An “extremely upset” resident in Upper Darby Township called municipal officials a couple of weeks ago with a complaint: An Indian neighbor was hanging clothes to dry in the front yard. The caller and other neighbors thought it wasn’t a good look for their street and wanted the township to do something about it.
Nathaniel Goodson, chairman of the township’s Multicultural Commission, said he planned to talk to the family members and let them know that wasn’t how residents dried laundry in the Delaware County community. Respecting newer residents' ways while keeping local traditional norms is a balancing act for township officials, he said.
As the region’s second-largest municipality, Upper Darby has substantial and growing numbers of immigrants from Asian and African countries as well as increasing populations of Latinos and African Americans. Residents of Upper Darby speak more than 80 languages and dialects, township officials say. Since the last census, the population of people of color has surpassed the number of white residents in the historically Italian and Irish township — following a regional, and national, trend.
Among the 341 municipalities in the eight-county region, 306 of them have seen increases in minority populations in the last five years, according to the American Community Survey estimates released by census officials this month. In addition to Upper Darby and others in Delaware County, it shows towns in Burlington County have experienced significant minority growth.
The changes have wrought opportunities — and misunderstandings. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that everything is perfect,” said Goodson, who called Upper Darby’s four-year-old commission a “bridge” between communities of various cultures and township officials. ”There have been some challenges.”
In 1990, people of color outnumbered white people in 10 of the region’s municipalities, and that number increased to 19 in 2000, and 30 in 2017, according to census estimates. That tracks with national trends: The Census Bureau predicts the country will become “majority-minority” in 2044, with the number of racial minorities projected to rise to 56 percent of the population in 2060.
Less than 10 percent of the region’s towns saw drops in the minority share of their populations. Collegeville, Montgomery County, had the biggest drop in its share of people of color — from 39 percent in 2000 to 20 percent. Chesterfield Township, Burlington County, is no longer majority-minority, as it was in the 2000 census.
Upper Darby; Burlington Township, Burlington County; and Winslow Township, Camden County, are the most populous of the seven municipalities that have become majority-minority since the 2010 Census.
Local leaders said they are working to make sure the members of their township boards and city councils reflect their shifting populations. Some are increasingly translating information into new languages, addressing communities' changing needs, and working to earn the trust of people for whom mistrust of authority is ingrained. Upper Darby established a “welcome center” 15 years ago as a more inviting place where wary immigrants can go for services, rather than climb the steps of an intimidating government building.
The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission recently partnered with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. to translate signs and bring interpreters to public meetings for a Vine Street Expressway project. The commission has worked with the Spanish-language news outlet Al Día to inform North Philadelphia residents how to protect themselves from air pollution.
As more immigrants move to the region, differing cultural norms could present new zoning and code challenges, said Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. For example, extended families wanting to live together could face problems in communities zoned for mostly smaller single-family homes. Or a family may want to paint a front door in a color a municipality doesn’t allow. These are issues officials need to consider, Seymour said.
“From a planning perspective, what we and most folks now are trying to do is to try to understand the diversity of populations that are out there and what are their specific needs and what are the specific accommodations or actions you need to take to address those needs,” he said.
Communities have found that diversity begets diversity, drawing more people of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, as well as those who want to live in such a community, officials said.
Residents have seen changes over time in the types of restaurants, grocery stores, clothing shops, and houses of worship in their communities.
A large Sikh population has moved to Burlington Township and spurred the designation of “Sikh Day" to mark a holy day in Sikhism. Winslow Township got its first mosque a couple of years ago.
Winslow Mayor Barry Wright said township leaders are responsible for making sure no group feels disenfranchised and for helping to bring residents together throughout the township’s nearly 60 square miles. He speaks Spanish and said “it really breaks down barriers.”
Wright and his business partners paid for two billboards, including one along Route 73, that proclaim: “Hate has no home in Winslow Twp. Diversity is our strength."
Last year, Upper Darby started its annual International Festival.
The township of more than 80,000 continues to adjust to its growing diversity, said Goodson, the Multicultural Commission chief. Still, he said he hasn’t encountered many incidents like the recent laundry complaint.
“We believe the strength of Upper Darby, the reason we are as powerful as we are is because of our diversity,” Goodson said. "And we celebrate that diversity.”