Mayor Jim Kenney shakes hands with his deputy director of immigrant affairs, Hani White, at the opening of the Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub on Feb. 4. (Credit: Mt. Airy USA)
Back in the 1980s, when the city of Philadelphia was still losing population, two areas showed signs that the trend might reverse by posting gains in the 1990 census. One was Center City, the urban core, which would explode with new vitality and younger, affluent residents in the decades that followed. The other was Juniata Park, a working-class neighborhood wedged in between Kensington and Northeast Philadelphia that experienced an influx of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean over the previous decade.
Since then, immigrants from Mexico, South America, Southeast Asia, Russia, India and elsewhere have reshaped and rejuvenated neighborhoods across Philadelphia, much as they have in other American cities. And the entrepreneurial tech-oriented economy, as manifested in co-working spaces like Indy Hall in Old City, has also helped the city stem years of job losses.
So it may well be that the co-working space that recently opened in a former post office in the northwest Philadelphia neighborhood of Mt. Airy was the logical extension of both phenomena.
The space, known as the Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub, or “I-Hub” for short, is the brainchild of Mt. Airy USA, the neighborhood’s community development corporation, in partnership with the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and Finanta, a nonprofit community lender that specializes in serving low- to moderate-income entrepreneurs and homeowners.
Mt. Airy itself is a neighborhood with a reputation for diversity that originates in its successful effort to combat white flight and promote integration in the 1960s, and today it remains a diverse neighborhood both racially and socioeconomically. While it’s in fairly good shape now, Jamie Shanker, Mt. Airy USA’s commercial corridor revitalization and business association manager, said her organization saw signs of trouble on the horizon and wanted to get out in front of them.
“Northwest Philadelphia was experiencing a population loss, and we were looking for creative ways to combat that,” she says. “Also, research showed that immigrants were more likely to be entrepreneurial in starting businesses. So we figured that by providing services to them, we could help them start their businesses and showcase Northwest Philadelphia as a great place to live and work.”
Attendees at the opening reception for the I-Hub (Credit: Mt. Airy USA)
The Immigrant Innovation Hub, then, is what you might call a booster shot for Mt. Airy and environs. “I think Mt. Airy is an amazing community,” Shanker says. “It’s full of people who are supportive and who care. But looking at the numbers and looking a few years down the road, we wanted to come up with something that would preempt [neighborhood decline] and benefit everyone. We want to make sure we don’t have vacancies in storefronts and we want to keep our housing stock strong and healthy.”
The I-Hub itself solves one “vacant storefront” problem. Mt. Airy USA acquired a former post office on Germantown Avenue, the neighborhood’s Main Street, and rehabbed it a few years ago. While part of the building was occupied by a popular coffee roaster, the rest remained empty until the organization filled it with the I-Hub, using the proceeds from a Knight Cities Challenge grant.
Besides the co-working space, the I-Hub offers members education, financial advice and assistance, and help in things like creating business plans and navigating the maze of city licensing and permitting requirements. Finanta provides financial assistance through both loans and workshops, and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians provides education and support through workshops and one-on-one business plan advising. “Some of what they offer involves getting to know local procedures in terms of starting a new business,” Shanker says. “Expertise on these subjects is particularly helpful to those who are new to the city.”
Workspace at the I-Hub (Credit: Mt. Airy USA)
The I-Hub has gotten off to a quick start. “Right now, we have 18 cohort members,” Shanker says. “I believe we do have a few who live in the neighborhood. We do have one gentleman who has lived in Mt. Airy for some time, but they come from all over the city.”
The facility also promotes networking with other members and members of the local business community, again with the hope that some of the entrepreneurs whose firms get off the ground at the I-Hub plant roots in Northwest Philly.
Mt. Airy USA’s aim is for the I-Hub to serve as an immigrant magnet for both immigrants already in Philadelphia and those outside it. “We’re publicizing this to the whole city and beyond, even the suburbs and outside the state,” Shanker says. “Although it’s located in Mt. Airy, we want to target people from all over to promote Mt. Airy and Philadelphia as the immigrant-friendly place.”