Published in Scranton Times-Tribune, 2013.  

The chanting of a Hindu prayer could be heard faintly on the streets of Petersburg Corners in Scranton.

Inside a former Presbyterian church on Prescott Avenue, they lit candles made of hardened butter, sweet-smelling incense and sat with their legs crossed before Shiva and other deities of the Hindu pantheon, chanting in unison a prayer in Gujarati, a language of India. Years ago, the cross of Christ was the symbol of faith here. A nearly 70-year-old organ played the hymns of the Christian faith.

That is all gone now, serving as another reminder of the shifting demographics of the city as it continues on a new path than the road taken by the Italians, Irish, Polish and other European immigrants. During the immigration waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries, they built the churches and laid the foundations of the city.

Petersburg Corners and the surrounding area reveal a new direction, a community undergoing change, where another wave of immigrants is now building a place they, too, can call home. Today, the growing Indian community in this neighborhood, the surrounding Hill Section neighborhood and nearby parts of the city flock to the Shree Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu temple at 933 Prescott Ave.

Harikrisna Patel, 57, is a spiritual leader at the temple, where roughly 300 adherents of Hinduism gather for prayer and meals.

“The door is open for everybody,” Mr. Patel said. “The whole world is my family.”

An engineer by trade, he made Scranton his home several years ago and now lives near the temple.

On a recent afternoon, three Indian men, who have also made the city their new home, sat closely to each other on a woven carpet beneath the vaulted ceiling of the former Christian church. Off to the side, Mr. Patel spoke about how the temple serves, in a sense, as the heart of the community. As he spoke, a man tapped a rhythmic beat on a wooden drum and another man hit two tiny bronze cymbals together.

At one point, they broke out in laughter when they had a difficult time achieving harmony during one of their prayer songs. Soon, they gathered their thoughts and the drum beat, cymbals and their chant aligned perfectly to achieve the harmony they desired. That harmony, that sense of connectedness, perhaps serves to illuminate why there has been a continual immigration of Indians to the Scranton area for several years now.

The bonds among Indian families are strong, Mr. Patel said. As more Indians call Scranton home, others follow, sometimes at the request of their family who provide shelter and security when they arrive, Mr. Patel said. They cluster together, renting apartments or buying homes near each other, forming small yet tightly woven communities. Indian families may gravitate toward other Indian families, further strengthening that bond and community formation, Mr. Patel said. This helps to explain the population clusters.

From 2000 to 2010, the Indian population in Scranton rose nearly four-fold, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures.

The 2000 Census recorded 310 Indians claiming the city of roughly 75,000 as their home. In 2010, that number rose to 1,147. The Indian population has also dispersed beyond Scranton as they have either chosen to move out of the city to other communities in the area or made those places their first stop. Scranton is still the dominant population center, though there is a growing Indian population in the Abingtons.

The 2010 Census recorded 1,672 Indians in Lackawanna County, up from 613 in 2000. Several other groups from Asia are also moving to Scranton in greater numbers, including Bhutanese and Nepalis.

Parts of Scranton, like Petersburg Corners, have been at the forefront of that community-building for some time, reaching the point recently where it enters another stage — the building of institutions, temples, businesses and the spreading of culture into the greater community.

The city’s first Hindu temple opened in 2007 in North Scranton on Oak Street, the site of a former church. The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan temple has hosted Hindu saints and gurus. Sadguru Sant Pujya Mahant Swami visited the temple in 2011, during a tour of spiritual centers in the United States. He is a disciple of His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the leader of BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, an international Hindu organization with more than a million followers.

The gathering brought together members of the local Indian community as well as followers from neighboring states. The temple on Prescott Avenue, now the city’s second place of worship for practicing Hindus, opened last year.

In 2010, Hinduism had the seventh-most adherents in Lackawanna County of 47 religious organizations, representing a spectrum of beliefs including various branches of Christianity and Judaism as well as Buddhism and nondenominational. The figures were compiled by the Association of Religion Data Archives at Penn State University. The organization recorded 1,819 adherents of Hinduism. Catholicism was the largest religion in Lackawanna County in 2010, with 96,140 adherents.

