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Indian Majority
- By Lavina Melwani
Travel to Millbourne, Pa., the only town in America with a majority Indian population.

Editor's Note, for a link to all the major "Little India" streets and towns across the US, visit the Little-India section

It is a small, generic, unremarkable town, not unlike the thousands sprinkled across America. Yet this one has a characteristic remarkable in its unremarkability — every second person in the town is Indian! Walk down any street and start the count: one little Indian, two little Indian, three little Indian….
Incredibly, the highest proportion of Indians per square feet is to be found not in Iselin, N.J., Queens, N.Y., or Freemont, Calif., which, incidentally, aren’t second, third or fourth, either (see chart). The highest concentration of Indians is to be found in Millbourne, Pennsylvania!

In the 2000 Census, almost 40 percent of the population of 943 in this unpretentious borough was Indian, the highest in any place in the nation. The borough’s Indian population jumped 160 percent during the 1990s. Driven in part by a steady influx of Sikhs into the town since 9/11, according to Little India projections, Indians now constitute almost 63 percent of Millbourne’s current estimated population of 994, making it the first and only American town with an Indian majority. By contrast, the Indian population nationwide is under 0.6 percent and only 2 percent in New Jersey, the state with the highest proportion of Indians.

The next densest Indian concentrations, in Plainsboro Center, N.J., and South Yuba City, Calif., are only about a fifth to a quarter of those towns’ populations, so Millbourne’s place in Indian American lore is likely secure for a few decades yet (See map). The “other” minority groups in the town are Whites at 21 percent and African American at 17 percent.



What brings Indian immigrants to this speck of a town in the state where the founding fathers first penned the American constitution and where the cornerstones of democracy were laid, but whose Indian population is actually below the national average?

Millbourne is a blue-collar sort of town where modest dreams are dreamed about family, faith and community. It is a town fueled by faith, since many of the Indian immigrants moved to this neighborhood to be near their gurudwara, church or mosque

The 2000 Census outlines the broad contours of Millbourne’s Indian community. The gender breakdown is about even: 53 percent to 47 percent women. Five percent are mixed race. The median age of the Indian community is 32. Only 13 percent of the Indians are native-born. Almost two-thirds migrated to the United States within the previous decade. Like the other residents of the city, Indians in Millbourne are principally blue collar. The median household income for the 102 Indian households in the borough was $36,000, higher than the borough average, but substantially below the national median Indian household income of $64,000. However, only 7 percent of the Millbourne Indians were below the poverty line, as opposed to 9 percent of Indians nationally. Just 10 percent of Indians in the borough owned their home, which is less than a quarter of the home ownership rate among Indian Americans nationwide



Taken together, the statistical portrait that emerges of the Indians in Millbourne is one of the starting point of Indian American dreams.

The parents — immigrants all — toil in neighboring towns as machinists, taxi drivers and nurses. All the while their children thrive and study, many aspiring to college and careers. Millbourne, however, never loses its blue-collar roots, because once the children discover their careers, they move. So do immigrants whose finances improve to the point that they can go on to bigger homes and bigger dreams in fancier suburbs.

But Millbourne’s dreams never end; for just as someone’s dreams carries him away, another immigrant arrives, with battered suitcases and small dreams of just getting a foothold on the American Dream: a small corner in the universe to call their own, a piece of land that belongs to them.

That might be an impossible dream in major metropolitan centers on the East Coast. In Millbourne it becomes surprisingly achievable.



John R. Artmont, Millbourne’s fire chief, came to the borough at age 9 in 1951 and says his mother, now 83, still lives in the house where he grew up, Artmont, who is Italian, is the oldest member of the Fire Department and remembers a very different town with a largely Caucasian population.

“I can remember back in the ‘50s we had everybody, there was no population density of any one particular ethnicity,” he says. “Then the Greek community came here because of the church in Upper Darby and the community was very oriented toward the church — all the people congregated there. Later they migrated to the Broomall area and built a church there. Now we have the Indian community that moved in, basically because of the gurudwara in Millbourne.”

