Posts Tagged ‘Main Streets and Town Squares’

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A CHANGING LANDSCAPE

July 23, 2012

Readers of this blog are aware that over the last seven months, I have become absorbed in a new way of thinking-initially because of my introduction to Charles Landry’s “The Art of City Making”.  Landry did a residency here in Minneapolis/St. Paul in early May which I participated in as part of the Plan-It Hennepin project.

It was an eye-opener for me in many ways…and once that happens, one sees signs and applications everywhere one looks.  And sometimes I forget that everyone in my world does not see it the same way I do.  That was evident earlier this week, when a friend of some thirty years and I had a discussion on immigrants in Minnesota.  Our perspectives, coming from different directions and viewpoints clashed resoundingly.  We survived the discussion of conflicting ideas, and I resolved to keep in mind that not everyone is celebrating the changes I see.

So, as I glanced at the STRIB headline on  Sunday  “A Changing Landscape” and realized it was a story of Somali immigration and impact in outstate towns such as Willmar, Rochester, and Faribault, I reminded myself that friends and family in those three towns might indeed view this very differently than I do. It will be painful to some and encouraging to others, and for all, a bit of a cultural shock.  Not everyone in my world has the benefit of learning and beginning to understand the importance of interculturalism in our 21st century world of globilization as presented by Landry, nor the Richard Florida theory of economic reset we are now experiencing.

Nonetheless, as I took in the message, I thought it should be a welcome change – if understood.  The “reset” after the Great Depression created the move to the suburbs…as we ”recorrected” once again, and the excesses of the late 20th century pushed that migration further and further into the surrounding countryside as exurbs developed.  And with that came suburban malls and big box stores, and more and more super highways…and that left empty buildings and department stores in the core, and eventually, the central city blight so many of our cities have experienced.

The article began by recounting that Main Streets in many smaller Minnesota communities have not fared so well in the last 25-30 years, and the growth of immigrant populations and business are …a shot in the arm…an economic development program.  But for long-time residents, it’s a big change, and the old community they long for will never be again.

It is hard for those residents to see strangers they know nothing about move into their towns…and for the most part, judging from family discussions, I understand they see them as “different”, “troublesome in schools” and a little bit scary.

 It is easy to miss that immigrants of any color most likely have the same qualities our own immigrant forefathers had….otherwise they would not have risked the move.  They are entrepreneurs, they create businesses and therefore jobs; they resurrect stores and services needed in the core;  and over time their businesses include law offices, insurance agencies, and real estate offices…all services needed in a community; they pay taxes;  and yes, they bring a different look and perspective to disrupt our comfort level.  

I was encouraged to read the perspective of Royal Ross, director of a program called Faribault Main Street.   He understands that it is a hard adjustment for residents in a small town….”it is a cultural shock to us a little bit…it’s neither good nor bad.  It’s just different.”

And his example of differences is one that we all can understand.  Large groups of Somali men tend to congregate at day’s end, on Faribault sidewalks, a common way to get together and exchange information.  But they are speaking Somali and not moving out of the way for others walking by.

Ross mentions that the white locals are not used to seeing large groups congregating in public areas like that…and that we need to get used to how each other operate.

 So, of course , I understand:  because it is different, and since the group is “not like us- white and speaking English” –it becomes intimidating.  We forget that through much of our own US history, citizens, like citizens of countries all over the world, did/do that in the Town Square …which disappeared from our own cities in the last 50 years, along with the downtowns.  It is why discussions in city-making in MSP continue to focus on creating “intercultural gathering spaces”. 

 Losing that face-to-face interaction has not been good for our country. Somehow, the staged networking events in a sterile indoor gathering space, complete with speakers and name tags and mixer games and superficial conversation exchanges do not accomplish the same thing.  We should learn from those Somali gathering, not fear them!

So despite the misunderstanding, I will continue to advocate for the move to intercultural planning and understanding, and will view the separate article reporting on racing camels and ostriches at Canterbury  as a little “intercultural creep” as we experiment and try “new” things as a baby step in the right direction!

 

 

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