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Visualizing Vernacular Landscapes in American Cities by Jerome Krase


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Title: Visualizing Vernacular Landscapes in American Cities by Jerome Krase

Visualizing Vernacular Landscapes in American
Cities by Jerome Krase
This lecture attempts to synthesize some of the
most important ways we theorize about ethnic
groups in modern and indeed, post-modern, cities
by looking at how "the vernacular landscape"
(Jackson 1984) reflects their real and imagined,
as well as authentic and symbolic cultural
identities. Beginning with Burgess' Concentric
Zones (1925) through "urban imaginary" (Soja
2000) as well as "hybrid" (Canclini 1995) and
 "third" spaces (Gutiérrez 1999) a central theme
in urban studies has been how ordinary people
impact extraordinary places. It is argued here
that a visual approach can help us to decipher
complex urban scenes by attending to sights that
change the meanings of spaces and places.
Globalization and post-1965 changes in American
immigration laws together have greatly increased
the diversity of permanent as well as temporary
residents of the nation's cities. (Portes 1995)
From a distance it might appear that the new
elements thrown into the assimilation cauldron
of the American "Melting Pot" are blending
together, but up close at the street level they
appear more as pieces of a complex and rapidly
changing Multicultural mosaic. By reviewing a
progression of prior studies by the author it
also suggests that Seeing Community in
diversity continues to be a major, often
unrecognized, problem.
Community Models
The Presentation of Community in Urban Society
provides a definition of community as a possible
social reality that can be confirmed through
observation and interpretation of symbolic cues.
The end product of my ethnographic theoretical
case study of a predominately African American
inner city neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York
was a collection and analysis of accounts of
doing community, and perceiving community. These
accounts were analyzed in reference to conceptual
categories that developed in accomplishing this
particular research project. The concept of
community was therefore transformed from an
empirical object to a phenomenological
possibility. (Krase, 1973 48-49) The Emergent
Conceptual Categories of Doing Neighborhood
Community were 1.The conditions of togetherness
consensus, solidarity, and agreement. 2.Physical
and social boundaries. Locating community. 3.The
quality of social relationships friendliness,
warmth, helping, looking out for one another.
Vigilance. 4.The quality of size. On being small.
Perception of size. 5. Oppression and
vulnerability. The necessity of community
oppression. The advantage of vulnerability.
"They" and "We." 6.Uniqueness of locale. Physical
culture. Social history. Being special. 7. The
desire to be recognized. Community and
neighborhood as a moral problem. Stigma. 8. The
impact of personal community models, as a guide
for present, and future activities, and as a
source of judgment. 9. The importance of physical
appearances. On being clean, and beautiful.
Showing class, thorough visual and sensual
clues. 10. The problem of organizational skills.
The perceived need for organization. On
organizational appearance, and being too
organized. (Krase, 1973325-26)
Importance of Physical Appearance
For our current purposes, "The Importance of
Physical Appearance" is of course, most
salient. "Another important aspect of community
is the physical appearances that are imbued with
moral or normative qualities. Some of the
simplistic, although working, assumptions can be
stated as relationships such as physical
order-moral order cleanliness-godliness and
good- taste-good upbringing. It is not my purpose
here to criticize such notions, as they are
beyond objective critique when they are part of a
common-sense casual nexus of community accounts
and interpretations. They are apparently social
givens that are accepted by common-sense members
as valid and therefore real in their subjective
experience. It appears that community members and
activists are inordinately concerned with being
clean and beautiful. The connection of the ideal
version of the American community with middle
class virtue and accessories is shown in the
display of class through visual and other sensual
clues. Community is a moral aesthetic as well as
an ethic. The value of community is assumed to be
reflected in local appearances. A tour of the
neighborhood is best performed on a warm sunny
day. (Krase, 1973368)
Ralph Ellison
As in Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens and other
nonwhite urban neighborhoods, clearly racialist
ideologies make the recognition of community even
more problematic. It is therefore impossible to
understand the power of the visible and visual in
American multicultural community life without
reference to the most powerful statement of this
relationship by Ralph Ellison "I am an
invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those
who haunted Edgar Allan Poe nor am I one of your
Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of
substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and
liquids-and I might even be said to possess a
mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because
people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads
you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as
though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard,
distorting glass. When they approach me they see
only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of
their imagination-indeed, everything and anything
except me. (Ellison 19521) As is true of
minorities in the United States visually clashing
with the ideal urban landscape we find in Europe
and elsewhere a similar attitude toward the sight
of recent and perhaps not so recent immigrants.
