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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 6, NO. 1 -- SPRING 2004
 

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 cultural contexts.

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vital neighborhoods modify, transform, appropriate and reappropriate traditional building types and forms, provide outdated financial mechanisms, and work towards the achievement of community by means of social cooperation.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. Spain, faculty.