On the streets you won’t encounter many white faces. Instead one is far more likely to encounter Indians, African American, Jamaican, or other South Asians.

Millbourne is so tiny that you can walk around its dozen or so blocks. It is bounded on one side by the train line. On one side of its main road — Market Street — sits another town, Upper Darby, an 81,000 “megalopolis” by comparison, to which it is symbiotically linked. Most residents don’t know or care which is which. Millbourne’s children attend Upper Darby schools, because the borough has none of its own and many businesses on Market Street fall on the Upper Darby side. It’s possible to pick up your green chilies in J&J Grocery in Millbourne, then hop across the street to buy your onions in Upper Darby’s Subzi Mandi. Philadelphia is just a 10-minute, 5-mile drive or train ride away.




It is a gritty kind of town, with no fancy frills. You won’t find any trendy Starbucks here, nor hip Gap stores. Plenty of McDonalds, auto shops and laundromats dot the landscape and on Millbourne’s sunbaked streets one is likely to encounter many small mom and pop stores — groceries, video shops, gas stations and halal shops. Indian businesses include an assortment of printing, fashion, travel, insurance, accounting and law offices, as well as the ubiquitous grocery stores.

Millbourne does not boast a movie theater or fancy restaurants (not even an Indian dive), but it has a gurudwara, a Keralite church and a small mosque — all within the 0.1 sq mile oval shaped borough.

The town’s borough manager Dru Ann Staud said, “We do not have it broken down as a percentage as to what ethnic groups are here, but I know it’s very diverse.” The borough council, comprising Mayor William Donovan and five councilmen, meets every third Monday of the month. The town’s tax collector Archana Arya is Indian.

“We have people from doctors to pharmacists to taxi drivers to blue collar workers like plumbers, electricians and contractors,” says Staud. “It’s a wide variety of positions. A lot of people start out here, they may rent a home and then they build up, and then they purchase a home either in Millbourne or elsewhere.”
The pulse and heart of Millbourne are the hundreds of small row houses behind the main street, the place where hard-working immigrants return at night to rest their heads on their pillows. These are the homes were families are reared, favorite meals are cooked and dreams are nurtured, all within a budget.
The earliest Indian immigrants to settle here were nurses from Kerala, who had been sponsored for jobs at area hospitals. Soon their husbands and children followed, establishing themselves in this small, very affordable town.

“This is true for majority of the cases where the wives first came to the country as nurses,” says John Kurichi, whose family was among the first Keralite family to settle in Millbourne in 1979; his wife has been a nurse for 27 years. He believes his was the first Indian family to move into the area; many other families with links to Kerala followed. The families are members of the Malayalee Association of Delaware and the community keeps connected through the St. Gregorios Malan Kara Orthodox Church, which has a pastor from Kerala.





Kurichi recalls of those early days, “It was a pretty place with trees and greenery. The transportation was good to the metropolitan area and the school district was good. There is a police station and police patrolled all the time so people felt safe.”

One of the biggest attractions was the affordable housing: Kurichi, who was working as a guidance counselor in the Philadelphia school system, bought a four bedroom house with a living room, dining room, kitchen, baths and full basement for just $33,000.

J & J Groceries is one of the first Indian grocery store established in the area and though larger ones, like Sabzi Mandi across the street in Upper Darby, have since muscled in, it retains its loyal customer base, especially Keralites. The store carries produce from Kerala, by companies such as Periyar and Classic, which many other Indian grocery stores don’t stock. It has products targeted at other communities as well.

Walk into this small store and you see the sense of accommodation: unlike Indian grocery stores in New York or California, which publicize themselves as Indo Pak groceries, this one has a wider audience, billing itself as American, Indian, Bangladeshi and Jamaican groceries.

