As you depart Manhattan on the George Washington Bridge, a brief interval on I-95 takes you to Exit 69 for I-80, the access point to New Jersey’s third-largest city, Paterson, and ultimately to the Delaware Water Gap, a geologically arresting gateway to Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. Following Pennsylvania’s toll bridge, you’ll pass billboards for resorts, outlet stores, and chain restaurants along a highway lined by hemlocks, mountain laurel, and birch trees. Westward, all road signs direct drivers toward Hazleton, a small city located near the crossroads of I-80 and I-81, one of the East Coast’s busiest intersections for truck traffic.
Centrally situated in northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, Hazleton (population 25,000) sits on a plateau named Spring Mountain and boasts of being the most elevated incorporated city in the state. To first-time visitors or passing drivers, Hazleton presents itself as a compact vista of hilly blocks, packed with duplex homes, bungalows, and ornate church steeples, designating allegiance to the Latin or Eastern Rite. Its surroundings make a dramatic contrast of picturesque agricultural valleys, dense forests, and landscapes scarred by coal operations.
With a population long dominated by the descendants of European immigrants, Hazleton has been radically transformed since the early 2000s by secondary chain migration, principally driven by Dominicans—immigrants, both legal and illegal, as well as second- and third-generation citizens arriving from the New York metropolitan area. In 2000, Hispanics made up less than 5 percent of Hazleton’s population; they now account for more than 50 percent. Such rapid and dramatic demographic shifts are rare in U.S. cities. For Hazleton, the consequences have been profound, and the city is struggling to cope.
Known as the Crossroads of the East, Hazleton is a city shaped by numerous historical cycles, from its formation as a remote mountainous village to its emergence as a center for commerce and innovation during the Industrial Age. With the collapse of its coal industry, it then became a stable, if declining, community during the postindustrial era. It was long an ethnically diverse city, with a rich variety of Christian denominations and an active Jewish community, and took pride in its working-class history and civic spirit. In a study of Hazleton in 1981, anthropologist Dan Rose observed that the “ethnic flavor of the anthracite era persists, and the investigator can still discern ethnic groups niched into the present political economy as they were in the nineteenth century.” Rose called Hazleton an “anthropological field worker’s delight,” finding it “both a city like other American cities and a place wholly set apart. The citizens have a deep awareness of these dichotomies and a vital sense of their place within them.”
Hazleton native Joe Maddon recalled the city’s almost tribal identity and pride during a news conference when he was named as the Chicago Cubs’ manager. The distinctive Hazletonian culture stems from a shared experience. The various European immigrant groups in Hazleton were united—and assimilated into American life—by mining work, the labor movement, high levels of military service, and the community’s churches and fraternal organizations. Coal-region communities like Hazleton, historian Harold Aurand wrote, took pride in “self-reliance, a strong work ethic, a capacity to save born out of a psychology of scarcity, a deep commitment to family, a sense of community, and strong religious ties.”
The city landmark that best symbolizes this history is St. Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church on Hazleton’s South Side. For over 150 years, the church has served as a processing station for immigrant newcomers. The current church, completed in 1927, magnificently commands the city’s skyline with its pinnacled towers, copper spires, and centrally placed rose window. St. Gabriel’s architectural scale testifies to the historical size of its congregation. Founded in 1855 by Philadelphia’s Bishop John Neumann, a canonized saint in the Church, St. Gabriel’s was Hazleton’s first Catholic parish. Gaelic-speaking Irish immigrants introduced Catholicism here, having arrived to work as mine laborers from Ireland’s County Donegal, an isolated pocket in northwest Ulster. In Hazleton, the Ulster immigrants settled in the wooded cluster around St. Gabriel’s, and their neighborhood became known as Donegal Hill.
