Olney: United Out of Diversity

The corner of North Fifth and Chew Streets at sunset.

It’s different here.

Seven miles north of City Hall and almost a mile east from Broad Street lies Olney. The city’s grid system has broken down, with the Roosevelt Boulevard zooming to the south. After several winding blocks of desolation and abandonment, Fifth Street – a bustling, erratic relic of Philadelphia’s history – emerges.

Korean businesses dot the Olney skyline.
Korean businesses dot the Olney skyline.

Olney feels like a microcosm of Philadelphia, North Fifth Street its miniature Broad Street, with people buzzing and neon signs humming through the night.

The city’s vibrant eclecticism is reflected in Olney, too. The neighborhood boasts the most ethnic profile of all Philly’s neighborhoods: 50 percent black, 26 percent Latino, 13 percent Asian, 6 percent white and the remainder multiracial.

But these statistics are only a piece of the neighborhood’s puzzling past and present. And it didn’t always look like this.

When John Rossi was growing up in the 1940s, the neighborhood mostly consisted of Irish, German and Italian immigrants.

“Of course there were no African Americans in Olney,” Rossi wrote in his childhood memoirs. “The only ones I knew were the trash men and the pants presser who worked down the corner for Sam the Tailor.”

Rossi’s ’40s and ’50s no longer exist. Since the days of stickball and 25-cent movies, Olney has hosted several waves of immigration, with its ornate German architecture in the backdrop.

Black Migration and Immigration

Industry boomed through the mid-century. Heintz Manufacturing and others built factories in the neighborhood as the city urbanized. But by the 1960s, deindustrialization pushed factories out, and so went the Irish and German skilled laborers. Property prices plummeted. African-Americans, pushed out by gentrification of nearby areas, migrated to Olney.

Between 1980 and 2000, Olney’s black population grew from 700 to approximately 16,000. Twenty-two percent in 2000 were foreign-born immigrants from Haiti and Jamaica.

During the same time span, Olney experienced significant white flight: the white population fell from nearly 30,000 in 1980 to 5,400 in 2000.

fa1301Olney_Infograph‘Koreatown’ and the Southeast Asian Boom

Philly’s industrial golden age wasn’t welcoming to non-European immigrants. They faced stiff competition from Irish Americans in skilled labor, especially shipbuilding, and high property prices discouraged entrepreneurs. Unlike most other East Coast cities at the turn of the century, Philadelphia experienced relatively low rates of immigration.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the National Origins Formula, a federal act regulating the influx of immigrants to maintain the country’s ethnic makeup, which was active between 1921 and 1965.

By the late ’70s, though, waves of Southeast Asian immigrants flooded Philly’s neighborhoods. Between 1983 and 1989, 8,561 Korean, 3,615 Vietnamese and 2,400 Cambodian immigrants sought refuge in metro Philadelphia, based on data from the Brookings Institute.

Government agencies placed these refugees in “open housing in borderland areas,” where the combination of gentrification and job loss had already pushed lower income residents out, Dan Amsterdam of the Philadelphia Migration Project wrote.

Wedged between black and wealthy neighborhoods, the city’s Korean community – once centralized in Logan – “struggled to make an already difficult cultural adjustment amidst existing black-white racial animosity and economic tension,” Amsterdam wrote.

Within 20 years, the Korean community left Logan and dominated Olney’s North Fifth Street commercial corridor, and the area was soon dubbed “Koreatown.”

Despite a growing presence, racial tension persisted.

In 1986,  the Korean Association of Greater Philadelphia paid for and placed the street signs translated to Korean in the commercial corridor to assist elderly immigrants.

Fear sparked out of the perceived takeover of the neighborhood, and non-Korean residents vandalized and destroyed the signs. Then-Mayor Wilson Goode’s administration removed the signs three weeks later.