Spatial Semiotics of the Ordinary
  • To understand my perspective, it is most
    important to understand that ordinary people have
    the power to change the meanings of the spaces
    and places they occupy and use although perhaps
    not the most powerful of entities in the
    glocalized world they nevertheless, perhaps
    naively, sometimes consciously, and more often
    unconsciously, compete with other individuals,
    groups, and organizations to define their micro
    worlds. Win or lose it makes a difference.

Local Performances
In Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens my community
organizing efforts were directed toward
producing local performances which would conform
to the expectations of individuals and groups
which could mightily impact on the neighborhood
such as banks, insurance companies, police,
sanitation and other public authorities.
Successful performances assisted in the battle
against Insurance and Mortgage Red-Lining and
poor and indifferent city services. I ask the
viewer to consider why it would be so difficult
to see community in the actions of the people
in the photos that follow.
Traces of Home
  • In many ways, human migrants are like bees who
    "carry designs for living from their original
    home environments and adapt them to the resources
    and opportunities in the new locale. Unlike
    bees, however, who carry their blueprints in
    their genes, the community plans for people are
    carried in their minds. Human designs are much
    more easily modified because they are learned
    inside a myriad of other, related symbolic
    environments. Ideally, immigrants will replicate
    the highly valued places and spaces from which
    they came..." (1)

American and Italian Architectural Values
For all groups, architectural, and other physical
artifacts of ethnicity are most easily seen when
they successfully clash with the cultural values
of the dominant society. Vincent Scully describes
the American community structure as a tendency
toward unity, homogeneity, a sense of openness,
impatience with communal constraints and a
preference for change. Although the American
residential norm is "nomadic," at the same time
it demonstrates "the self-righteousness of
American Puritanism, which must see alternatives
in terms of black or white."(1969 229) Even the
most casual observer would agree that such a
colorless description could never be made of an
urban Italian American neighborhood or their
Southern Italian counterparts. (See Notariani,
1983.) Italian spaces provide contrast and help
to point out what is American by being
oppositional. Rudofsky noted that "If for no
other reason than it embodies the antithesis of
the America street, the intensely Italian street
is amply documentated. Though it may not suggest
the best of possible worlds, it affords, in the
words of an unbiased American architect, James
Marston Fitch, the most delicious experience of
embrace and enclosure of any space on
earth.Italy represents the rear-view mirror of
Western civilization. Just as her towns have
always been test cases of urbanity, her streets-
seemingly antiquated but even on brief
examination, still valid, indeed
future-orientated models-are full of the sort of
inspiration that comes without theorizing.
J.B. Jackson noted two general types of European
vernacular home construction the immovable homes
of the Southern Europe (Mediterranean) based on
stone, and the more mobile houses of northern
European (Atlantic Woodland Culture) built of
wood. (20) As a product of the Atlantic woodland,
the American residential tradition is easily
contrasted to that of Mediterranean southern
Italy with its wooden as opposed to stone houses,
and picket fences, versus high stone walls
respectively. Finally, the styles of Italian
ironworks, stone, stucco, and ceramics came by
way of the Mediterranean and North Africa which
imparts an exotic, perhaps even oriental
quality. After decades of photographing Italian
neighborhoods in the U.S. and Italy, I have
isolated what I believe are the central visual
elements of an Italian American community culture
re-presented in its vernacular landscapes. These
Material Spatial Practices are not merely
aesthetics expressed in folk art and crafts as
represented in sidewalk shrines and lawn
sculpture, but are re-presentations of social
values and cultural norms derived from the
historical experiences of the vast majority of
Italian peasants.