“There has to be a supply and demand,” says John Varghese, the owner, between ringing up sales at the register. His sister, a nurse, has been in New Jersey since 1976, and she in turn was sponsored by her elder sister, also a nurse. He recalls, “My sister sponsored my wife as a nurse and we came to Millbourne in 1991. At that time in our street we had seven Indian families. Now we have two-three Indian families, but also three Sudanese families, another from Fiji and one from Vietnam.”



The Keralite community, aside from its church in Millbourne, also has an active Malayalee organization, which advertises prominently on the door of J & J Groceries. Why did so many Malayalee families zero in on Millbourne? Varghese says, “The same way we came, so many people came, some in 1972, some in 1975. Most of them were nurses or medical workers.” Several first came alone to work, but were later joined by spouses who found work in offices or factories, depending on their qualifications.

Even within the tiny confines of Market Street, it is possible to have a diversified business and expand into different fields. Roger Arya of Superior Printing earlier lived in Downingtown, west of Philadelphia, 35 miles away. He bought his existing store on Market Street and later moved to the area.
“The market was changing and there was a lot of competition, so we decided to go into different fields.” In 2000 he started Superior Medical Supplies, specializing in incontinence products, which he supplies to nursing and retirement homes in the area. He’s also started an employment agency called Superior Nursing Care, which supplies nurses to various hospitals


Although Arya started out renting his office and home, he eventually bought the building. As business expanded, he acquired another building in the same block. He later purchased a one-family house a stone’s throw away, so he can now walk to work. Millbourne has been good to him.

And the entrepreneurs keep coming. At the K Video & Grocery, the shop was being stocked by a young couple who had rented it only three weeks earlier. As Hindi film music blared on a CD, Raj Kumar Kapoor sorted spices and placed them on racks. His wife Simmi stacked videos and rang the cash register.

Migrants from New Jersey, they are chasing a dream that the burgeoning Indian population in Millbourne can support yet another grocery store. Already there are eight grocery and video outlets and even a jewelry store in the vicinity.
Kapoor’s store sits in Millbourne and he lives in Upper Darby, where his children go to school. He was attracted by the fact that the 69th Street Station is just two blocks away: “Millbourne is the next town to Center City. We can hit downtown Philadelphia in ten minutes. It’s a good approach, because it’s a big terminal.”




The trains are the lifeblood of a community, moving people to jobs and giving them the flexibility to work further away. Philadelphia is where many of the jobs are to be found. It also has the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, as well as several Indian-owned stores in North East Philadelphia, almost a dozen Indian restaurants and several grocery stores. Millbourne offers good, cheap housing and transport for many of their workers.

The predominant subethnic group in Millbourne is, without a doubt, Sikh, accounting for, according to some, as much as 80 percent of the Indian population. It is home to the Sikh Gurudwara and the Philadelphia Sikh Society, which is the nucleus and the reason for the expanding community.

Millbourne experienced a population surge from New York after 9/11. Many Sikh families abandoned New York in the wake of the terror attacks and racial profiling and took refuge in this small community where the gurudwara was their beacon and anchor, and all around them were people of their color and beliefs.

For the Sikhs in the Philadelphia area, Millbourne is important because the only two gurudwaras are in the vicinity. The older, smaller one is in Upper Darby, while the new, larger one is built in what was a former unemployment office in Millbourne.
Faith is an exceedingly important force within the Sikh community. As Dilbaugh Kaur Randhawa, a devotee at the gurudwara, put it succinctly, “We followed our Golden Temple.”

With the holy Guru Granth Saheb on the premises and regular prayer sessions, for many, it’s as if they never left home for here they have their faith and their community. On a recent weekend, almost a dozen women were busy in the gurudwara kitchen performing seva — cooking up pots and pots of daal, vegetables and hot rotis, which they slathered with butter, to be served as langar after the devotions.

