Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thoughts on Passages: Community Memory & Landmarks of Migration an NEH seminar at WRHS

Italian Garden, Cleveland Cultural Gardens
This past week I joined 19 community college instructors at an NEH Seminar on community memory and migration hosted by the Western Reserve Historical Society. The neat thing about the faculty present is that they weren't all historians - there were instructors of anthropology, sociology, English and ESL. The view point of other disciplines was really beneficial. The coordinator was John Grabowski who was assisted by Edward Pershey and Stefanie Huffman, all of WRHS.

I really enjoyed the seminar and felt that the lectures and discussions on public memory, commemoration and post-WWII immigration in addition to the tours deepened my understanding of immigrants and their communities. As I anticipated the seminar progressed as if Scots never came to Cleveland or the United Sates. The curriculum focused on migrants from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ireland, Germany, Mexico (lecture by John Flores), Puerto Rico (lecture by Jose Solas) and the Islamic World (lecture by Yvonne Haddad). John Bodnar  (Public Memory) could not make it to Cleveland, so we heard his lecture by video link and I am happy to report that I enjoyed listening to him speak more than I liked reading his book.

I learned that people like to commemorate happy things and positive outcomes. Therefore, in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens it was not surprising to see many memorials to musicians, authors, poets, scientists, and national leaders. The affiliation of each section of the Garden was clear because there were signs like "Hungarian Cultural Garden," "Rusin Cultural Garden,"or "Irish Cultural Garden." There was no Scottish Cultural Garden. There was a British Cultural Garden, which was originally the Shakespeare Garden and only later became associated with the main Cultural Gardens. It was overgrown and not terribly impressive. The maintenance of each Garden is the responsibility of each cultural group, so apparently there isn't much of a "British" cultural presence in Cleveland.

The several tours we went on took me to or through neighborhoods and places in Cleveland I had never visited before: Cedar Avenue, Tremont, Detroit Shoreway, and the Bohemian National Hall.  In fact, the only place I had been to before was the West Side Market. Tremont and Detroit Shoreway must have been like a foreign country at the turn of the last century. They would have been teeming with the sounds of Italian, Polish, Czech, Romanian and countless other languagues. There would have been ethnic grocery stores, banks, coffee houses and newspapers; all with storefront signs in two languages.

Today, however, you wouldn't know they used to be immigrant neighborhoods unless someone told you - all the buildings and houses are just like all the buildings and houses everywhere else in the United States. The ethnicity of these places was dependent on the people who lived in them. In the Italian section of Detroit Shoreway the fire hydrants were painted red, white and green and there was a huge map of Italy painted in the street; but these are merely symbols of an ethnic heritage. The best part of the Detroit Shoreway tour, which was led by Judge Ray Pianka of Cleveland, was a visit with a local couple from Sicily who had snacks and homemade wine.

The last component of our studies was ethnic food: Mexican, Turkish, Middle Eastern, Italian and German. Does Panera Bread count as ethnic food? I had an Italian Combo sandwich.

The reasons people move and what they do when they stop moving has always fascinated me. It doesn't matter when or when and the seminar reacquainted me with this more inclusive interest. Before this seminar, I did not really appreciate difficulties faced by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who came to take jobs in the Industrial Valley of Cleveland. In spite of pre-OSHA working conditions and discrimination by the larger society they created enduring neighborhoods whose memories endure today.

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