I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood-- Dorchester, MA, back when it was predominantly Jewish. There was also another ethnic neighborhood in Dorchester too, and it was mostly Irish. In the Jewish part, there were a number of synagogues, Kosher butchers, and Kosher delicatessens. In the Irish part, there were a number of churches, stores that sold ethnic foods popular with the Irish clientele, and some taverns. There was no rule that Jews couldn't go to the Irish part of town, nor was there one that forbade the Irish residents from visiting their Jewish friends. But as I recall, the folks from each neighborhood didn't do that; they hung around mainly with "their own."
These days, Dorchester still has ethnic enclaves-- there are always new groups of immigrants: there's a Vietnamese area, a Haitian area, and the next generation of Irish residents, among others. The Jews, for the most part, moved to the suburbs-- some moved to Jewish neighborhoods in Brookline or Newton (if they could afford it); others, who were working class, left for whatever neighborhoods had affordable rents. My family bought a house in Roslindale, another neighborhood of Boston, when I was eight. As I recall, nearly everyone there was Catholic, with a few folks who were Greek Orthodox. Suddenly, I went from living among many Jewish families to being the only Jew in town. It was quite a culture shock and it took some time to adjust.
Years later, out of curiosity, I went back to visit the area where I spent the first eight years of my life, and I found that not much remained of the old Jewish neighborhood-- the house I lived in burned down a few years ago, and nobody rebuilt it. The buildings that once housed synagogues are now home to churches. The former Kosher butchers and delis now have entirely different names and entirely different customers. None of this surprised me: I'm well aware that times change, neighborhoods change, and demographics change. Today, it's almost like the Jews were never there.
What brought all this to mind was an article I was reading in the Boston Globe about the gradual demise of Boston's Chinatown. Working class Chinese people are being forced out by rising rents; buildings are being bought up by developers who are putting in expensive apartments ($6,000 a month for some); quaint local Chinese restaurants are being replaced by much fancier (and pricier) ones that are aimed at tourists and upper-class foodies. As the article points out, this long-time ethnic neighborhood will soon become Chinatown in name only, as the local Chinese population will no longer be able to afford to live there.
There are many Chinese people who already left. Like other upwardly-mobile immigrants in previous generations, they wanted to live in the suburbs, to have better schools for their kids to attend. But there are others who can't afford to leave, or whose English skills are weak. They worry about where they will go when Chinatown is no more. It's a dilemma that people in many cities are facing. Working class ethnic neighborhoods are gradually being bought up, and residents are facing an uncertain future. I frequently hear about how our economy is booming, but there remain large segments of the population who are barely getting by, and outrageous rents are a large part of the problem.
I admit I'm of two minds about ethnic neighborhoods-- on the one hand, there's a certain security and comfort in seeing folks who are familiar, who share the same culture and customs; it's also nice to hear one's ancestral language (the folk songs especially). On the other hand, at some point, it's important to get out into the wider world and be exposed to different cultures and customs; and speaking good English is essential for success in most occupations. Yet there's still a part of me that misses the old neighborhood. But beyond the nostalgia, I recognize that people do move on, and it's probably a good thing. However, I still wish there were a way to preserve the best of what used to be there, rather than just bulldozing it, or turning it into condos for rich people. There's a lot we can learn from the folks who came before us. For that reason, it saddens me each time a neighborhood's history gets erased...often in the name of "progress."
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