Randhawa left Jullunder, Punjab, 21 years ago and started life in Millbourne. She then spent 13 years in Philadelphia where she works at a university, cleaning the computer rooms and labs. Her son works at the airport in maintenance and her husband handles properties. Their daughter, after a college education, is a teacher in China.



Three years ago, the family returned to Millbourne because of the gurudwara. The family includes Randhawa’s 90-year-old mother-in-law whose life revolves around the gurudwara. Randhawa, who may have remained a housewife if she had stayed in Jullunder, enjoys her job and America. As she says with a smile, “Sab kuch milta hai idhar.” (Everything is available here.)
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the children of the community sat in a line in the hall and ate the langar, then the parents trickled in. Sunday is an even bigger celebration. As many as 500 to 600 people turn up from towns as far away as King of Prussia. It’s the only gurudwara for Philadelphia and so is the life source of the community.

Over steaming cups of chai, some of the members of gurudwara filled in a reporter on their life in Millbourne. Narinder Singh, chairman of its board of trustees, came from Punjab in 1982 to California and then to Millbourne in 1987. There were just seven or eight families there. “I’m a machinist at a factory. There were many steel factories in the surrounding area where parts are made.”

He recalls the attraction of small houses that people could rent in the Millbourne area over the apartments they had lived in: “It was such a peaceful place and in those days the 69th Street Market was the biggest market of the area. People used to come from all the surrounding areas to it. There were big stores here. It is said about Millbourne, it was so safe that people never used to lock their houses. Never.”

The possibility of owning one’s own home was seductive. Gurmail Singh, who owns Tandoor Restaurant in Philadelphia, came from India in 1978. “We moved to the city in 1986. At that time there were only four families. There was no one else here and there were no Indians in Millbourne, which we used to consider a part of Upper Darby. Then some more families moved in and they bought homes in Millbourne and it was then that we realized that Millbourne is a separate borough.”


At the time, Gurmail worked at a restaurant in Philadelphia, but lived in Upper Darby. “I didn’t have a car in those days,” he recalls, “And the rent I was paying for a one bedroom apartment was $500. The mortgage for a home in those days was just $600 so I decided to move to Millbourne and bought a three-bedroom house in 1986. I had no car and the train brought me right to my home.”

The parents may not be all college educated, but the higher education of their children is an aspiration for all of them. Many of the children worked part-time to pay for college, explained Harbir Singh: “Some of our children have gone to college. We’ve just been here 14 years. One is an engineer at Lockheed and another is an electric engineer with a $55,000 salary. Others are studying medicine.” The children of some truckers or cab drivers have stuck with the family profession.

“I came on the strength of this friend who is like a brother to me. Seeing me, others came,” remembers Narinder Singh. “When others asked for recommendations, I would tell them this is a peaceful area. Come! It’s a safe area, the police are well equipped and there’s law and order. Jobs are available in the surrounding area. Crime rate is microscopic. Seeing this, we being social animals, we followed each other, knowing that if we needed support, we would have our people close by. Looking at each other, we kept coming.”

Currently, nearly 800 Indian families call Millbourne and the Upper Darby area home. Upper Darby recorded 2,082 Indians in the 2000 Census, almost four times the Indian population of Millbourne, but just 2 percent of the city’s population. Even though Indians are a majority in Millbourne, Harbir Singh, secretary of the gurudwara, laments, “But many don’t have the vote and that’s the problem. Many of them are not citizens and are not empowered to vote.”



The gurudwara started in 1990 with just seven to eight families meeting in each other’s homes for kirtan. In 1994 they secured a space in Upper Darby to start a gurudwara and held programs on alternate Sundays, then every Sunday. Soon so many more had moved into the area that in 1997, they acquired the space for the Millbourne gurudwara.

Many Millbourne Indians run small businesses, own taxis or work blue collar jobs in the area. Several women work in textile factories, in the packing department of QVC, which has a big warehouse in the neighboring area, and a mailing outlet. Others work in the post office and banks.


