Joseph Artmont Sr. is among the last standard-bearers of Millbourne’s old guard. Sixty-nine years old, the volunteer fire chief moved here as a child from West Philadelphia, where white middle-class families like his were moving out and lower-income blacks were moving in. He’s been here long enough to observe sweeping changes in tiny Millbourne—a less-than-one-tenth-square-mile Delaware County borough wedged between West Philly’s Cobbs Creek Park and Upper Darby—and long enough to know he’s unhappy with them.
Two decades of large-scale immigration are transforming the region. Philadelphia, after losing a quarter of its population in a post-industrial free fall, in 2010 grew for the first time in 50 years thanks to new arrivals from Latin America, Africa, Europe and especially Asia. Across greater Philadelphia, there are 59,987 Indian immigrants, more than any other national group. But the immigrant population has ballooned even faster in the suburbs—and nowhere more so than Millbourne. Today, 56 percent of Millbourne’s 1,159 residents are Asian, and fully 30 percent are Indian.
“Sometimes, very big difficulties with that,” says Artmont of his borough’s newfound diversity. “People don’t talk your language. It’s hard communicating.”
As to how a hub of Sikh and South Asian culture landed in this dense pocket of small-town development, cab driver Iqbal Singh explains what many others will tell me: He came to Philadelphia because he already had family here. And anyhow, New York is too expensive.
The transformation here isn’t just cultural. In recent years, Millbourne has joined the growing number of municipalities that—thanks to new arrivals: immigrants from overseas and African-Americans from Philadelphia—are challenging the Delaware County Republican Party machine. Over the last few elections, Artmont Sr. and his white Republican allies, including son Joseph Artmont Jr., were ousted from the five-member Borough Council, which is now controlled by two Bangladeshis, one Punjabi Sikh, one Keralite Indian and one white Democrat named Jeanette MacNeille.
Delaware County Democrats predict that Upper Darby, Millbourne’s 82,795-person next-door neighbor, will also fall to the demographic tide.
Back across the border in Millbourne, Artmont is, again, not happy about all of this. But he does seem somewhat resigned. He is even a little enthusiastic about two Indian-American teenage girls who now volunteer at the Fire Department. “They came in, and I was very surprised to see them. … They’re doing a very good job.”
But Artmont keeps the world just as he likes it tucked away in his basement, where a complex set of intersecting train tracks pass through an expansive diorama of small-town Americana.
“Something different,” he explains. “You know what I mean?”