August 12, 2010
I am fascinated by the demographic make-up of cities, the individual character of neighborhoods, and the ways in which people who have arrived from the same place of origin cluster for assurance, familiarity, and in hope of mutual aid. I was introduced to this aspect of city life when an undergraduate by one of my tutors, the brilliant historian of the French Revolution, Richard Cobb. He enjoyed following ordinary people who moved on foot, leaving their traces in local archives. As soon as vehicular travel became more generally affordable, with the advent of the railroads, the progress of individuals disappeared, and Cobb lost interest. Whether as pedestrians or “in the cars,” many made their way to Paris to congregate in regionally distinct neighborhoods. There, patois and local habits —of Lyonnais, or Toulousains— retained their currency, providing a buffer against many varieties of unfamiliarity in a bewildering urban agglomeration.
I saw the same for myself when, as a graduate student, I moved to a great world city, London, in 1976. I loved biking to different ethnic areas —Polish Ealing, Jamaican Brixton, Bengali Brick Lane— and returning with panniers crammed with characteristic foods. Later, an American journalist friend introduced me to the pleasures of urban walks in New York to savor the cultural specificities of its numerous neighborhoods —Greek Astoria, Dominican Washington Heights, an Afghan pocket in the Lower East Side. These places are always in flux as communities form, dissolve, and reform. I recall eating with him in a Shanghai restaurant in Flushing, still in the Mexican décor of its immediate predecessor.
Boston is a city with immigration patterns as complex and varied as most in the USA. The downside to group ethnic identification is an urge to exclusivity, as Boston notoriously experienced during the busing crisis of the 1970s. Robert Lowell had already provided the most trenchant commentary on the “savage servility” of Boston racism in his 1960 poem, “For the Union Dead.” Boston was still Balkanized when I arrived nearly thirty years later. My first hosts (Jewish) resolutely refused to so much as drive through South Boston (“Southie” —Irish). Some of that tension seems to have dissipated, suggested in part by some signs of ethnic pride being more witty than threatening. There used to be a schematic neon outline map of Italy in the window of a restaurant in the predominantly Sicilian North End, the island disproportionately larger than the mainland above it. But I would never make the mistake of underestimating people’s often jealous sense of communal ethnic identity. For some, this has served as a means of grasping and retaining power, but for many, it’s a mechanism of survival.
My own neighborhood has attracted numerous Taiwanese. Our neighbors on one side are from Taiwan, on the other from Ireland, and opposite from Nova Scotia. I am an immigrant myself; though in one sense coming to North America marks a return, my father having been born here into a people for whom Europeans remain a relative novelty. I see it both ways. My mother, after all, was born and grew up in Java, and lived much of her life a foreigner in England. So I don’t begrudge those who are here their presence. I am as much a newcomer as I am a descendent of countless resident generations. My contribution to the urban—well, suburban—mix is that of but one mixed-up person, but it’s a contribution nonetheless. We all bring something.