Latest update: November 19th, 2013
When I was nine years old my father devised a game to keep me entertained. It was called “Last Stop.” We lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Whenever he was free on the weekend, we walked to the local 103rd Street stop on the IND (Independent Subway System) line. From that subway we would transfer to another train and take that to the last stop on the line.
Upon exiting we would explore the neighborhood on foot for a couple of hours, sometimes taking a city bus to further extend our trip. When we ran out of last stops on the various lines, we’d move the destination point to the third-to-last or some other stop. We played this game off and on for about five years until I began high school. That’s how I learned to love and appreciate New York City.
Over the past forty years I have been teaching a graduate course on New York City at either City College of New York or the CUNY Graduate Center. Besides reading extensively on the subject and writing papers, as part of my course my students go out walking with me for full days to explore the different boroughs. It’s a fascinating experience for them to see what I often refer to as the greatest outdoor museum in the world. The students are invariably surprised and delighted to learn that all the boroughs are unique and interesting in their own right.
Even when different groups live in the same neighborhood, appearances can sometimes be deceiving. You can walk through an Asian area and think of it as belonging to one Asian group, but closer examination reveals that it’s not.
One study of the Japanese enclave in Manhattan’s East Village found that quite a few Koreans work in Japanese-run restaurants. Moreover, the area is becoming more Pan-Asian, with Koreans, Taiwanese, Thais, and Chinese moving in. Members of these groups tend to shop in stores owned by the others.
Most areas of the city have a mix of peoples living in them who have daily contact with one another and who share the space. This isn’t a question of outreach. Rather, it just makes sense to have good relations with neighbors.
Typical is the response by a middle-age, strictly Orthodox Jewish woman in Flatbush, Brooklyn, who reports that she is very friendly with her next-door Italian American neighbor. She is wearing a long, navy blue skirt down to her feet (referred to within the community as a “floor-sweeper”), with a loose-fitting white blouse, and, covering her hair, a dark kerchief.
“Her [the woman’s neighbor] and her friends are just amazing. When I had to go regularly to the hospital for outpatient treatments, her son took me there every day over two weeks. My husband’s working three jobs, so it was a godsend.”
“But these are not people you would have over for dinner, are they?” I ask.
“Only because my husband objects, because he feels we can’t return the invitation and come to them, because we’re kosher. But I wonder about that. I mean, why can’t we come with a kosher pizza and eat it on paper plates? Or couldn’t we take them to a kosher restaurant?”
“Are the Italians different than other non-Jews?” I ask.
“I think they’re a lot like Jews. You know, the family structure and how food is important to them.” The sense you get here is that of a person who wants to be more open and friendly, but whose husband is resistant because he fears it will threaten their identity as Jews. Regardless, I heard dozens of stories from people who talked of the friendships they had developed with neighbors whose backgrounds were completely dissimilar.
* * * * *
In an exploratory study of relations between Chinese and Jews on the Lower East Side that included interviews at a senior citizens’ center, one of my graduate students, Fang Xu, came up with some interesting findings. Like the Jews and Italians, the two groups share similar cultural values – namely, respect for the family, veneration for the elderly, interest in education, and concentration in business.
Most of the Jews living on the Lower East Side in the last fifty years have been Orthodox. The Chinese have also been there for a long time, first arriving in the 1870s, even before mass Jewish immigration made it a prime neighborhood starting in the 1880s. Elderly Jewish respondents interviewed by Xu expressed positive views of the Chinese, noting their respect for the elderly, family values, and quiet nature. Both Jews and Chinese do play mahjong a lot, but they play it with completely different rules. And, of course, there is a language barrier.
About the Author: William B. Helmreich is professor of sociology at the City University Graduate Center (CUNY) and City College of New York. His many books include “The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry,” “Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America,” and “What Was I Thinking? The Dumb Things We Do and How to Avoid Them.”
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