Ethnic Vernaculars
Dolores Hayden argues that the understanding
immigrant and ethnic vernacular urban landscapes
should be included in urban and cultural
planning. According to her ethnic urban
landscapes consist of ethnic vernacular
buildings, ethnic spatial patterns, ethnic
vernacular arts traditions, and "territorial
histories" which are "the history of bounded
space, with some enforcement of the boundary,
used as a way of defining political and economic
power. It is the political and temporal
complement of the cognitive map it is an account
of both inclusion and exclusion." (7) In
contrast, Zelinsky offers that there are no
meaningful ethnic landscapes. Doubting their
"ethnic authenticity" he believes that "exotic
tidbits" found therein are merely cosmetic. For
him "There are of course, particular sections of
a city where a particular ethnic group, or its
descendants, comprises all or most of the
population. And, sure enough, one comes across
"ethnic markers", such as distinctive shop signs,
exotic religious objects in yards or on porches,
ephemeral festival decorations, certain cemetery
features, an occasional historical monument, or
startling new color patterns for houses ..." (8)
Wilbur Zelinsky could benefit from semeiotics
and sociospatial analysis. Signs written in a
foreign language on a commercial street are
easily noticed. Different uses or meanings of the
same space are more difficult to detect and
require sensitivity and understanding of the
particular culture which creates, maintains, and
uses the re-signified space. Since most
immigrants come to already built up urban spaces
and lack the power to radically alter their
environment, how they use and interpret the new
environment is often more relevant than how they
physically change it.
Italian Vernacular
1. Residential communities of Italians tend to be
small scale and arranged so they facilitate
intrafamily and interpersonal relations. 2.
Italian neighborhood residents seem to have a
great tolerance, if not a preference, for high
human density. 3. Italian communities endorse
the supremacy of private (family) over public
(nonfamily) values and interests in regard to
territory and activities related to local spaces.
4. Among Italians, individuality and
competitiveness are emphasized over conformity
and cooperation in spatial interactions. 5.
Toleration for the mixing of commercial and
industrial activities with residence in Italian
neighborhoods is common. 6. Italian American
communities provide a wide range of different
types of places for various age and sex groups.
7. Where feasible, Italian Americans have
introduced traditional architectural and other
aesthetics in new construction, maintenance, and
renovation. 8. The physical and symbolic
defense of individual, family and neighborhood
spaces is the most important feature
Lyn Lofland- Urban Villages
  • The work of Lyn Lofland adds another dimension to
    our understanding of ethnicized spaces. Arguing
    from a social psychological, Symbolic
    Interactionist, perspective The city, because
    of its size, is the locus of a peculiar social
    situation the people found within its boundaries
    at any given moment know nothing personally about
    the vast majority of others with whom they share
    this space. (3). And she adds that, city life
    was made possible by an 'ordering' of the urban
    populace in terms of appearance and spatial
    location such that those within the city could
    know a great deal about one another by simply
    looking. (22) In a richly descriptive chapter
    titled Privatizing Public Space Locational
    Transformation she outlines three methods by
    which public space is transformed into private or
    semiprivate space.
  • The creation of home territories
  • The creation of urban villages, both concentrated
    and dispersed
  • and (3) The creation of temporary mobile homes
    by means of the travelling pack. (1985 119)

Students and practitioners in urban sociology are
simultaneously blessed and cursed with competing
theories and methods for describing the
post-modern, post-industrial metropolitan urban
scene. But throughout all the theoretical,
methodological, and ideological questions
characterizing the field, the central organizing
construct for urban studies has remained, in one
form or another, space. Therefore, explaining
how these real and imagined spaces are used,
contested, and transformed by different social
groups remains the crucial task. As sciences are
described in terms of their ability to produce
cumulative knowledge, something is sorely needed
to tie together so many disparate threads. One
may also inadvertently notice how often
proponents of competing perspectives echo one
another but without acknowledging the voice of
the other. Admittedly, weaving a seamless
sociological garment is an overly ambitious goal.
However, visual sociological study of the
vernacular landscapes in ethnic (e.g. Italian)
neighborhoods could provide at least some
continuity from the Old urban sociology to the
New, and from pre- to the post -modern urban
scenes. Contemporary urban sociologists sometimes
suffer from parallax vision. One eye sees the
natural spatial form and function of the city
as a biological analogy as did Park and Burgess.