Throughout the twentieth century, St. Gabriel’s remained associated with the city’s Irish population. Looking to court favor during negotiations or campaigns, union bosses and politicians regularly visited the parish. St. Gabriel’s produced Pennsylvania’s first Catholic lieutenant governor, Thomas Kennedy, who later became national president of the United Mine Workers. In the 1960s, St. Gabriel’s High School hired a young Digger Phelps to coach basketball. Phelps placed shamrocks on the boys’ uniforms, portending his later role coaching Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish. At the entrance to St. Gabriel’s today, the choir-loft door contains a large frosted etching of St. Patrick—a tribute to the parish’s cultural past.
But the parish is no longer Irish. Beyond the stained-glass windows, past the Italian marbled main altar and suspended bronze light fixtures, is an ornately designed side altar honoring Our Lady of Altagracia (Our Lady of High Grace). The altar’s painting emulates a display in a Dominican Republic basilica. Mary is the patron saint of the Caribbean country. The altar fits in well at a parish where priests today hold Sunday mass in Spanish.
As recently as the early 1990s, St. Gabriel’s held monthly Spanish masses for perhaps 50 Hispanic parishioners. The neighborhood remained predominantly Irish, with its older residents spending summer afternoons on their porches on South Wyoming Street or South Laurel Street. By 2010, the church, along with the surrounding neighborhood, had been transformed by secondary Hispanic migration. Though many Dominican residents have ties to San José de Ocoa, a city on the island, they are typically Dominican-Americans from the New York metropolitan region.
Dominicans started moving to New York City in the 1960s, fleeing the Dominican Republic’s political upheaval and mass poverty, just as Congress passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, a major policy reform that unleashed family-based chain migration in the United States. Mass chain migration resulted in Dominicans becoming Gotham’s second-largest Hispanic group by 1992. Many moved to northern Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, which transformed into a Dominican outpost, with bodegas, Pentecostal congregations, restaurants, and cab fleets bearing a Dominican cultural stamp. The Dominican New Yorkers tended to isolate themselves in the neighborhood, preserving their island culture with the aid of modern communications. A 2002 SUNY Albany study on Hispanic residential patterns found that, compared with other Hispanic immigrant groups, Dominicans had higher levels of residential segregation. The “average Dominican,” the report noted, “lives in a neighborhood where only one of eight residents is a non-Hispanic white.” Doubtless as a partial consequence of its isolation, the Dominican community has lower levels of income and higher unemployment, and receives public assistance to a greater degree, than other Hispanic groups.
While New York has enjoyed sustained prosperity and plunging crime rates since the mid-1990s, Washington Heights has remained relatively unsafe and impoverished, and its public schools are dismal. Over time, facing these urban woes, more and more Dominican residents wanted to escape. The September 11 attacks intensified that desire.
Hazleton’s low crime rate, affordable housing, stable schools, idyllic neighborhoods, and proximity to New York made it a perfect choice for relocation. In 1990, just 249 Hispanics lived in Hazleton, making up 1 percent of the city’s residents. But the earliest New York transplants loved their new home. “Most people in New York City think life in Pennsylvania as we’re living it is a dream,” a new resident told the Hazleton Standard-Speaker in 1991. “I can sit down in my house, open my door, watch TV to 10 or 11 at night. I don’t have to worry about someone walking in shooting me, ripping me off.” Another Hispanic transplant said that Hazleton should prepare for mass migration. “People of Hazleton have to realize we are going to keep pouring in,” he told the Standard-Speaker. “If not they have to learn we are just as free as they are. They can’t deny us anything. They have to start dealing with us. If they don’t deal with us, push has come to shove, and we’ll deal with them like in New York City.” After the towers fell, Dominican migrants began arriving en masse.
The texture of Hazleton life changed seemingly overnight. Vinyl banners with loud graphics soon came to dominate the facades of sober nineteenth-century retail buildings. Pentecostal and evangelical congregations now fill former Catholic and Protestant churches. Blocks of duplex homes, uniformly encased with aluminum siding, crowd with families living in Section 8 housing or in subdivided rental units. Satellite dishes adorn these properties, providing access to Spanish-language television stations. Elegant mansions, once owned by coal operators and merchants, have fallen into structural decay because of absentee landlords’ neglect.
