Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Immigration and Ethnicity

The following panel discussion took place during the Encyclopedia’s Civic Partnership and Planning Workshop, held April 16-17, 2009, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Please join in the discussion by adding your thoughts below.

After Morris Vogel of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum introduced the panel, the first to present was Richard Juliani of Villanova University. Juliani began by encouraging the editors to view the Encyclopedia as a cross-over document, one that will act as a reference source for scholars as well as an introduction for the general public. In terms of public knowledge, Juliani emphasized the degree to which the public “knows” history through accessible, but unreliable sources with which the Encyclopedia will have to contest. To this point, he also noted that there is no one history of the city, but rather many different histories across location and time, each of which has a place in the Encyclopedia. Here, Juliani underscored the issue of “people without history,” i.e. different racial, religious, and ethnic groups whose history has been recovered over the past thirty years. In terms of his own work, Juliani compared Italian-Americans to African Americans as a group whose history has similarly been lost and stolen and whose experiences need to be better understood through projects like the Encyclopedia. As part of this effort, Juliani highlighted questions of migration and the history of the port of Philadelphia, economic cycles, and the role of fraternal and volunteer societies. Finally, Juliani concluded by arguing that biography becomes historiography and observing that the Encyclopedia also may serve to introduce students to colleagues’ work on diversity that needs to be remembered and upon which future scholarship will build itself.

The next speaker was Kathryn Wilson of Georgia State University, who spoke about the Encyclopedia’s potential to create new structures of knowledge, particularly in terms of Philadelphia’s identity as a global city. Wilson encouraged the study of immigration and ethnicity to expand beyond the settlement of immigrants to include the flow of people in and out of Philadelphia, the city’s role in the transatlantic economy, and its position within the larger Americas. She also underscored the importance of ethnic interactions in terms of shaping group identities, the evolution of neighborhoods over time, and issues of interchange, overlay, conflict, and displacement. In studying immigration and ethnicity, Wilson argued that one must tell the story of why groups came, but also why some left and look beyond ethnic enclaves to capture diffused settlement patterns throughout the region. She emphasized that many immigrants live translocal and transnational lives and that these networks are a key part of their history.

In terms of recent immigration, Wilson described the Encyclopedia as an opportunity to involve communities in the production of knowledge, particularly through partnerships with community organizations and services. She also underscored the importance of creating a resource in the Encyclopedia that, perhaps through its web component, is flexible and adaptable as populations change and can continually provide up-to-date information. With regards to the creation of new knowledge, Wilson anticipated finding longer regional histories for some groups, such as Greeks and Southeast Asians, than have previously been recorded and encouraged the editors to think beyond nostalgia and group identity to also recognize issues of conflict and change. Finally, Wilson returned to the idea of community involvement and argued that the dissemination and production of neighborhood stories can lead to new interpretations and preservation efforts involving immigration and ethnicity.

The next panelist was Judith Goode of Temple University, who likewise spoke on the importance of capturing moments of change in the history of immigration and ethnicity. Goode described how historical narratives often record snapshots of before and after, but rarely capture the transition during which change took place. To this point, she argued in favor of using micromoments and small, on-the-ground interactions within communities to capture periods of instability and intergenerational shifts, noting that the “mess on the ground” yields interesting historical views. Goode also asked “what does the audience want” in terms of historical narratives and underscored the public’s desire to locate themselves in history and for narratives to capture the particular and specific before broadening out to larger themes. Like Kathryn Wilson, Goode encouraged the editors to study the relationships within ethnic groups in addition to the groups themselves and cautioned against relying upon institutions or organizations to tell the story. Rather, she argued that conflicts can exist between institutions and individuals on the ground and that institutions do not always represent the local, on-the-ground reality. Goode concluded by asking how the current moment differs from other eras of globalization and underscored increased global movement, the draw of universities, and the growing cosmopolitanism of the city overall.

Michael Katz of the University of Pennsylvania presented next and summarized the key findings of his research on immigration. Among the trends that Katz discussed were Philadelphia’s reemergence as a gateway city and a historic shift in immigrants’ relationship to urban space. Whereas new immigrants historically settled in the city before eventually migrating to the suburbs, Katz described a contemporary settlement pattern whereby many of these individuals now immediately settle in the suburbs; according to his findings, metro Philadelphia currently ranks sixteenth nationally among metropolitan areas with immigrants and two-thirds of immigrants living within the metropolitan area live outside the city. In addition, Katz detailed the growth of Indian, Asian, and African populations in the city and underscored diversity as the hallmark of these populations, whose only common characteristic is their foreignness. Katz also cited the city’s immigrants as responsible for the growth of its workforce, particularly the professional class. In conclusion, Katz emphasized that immigration is a truly metropolitan issue that requires a new approach or typology that deconstructs the old divisions between city and suburb and perhaps approaches the issue by municipality.

Next to speak was Avi Decter from the Jewish Museum of Maryland, who began by asking how the Encyclopedia might synthesize the ideas and proposals discussed in the panel thus far. Decter identified thematic essays, biographical, and discrete entries as important components of the project, as well as first-person accounts and voices. Decter underscored the importance of capturing the “talk of the town” and suggested that the editors start with that “talk,” then move on to a succession of articles, and finally a broad perspective on immigration and diversity. Regarding first-person accounts, Decter also highlighted the problem of deciding whose voices speak for a group’s history and the issue of outliers who may be a minority within the city, but a majority within their neighborhood. To this point, Decter added questions of where and how is “homeland” defined among different groups and where rural migrants and sojourners like foreign students fit into the study of immigration and diversity. Decter concluded with the observation that, if the Encyclopedia takes a regional approach, it must deal with metropolitan connections like Camden when considering issues of immigration and diversity.

The final speaker was Domenic Vitiello of the University of Pennsylvania. Vitiello began by noting that the story of migration and ethnicity is the story of the receiving communities and one that also involves histories of internal migrations, such as those of African Americans and Puerto Ricans. Vitiello asserted that one cannot write the history of immigration without including these movements and noted that immigration and migration also involve issues of race in terms of the relational and comparative understanding of race and ethnicity that develops as groups encounter one another. Vitiello then spoke on the issue of uncovering the stories of these groups and deciding what is true among the mixed voices and complexities of different neighborhoods. He cited civil service organizations as a prime historical source and described how an organization’s growth, change, or disappearance reflects upon the community that it served. Here, Vitiello asserted that the Encyclopedia could be of use to such organizations in turn, giving them a tool for making sense of immigration and providing a foundation for people who write and determine public policy. Vitiello concluded with the idea that the Encyclopedia’s role in public policy-making would enhance its utility as a living document and asset to the communities of Philadelphia.

Dialogue: Following the panel, the discussion initially revolved around the concept of the Encyclopedia as a living, useful document. Participants specifically debated how to make the print component a living document and some suggested piecing together contributions solicited from the public into larger articles. In addition, a representative from the National Constitution Center suggested previewing portions of the Encyclopedia at public institutions like the Constitution Center. On the whole, participants emphasized building ownership of the Encyclopedia in communities themselves and acknowledged the tension between scholars and communities inherent in such a project. Still, it was argued that larger, thematic studies of issues like immigration and diversity cannot succeed without the bottom-up knowledge that is localized in Philadelphia’s communities. One participant, however, questioned whether every topic needs a bottom-up groundswell or if this need is just particular to certain topics such as immigration and diversity. Finally, participants spoke of the need to be conscious of the audience outside of the city and engage issues of how we constitute ourselves as a nation when speaking of immigration and diversity.

What are the region’s information needs in the area of immigration and ethnicity? Add your thoughts below.

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