The other eye sees these same urban places and
spaces as the commodities, reproductions of
power, and circuits of capital a la Manuel
Castells, David Harvey, and Henri Lefebvre. In
this essay, the empirical and theoretical case of
Italian American urban neighborhoods or Little
Italies" has been chosen because as an archetype
it has been the focus of a broad spectrum of
historical description and theoretical
discussions, not unlike the way the ghetto
frames the Jewish and Black experience. At the
conclusion of this discourse I will illustrate
the utility of a visual approach to the questions
raised in this essay by presenting a series of
photographs of Italian and Italian American
spaces. When I first began teaching urban
sociology some three decades ago, the Chicago
School of Urban Ecology was offered as the only
way to approach the study of the city. As part
of the 60s generation, naturally I attacked its
Spencerian implication that the plight of inner
city residents was caused by some invisible
hand. In my own dissertation I attacked this
seemingly insensitive determinism from a
perspective which combined Phenomenology and
Symbolic Interactionism. Central to my activist
arguments was the work of Erving Goffman who at
the time was considered by the scions of
Sociology as anathema. Essentially I tried to
show that neighborhoods occupied by nonwhites
were stigmatized as such. In turn their
discredited appearance limited the moral capital
of local organizations as they appealed to public
and private authorities for social justice.
Practically speaking, in my work I devised and
taught dramaturgical methods for The
Presentation of Community in Urban Society by
stigmatized people in stigmatized places. (Krase,
1973, 1977, 1979)
Idealized Ethnic Spaces
Because there are too many permutations and
combinations of variables such as generation,
class, and location, no historical model can
adequately represent the multiple realities of
any ethnic-America. However, I hoped to show here
how Little Italy speaks to the idea of Italian
America and how a visual sociological approach
can add to our understanding of its structural
and cultural realities. Perhaps others will
follow this lead to produce similar studies of
other urban ethnic and class enclaves by
employing the broad array of methodological and
theoretical tools at the disposal of contemporary
urban sociologists. Idealized ethnic urban
spaces are Representations of Spaces as well as
Spaces of Representation. I have termed them
Oblivion, Ruination, Ethnic Theme Parks,
Immigration Museums, and Anthropological Gardens.
(Krase, 1997)
3.Ethnic Theme Parks. Despite displacement of
most of the natives the most famous of American
Little Italies are preserved as spectacles for
the appreciation of tourists, and the
streetscapes which are used by film crews
shooting locations for Mafia movies.
Manhattan's Mulberry Street, and the world famous
Feast of San Gennaro takes place in an Asian
neighborhood decorated with "Italian" store
fronts, street furniture, and outdoor cafes where
restaurateurs recruit "swarthy" waiters from
Latino communities. A few ethnically sympathetic
vendors might attempt to recreate Italian
markets, but many are more likely unashamedly
hawk "Kiss Me I'm Italian" buttons, ethnically
offensive, or inoffensive, bumper stickers,
miniature Italian flags, and almost anything else
in red, white and green. Most Theme Parks
contain (4.) Assimilation Museums and (5.)
Anthropological Gardens. Assimilation Museums
are places for the preservation and display of
inanimate objects whereas Anthropological Gardens
(Human Zoos) are places where the subjects of
curiosity are maintained in their live state. In
Assimilation Museums we find Memorabilia
Exhibits, Archives, and Galleries run by groups
devoted to the "Preservation of OUR Ethnic
Heritage", ubiquitous monuments to Christopher
Columbus, homes of the famous such as mayor
Fiorello LaGuardia and the more infamous, like Al
Capone. Anthropological Gardens are usually
criss-crossed by Naples Streets and Columbus
Avenues. There one can observe "Local Italians"
at memorial bocce courts, senior citizen centers,
and social clubs. Video journalists use them as
repositories for on-camera interviews about
organized crime. Those left behind are the
keepers of the tradition who can tell you how it
was in the good old days in the old
neighborhoods. (104-5)
Polish American and Italian American
  • Observing groups that live in similar
    environments during a limited historical period
    such as Poles and Italians suggest that there are
    many layers of relationship between the way a
    space was originally constructed, the ways in
    which it has been modified, and the ways in which
    it is used.
  • Italian and Polish Americans are especially
    suitable for comparison because of their similar
    historical profiles as predominately rural
    peasants with a common Roman Catholic Religion
    most of whom came to the United States during the
    period of mass migration (1880-1920) and settled
    in many of the same urban and industrial centers.
    As two of the largest "White Ethnic" groups they
    continue to affect both the demography and the
    vernacular landscapes of many American cities.