Some four miles away is Jyoti Cuisine India, which manufactures Indian meals in Sharon Hill, as well as canned goods and ready to eat entrees that are sold in natural food stores like Whole Foods. The company has been producing natural vegetarian food since 1979 and currently provides the hot meals served on board Continental, British Airways, Emirates and US Airway flights. Their automated facilities require only 15 workers, but ten of them are Sikh women from Millbourne, who catch the bus daily to the plant.

According to Sunil Manchanda, business manager at Jyoti Foods: “Ours is basically Indian food and these women know what Indian food is all about. Some work on the cooking, making matri or gulab jamun or parathas and rotis for the airlines. Another set of women work on the plating. Each plate has three components: vegetables, rice and beans. They know how to handle these foods.”




It’s intriguing to see the links little Millbourne has with the outside world — passengers in international carriers high up in the sky, continents away, are eating meals cooked and packed by women of the Indian community of the town.
Millbourne has seen steady migration from New York, especially after 9/11. Sikh cab drivers found they were able to afford only a taxi medallion in New York, but the economics of Millbourne allow them to have both — a home of their own and a medallion — which explains the allure of this small borough. The cab drivers own their own medallions and work in Philadelphia, returning at night to their homes in Millbourne.

“They are able to buy both and still have money to put away in savings,” says Narinder Singh. “I was a machinist, but after my company moved to South Carolina, I couldn’t get a job in any other factory for a full year. So then to bring home some money, I started driving a taxi. Later I bought a medallion, but now I again have a job in a factory. Now I’ve leased the taxi.”

Amar Deep Singh used to live in New York and worked in the construction sector. Now he operates his own construction business, which is doing well. Why did he leave New York? “It’s a very fast city. There’s lots of money to be made. There’s no shortage of work, but there’s no life,” he says. “It’s a run for money. There’s no life there.”


In Millbourne and neighboring Upper Darby he can find a community of people who know each other and neighbors within walking distance. The fabric of life is maintained and even though they have left their homeland, the loss isn’t so painful, because they really haven’t lost the community and caring.

As family finances improve, many move on to bigger homes in surrounding towns. Gurmail Singh moved to Havertown, about four miles away. But they all return, if not for good, at least for the day, because the Gurudwara is so vital to their lives.

As the men sat on the carpeted room of the Gurudwara, their heads covered, sipping milky tea, you could see why this sacred spot had made Millbourne an important part of their lives. They could travel far, but its holy center would always tug them back.



The Sikh community is now integral also to the borough of Millbourne and, according to Harbir Singh, they have experienced no racial tensions: “So far we don’t have any problems. After 9/11, when there were some attacks on cab drivers, the mayor spoke in our favor. We have good relations with the mayor and borough head, everyone has helped us.”

Only a third of the Indian residents of Millbourne are citizens, so their population numbers notwithstanding, they have little political clout. An Indian American, Kurian Mathai, is reportedly vying for mayor, and earlier another Indian, Gurnam Singh, had served as vice president of the borough council. Currently, however, no Indian is on the five-member borough council

The Sikhs especially have been active in the local community. According to Staud, members have participated in community activities: “They are very helpful and want to be a part of the town. They come down for council meetings and different activities, help with distributing flyers and interacting whenever there is a language barrier. On Safety Day they put out a table with Indian food so neighbors could taste it. It was very good public relations, because people got to talk to each other outside their business hours.”

Asked if in all his years in the town, Artmont had seen any friction between the races, the Fire Chief responded, “I haven’t seen any of that. The only thing I see is a problem with the language barrier, because there are so many people with different backgrounds, ethnicities and languages.”

Millbourne may be pretty small, but it’s densely populated — 1,000 people packed in 0.07 sq miles of space. On one side are apartments, and at the other end are older, bigger four bedrooms homes, built around 1898 in the borough that was founded in 1722. Some of the bigger houses have been turned into apartments in which several families live.