The demographic composition of the Hazleton Area School District has grown steadily more Hispanic. In 2007, the district was 28 percent Hispanic and 69 percent non-Hispanic white. As of 2014, the district was 45 percent Hispanic and 51 percent non-Hispanic white. In recent years, Dominican parents living in New York have commonly signed over custody of their children to relatives or friends in Hazleton so that the children can go to better schools. But Hazleton’s budget can’t keep pace with all the new arrivals, many of whom need special services. A district that had need for only one ESL teacher in the 1990s, for example, now has 2,298 English-language learners, nearly 20 percent of its student body; more than half the student body today live in low-income households. By 2017, the school district—encompassing over 250 square miles of southern Luzerne County, northern Schuylkill County, and western Carbon County—faced a $6 million deficit, in part driven by the demographic change. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s School Performance Profile data, the school district generally scores low in academics. The high school, for example, registered a failing 57.2 academic score for the 2016–17 school year.
With Hazleton facing a nearly $900,000 deficit in 2017, Mayor Jeffrey Cusat applied for and received designation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a financially distressed city. The designation allows Pennsylvania to assist Hazleton in managing its finances and debt. The distress stems from diminished tax revenues, plummeting real-estate values, and the city’s shifting demography, which has led to a surge in demand for services such as public-safety efforts. Rising employee costs and pension obligations have added to the city’s precarious fiscal position. The state’s report on Hazleton’s budget crisis concluded that “the demographic and income changes affecting the city will only compound the future financial challenges.”
Crime has been a big challenge. In 2011, the U.S. Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) released a report on eastern Pennsylvania’s drug and gang threat. It focused on Hazleton as a regional center for illegal drug distribution. According to the report, Dominican drug-trade organizations (DTOs) and gangs started controlling the city’s wholesale drug distribution in the 1990s.
Hazleton’s proximity to I-80 and I-81 made the city an ideal location for Dominican DTOs to centralize their cocaine and heroin operations. The NDIC, which folded into the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2012, noted how “the presence of a long-established Dominican population, along with interstate highways that directly connect Hazleton to other Dominican populations in New York and New England, makes the city a favorable destination for Dominican fugitives seeking a place to operate away from law enforcement pressure in those areas.” In the early 2010s, the opening of a minimum-security halfway house in a historic hotel building in downtown Hazleton worsened the drug-trade problem. When released, halfway-house inmates, it turned out, often committed drug-related crimes or joined local gangs. By 2013, the halfway house yielded to community pressure, closing its facility.
For many Hazletonians, the city reached a grim tipping point in 2006, when two illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic were charged with murdering a 29-year-old father of three. The killing shocked the community. Hazleton’s then-mayor, Lou Barletta, responded by introducing an ordinance, soon passed by the city council: the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, which fined and penalized employers and landlords for hiring and renting to illegal immigrants. The ACLU challenged the act, and the fight went to the Supreme Court. In 2014, the Court declined to review two federal appellate decisions that struck down the measure. The following year, a U.S. district court judge ruled that Hazleton had to pay $1.4 million to the attorneys who had sued the city over the act. The judge’s order was devastating for a cash-strapped city struggling to provide adequate services to its growing Hispanic population.
The Standard-Speaker called Hazleton a “city under siege.” A New York Times Magazine profile of Hazleton’s heroin epidemic described the city’s Alter Street neighborhood as an “overt drug market linked to crime and decay.” The North Wyoming Street neighborhood—once a thriving stretch of Italian eateries, theaters, barbershops, and retail—grew notorious for its gang activity and drugs. Crime statistics reflected visual realities. In 2014, the city reported 119 violent crimes—an increase of 170 percent since 2000. In the early 2010s, Hazleton’s homicide rate rose to four times the national average. The police department, with a force of 34 officers in 2014, fielded 30,000 calls that year—this in a city once known for its tranquillity.
