Byron Center, Michigan is located about 40 miles east of Lake Michigan, and 15 miles southwest of the second largest city in Michigan, Grand Rapids. Growing up in Byron Center, the population in the 1990s hovered around 2,000. By 2000, the population estimate grew to 3,000 and the population continues to grow due to high birth rates and the permanent settling of seasonal agricultural workers.
The base economies of Byron Center include manufacturing and agriculture. The town is surrounded primarily on the West, East, and South with cattle farms, cabbage patches, soy beans, and seasonal cherry farms.
Up until the 2000s, during the summers an influx of Mexican migrant workers moved into, or close to, the town in order to work on the various farms. Usually these workers lived on the outside borders of Byron Center and the surrounding small towns, in houses that were rented out. The houses were typically single family homes.
The migrant workers were typically male, without families and often lived together. There was also an informal bus system that would transport the workers between the home and work in the agricultural fields every day.
The pattern of the workers was relied heavily on seasons – the workers would live and work every summer, but did not permanently settle in Byron Center (or the other surrounding towns) through the winter.
However, this trend seemed to change in the mid-2000s. Many of the seasonal workers remained through the winter and had brought family to live with them. Instead of working primarily in agricultural, the men began to work in the various manufacturing spaces and tool and die shops.
The settlement patterns seemed to stay the same, though. The families continued to live in single family homes on the edges of the town.
Although, it is important to note, due to the current housing crisis, many homes are in foreclosure or short sales, and are more affordable allowing for many residents to “filter up” in housing and buy bigger homes in desirable local developments.
Due to the inclusion of their families, the settling seasonal population has created more diversity within the town. While the demographics have not altered significantly, a town that was 98% white, is now increasing diversity with the newly permanent Mexican immigrants.
An important new policy that has been instituted to help facilitate the new immigrants is the introduction of an ESL program in the elementary schools. Granted the inclusion of new immigrants to the community has not been easy, I believe the diversity is a great addition.
With its spine on Mulberry Street, Little Italy stretches a mere three blocks, from Canal Street to Broome Street in Manhattan, generally only spanning half a block or so east or west on either side of its core street. This small enclave is now a dining destination for tourists and New York City residents. However, it is the former residential and commercial center for Italians coming to the New World. In walking down Mulberry Street, I was able to catch only small glimpses of the area’s former state and its important historical narrative.
Just before turning onto Mulberry off of Canal, I was not welcomed to Italian businesses. The only business in sight on Mulberry Street when taking an easterly approach is a Chinese jewelry shop. However, after turning the corner, a three block landscape of restaurants and cafes with alfresco seating on the sidewalks unfolds. The assembly of primarily tenement buildings with storefronts bearing large signs and Italian flags does feel completely different from the areas surrounding it. On close inspection, the current manifestation of Little Italy has undergone a fair amount of recent construction. Some of the nostalgic tenements with their signature fire escapes have been replaced with sleek new condo buildings.
The restaurants and shops on Mulberry Street attract a variety of people. At night and on weekends, Little Italy is a bustling area. Italian-Americans—many of whom now live in the suburbs or outer boroughs—come to Little Italy to eat homemade pasta and absorb the atmosphere of people interested in New York’s Italian culture. Couples come to Mulberry Street for its romantic atmosphere, enjoying candlelit al fresco dining. Foreigners come to examine American interpretations of European cultures.
After walking through Chinatown and its supporting businesses, it becomes apparent that Little Italy is no longer a community in itself. Chinatown has many Asian banks, travel agents, law firms, and doctors. Little Italy has none of these features. Aside from the many restaurants, there are pastry shops, souvenir shops selling leather bags and t-shirts, as well as a market. There are no specialty businesses intended specifically for Italian immigrants. Little Italy now serves a completely different function than as an immigrant community.
With large waves of Asian immigration into New York, and the movement of Italians out of Lower Manhattan, Chinatown has eaten up the majority of Little Italy. Little Italy has shrunk astronomically—now occupying less than a fourth of its former area. It is very difficult to determine how the old neighborhood functioned. Some of the only evidence pointing to how the former Italian-American community used to function is the churches in the area. Most Precious Blood Church on Mulberry Street and the Most Holy Crucifix Church on Broome Street are both extant churches that were initially established for the Italian-American community of Little Italy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, even these churches represent changes in the makeup of the area, as they are now primarily Vietnamese and Filipino congregations, respectively. Aside from a few shops and restaurants, the only remaining Italian fabric of the area has been repurposed to fit the ever-growing Asian community of the area.