While some merchants decided to embed themselves deeper in the neighborhood, many more fled to other areas. While Olney’s Southeast Asian population continued to grow – to 19,516 in 2006 – the once-thriving Korean enclave largely migrated to Cheltenham, though many of their businesses remain on Fifth Street

The corner of North Fifth and Chew Streets at sunset.
The corner of North Fifth and Chew streets at sunset.

Latin Americas

Olney also is home to several  Latin American enclaves, specifically Colombians escaping violence and terrorism at home. While the first wave came with the Immigration and Nationality Act, a more dominant influx came in the early 1980s and established pockets in Olney to join families who came earlier and to escape ongoing drug-related violence. 

In 2000, the Colombian population citywide totaled 2,414.

Recent census data indicates 6,149 persons were born in Latin America and now live in the 19120 ZIP code, which serves Olney, Lawncrest and Feltonville.

Olney is also home to a prominent Puerto Rican community – the largest concentration of which is along Second and Fifth Streets just south of the Roosevelt Boulevard. In 2000, Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican population was 91,527, and in 2010, 6,264 of Olney’s residents were born in Puerto Rico.

The most palpable evidence of Olney’s Latino population is Olney Charter High School. What was once Olney High East and West is now one of the city’s almost 80 charter schools. ASPIRA Inc. of PA took over the divided public school in 2011. The organization was founded in 1961 in an effort to address and counteract the “exceedingly high dropout rate and low educational attainment of Puerto Rican youth.”


Butanese, West African, Burmese, Bangladeshi, Korean, Vietnamese and refugees of so many other homelands have come through Olney. The Lutheran Children and Family Service, at 5401 Rising Sun Ave., offers a variety of refugee services to those granted refuge in the States. Once arriving to LCFS, the organization provides housing and employment assistance, and often, foster care for children displaced by violence.

“[Children in foster care] can never be adopted because it’s possible their parents are still alive, but the disruption of war has made them missing, or nobody knows if relatives will turn up,” Janet Panning, of LCFS Refugee Services, said.

‘Out of Many, One People’

Yes, it’s certainly different here in Olney.

But out of a puzzling, oft-violent past emerged harmony, collaboration, understanding.

Zion Cuisine's jerk chicken, rice and beans and macaroni. The restaurant smokes its meat outside for a traditional jerk taste.
Zion’s Cuisine’s jerk chicken, rice and beans and macaroni. The restaurant smokes its meat outside for a traditional jerk taste.

Randolph Fisher, a Kingston, Jamaica-native, moved to Olney four years ago, and is the current president of the Jamaica Pennsylvania Association.

“Jamaica’s motto is ‘out of many, one people,’ and being in this neighborhood on a daily basis doing business sends that positive message out that together we collaborate,” Fisher said.

Indeed, in a city where multiracial proximity often explodes in violence – like the aggression against South Philly High School’s Asian students in 2010 – Olney and its residents seem to have broken the mold.

Fisher, an employee at Zion’s Cuisine, a traditional Jamaican restaurant at 438 W. Tabor Rd., attributes much of this collaboration to food.

“You have many Chinese restaurants, you have Jamaican restaurants, you have other ethnic restaurants – Italian and other varieties, so then everyone is able to share this diverse culture,” he said. “I’ll eat Chinese food, Chinese people eat our food and so it goes on and on.”


1 Comment

  1. I grew up in the Olney School District. I went to Olney Elementary School. I lived at 142 East Ruscomb St, back in the days when they first started bussing the colored students in to our school’s!! It was already a diverse area. I have been back to Philly only once since we left. But I still remember the good times and the bad! I also remember scaling the football fields wall that also had iron gates that stayed locked. I also remember the fights that would break out down after dark. The street gangs would be welding brass knuckles,belts , chains, knives just about anything they could !!! When we were growing up as soon as the street lights came on you better be home fast .That is when all hell broke loose. But I now live in Texas and would not trade it for anything!! I would still like to have a real Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich I miss those days and a great big pickle on the side!! Those were the days my friend, those were the days!!!

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