  • Discussing the developmental immigrant-into-ethni
    c model, Erdmans notes a continuum from
    "spatially defined immigrant consumer centers" to
    "dispersed ethnic organizational networks"
    Immigrant communities function to reduce the
    strain of adjustment and ethnic communities
    "celebrate and defend cultural identity." (2)
    Aesthetics of folk art and crafts, and the
    social, economic and political values of both
    "immigrant" newcomers and more or less
    assimilated "ethnics" are expressed in vernacular

Italians seem to have a tolerance, if not a
preference, for high human density. Poles on the
other hand exhibit a greater preference for open
space and physical separation.
Poles seem to have a broader sense of "ethnic
civic culture". While recent immigrant Italians
establish and maintain local town or regional
associations, the Polish American communities in
Brooklyn are spatially centered around larger
scale institutions. For Polonia the center of
ethnic life is the "Polish" parish itself such as
St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church and School
in Greenpoint, where the Polish-Slavic Credit
Union, Polish and Slavic Center, Polish American
Congress, Polish National Alliance can also be
Even though Brooklyn's Polish areas appear more
open than spatially closed Italians they are
still "defended". Polish barriers are however
less obvious. From the street one encounters
fences and open windows which allow more light to
pass through lace curtains. Having more permeable
boundaries, Polish areas are more likely to be
socially "mixed" than Italian ones. However, both
try to limit housing opportunities for
Polish residential streets seem to be more
uniform, symphonic, perhaps even "dull".
Individualism is expressed but within certain
norms. For example, neatness is a common
environmental trait which is shown in shiny new
aluminum or vinyl siding, white or other light
color paint.
In Greenpoint commercial signs in the Polish
language had almost disappeared by the 1960s.
Only a few enterprises, adorned with red and
white signs, crowned Polish eagles, or Polish
place names survived the transitions. Now young
immigrant Poles fill the spaces left by their
assimilated co-nationalists and share the
neighborhoods with remnants of the older Polonia.
Interestingly, many of the newer Polish
businesses are not marked by the stereotypical
red and white, or eagles motifs or previous
generations. Greenpoint is now dotted with signs
in Polish announcing everything from food to
professional services, multi-purpose Agencja, and
other, work-related signs.
Spatial segregation by age and sex is a feature
of Italian and to a lesser degree Polish
Architectural Materials and Aesthetics Where
feasible, immigrants introduce, and ethnics
maintain, traditional architectural and other
aesthetics in new construction, maintenance, and
renovation. They prefer the looks of certain
things, like certain colors, visual patterns, or
designs more than others. These artifacts of
ethnicity are most easily seen when they
successfully clash with the cultural values of
the dominant society. According to architectural
historian Vincent Scully, American "middle-class
urbanism." is expressed in tendencies toward
unity, homogeneity, openness, impatience with
communal constraints, and a preference for
change. Although "nomadic," it also demonstrates
"the self-righteousness of American Puritanism,
which must see alternatives in terms of black or
white." (19) As the extreme of an environmental
continuum it is obvious that the Polish
vernacular landscape falls closer to this ideal
than the Italian. In addition, J.B. Jackson
noted two general types of European vernacular
home construction the immovable homes of the
Southern Europe (Mediterranean) based on stone,
and the more mobile houses of northern European
(Atlantic Woodland Culture) built of wood.(20) At
the eastern edge of the Atlantic woodland,
Poland's residential tradition is closer to the
American ideal than that of Mediterranean
southern Italy with its wooden as opposed to
stone houses, and picket fences, versus high
stone walls respectively. Finally, Italian
ironworks, stone, stucco, and ceramics came by
way of the Mediterranean and North Africa. For
Poland residential traditions were mediated by
German and Austrian influences.
  • By the 1960s, commercial signs in the Polish
    language had almost disappeared in Greenpoint.
    Only a few local enterprises were still adorned
    with semiotics of the Poland such as red and
    white signs, and crowned Polish eagles. Even
    fewer Polish place names on local stores, such as
    Zakopane, had survived the residential
    transitions. At the beginning of the new
    Millennium young immigrant Poles have filled the
    spaces vacated by their assimilated
    co-nationalists and share the neighborhoods with
    only small remnants of the older Polonia.
