Diasporic Contact in Urban Midwestern Cities

By Hope Wilson, PhD Candidate, Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Culture, The Ohio State University and Randall Rowe, PhD Student, Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Culture, The Ohio State University.

Immigrant groups are often treated as though they are the same through and through. It is phenomenally easy to essentialize groups of people, giving ethnic, national or linguistic categorizations value as a diagnostic tool. Discussions of immigrant populations refer to “the Polish,” “the Russians,” “the Mexicans,” “the Italians,” relying upon (artificial and largely arbitrary) national and linguistic distinctions to delineate groups from one another. And from those national groupings, generalizations are made about this “community” of immigrants — never mind that this community might be spread from Chicago to Florida, from Seattle to Nashville, Bismarck to Austin. The national affiliation is used to essentialize them into representatives of a single, unified community.

Yet immigrants have historically come from a wide variety of cultural contexts, and they have moved into a wide variety of cultural contexts. Their presence in the locations in which they have lived has shaped the history and culture of their cities, and by their presence they have likewise changed themselves. Communities are, after all, local: even though we discuss immigrant communities in essentialized terms, every local iteration of a diasporic group is going to be unique and complex.

Of course, understanding local identities and senses of belonging is far from a straightforward task. It is an endeavor that involves sorting out complex webs of cultural contributions and expressions in specific settings. It also is a task that involves an understanding of the local conditions that shaped the community. This project, therefore, is setting out to document representations of Polish culture specifically in the Polish Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, focusing on understanding the role that “Polishness” has played in the neighborhood in the past and the role that it plays today. Additionally, we have sought to question how these representations have influenced a sense of belonging or urban identity in Pittsburgh.

“Witamy Do Polish Hill” – Welcome Sign in Polish Hill, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo taken by researchers on 6/27/18.

This is a broad project. Understanding a neighborhood is complex enough that multiple perspectives are needed. Consequently, this project is a joint project between two students on different academic tracks: Randy Rowe (a migration specialist) and Hope Wilson (a linguist). We decided to work together on this project because each of us brings a slightly different background and perspective to the work. Randy’s background with textual analysis and background in migration studies equips him to study the neighborhood from a macro perspective in light of the broader trends in migration, while Hope’s linguistic training is helping her to do a close analysis of the linguistic material gathered from the neighborhood.

Our approach is grounded in linguistic landscape analysis (ELLA) (Maly 2016, Blommaert 2013). This methodology examines the presence and use of public written language in order to understand linguistic diversity in urban settings. Because written language posted in public is created with a particular audience in mind, code choice in writing can be a marker of imagined community and civic power in particular locations. The type, placement, content, and code of particular signs in public serve as a record of who uses space and in which ways. Explicitly designed to examine diverse neighborhoods and understand how diversity is a dynamic and shifting process, the linguistic landscape approach will help us uncover what is going on in the neighborhood by analyzing the ethnolinguistic vitality of Polish Hill. At the same time, though, we also want to understand why the neighborhood is this way; consequently, we have also been conducting interviews, which illustrate ideologies and beliefs on identity and a sense of belonging in the neighborhood and surrounding city. Finally, we are also going to examine historical documents.

“Free Samples Kielbasa” – S & D Polish Deli, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo taken by researchers on 6/18/18.

Based on our initial observations, the Polish immigration to Pittsburgh has indeed shaped Polish Hill in a variety of ways, but it has also shaped the city as a whole. Immigrant neighborhoods often feature restaurants, architectural styles, churches, stores and cultural centers that helped to ease the shock of assimilation after having moved to a new country. Pittsburgh is a city that has seen a change in its demographics since the 1950s due to a decline in its robust steel industry and an exodus of citizens to the suburbs. There are traces of “Polishness” in the originally “Polish” neighborhood, Polish Hill; however, to a large degree, representations of Polish culture have disappeared or been assimilated into a larger urban identity.

“Stuff’d Pierogi Bar – Pittsburgh’s Comfort Food” Stuff’d Pierogi Bar, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo taken by researchers on 6/26/18.

Thanks to a grant from the Global Mobility Project, we have significantly documented the Polish Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The next site for our study will be in another urban Midwestern population center and its historically Polish immigrant neighborhood: Hamtramck in Detroit, MI. When completed, our study will compare the presence of and representations of Polish culture in both neighborhoods. This is an apt comparison because these neighborhoods were centers of Polish immigration during the 19th and 20th centuries; both were located in industrial cities in the so-called “rust belt”; and both have seen their demographics shift significantly in the years since the peak of Polish immigration. We seek to further our understanding of how cooperation and integration amongst communities may be either fostered or hindered by local conditions, as manifested in the linguistic landscape.

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