, pointing not only to struggling places like Kutztown, but to pockets of rural poverty at the county’s northern and southern extremities. The identity of Berks is essentially balkanized, though, Murphy said, with each town or village identifying more strongly with their school district than as a member of, say, the greater Reading metropolitan area. The fortunes of many places in Berks remain to be seen — hence Trump’s anti-establishment appeal in parts of the county — but they don’t want to be dragged down by an association with Reading’s problems.
“There are 71 [municipalities] in Berks, there are 411,000 people in the county split among these municipalities and the media likes to come and talk about Reading,” Murphy said. “Which would be like coming to Pittsburgh and analyzing the Hill District and saying, ‘and this is what the region looks like.’ Sixty-seven percent of the poor people in Berks County live in this one municipality, so it’s really more like a neighborhood.”
Walking through Reading on a recent afternoon, I passed by all the things you can’t see from the pagoda on top of Mt. Penn. There were the bas relief depictions of the town’s railroad past on the stone walls of a building, posters for cheap collect calls to Central America, and the bustling scene and pawn shops of Penn Square not far from a newly opened luxury Double Tree hotel, a nod to downtown revitalization. There was also, unexpectedly, a pair of Trump signs.
I spotted them outside a dingy building attached to Tommy’s Auto Repair, a garage on North 8th Street, and wandered in.
They belonged, according to Tommy Acevedo, 39, to “the old man who owns the building.” Acevedo, originally from the Dominican Republic, owns the autobody business and a grocery store a few blocks away.
Sitting in the garage office, Acevedo and a few customers argued animatedly about the presidential race as soon as the topic of the Trump signs came up, the election being 2016’s one sure conversational accelerant. They talked Trump’s businessman appeal, Clinton’s emails and the threat of terrorism. Ultimately, though, Acevedo said, “I’m definitely trying to get Hillary in there.”
And the old man’s Trump signs would be coming down soon enough; Acevedo is set to open a car dealership in the front office where they hang. In the end, it didn’t matter much who won, he said.
“I’m just going to come here and work.”