The current police chief, Jerry Speziale, is working hard to reverse this downward spiral. A nationally recognized leader in law enforcement who previously served as Paterson’s police chief and Passaic County sheriff, Speziale has revamped Hazleton’s police department by increasing the force’s size, deploying data-driven technology, and engaging residents through social media and community events. Though the department continues to be bombarded with calls, the city witnessed a 40 percent reduction in criminal activity between 2015 and 2017. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office engineered a crackdown, led by a Mobile Street Crime Unit, that has helped the still-small department drive down the crime numbers.
Clearly, Hazleton wasn’t prepared for rapid demographic change—and it’s hard to imagine any community adapting to such a dramatic population shift. Older Hazletonians define themselves in terms of coal and continue to cherish their shared culture. In the late 1970s, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter observed that the “residents of Hazleton have an attachment to the town so strong that they scoff at questions about why they continue to live here.” “They are genuinely friendly people,” he continued, “who talk about strong family ties, about knowing almost everyone in town and about growing up in an area near the Poconos, where hunting and fishing are good and where they don’t have to be bothered ‘with all those problems you have in big cities.’ ”
The younger Dominican population, by contrast, lacks any link to the coal industry, the fight for labor rights, or (for many) the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, Dominicans also take pride in their culture, but their gateway neighborhoods in New York served as an extension of their country of origin; assimilation proved unnecessary. The pattern has repeated itself in Hazleton. The broader Hazleton community has encouraged Dominicans’ political and civic involvement, but the newcomers often remain disengaged in local matters. Hazleton has become an important campaign stop for the Dominican Republic’s leading political candidates, for example, suggesting to many Hazleton residents that their new neighbors, even when U.S. citizens—and many are not—retain stronger ties to their ancestral home than to their city, or even to America. Resentments on both sides have grown.
Hazleton’s Dominicans are living in a city that traditionally handled its immigrant diversity by emphasizing assimilation, but today’s conversations about immigration often downplay, and even dismiss, assimilation. During the Obama years, liberal elites, and many conservatives, ignored Americans’ longing for community stability. As columnist Peggy Noonan puts it, such elites, safely removed from the “roughness of the world,” have often supported immigration policies, including tolerating large numbers of illegal immigrants, that are harmful toward the “unprotected”—those living in struggling cities like Hazleton. “If you are an unprotected American—one with limited resources and negligible access to power—you have absorbed some lessons from the past 20 years’ experience of illegal immigration,” Noonan wrote. “You know the Democrats won’t protect you and the Republicans won’t help you.”
This was true of Hazleton, part of a county that, until recently, found political refuge in the Democratic Party. Luzerne County’s voters, though ideologically agnostic, nurtured an enduring belief in the legacy of the New Deal. But they felt increasingly betrayed by Democrats, who seemed unconcerned by the underlying problems of their communities. Many Hazleton residents preserve and maintain their century-old homes, spanning generations in their family. But they reside in neighborhoods now afflicted by late-night gunshots, noise-ordinance violations, drug deals, and blighted properties.
Accumulating socioeconomic angst translated into support for Donald Trump. In the 2016 Republican primary, Trump won 77 percent of Luzerne County’s vote. Wilkes-Barre, the county seat, became a regular stop for Trump throughout the campaign. In November, Trump again dominated in the county, helping to ensure his historic victory in Pennsylvania. The county, like the state, went Republican for the first time since 1988.
Former Hazleton mayor Lou Barletta, now a congressman, understood the frustrations of his community long before the 2016 election, as his 2006 immigration measure showed. On Capitol Hill, he has spoken regularly about the problems caused by mass low-skill immigration and chain migration. Trump has encouraged Barletta to challenge the Democratic incumbent, Senator Bob Casey, in the November 2018 election. A race between Barletta and Casey, two sons of the anthracite coal region, would prove a national test for Trump voters’ continuing leverage.
Top Photo: In the early twentieth century, Hazleton’s coal-based community exhibited self-reliance and a strong work ethic. (GLASSHOUSE IMAGES/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)