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April 16, 2001

Hispanic Influx Slowly Altering a Town Veneer

N.Y. Times

Port Chester, N.Y., April 13 - The Victorian homes near Irving Avenue still retain the clapboard elegance they had when European immigrants helped to build this Westchester County suburb. The village officials are all white, still, and their concerns seem little changed from the days when diversity meant Irish, Jewish or Italian.

But behind many of those Victorian porches are honeycombed apartments, each housing two or three Hispanic families. And though these Hispanic residents express great concern about the village's lack of low-income housing and health care for the poor, Port Chester officials rarely cite these as top priorities.

If one unmistakable story of the 2000 census is the explosive growth of the Hispanic population throughout the suburbs, so, too, is the reality that Hispanics, while increasingly influential in numbers, are practically invisible in many areas of public and political life, particularly in the Northeast. And in few places is that story more dissonant and complicated than in Port Chester, which, despite its old-world veneer, is now the only Westchester community with a plurality of Hispanic residents.

"We're an urban man dressed in rube clothing," said Christopher Rocca, whose family has owned Tarry Lodge, an Italian restaurant here, since 1947. "We're like a small town because we still depend on volunteer firemen, and everybody knows everybody. Then again, you've got an immigrant population, you've got assimilation problems, and you've got some of the telltale problems of an urban population."

Never has Port Chester's split personality been more magnified than in the last month. First, the newly released census showed that the village's Hispanic population jumped to 46 percent from 32 percent in the last decade. Then, in the March 20 elections, a Hispanic village official vying to become the first minority trustee finished last in a field of four.

In Westchester, where the Hispanic population has grown by 56 percent since the 1990 census, the growing pains are far from unique.

"Port Chester is idiosyncratic, but there are lessons to be learned," said Gregory M. Holtz, research director at the Edwin G. Michaelian Institute for Public Policy and Management at Pace University. "Places like Tarrytown or Sleepy Hollow or Ossining can definitely say, `Here are some things that happened in Port Chester, and maybe they're applicable to us.' "

Port Chester's Hispanic population initially coalesced around a nucleus of Cubans who fled Fidel Castro's rule in the 1960's and landed jobs at waterfront factories here. By the 1980's, as the factories closed, Latin Americans began to achieve critical mass, lured by jobs in restaurants and landscaping, particularly in affluent neighbors like Rye and Greenwich, Conn.

Port Chester's Hispanic population was 12,884 in 2000, up from 3,670 in 1980 - an increase of more than 350 percent. The proportion of Hispanics in the overall population rose to 46 percent from 16 percent.

During the same period, the proportion of non-Hispanic whites dropped to 43 percent from 70 percent.

And community leaders say that if illegal immigrants missed by the census are counted, Port Chester's population of 28,000 is probably closer to 35,000, more than 50 percent of which is Hispanic. Its population density of 11,817 people per square mile, which ranks second in Westchester to Mount Vernon, equals that of Newark or Philadelphia.

To wander through this compact 2.4-square-mile village is to see, smell and hear the continental divide between Port Chester past and present. Downtown Port Chester used to be a major shopping destination, shouldered by blue-collar Italian-Americans. But now, the downtown, with Spanish as the predominant tongue, sprouts bodegas, Salvadoran and Peruvian restaurants and phone card businesses.

Port Chester has become such a magnet for Latin Americans, in fact, that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of residents are from one area alone: Cuenca, Ecuador.

"Everybody knows about Port Chester in Cuenca," said Gladys Aguirre, 38, who immigrated here six years ago and lives with her husband, two children and brother in a small two-bedroom apartment that rents for $1,050 a month.

Ms. Aguirre has mixed feelings about Port Chester because of the drug dealers in her neighborhood and what she and other Port Chester residents say are high rents, although they do not seem substantially greater than in similar communities, like White Plains and Mount Vernon. "We can't find anything less expensive," said Ms. Aguirre, who works as a housekeeper while her husband does landscaping jobs. "But we are here for the children."

With poor public transportation, it is often hard and expensive to get around the village and county. Many new immigrants do not drive or own cars, and must rely on taxis from one of four taxi companies here.

Shelter, food and health care are dicey propositions. The Rev. Rafael Garcia, pastor of the Summerfield United Methodist Church, says his church's food pantry serves 130 families a week, up from 40 families when the pantry opened five years ago.

There are perhaps half a dozen boardinghouses in the village, with rents of $400 to $500 a month. Sometimes, apartments are so crowded that people take turns sleeping.

"The conditions under which people live are deplorable," Mr. Garcia said. "Housing is a big issue because the government doesn't want to build more affordable housing."

The pantry at the Port Chester Carver Center, a community center, serves 50 to 100 people a week. On a recent day, Marcela Quiroga, a new undocumented immigrant from Argentina, had arrived early after taking a cab from her apartment, where seven people share two bedrooms. Because her husband, a painter, was finding only spotty work in Greenwich, she needed help, she said, procuring milk, rice and noodles.