Yet it is so much more than a bedroom community — it is home, it is land they can call their own. It’s still possible to get a three-bedroom house with a patch of green for under $100,000. When residents moved here in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with their down payment the monthly mortgage amount was just $500 — what they might pay for rent elsewhere.

Even today Mary Kutty Thomas knows how far dreams can go in Millbourne. Thomas was a pharmacist in Kerala before she and her husband came to the United States, sponsored by his sister. Millbourne is about links, about family connections, one joining the next, joining the next. It’s about the power of word of mouth.

Mary Kutty and her husband Sunny Thomas, who is in printing, work in New Jersey, but come home to Millbourne to a life reminiscent of that in India. Erin Court, a block of two family houses, stands on a bluff overlooking a picturesque forestscape. The lines of small, unassuming row houses face each other with green lawns in between and a small path running within it. All the homes have Indian tenants, originally from Punjab and Kerala. Neighborhood children scurry about from home to home.

The Thomases’ landlord is also from Kerala, as are their neighbors in the two family house rising on the patch of green. The $500 rent affords them a two-bedroom home with a nice living room. They also have the luxury of a finished basement shared with other tenants in the two-family home. The two families pitched in to buy a washer and dryer for the basement and use the facilities on alternate days.



In their basement one sees a colorful assortment of laundry on the clothesline and plenty of toys and children’s bikes underfoot. Space, usually a luxury in cramped rented apartments, is possible in Millbourne. For $500, they would have been lucky to get just a basement in New York.

Transport, cheap rents and Indian groceries — what more could any desi want? And the dreamers and the strugglers keep coming. To look at Millbourne is to see the American Dream in motion, in black and white. The basics — a roof over one’s head, a yard for the kids and educational opportunities. And friends and community close by.

Millbourne is their starting point, a place where stories begin. Often it leads them on to bigger and better places. But it is beautiful and wholesome even if life keeps them there.
It is a story that can get only better with telling. Both Staud and Artmont mentioned several projects in the works that have the potential to change the face of the town and impact the lives of its population. There is the Market Street Gateway Project to revitalize the business district to attract more businesses and encourage residents to shop locally rather than in surrounding towns or in Philadelphia. The 69th Street Terminal is a hub of the SEPTA transit line and a brand new station is being planned for the Millbourne stop, with an elevator to improve accessibility.

Currently businesses are concentrated on Market Street. A 14-acre old Sears property — almost a third of the whole town — is being developed. Says Artmont, “We are going to make it retail down there and bring our tax base back.”

One wonders, 10 years down the line, what will Millbourne look like? Will it be gentrified or will it still be a meat and potatoes — or rather dal-bhat — kind of town? Who will be living in its homes, rushing to the 69th Street Station? After realizing the dreams of its current residents, the town will no doubt be putting the shine on the hopes and aspirations of the next batch of immigrants.
The moon will still shine over Millbourne, just over a new set of dreams and dreamers. For this little borough seems to have a magic spell woven around it. The new arrivals find there’s always room at the inn and a place at the table.
It’s an article of faith in America that small towns across the hinterland thrive on the core values of family and church. Incongruous as it might seem at first blush, the Keralite church, the Sikh gurudwara, the mosque and the Indian children darting in and out of row homes on street after lined street are a quintessentially American story.



Profile of Indian Population in Millbourne Millbourne United States
Population of Area Total 40% 0.60%
Male 53% 53%
Female 47% 47%
Median Age (Years) 30 32
Household Size 3.1 3.1
Native Born 13% 25%
Naturalized Citizen 18% 30%
Not a Citizen 68% 44%
Pre 1990 Immigrant 47% 78%
Post 1990 Immigrant 53% 22%
Median Household Income $36,000 $63,669
People in Poverty 7% 10%

Data is for Indians in Millbourne and in the United States. (Source: 2000 Census)
Article originally published in Little India Little India

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