Posted on August 7, 2006

‘The Town Is Lost,’ Says Couple Who Left Riverside

Monica Yant Kinney, Philadelphia Inquirer, August 6, 2006

Compared with the hotheads spewing racial spite, Helen Westenberger was positively polite in her response to the illegal-immigration crisis in Riverside.

That controversial ordinance fining people who rent to, or employ, illegal immigrants?

“It’s too late,” Helen, 69, says simply. “The town is lost.”

Helen and her husband, Rudy, also 69, lived together in the house he grew up in for 39 years. In 1999, they reluctantly bailed, convinced that Brazilians in town illegally had changed the face of Riverside for the worse, forever.

They came for construction jobs and stayed when city leaders, desperate for a revival, looked the other way.

Some revival. When the Westenbergers put their twin on the market, it fetched just $75,000 — a full $20,000 less than what it was once worth.

Should they blame the Brazilians? Chalk it up to a buyers’ market, with more than 100 other homes for sale in one tiny town? Who knows.

But if this is the cost of illegal immigration, who pays?

And if a single suburban town unintentionally became home to hundreds of undocumented foreigners — who bought property and businesses and pay taxes — is it really in Riverside’s best interest to kick them out?

Welcome to America

You wouldn’t know it from talking to him, but Rudy is German.

When his family arrived in 1952 — legally, sponsored by the local Lutheran church — the first thing they were told was to learn English, fast.

Rudy was 16. Soon, he sounded like any other American teenager. “Within a year,” he says, “people told me they couldn’t detect any accent at all.”

Back then, immigrants knew to assimilate — or else. Speak English. Become citizens. Learn to cook American food, and like it.

What helped send the Westenbergers and their neighbors packing was how brazenly the Brazilians resisted becoming Riversiders.

Rudy used to love going to the Palace, a little restaurant on Scott Street owned by Greeks. When the family sold to Brazilians, he was horrified to see a sign on the door one day reading, “Americans are not welcome.”

When I tell Rudy I don’t believe it, he swears he has a friend who will corroborate. The sign wasn’t up long, he admits, but long enough to sting.

Downtown businesses catering to Brazilians were certainly an improvement over abandoned buildings, but hardly a cause to celebrate.

“They took over stores for their convenience,” Helen says, “not for the rest of us who lived in Riverside.”

Helen worked for years as a manager at the SuperFresh in Mount Holly, where every week, illegal immigrants would line up to wire their American earnings back to Brazil.

She remembers one family disappearing from the neighborhood overnight. Rumor had it that they’d finally made enough money to go back home and live the good life.

“The town leaders thought immigration was going to be a good thing, that they would bring prosperity to town,” Helen says. “But it was really only prosperous for the immigrants.”

Gone, but not forgotten

When Helen and Rudy left Riverside, they moved all the way to Mickleton. Now, when Rudy needs to see his foot doctor, it’s a 30-mile drive.

I know this because after spending a morning with them in their all-American retirement community, Rudy suggested we take a ride to Riverside.

Back in town, Helen immediately starts counting “For Sale” signs and pointing out work vans with Pennsylvania plates — a sure sign that Brazilian laborers are near.