Just a word about that Islamic center

August 20th, 2010

Let’s try to calm down and remember a few things:

  • No one is proposing to build a mosque “on top of Ground Zero.” The actual World Trade Center site belongs, emotionally, to the American public and would not be an appropriate place for a mosque—or for a church of any denomination.  But exactly how many blocks away is it no longer hallowed ground?
  • The organizers of the group who want to build the Park51 Islamic center and mosque did not choose the site for its proximity to Ground Zero. They chose it for its proximity to the people they are serving, who happen to be Islamic New Yorkers. The neighborhood is already their home.
  • Some Americans may see 9/11 as the event that defines Muslims, but most Muslims do not see 9/11 as their defining event. So for those who take the plans as a slap in their face, it wasn’t meant that way.

If you’re a Christian, you have reason to have faith in the power of love, or I’ve been completely misled about the New Testament. So let’s love our neighbors a little bit, for Christ’s sake.

American identity, past & present

July 5th, 2010

Map showing the majority immigrant ancestry per state; green is German. Source: German Emigration Center, Bremerhaven, Germany.

Map showing significant immigrant ancestry per state; green is German. Source: German Emigration Center, Bremerhaven, Germany.

As we celebrate our nation’s 234th birthday, I’m thinking about American identity—not that I could even begin to define that. All the same, I spent the spring researching the influence of German immigrants on its formation.

From 1820 to 1985, more immigrants came from German territory than from any other country (7,031,370). Even in the eighteenth century, there were enough of them to make Benjamin Franklin worry that German would overtake English as America’s tongue. Yet these people did not carry some monolithic characteristic to impart on the New World. They brought diversity. The modern nation of Germany is younger than the United States (1871), and the immigrants came from many regions: they saw themselves as Badeners, Hessians, Palatines, rather than Germans. What’s more, their influences here are determined by place of origin, religion, political views, time of migration, reasons for migration, region of settlement, and whether they were urban or rural, scattered among a larger population or dominant in the area. Consequently, there can be no simple “German” influence.

And yet, there may be one in this very diversity. Steven Nolt, in his book Foreigners in Their Own Land: Pennsylvania Germans in the Early Republic (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), shows that this population (Pennsylvania Germans, 1790–1848) maintained its Old World ways and spoke a German dialect, yet considered themselves definitive Americans for that very reason. America was the land of liberty, and they were practicing it. What kind of liberty would force them to abandon everything they knew, force them to conform to a particular religion or way of life, force them to be someone different?

German particularism—the idea that each regional and religious group should maintain its community and its traditions, even while adapting them to the New World—was widespread. German Americans participated in the country’s economic and political life, and some Germans quickly assimilated, but according to the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, “until about the middle of the twentieth century, German was the most widely taught modern foreign language in U.S. schools and colleges.” These are our forefathers.

They were not, of course, the only Americans who believed in particularism, or localism, or states’ rights. But by preserving their language and culture, they lived this choice, and they did not consider themselves any less American for doing so.

Today, Americans have the same belief in local control: we don’t want Washington telling us how to live in Mississippi, Arizona, Vermont, or New York. Why, then, is there a simultaneous view that immigrants should conform or get out?

“American,” after all, is not really an ethnicity, except for Native Americans. It is a nationality, and more than any other, perhaps, it is an identity that people may choose. Let’s hope they keep doing so. In the vast openness of our self-definition may lie our greatest freedom.

World Cup celebration

June 19th, 2010

I’m too busy watching the Cup (among other things) to do a proper post, but the Times has plenty of coverage on where to watch the matches among fans rooting for any team (except perhaps North Korea)–including an interactive map.

Immigrant Heritage Week is upon us again!

April 13th, 2010

A few quick notes that have been piling up:

Immigrant Heritage Week will be celebrated from April 15 to 21 this year. Wish I had time to say more about it.

Photojournalist Dave Sanders has been documenting Kensington’s community of immigrants from Darfur, Sudan, for over a year. See the Times for more info.

Like the local Haitian community, New York Chileans also had reason to seek each other out after the February 27 earthquake in Chile, but they are relatively few (15,000) and scattered around the region. Read more about it in the March 5 Times.

New York Haitians

February 22nd, 2010

This is a late post, but Kirk Semple’s Feb. 4 Times story about the local Haitian community is worth reading. Haitians are the ninth-largest immigrant group in New York City, but they’re less clustered than some other groups, with more of a suburban presence (there’s a graphic on the site comparing the 1980 and 2008 populations). Some hope the devastating earthquake “will bring them more coherence and clout, and deepen an involvement with their homeland that has weakened with each new generation.”

Vuelve Museo del Barrio

October 16th, 2009

El Museo del Barrio celebrates Opening Day of its renovated space on Saturday, Oct. 17, as it kicks off its 40th-anniversary celebrations with an all-day open house. This first part of the renovation includes a new gallery, courtyard, and café.

Exhibits include Voces y Visiones, more than 100 works by Latino, Caribbean, and Latin American artists, and Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis, which Holland Cotter reviews in today’s Times.

The museum is at 1230 Fifth Ave, at 104th St (right by the Museum of the City of New York).

Bitter bread

October 13th, 2009

It’s Italian Heritage Month (thanks to Cristoforo Columbo), and the Museum of the City of New York is screening Pane Amaro, a documentary produced by RAI, Italy’s public TV, about the Italian American immigrant experience from 1880 through World War II. The film doesn’t shy away from the hostility Italian immigrants faced—including a mass lynching in New Orleans in 1891. There’s a lot more to the history than portrayals of Italian Americans as mobsters.

Producers Gianfranco Norelli and Suma Kurien will be on hand for a Q&A after the screening, which is at 3 pm Saturday, Oct. 17. Free with museum admission.

Chinatown, my Chinatown

September 18th, 2009

Why so many posts about Chinese Americans? It just worked out that way.

On the Times City Room blog, Peter Kwong of Hunter College has been answering questions about the gentrification of Chinatown. In discussing “the decline of New York’s Chinatown as a viable living, working and shopping area for new immigrants,” he cites the closing of the garment factories (despite paying low wages, they can’t compete with China) and the rise of real estate speculation. He worries that Chinatown will turn into “an ethnic theme park without its ethnic population.” This has certainly happened to some Italian American neighborhoods. Chinatown also suffered quite a bit from the events of 9/11, but he says the process started before then.

If you haven’t noticed any gentrification, he points out what to look for, and in a second round of discussion he gives a brief overview of the neighborhood’s history. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the patterns of immigrant settlement and evolution of neighborhoods.