Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ethnictown Meets Anytown

Ages ago (it seems), I wrote an anthropology B.A. thesis about the expression of German-American ethnicity in a rural Oregon town near where I grew up. One of the things I looked at closely was the physical transformation of the town from a nondescript farm community to an idealized folk version of a German village. I worked elements of cultural geography into my analysis, looking at the literal creation of visual markers of German ethnicity.

This weekend, I had occasion to revisit some of the ideas I explored in that paper when my wife and I visited Convoy Street in San Diego's Kearny Mesa neighborhood. This area is reputed to be an emerging "Asia Town" where restaurants, bakeries, and other sorts of shops and services are increasingly owned by and serve diverse Asian populations, including Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese.

We went up for dinner at a Thai restaurant (which was okay) and then looked around just a bit. The main thing to notice about this area is that Convoy Street is dominated by strip malls and industrial buildings.  The street is wide and fast, the parking lots are ample, the buildings are low and plain, the landscaping and greenery virtually nonexistent.

The first thing we noticed was that the restaurant's parking lot (and the adjacent lot) was completely full.  We turned down a side street to look for parking, but there were a lot of wide warehouse driveways, red zones, and loadings zones, so not a lot of street parking. We did find a spot, just ahead of a rush of other cars who were all obviously driving around looking for parking. It was clear that in this land of proprietary parking lots, street parking was never designed-in to the neighborhood.

Second, we noticed that signage (in strip-mall mega signs) in this area is often bilingual with English or unilingual in only the ethnic language. It's almost a "covert ethnicity" that is only noticeable if you look for it, it blends into the surroundings; no rearing Chinese dragons and towering pagodas here, just words.

Can you spot the ethnic community in this photo?

Third, smack dab in the middle of the Asian ethnic restaurants and ethnic-owned businesses, was a Weinershnitzel chain, an Office Depot, a Mexican restaurant, an auto parts store, and all sorts of other non-Asian-specific businesses like mattress and tire and carpet stores.

The thing that made me really get started on this line of thought was the question: what happens when an area that was designed and planned to be acultural, becomes a cultural destination? Well, first of all, you run out of parking. Second, you subject pedestrians who are partaking in the cultural attractions to a road system that is designed to facilitate high-volume and high-speed traffic. It's an ugly, non-human-centered landscape that was never designed to be attractive for any reason beyond the content of the shops and warehouses.

So, how does such a landscape become a cultural landscape in an overt sense? Public spaces? Public art? De-emphasizing traffic and parking? What would that transformed, human-centric landscape look like? And most importantly, what role can ethnicity and ethnic identity play in this transformation? How can overt expressions of ethnicity, through physical changes to the man-made landscape, turn an area blighted with concrete and strip malls into a walkable, livable, human-centered neighborhood with significant cultural attractions?

It will be interesting to see how (and if) this growing multi-ethnic Asian community will coalesce into an interest group to rally for changes to the landscape. Will they capitalize on the cultural draw of their neighborhood to lobby for changes that will make this a more attractive place to visit (and spend money), or will the (dare I say) brutal nature of the landscape stymie any such efforts?