Although Little Italy no longer functions as a bastion for Italian immigrants, it serves as a placeholder for this community of the past. Many of the neighborhood’s restaurants were started by Italian immigrants, although they do not necessarily still live in Little Italy. The Italian American Museum, on the corner of Mulberry and Grand, helps show romanticized humble beginnings of Italian immigrants in America through its black and white historic photography, which is also a focus of its window displays. From walking down the three block stretch of Little Italy, one gets the impression that this is an important place for Italians, whether or not it is a still functioning neighborhood. It has a resonance to Italian Americans in a similar way to the resonance the Lower East Side has for Jewish Americans. Whenever something important happens regarding Italy, Little Italy serves as the perfect stage for celebration. If Italy is playing in the World Cup, or if it is an Italian holiday such as the Feast of San Gennaro, people will come to Little Italy.
“People say that New York City is a melting pot. It is not. It is a mosaic.” Former Mayor David Dinkins
I am front-loading a planning implication: When implementing community participation it is important to provide means of inclusion. The participatory budgeting initiative in New York City uses translation services as one tool for involving immigrant communities in budget decision-making. I noticed that the neighborhood assembly meeting in Kensington (a neighborhood south of Prospect Park in Brooklyn) will offer Bengali translation. So I hopped on the F-line to explore the Bangladeshi community there.
McDonald Ave is a commercial corridor that runs north-south through Kensington. It is intersected starting at the north end by the commercial corridors of Church Ave, Ave C and Ditmas Ave. The area surrounding it is low-density residential. I got off of the subway on Church Ave and within 100 feet heard 3 different non-English languages. The intersection of McDonald and Church Aves was a further confirmation of the diversity of the area. The Bangladeshi, Albanian, Russian, Mexican, Ecuadorian and South Asian immigration of the last few decades has mixed with the older Italian and Irish communities.
Walking south from that intersection, McDonald Ave’s businesses become exclusively Bangladeshi. The wide street and lack of trees emphasize the uniform height of the buildings along the avenue. The wide sidewalk provides recreational space for kids. I walked through two football/catch games during my walk, and almost got roped into being a referee for one. The presence of children and families is apparent in Kensington. There is one stretch of McDonald Ave that is residential with less commercial storefronts. On a stop by a market, I perused the Weekly Thikana, a New York newspaper in Bengali that reports news from Bangladesh as well as New York City.
Once at Ditmas Ave, businesses serve a mix of communities again, including local orthodox Jewish residents. The surrounding residential area appears to mimic the mix of businesses at Ditmas and Church Aves. Immigrants of different home countries mingle in their residential orientation enough that there is no noticeable delineation upon a weekend walkabout.
Many of the Bangladeshi immigrants are single men who send remittances to their homes. Since the recession, these remittances have decreased. The Bangladeshi immigrants have less work, and less money to send or spend. Subsequently, local Bangladeshi businesses are suffering. The economic stress has led to an increase in the number of illegal gambling spots secretly operating in basements and markets. This phenomenon for Bangladeshi immigrants is not just confined to Kensington. It also is happening in the Bangladeshi communities in Jackson Heights, Astoria and Ozone Park.
“We have been addicted to gambling out of mental ache. We have no green card, no work, so what else do we have other than this gambling to spend our time?” Anonymous gambler, The Weekly Thikana 5/15/09
Recently, the one Bangladeshi member of the local community board, Abu Khaliquzzman, proposed naming the area Banglatown for its thousands of Bangladeshi residents, and erecting a memorial for a Bangladeshi massacre at the corner of McDonald Ave and Ave C. His proposals were met by a lot of resistance from residents who asserted that the neighborhood is not just Bangladeshi. Their claim is that the number of different immigrant groups in the area makes it disrespectful for the Bangladeshi community to claim ownership through a name change. After having seen the corner of McDonald and Ave C, which is marked by an unfinished construction project and a subway underground/above ground transition, the CB member’s idea for a memorial at that spot seems like an attempt to make the space positive for the community.
Former Mayor Dinkins’s quote about New York City being a mosaic resonates with the conversations we have had about immigrant communities in this course. Kensington presents the additional complexity of a neighborhood asserting and configuring multiple identities.
El Museo del Barrio is located in East Harlem, New York City. It is a museum that celebrates cultural contributions from Latin American, Caribbean, and Puerto Rican communities. The content of the museum reflects populations that live in the area. These populations founded El Museo del Barrio in the late 1960s during the civil rights struggles. At the time, many people in East Harlem were upset by the education that their children were receiving. They felt it was inadequate and wanted their children to be more exposed to representation of their cultures. As a result, community members took multiple actions including the creation of El Museo del Barrio.
At first the museum operated out of various storefronts and brownstones until it found a permanent home on 5th Avenue in the Heckscher Building. There, the museum currently offers a permanent collection and temporary exhibits. The description plaque for each piece of art, as well as the rest of the information in the gallery, is written in both English and Spanish, which is evidence of the community and targeted audience. Furthermore, students from East Harlem schools wrote some of the descriptions because they have a partnership with the museum that fosters a relationship between the language arts and visual arts.
The permanent collection at El Museo del Barrio ranges from Inca, Maya, and Aztec artifacts to modern and contemporary art. Many of the artifacts include a large collection of pre-Columbian objects from the Taino culture, which existed in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean and was well-developed at the time of Columbus’s arrival.