"We have friends, and our church helps, but this helps me a lot," Ms. Quiroga, 24, said nervously in Spanish, while cradling her 1-month-old son.

Food is not the only mission at the Carver Center; other offerings include a day care center and a program for pregnant teenagers. Port Chester has the county's second- highest teenage pregnancy rate, as well as the second-lowest median household income. Yet the Carver Center, which was founded in 1943 to serve the once-sizable African- American community, is virtually alone in providing these types of services, and receives no financial support from the village.

"It's unfortunate that we're the only game in town," said Jill Beltran, the center's executive director.

A few years ago, the nonprofit Open Door Family Medical Center wanted to establish a downtown presence to complement its clinics in Sleepy Hollow and Ossining, communities that ranked second and third countywide in the proportion of Hispanics in the 2000 census. Thwarted by tax and zoning concerns, Open Door reluctantly opted for a glass office building in Rye Brook. It can cost Port Chester residents $7 or $8 for a round-trip ride between downtown and the Rye Brook clinic.

The clinic opened six years ago with two doctors; now, six doctors are barely enough for its patients, mostly immigrants living in Port Chester. "We underestimated the size of the demand," said Lindsay C. Farrell, Open Door's president and chief executive.

Despite the Hispanic population's growth, Port Chester's Board of Trustees is all white. The same is true of the school board. And there are few, if any, bilingual brochures, signs or employees in Village Hall.

Last month, Port Chester's official liaison to Hispanics, Cesar Ruiz, finished fourth in a four-way election for village trustee. But Mr. Ruiz, a Peruvian immigrant who owns and operates a sandwich truck, vowed to run again, and to encourage immigrants to register to vote. Only about 10 percent of registered voters in Port Chester are Hispanic.

"We're in two worlds - theirs and ours - and in ours there is no representation," said Mr. Ruiz. "But I'm telling people, `You're the majority now, and you've got to do something.' " He has just formed a committee, Minorities for the Future of Port Chester, to informally lobby local officials about issues of concern to Hispanics and other immigrant residents.

The new mayor, Gerald L. Logan Sr., 63, a securities broker and political novice who defeated the three- term Democratic incumbent, Christine Korff, has an ambitious agenda for the seven-member trustee board, where Republicans now hold a 4-3 majority. He said his priorities include: completion of a downtown redevelopment project, now under way, that is to include a Costco warehouse store; private construction of upscale housing to attract more professionals; creation of a center for the elderly; quality-of-life issues, like recycling and street beautification; and recruitment of more volunteer firefighters.

"We want to look and smell good," Mr. Logan said. "As you travel around this community, and you look at the residential areas, it has that village look about it."

Later, when asked about issues relevant to Hispanics, Mr. Logan mentioned two: education and day laborers. He said he wanted to educate Hispanics without burdening taxpayers. And while he applauded the day laborers' determination, he said they were not burnishing the village's image.

"The areas that they hang out on are not the areas where the village prefers them to be," he said. "I want to discuss this with the board, how to approach it not in a confrontational way, but in a sensitive way."

Several non-Hispanic residents, as well as some longtime Cuban-American ones, echoed Mr. Logan's sentiments that Port Chester needed to accommodate, but not pamper, its newest immigrants.

Mr. Rocca, of the Tarry Lodge, credited Hispanics with reviving a downtown that was plagued by rowdy bars and shuttered businesses 20 years ago. But it is more important now, he said, to fortify the tax base.

And just as his grandparents overcame a language barrier and other obstacles to join the mainstream when they arrived from Italy, so, too, should newer immigrants, he said.

"It's an American thing," he said. "It's not that you don't want to welcome people, but it's human nature. You make things too easy, people will take things for granted."

Some public agencies and officials are trying to do more for the new immigrants. The police department recently installed a bilingual voice mail system, and is trying to attract more Hispanic officers to the 60- member force. There are currently seven Hispanic officers, Police Chief Joseph M. Krzeminski said.

The school district, the first in Westchester to mail a bilingual newsletter to parents, has won awards for its bilingual programs for a student body that is now 62 percent Hispanic, up from 39 percent 10 years ago, said Charles D. Coletti, superintendent of schools.

Volunteer organizations have emerged, too, including Special Deliveries, which organizes baby showers for pregnant Hispanic immigrants lacking cribs, strollers, diapers and clothing. Kathleen Steinman, who co-founded Special Deliveries last year, said that her group had so far staged three showers for 15 women, including one in March.

"Maybe we weren't prepared for it, or maybe this came on too quickly," she said of the pace of change in her hometown. "I live a mile away from these people, but you wouldn't know we live in the same community."

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