Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The 'burbs

The essayist at Sippican Cottage reflected recently about growing up in the suburbs and diversity.  Some excerpts:
It was a polyglot place, no matter what you've heard from people who live in concrete dovecotes and write for the Gnew Yourk Toimes. In our neighborhood, Irishmen lived right next door to Englishmen. One side skipped car bombing his neighbor, his counterpart  eschewed channeling the Earl of Essex. There was a French family right next door, too. I can picture their little doe-eyed girl named Suzanne, still, forever frozen in my mind's amber, immortal and fey and unchanging.Unlike on the continent, they required only a privet hedge instead of a foggy channel to keep from falling on each other with misericordes and getting busy.

There were Germans living next to Poles. The crabgrass invaded the neighbor's yard looking for lebensraum, but that was about it. There were Scots living next to people I thought were sorta German, but were really Swiss, I think. If they didn't care enough to explain to me what they were, why should I bother to figure it out?

The whole town was lousy with Italians. Italian is a funny word to an Italian. A lot of Eyetalians got unshod of the boot with firsthand memories of the Risorgimento. It wasn't smart to assume they were all the same. A Calabrian had no use for an Abrusseze; a Venetian had no use for a Neapolitan. No one had any use for Sicilians, and still don't.

A block away from me, a Lebanese dad pulled his Ford into his carport, waved to a French-Canadian family on one side, a Portuguese guy on the other, and a neighbor with a name out of Charles Dickens across the street. The Lebanese family had a girl that broke several thousand hearts, no doubt, besides mine, without uttering a sound. She had eyes like dishes of used motor oil, skin like two days at the beach, and a head of hair like a mink.
. . . and concludes with this admonition:
Anyway, for a couple of decades, I've watched a continent full of fools and knaves trying to ram themselves into a political, social, and monetary union while they royally screwed the pooch nine ways from Sunday in the attempt. I suppose it would be unkind of me to point out that we managed it, all on our own, completely by accident, back before disco, simply because there was no corrupt, contemptible government trying to make us do it. 
It reminded me of the movie Brooklyn, which we saw early last year.  I never got around to writing a review of the film, set in Brooklyn and Ireland in the early 1950s, starring the luminous Saoirse Ronan, and which I quite enjoyed.  It tells the tale of an young Irish emigrant to America, the difficulty of her adjustment to a very different, and much more dynamic, culture, and her relationship with a young Italian guy who has already assimilated to America's ways.   It also makes reference to the new post-war suburban boom, portraying it as the path to an optimistic future for all Americans.

In today's parlance we would not think of them as "diverse"; both white, European and of the same religion, but that is not how they, and those around them, would have seen it.  For those of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s, the suburbs were full of ethnic and religious diversity, something very different from the neighborhoods our immigrant parents, grandparents and great grandparents experienced.  We were aware of the differences.  It was also our neighborhood.  To miss that aspect of the suburbs is to miss an important part of what makes America, America.

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