I grew up in Yonkers, New York in a heavily Irish Catholic neighborhood known as Woodlawn. It’s a fairly working class residential neighborhood. Hearing an Irish accent was just part of my life growing up – it seemed normal to me. Yet I found out later that I grew up in one of the many “multicultural” neighborhoods in New York. I never realized how different such an environment was to most Americans until I went to seminary in St. Louis and was surrounded by mostly Midwestern people who, like myself, were all of northern European descent. But going further, I also didn’t realize how different my upbringing and experiences were from theirs especially in relation to experiences with people of another color skin. I went to school with Blacks, Asians, Hispanics and, lest I forget, poka dotted peoples. In many regards that was normal for me and my brother and my sister. I never saw it as being that big of a deal until I got to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in 2005. I think it’s fair to say that many Americans grow up around only white people without really having much contact with those of a different skin color. At least that’s what I garnered from my classmates at the sem.
Every year Concordia Seminary sends a group of their students to the area where I grew up for their “cross cultural module”. One of
the churches and neighborhoods that they visit is my home congregation and neighborhood. I never thought where I grew up would be a cross cultural place for seminarians to visit but clearly it is. For me it’s what I know, for them it’s something completely new. To think that the blocks and the streets that I grew up on and walked around on and played on are a cross cultural experience is so weird. While I was at the sem no one ever asked me to recall my experiences growing up on the edges of NYC to a class of students. Heck I would have! I would have told them about Billy the neighborhood watchdog who was locked up when he was 16 for almost killing a homosexual man down in the village, I would have told them about the Italian guy who once chased all of us with a baseball bat because we hit his car with a football, I would have told them about the Nereid Ave bridge recalling how that is the bridge that separates the white neighborhood from the black neighborhood. I then would have gone into the complexities of the relationship between the two neighborhoods so that they could better understand racial tensions and not judge the situation by the things they learned from a textbook, I would have told them about the fights throughout the years between Yonkers (Italians) and Bronx kids (Irish) or Woodlawn kids and Riverdale kids, I also would have told them about what it was like to grow up as a German Lutheran in an Irish Catholic neighborhood and on and on the list would go. And lastly, I’d have them talk to my mother and father who have stereotypical New York accents so they could truly hear such accents in real life and laugh.
Anyways, I totally understand why the seminary sends guys to NYC for a cross cultural module and I think it’s a good thing. But as an aside, and as someone who grew up in a “multicultural” place, I sometimes think that those who haven’t grown up in such places make so much more out of “multiculturalism”. Sometimes it appears to be a badge of honor and pride for those who are transplants to the NYC area. But the reality is that it’s not that big of a deal for the natives and I think that gets missed a lot by many outsiders. Like any people in any part of the country or world they’re just going about their daily lives. No matter where one goes people are people with the same concerns and struggles. The lead singer for the band Sheer Terror once said something during one of their sets at CBGB about the novelty of living in a “multicultural” neighborhood in NYC that I think really brings home the point. He said, “Nowadays, people are all about wanting to live in a multicultural neighborhood which really just amounts to living on a block that has a bunch of Puerto Ricans hanging out on the corner.” The guys on the corner are just hanging out just like the suburban kids are hanging out at the mall. Not as much novelty there as we’d like to think.
From a native New Yorker now pastor in Colorado,