Small Iowa Town Celebrates Its Diversity

“Hometown to the World” declares the sign at an entrance to tiny Postville, Iowa.

Members of a community of Orthodox Jews — men with long beards, wearing black hats and coats — stroll the streets. Across from the house that serves as their synagogue, a Christian cemetery contains tombstones that bear the names of earlier immigrants — English, German and Scandinavian families who are still listed in the phone directory.

And along the downtown streets are stores run by people from Mexico, Guatemala and Somalia.

“We have no problem with other communities,” Somali store owner Abraham told VOA. “We live side by side, peacefully. It is a calm, quiet town.”

He said the community of about 200 Somalis gathers often for dinners and other social events and for prayer at the house they have designated as their mosque.

By the standards of most big U.S. cities, Postville is not all that diverse. But in this northeastern corner of a very middle American state, most small towns are 98 percent white. Postville boasts that immigrants make up about 25 percent of its fewer than 2,500 residents. Forty-five percent of the town’s elementary school students are from Mexico or Central America.

They and their parents have transformed the community.

Postville’s changes

Thirty years ago, Orthodox Jews from New York City bought a meatpacking plant on the edge of town and turned it into the largest producer of kosher meats in the United States. The plant attracted workers from all over the country and from a number of other countries as well.  

But in May 2008, federal agents swooped in with helicopters and large vehicles and conducted what was at the time the largest immigration enforcement raid ever. It led to the arrest of close to 400 people, mostly at the plant. Many others, including the husbands, wives and children of plant workers, went into hiding, some with the assistance of local church groups.

The plant went bankrupt later that year and was purchased by an investor from Canada in 2009. He renamed it Agri Star and still staffs it largely with immigrants. But they are all screened using the government-approved employee verification system, E-verify.

Postville prospers

Former City Councilman Aaron Goldsmith brought his specialized health care equipment company, Transfer Master Products, to Postville from California 18 years ago, drawn by the low cost of living, the clean air and the opportunity to live with others who share his Orthodox Jewish faith.

“Typically, Orthodox Jews have to live in urban centers to get the infrastructure — school, kosher stores and things like that,” he told VOA. “Postville is a rare exception, where we have the Jewish infrastructure in a small town, and it is very appealing.”

Goldsmith notes that the kosher meat plant continues to provide a strong economic base for the town. The plant now employs about 700 people, a few hundred fewer than the original facility did in 2008. But a plastic products manufacturing plant north of town employs over 150 people. Postville is doing well, Goldsmith said.

“Like all small towns, we do have some shuttered storefronts,” he said, “but by and large, almost everything is rented, and I think we are doing much better than the average small town in America.”

Community harmony

One former meatpacking plant supervisor, who calls himself Mr. Garcia, has established a small restaurant and butcher shop in Postville, where Spanish and English conversations blend together as diners and walk-in customers mingle. He said he spent 28 years working in packing plants all over the Midwest and in Arizona and learned a lot about meat.

“I decided to go it alone and have my own business, using what I have learned about cuts of meat,” he said. “Most of my customers are white people, not Hispanics. They come to buy meat for their barbecues. Some even come from other towns.”

Garcia said he enjoys the quiet, easygoing life in Postville, where everyone gets along well.

Goldsmith gives credit for this to community leaders who early on embraced diversity.

“They went way out of their way to build bridges,” he said. “I think the reason Postville has sustained itself and has endured the ups and downs and challenges to small-town America is because the heart of the town was looking forward, not backward.”

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