The Bird's Nest:
Making of an Ethnic Urban Village

James and Susan Borchert

 

For most of us the phrase "urban village" brings to mind places like Rocky Balboa's Italian South Philly, with its densely settled, tightly packed buildings and small knots of residents conversing together along the sidewalks; thick smells of food and sweating bodies and the sounds of voices shouting in strange, vaguely romantic tongues flood our senses. These images may be stereotypes, yet most of us remember the pleasures of a day spent in one of these neighborhoods attending a wedding or religious festival. We marvel at residents' ability to preserve close personal contacts and to know everyone in the neighborhood. The built environment reflects this intimacy through the closeness of its buildings which seem to nudge and touch each other despite the diversity of their forms and uses. Such glimpses remind us of our heritage as a nation of immigrants; they also reveal a dynamic landscape seemingly long lost in contemporary America: a real, functioning village community in the midst of the city combining the best of both worlds.

From the perspective of a suburban dweller raised in a detached, single-family home with 2.5 cars, an automobile drive away even from the local Seven-Eleven, it takes some effort fully to appreciate the vital and close-knit urban village in which practically everything one might need, from midwife to ethnic funeral home, all exist just a few steps from one's home. For many of us such urban villages are museum pieces, remnants of a vaguely remembered grandmother's tale.

Yet the notion that the urban village is irrelevant to modern society is far from accurate. As new immigrants from Asia and South and Central America flood our cities along with those from Europe and the rural U.S., new ethnic neighborhoods appear: Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg (Brooklyn), Vietnamese in downtown San Jose, and the Puerto Rican "barrio" in Lorain, Ohio, all demonstrate the continuing vitality of the urban village. Nor have all the older ethnic neighborhoods disappeared: while communities such as Cincinnati's "Over the Rhine" and New York's Jewish Hester Street have all but vanished, and Detroit's "Poletown" and Boston's Italian West End have suffered mightily from urban renewal's wrecking ball, many others remain. They not only tell us a great deal about the immigrant experience of the past-they also provide the best available working plans for effective neighborhood development.

"We believe a scholar should get as close to the subject as possible -- Susan and I have lived in Birdtown for two years," says James Borchert. One of the Borcherts' most valuable research techniques was delivering telephone books. "This gave us access to every household with a phone and an opportunity to see firsthand how the interior of each tenement was organized." A native Clevelander, Borchert is an associate professor of history at Cleveland State University. Susan Borchert, whose Ph.D. is from Ohio State University, teaches social science at Lake Erie College. She has a long-standing interest in race and ethnic relations, social reform, and once taught a course on the recent changes in gender roles (sponsored by San Jose University) at Soledad Prison.

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Last Updated May 24, 2000


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