21 Oct


THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT :: On Paseo Boricua and the American Experience, Part IV


October 21, 2009 :: AN AFTERWORD

1. Of, By and For

As I investigated ways in which becoming local was the same as becoming American, another aspect loomed large in my lens: this country’s conspicuous cultural repertoire—the diversity I saw in Chicago, in Humboldt Park, in our apartment building.

Sure, there are places devoid of it, where people are [seemingly] of one mind, one spirit, one color, one religion.

But it’s not the American norm. Because the United States has always been a place of the immigrant, by the immigrant, and for the immigrant. Many of this country’s greatest thinkers, inventors, and leaders have been foreign-born.

I know as well as any the plight of today’s immigrant—I have relationships with a number of undocumented aliens, and plenty of second-hand knowledge of the situation—and it isn’t pretty. But in addition to this picture, we have another scene, one in which the immigrant is at least allowed to begin a life here. They fight harder than any of us, and oftentimes get less than most of us. But they continue to fight.

Occasionally, they win.

Ron Huberman was born in Israel, his parents Holocaust survivors. They immigrated to Tennessee and then to Chicago, where the boy Huberman attended high school. After college he worked as a police officer and went on to become a top member of the Daley administration and, more recently, the president of the Chicago Transit Authority. When Obama took Arne Duncan to D.C. with him, Mayor Daley put Huberman in charge of the Chicago Public School system. It was during this transition that I read a feature about him and realized how many American success stories star immigrants.

Take the nanny scene here in Chicago. [Yes, nannies have a scene.]

A friend of mine, who’s a nanny for a one-year-old girl, said groups of nannies meet up in the park during their work days, to talk, to hang out, to let the kids play with each other. There’s only one problem. She can’t find the English-speaking nanny group. “There’s the Portuguese nannies, the Hispanic nannies, the French nannies,” she told us. But she hasn’t had any luck in finding a group that speaks English.

2. Germany, Poland, and Puerto Rico

As a result of people like Huberman and the greater immigrant populace, it’s much too late for the local American economy to be a monoculture, too late for us to be isolated from other customs and rituals and beliefs. And I’m thankful.

I don’t have to pit supporting local business owners against my respect for foreign cultures. In 21st-century America, I can shop at the local farmers market and participate in a global transaction.

More than this, living in a diverse community I’ve found that local stores have more to offer from around the world than do the global retail giants. In Humboldt Park especially, with its German origins, Polish influence, and Puerto Rican heritage, I could shop at places like Café Calao and Ciclo Urbano—our friends from Parts I and II—and be more connected to other countries and customs than if I shopped at big-box stores that actually imported goods from all over the world.

Despite the various countries implicated by “Made In…” stickers, the atmosphere of these international retailers is actually the closest thing we have to an American monoculture. A country’s participation in the global economy says nothing for its representation there, and I find no value in buying a Tibetan t-shirt or Filipino flip-flops when the transaction takes place in such stores. However, go to Chinatown, Little Italy, Greek Town, or Rogers Park and I can find wares from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Go to Azucar and I can order an Alhambra Negra, prompting a friend to regale us with a tale of two Spanish fútbol teams and the feud created by their domestic beer sponsors, of which Alhambra is one.

Places like this represent a healthier version of a globalized system: first-, second- or third-generation immigrants peddle wares from their home countries, many of them hand-crafted, to other local residents.

The convergence of local and global planes.

For the fearful, it is still possible to avoid those different from you, but for those of us who seek them out, global citizens can be found around every corner here, living in apartments below us, running the businesses around us, leading the way to greater freedom in truth.


Read: The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros.
Watch: The Visitor, Thomas McCarthy.

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