    Interestingly, many of the newer Polish
    businesses are not marked by the stereotypical
    national motifs of previous generations. But,
    Greenpoint is now saturated with signs in Polish
    announcing everything from food to professional
    services, multi-purpose Agencja, and other,
    work-related signs. The otherwise ordinary
    looking street corner near St. Stanislaus Kosta
    Roman Catholic Church is now the intersection of
    Lech Walesa, Solidarity Square and Pope John Paul
    II Street which commemorates their visits,
    perhaps even their pilgrimages, to Polish

Gentrification in Poland and Polonia
  • "Gentrifying Poland and Polonia"
  • Gentrification is generally described as the
    process by which higher status residents displace
    those of lower status ones in neighborhoods
    which, by definition, are contested. Originally
    considered as a uniquely English and then a
    related urban American phenomenon of the middle
    class moving into poor and working class urban
    areas, today gentrification is recognized in
    virtually every corner of the global. This essay
    considers the interesting cases of gentrification
    in the Polish American neighborhood of
    Greenpoint, Brooklyn and in Krakow, Poland. The
    author has observed transnational ethnic
    connections and photographed indications of the
    process of gentrification in the two different
    venues and at two different times in both places.
    It is argued that although the direct causes of
    gentrification in the different locations are
    historically different, there is something about
    (je ne sais quoi) gentrification as a symbolic or
    semiotic activity that can best be grasped via
    the use of image-based research and consideration
    of contrasted streetscapes as spatial semiotic
    examples of Pierre Bourdieu' s Taste of Necessity
    and the Taste of Luxury. These ideas will be
    illuminated by a selection of photographs taken
    by the author in both locations.

Visualizing Ethnic Vernacular Landscapes in New
York and Other American Cities
It is difficult to argue with David Harvey when
he says such things as Different classes
construct their sense of territory and community
in radically different ways. This elemental fact
is often overlooked by those theorists who
presume a priori that there is some ideal-typical
and universal tendency for all human beings to
construct a human community of roughly similar
sort, no matter what the political or economic
circumstances. (Harvey, 1989 265) Furthermore,
a variant of Anthony Giddens structuration
theory cautions that new shop signs in a
neighborhood taken over by new immigrants are
easily noticed, but seeing the uses and/or
meanings of space require sensitivity and
understanding of the particular culture that
creates, maintains, and uses the re-signified
space. In other words even the most powerless of
urban dwellers is a social agent and therefore
participates in the local reproduction of
regional, national, and global societal relations
(Giddens, 1984).
John Brinkerhoff Jackson informs us that the
commonplace aspects of the streets, houses and
fields and places of work can teach us about
ourselves and how we relate to the world around
us. For him the "Vernacular Landscape" lies
underneath the symbols of permanent power
expressed in the "Political Landscape". It is
flexible without overall plan and contains spaces
organized and used in their traditional way.
Vernacular landscapes are part of the life of
communities that are governed by custom and held
together by personal relationships. For him and
his students "vernacular landscape cannot be
comprehended unless we perceive it as an
organization of space unless we ask ourselves
who owns the spaces, how they were created and
how they change." (Jackson, 1984 6)
John Grady defined Visual Sociology
pragmatically how sight and vision helps
construct social organization and meaning. how
images and imagery can both inform and be used to
manage social relations. And how the
techniques of producing and decoding images can
be used to empirically investigate social
organization, cultural meaning and psychological
processes. The techniques, methodologies and
concerns of Visual Sociology are the best known
and where the camera and other techniques of
representation play crucial roles in the analytic
process (199614). Visual Sociology demonstrates
human agency by capturing the efforts of people
to create or modify the spaces they occupy, or as
Bourdieu might say the practices which produce
their habitus.
Visual Sociology and Vernacular Landscapes are
connected via Spatial Semiotics, or "the study
of culture which links symbols to objects.
(Gottdiener, 199415-16) According to Gottdiener
the most basic concept for urban studies study is
the settlement space built by people who have
followed some meaningful plan for the purposes of
containing economic, political, and cultural
activities. Within it people organize their
daily actions according to meaningful aspects of
the constructed space."(199416) Despite this
agency, of course, neighborhoods are not
autonomous. They are tied into national and
global economic systems and are therefore
affected by a wide range of supply-side forces.
As Symbolic Capital, ethnic enclaves are products
and sources of both social and cultural capital.
Vernacular landscapes of all varieties of urban
neighborhoods reflect both the social and
cultural capital of its residents. Visual
Sociology of vernacular landscapes allows us to
see how we all are both products and producers
of space.
