Ethnic Enclaves in the Urbanism of America
Our experience of the built environment can be both
exhilarating and banal. Very often, we do not examine our surroundings
but simply take them for granted. Great architectural monuments may take
our breath away, yet a familiar domestic environment is experienced inattentively.
By ignoring symbolic meanings we tend to overlook the possibility that
the architecture of the city may have different meanings in different
For the student of new urbanism, the material environment is rarely neutral
or meaningless. Neighborhoods, districts and corridors are the material
expression of the ideology of the prevailing order. But is the new urbanism
"imago mundi" the projection of a true American ideology? Or is
it just another American theoretical plethora in a random quest for standardization
and internationalism? What are the intrinsic meanings and the symbolic
values ambitioned by the implementers of new urbanism projects?
In the midst of the largest cultural influx in the history of America,
and in an age of globalization and instantaneous communications, the new
urbanism is still oblivious to the physical urban/suburban syncretism
produced by other cultures. Despite the fact that cultural and ethnic
enclaves are constantly being formed in inner cities and suburban areas
throughout America, the new urbanism is still missing the tools for studying,
understanding and working for the assimilation of foreign symbolic values
and meanings into the urban culture of the city.
Cultural and ethnic enclaves are entry points to the American dream; by
nature, they are transitional urban spaces, neither American nor foreign.
In cultural and ethnic enclaves the process of cultural assimilation and
differentiation may be perceived by an outsider, yet it is not totally
completed. The founders and builders of these vital neighborhoods modify,
transform, appropriate and reappropriate traditional building types and
forms, provide outdated financial mechanisms, and work towards the achievement
of community by means of social cooperation. The notion of ethnic and
cultural "enclaves" is not new to the reality of the American city; in
fact, urban and rural territories completely enclosed, socially and politically
homogeneous, and with particular symbolic meanings have existed in the
United States since the beginning, i.e.: Germantown, Chinatown, Little
Italy, Little Puerto Rico, Chelsea, Gay South Beach, Waco, etc. On the
other hand, the acceptance of ethnic and cultural enclaves as fields of
design and implementation is an innovation.
In the course of our history, millions of immigrants began new lives in
American cities. They came at different times, from different countries,
and settled in numerous urban and rural areas. Between 1892 and 1954,
12 million immigrants came through Ellis Island; to make things a little
more interesting, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act mandated an
end to discriminatory immigration policies giving preference to "white"
Western Europeans. That legislation vastly increased urban ethnicities
and the numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern hemispheres. Just
between 1965 and 2000, over 1 million foreign-born people migrated to
New York City, largely through its airports. The drama is quantified when
one realizes that, just in Crocheron Park (one of the 55 neighborhoods
in the borough of Queens, N.Y.) there are people from about 150 nationalities
who can speak more than 120 different languages excluding English.
With a certain degree of confidence, it could be said that these contemporary
pilgrims came to the United States in search of: job opportunities, religious
and political security, family and social networks, education, or intellectual
freedom. Approximately 8,000 new immigrants per day arrive to the United
States looking for one or various opportunities. But, where do they go?
How do cities manage their settlement? Is the so-called "melting pot"
a true urban reality?
Large numbers of immigrants and ethnic minorities have put pressure on
public institutions to deal with their individual demands -- from schools
to political parties; particularly the Latino population, which since
2003 has become the largest minority group in the United States. But,
these pressures, broadly speaking, have both ethnic and aesthetic ramifications.
From the point of view of ethnicity, they provide a point of arrival for
new immigrants looking for support and cultural assimilation; from the
aesthetic point of view, the sensual delectation of ethnic communities
is becoming an asset for cities where mass suburbanization has consumed
the magic of the symbolic.
It is a fact that cities are using culture as an important part of their
economic base. But, how should culture be managed from the point of view
of urban form and architectural design?
Our answer shall become a foundational moment. An opportunity to dissect
the physical and symbolic conditions that make up our own "imago mundi."
A chance to explore various scales of meaning and design in order to study
the properties of the lot, their correlation to building types, the notion
of building placement and its relation to the formation of public space,
blocks, streets, neighborhoods, districts, corridors, cities and countryside.
The study of ethnic and cultural enclaves offers the possibility for an
in-depth understanding of a truly New American City.
Copyright © University of Miami, 2004, with the direction of Jean-Francois
Lejeune, Teofilo Victoria, Marylis Nepomechie, Tom Reagan and Tomas A.