Penn urban studies class takes new look at century-old Italian Market

In a new urban studies class in the School of Arts & Sciences, professor Kushanava Choudhury and his undergraduate students use the classroom as a lab for doing original social science research.

The class of six asked: How are immigrants playing a role in the city’s revitalization?

It all started with one simple, statistical point, Choudhury says. For the first time in decades, Philadelphia’s population is growing. But if you look closely at the data, it is evident that the native-born population is actually continuing to decline while the foreign-born population is increasing.

Following traditional forms of study, Choudhury and his class looked to a small, but popular area in South Philadelphia to try to answer the big question.

The Italian Market neighborhood is burgeoning with new faces from all walks of life. Studies show that there has been a decline in vacancies and crime in the area, and it is experiencing more foot traffic, increased property values, and better efforts to keep the area clean. Choudhury says it’s the perfect place to examine how immigrants are helping transform Philadelphia.

“Instead of me lecturing or assigning tons of readings, class time was spent in the first part of the semester discussing the larger issues, learning research methods, and generating appropriate research questions,” Choudhury says. “After the midterm, we used class time to work on our individual projects, discuss problems, share data, present preliminary findings and get continual feedback, much like in a [fine arts or architecture] studio.”

The students presented the initial findings of their research on May 1 to a room of more than a dozen members from the University community, neighborhood, and city.

Emily Grablutz, an urban studies and linguistics student, looked at the Vietnamese population in the Italian Market area as a case study for what is happening in the region.

For instance, she found that many Vietnamese residents of the area are actually choosing to work in the suburbs.

Anisa Salat, an urban studies student at Bryn Mawr College, who will be starting as a master’s in city planning student at Penn in the fall, looked at the Italian Market area as an incubator for new immigrants, prepping them for growth.

A number of interviews with community members spurred interesting discussion questions, touching on the Italian Market brand, efficiency of the area, and what is expected of the area in the future.

Diana Bustos, an urban studies major, traced the growth of the Latino immigrant business community, and gave examples of how it has been a major contributor for the revitalization of the Italian Market.

Bustos partnered with Claire Greenberg, a philosophy, politics, and economics student, to conduct a survey of 49 business owners. The duo asked questions, such as why the owner decided to start a business, why he or she decided to settle in the Italian Market area, and to name disadvantages of working in the particular area.

Greenberg also studied the entrepreneurship perspective of the area’s business owners. Her main finding was that breaking even—not profit—is their primary concern.

Sean Lynch, a computer science student, looked at the digital revitalization of the Italian Market area. One example he used is that although people aren’t as engaged with one another as much as in the past at, say, a restaurant or bar, they are still talking about these places through online outlets, such as the review app Yelp.

Jake Riley, a sociology student, placed the case studies in the larger context of the city, where foreign-born populations are increasing in two-thirds of the census tracts. Using GIS mapping, he showed a correlation between immigrant populations, low crime, and increased commercial activity across Philadelphia.

The presentations were followed with an open discussion with the audience.

“This is not an answer to the question,” Choudhury says of the students’ research. “This is, I would say, a new way to look at something we haven’t really looked at in much depth before.”

Italian Market