The contemporary or modern pieces of the permanent collection are from people who live in Latin America, the Caribbean, or Puerto Rico or people who are from these areas but went to the United States mainland to live. These migrants often either came here with their families or as college students. The contemporary pieces range from mixed media to paintings, and often reflect the artist’s experience living in the United States. For example, Karlos Carcamo, who was born in El Savador and migrated to Jamaica, Queens has a piece on display that represents gang conflict in the city and its place in the urban existence. The piece consists of two bandannas from opposing gangs framed in flag cases. Not all pieces are about conflict of course, as some focus on features of the built environment. For example, the Cuban-born artist Emilio Sanchez has his Flatiron painting on display.
In addition to the permanent collection, El Museo del Barrio is currently featuring their Bienal exhibit, the (S) Files 2011. This exhibit features emerging New York City based artists in an effort to foster stakeholders in the community. The art explores daily life in the city and the themes include the environment of the subway, the legacy of graffiti, exploration of social and political issues, music and fashion, and reference to the cityscape. Furthermore, the exhibit highlights the role of Latinos, particularly Puerto Ricans, in moments of crisis and the pride that results from the celebration of their humble neighborhoods.
I visited both the Museum of the Chines in America (MOCA) and Chinatown; MOCA tells the history of Chinese people in the U.S.A and NYC while Chinatown tells the current situation of Chinese community in Manhattan. Moreover, when I visited Chinatown in October/10/2011, I saw a Parade of the Independence Day of Taiwan, which I decided to include in my field report.
It is located at 215 Centre Street in Chinatown of Manhattan. Most of the sections of the museum are dedicated to tell the stories of chines’ immigration to the U.S and White Americans’ discrimination against them upon their arrivals to the U.S.
From the early 1800s, Chinese started coming to the U.S, especially to San Francesco-where the oldest Chinatown in the U.S was founded, looking for jobs and sending money back to their families. From 1865 to 1868, most of the Chinese laborers worked at transcontinental railroad at the western side of the U.S for a very low wage compared to White workers. This had led to the rising unemployment among White workers, which consequently resulted in the hatred and discrimination against Chinese.
In response to public resentment against Chinese, U.S congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which prevented Chinese laborers to enter the U.S and stopped giving citizenship to Chinese, who were already in the U.S. This law had prevented Chines communities growing in the U.S and prevented workers from brining their wives in to the U.S, which created a “Bachelor Society” until 1965, when U.S Congress passed the immigration and naturalization act, which allowed more Chinese laborers to come to the U.S.
The exclusion act and increasing discrimination had led many Chinese to leave west coast to the east coast, especially to New York City looking for new jobs. They settled around Mott Street, which later became one of the main streets in Chinatown of Manhattan. The Chinese immigrants coming before 1980s to NYC were mostly Cantonese from Hong Kong and Taiwan living in the western part of Chinatown, while, those coming after 1980s have mostly been mandarin from the mainland China living in eastern part of Chinatown. The discrimination and the difficulty of finding jobs encouraged Chinese to start their own businesses such as restaurants, laundries and tourisms.
It is a located in the lower Manhattan, bordered by Grand Street to the North (Little Italy), Allen Street to the East (Lower East Side), Worth Street to the South, and Lafayette Street to the West. Walking through Chinatown gives you the impression that you are in China because most of the people speak Chinese and Chinese signage can be seen everywhere.
The commercial area in Chinatown is very vibrant; it is home to a lot of restaurants, laundries, tourism companies, jewelry stores, grocery stores, fishmongers, American and Chinese banks, and street vendors.
The public spaces such as sidewalk are areas not only for businesses such as street vendors and stores displaying their products outdoor but also for socializing.
Moreover, the sidewalks are also home to a big informal sector in Chinatown; street sellers secretly showing customer the photos of fake watches, handbags, and sunglasses and if a customer liked it, they sell it to him/her in other places. This trend is very popular in China as well.
Other public spaces such as a Columbus park is a place where Chinese people are gathering, socializing, playing domino and Chinese games.
The day I went there was October/10/2011, I was lucky enough to see the Parade of Independence Day of Taiwan. Even though the parade perhaps had a political agenda, it was definitely a cultural event; I learned a lot from their culture, clothing, dances, music, and songs.
In sum, Chinatown has significantly contributed to NYC’s economy and culture, so, both the area and its residents should be more taking into account in future plan for the NYC and Chinatown.
In terms of housing, many Chinese people are living in tenement buildings, which are old and lacking sufficient facilities, throughout Chinatown. This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed either by providing more affordable housing or by other planning interventions. The other concern seems to be the rising real estate market and high rent, which pushed a lot of Chinese businesses and apartment renters to move to Brooklyn Chinatown and Flushing Chinatown, where the rents are lower for both retail and housing. This issue could be addressed by rent control or other strategies that might be more suitable for the area.