Becoming American: Then & Now

Above is Howell Ave looking north as St Augustine Catholic chuch, where I occassionally went. 

Milwaukee’s old ethnic communities are gone, replaced by new ethnic communities.  I clearly saw that the Polish immigrant community around 6 and Lincoln is now a Hispanic immigrant community.  All over the city it is the same. The workingmen with the big forearms speaking with accents that sang Eastern European rhythms (where the streetcar bends the corner around) even into the second generation are gone.  We shall not soon see their like again.

Below – Public schools Americanized generations of immigrants, my ancestors included and I suppose me too  This is Dover St school, founded 1889 and still in the same place.  When I went there, it was still black from the coal smoke.  I thought all brick building were black, but I found that most were a nice light brown (cream city) color when they were cleaned up.  I don’t like the paint job.  Dover is made of nice Cream City brick.  They should just clean it up and let it be natural.

I miss them.  These were the hard working, blunt and practical guys who went to war to save America from fascism & communism.  They literally built & protected my world.  Their patriotism and loyalty to the country of their or their parents’ choice was enshrined at the VFW posts, their hard work evident in the busy factories and their troubles washed away at the many taverns.  A new generation of immigrants and their children is at work in the old neighborhood.  They come from places like Mexico or Honduras.  I have confidence that they too will build America and in process become Americans, just as the Poles, Italians, Serbs and Germans did before them.

After a couple generations all that really is left of the immigrant are T-shirts saying “proud to be Italian” or “kiss me; I’m Polish,” along with some food preferences and two or three phrases in the old language that make genuine natives of the old country smile.  Imagine someone whose language was learned and frozen in the slang of the 1940s or even the 1960s or 70s.   Language changes; immigrants keep and propagate the old stuff in groovy and copasetic ways.   They just don’t know it. I know it from personal experience, when teachers at the Foreign Service Institute who left their native lands long ago taught me phrases equivalent to “23 skidoo” or “now you’re cooking with gas.”  

Below – These steps lead from Chase Ave to … nowhere.  I suppose they used to connect neighborhoods before the freeway went in. 

I do have some concern about too many immigrants coming from the same place and concentrating among each other.   When you get immigrants from many sources, they have no choice but to learn English and become Americans very quickly.   This is what happened circa 1910, when immigrants made up a greater % of the American population than they do today.  If immigrants from Poland, Russia, Germany, Italy and Greece were all together, none could dominate.  The only language they could use was English, even though it was nobody’s first language.  I saw it happening with my kids friends in Fairfax County.  Arab kids, Chinese kids, Korean kids and other from countries you cannot even find on a map get to be friends and speak to each other in English.  Diversity is really strength.  Immigrants from one place can maintain their separateness.  Separateness is a bad idea.  I value true diversity, with lots of different groups all contributing to an American identity.