Hinduism is not the only symbol of Indian culture prominent in the community. Baseball fields throughout the city are now battlegrounds for cricket matches.
Other cultural offerings have sprouted up and blossomed as well, bringing Indian culture to Scranton and other communities throughout the region.

The Kala School of Indian Classical Dance is based in Clarks Summit, founded by Sujata Nair-Mulloth. The school trains students in the Bharata Natyam style of classic dance and promotes India’s cultural heritage to a wider audience. It’s good for business too.

On a recent afternoon, Bhavin Patel stood behind the counter of his shop, Shiv Convenient Mart in Petersburg Corners, thumbing through a newspaper written in Gujarati.
The newspaper, published for Indians living in U.S. and printed in New Jersey, provides the latest news from India and Bollywood gossip — the Hollywood of India.

Mr. Patel, 57, opened the business in September 2012, after noticing a steady uptick in the local Asian and Indian population. He knew the market — and the people — were underserved.

“I like Scranton. It’s a very nice place and very peaceful,” Mr. Patel said. He moved to Scranton from India roughly 14 years ago, following his brother. Then, came their parents, who Mr. Patel lives with at a Prescott Avenue home, a few blocks away from his shop.

They are from Gujarat, a state in western India hugging the coast of the Arabian Sea. He said when he arrived there were about 15 Indian families living in Scranton; today, he believes there are at least 540.

The products in his store straddle two cultures — his new home, America, and his roots, India and Asia. The store, however, caters more to the tastes of Asia and his home country. Surrounding him at his post by the cash register is ordinary convenience store fare — cigarettes, lottery tickets, pens and other plastic trinkets.

A step into the aisles, however, is a step into the delicacies of the east: Moong beans, Paneer Makhani, Navratan Korma and Tandoori roti. On a shelf, Masala chai sits beside a box of Lipton tea.

It’s a “win-win” for the city economically and culturally when entrepreneurs come to the U.S. and open businesses offering ethnic foods and other products from their home countries, said Teri Ooms, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development, a regional research and analysis group.

“I think we should welcome it,” she said. “It’s very positive. The more culturally diverse a community is the more economically viable it becomes.” Bhavin Patel and Harikrisna Patel’s decision to come to the U.S. and become businessmen or spiritual leaders is usually initiated by family and supported by them, an experience shared by many other Indians.

As their siblings, parents and other family members come to the U.S., so follows the rest of the family, Ms. Ooms said. Indian population clusters are common, like Petersburg Corners and Hill Section area, and is similar to the settlement patterns of European immigrants in the region, Ms. Ooms said.

“It’s a situation where the Indian culture is very family oriented,” she said. “When you see some migration of people, they move collectively.” Scranton also affords a few quality of life factors, institutes of higher learning and health care. And there is high-wage potential.

Two major health care systems are competing and recruiting new talent, Ms. Ooms said. The cost of living and the cost of housing are also reasonable, she said. Some of these factors have spurred a “westward migration” from New York and New Jersey metropolitan areas to the area since the early 2000s, she said.

Once here, Indian families and friends tend to invest and care for each other, whether that is giving a friend a ride to work because they don’t have a car or helping someone open a business, Harikrisna Patel said. There are barriers, language namely, and sadly, bigotry still exists. Success is not guaranteed. But the bridging of Indian and Asian culture with culture of the Northeast Pennsylvania and America happens every day in the city — not only in Bhavin Patel’s shop.

Kelly Corazzi moved her yoga studio, Prana Yoga, from the city’s downtown business district to Petersburg Corners two years ago. Since opening shop, she has noticed the change in the character of the neighborhood.

She embraces it. “It’s nice to have that multifaceted population,” she said. On occasion, she has been stopped on the street by members of the Indian community who noticed Sanskrit, an ancient language of Hinduism, tattooed on her arm.

“I know what that says,” they say to her. “That’s my language.”

It translates to “Yoga is a quieting of the mind.”

For Harikrisna Patel, it is important for Indians to hold onto their culture and beliefs. But, they also know their new home is here. “We are not Indian now. We are American,” he said. “Our first priority is the USA.”