Lute Fisk
Although the main ethnic continuum which runs
north south through the neighborhood is
Asian-Latino there are some other interesting
visual stops along the way. A few decades ago
this part of Sunset Park was an old Scandinavian
(Norwegian) neighborhood and was referred to by
locals as Lapskaus Boulevard. Lapskaus is a
Norwegian beef stew. Today one has to search
very heard to find signs of their eighty-year
long dominance. One ethnic fossil is a small
variety store on Eight Avenue that has was a Lute
Fisk sign in the window. I had to explain to my
students that lute fisk is a dish, served
especially during the Christmas holidays, that is
made from salted dried cod. Other signs of this
senior ethnic group are the Protestant (Lutheran)
churches in the neighborhood that, now in Chinese
characters or en Espanol, announce religious and
other services. In a few instances, students also
found Scandinavian names such as Larsen
displayed in the front of neatly landscaped
single-family houses on the side streets.
Jewish Balconies
It must be noted here that a major change in the
appearance of the northeastern section of Sunset
Park has been due to the expansion of the
Orthodox Jewish population that has radiated
outward from its demographic and commercial
center on 13th Avenue in Borough Park. As with
the Chinese population, subway lines have played
a major role in Borough Parks development. Just
as Sunset Park was an extension of Manhattans
Chinatown, Borough Park was connected to the
legendary Jewish community of The Lower East
Side. Long before the publication of the 2000
Census, my students already recognized ethnic
change by the spread of Hebrew characters on
store signs, Stars of David, Yeshivas,
synagogues, schuls, and mikvahs. They easily
recognized the strictly segregated groups of
males and females, the wigs or covered heads and
long dresses of women, and the bearded, men
wearing black hats, suits, white shirts and no
ties. Much more difficult for them to understand
are mezuzahs affixed to doorways, and the succahs
built on the balconies of apartments, or in the
yards. Mezuzahs are encased bits of scripture,
and succahs are outdoor eating areas used during
certain religious festivals.
Latino Grocers
As to local stores catering to Latinos, or
bodegas, outside one of them is a sign
hand-written Spanish claiming that real
Nicaraguan food is sold here. If the Spanish
spoken here postings (en espanol) are
insufficient clues, others hawking Productos
Tropicales, Dominicanos, or Mexicanos, are
prominently posted, as well as national symbols
such as flags, or patriotic color schemes. But
here caution must be exercised. For example, and
for good reason, several of my students misread
the Mexican red, green, and white tricolor as an
Italian ethnic marker. More certain icons of
Mexican presence are various stylized
illustrations of Our Lady of Guadeloupe (Vergine
de Guadalupe) in the windows of homes and
businesses, or sometimes painted on exterior
walls. It was also not difficult for my students
to decipher the origin of the Acapulco Car
Service on Seventh Avenue, but they were less
likely to place the names of towns and cities,
like Xalapa, displayed in the windows of shops
which provided long-distance telephone services.
Photo 9. Dominican Grocery Store, 2002.
Bensonhurst has benefited by ebbs and flows of
Italian, especially Sicilian, immigrants since
World War Two, many of whom have homes in both
Italy and the United States. In contrast to
Greenpoint, the Italian shopping street, 18th
Avenue that was renamed in 1992 as Cristoforo
Colombo Boulevard, attracts many non-Italians.
Polish shopping areas point more inward than do
Italian ones. This has as much to do with
immigrant and ethnic attitudes as to perceptions
by outsiders. In American cities, Italian
neighborhoods, festooned with red, white, and
green signs and flags, are places where people go
to shop and especially to eat. Italian
restaurants are a virtual ethnic industry what I
have called in other places Ethnic Theme Parks
or Disneylands. (Krase, 1997) In contrast, in
Brooklyn's Polonia one finds few "fancy"
restaurants and even fewer eateries, which seek
to attract outsiders. Of course Bensonhurst is
not totally open to outsiders, its ethnic
insularity is reflected in the large number of
local Caffes, town and regional social clubs, and
Italian record stores which are generally off
limits for non-Italian-speaking visitors.
  • Robert E. Park and Ernest Burgess
  • Terry Nichols Clark
  • Soja
  • Saskia Sassen
  • Richard Sennett
  • Frisby
  • Fox Graham
  • Jan Rath
  • Lyn Lofland
  • Mike Davis
  • Neil Smith
  • Pierre Bourdieu
  • Henri LeFebvre
  • Herbert Gans
  • Mary Waters Symbolic Ethnicity

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