Canarsie

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Jonathan Rieder. Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1985. pp.285 $29.00 ISBN: 0674093615

Summary

Redier, a sociologist, has written a work that provides a portrayal of selected Canarsie residents in the 1970’s, the Jews and Italians of multiple generations and their political path away from liberalism. As he acknowledges, there is no one consensus, however, he uses his oral history and interviews to his advantage to be able to explain how this working class group is squeezed by changing demographics, politics and attitudes. No longer the Jews and Italians of Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars, these residents have fled the old neighborhood in search of better housing and opportunities. In the process they feel squeezed by the economy, claiming that there is no longer a middle class, rather there are the ‘haves’ and ‘haves nots’. They respond not only to forces outside the community but within as well, the sons and daughters feel no affinity for the old neighborhood and changing times and morals continue to pit the generations against each other.

Rieder also makes the case that the Jews and Italians brought both similar and disparate ways of child rearing and community standards with them, for example, the Italians claim that the Jewish leaders lobbied for better education and the Italians went along for better opportunity. For many, a dislike and hatred of Blacks became a rallying point. In addition to overt violence, the residents of Canarsie fought back against what they saw as the encroachment of people of color and the poor from places like Brownsville. The tentative hold on their lifestyle also led many to change allegiances and vote for more conservative candidates as their world continued to change. It was the local neighborhood groups and the Democratic and Republican clubs where these changes occurred, however, Reider does not answer the question, what was unique about this place that swayed alliances? Was this an ethnic or class based decision or did neighborhood play a role in this change? This is a useful book for its insights in to the politics, beliefs, values and attitudes of two ethnic groups and helps fill a gap in the literature and gives a fuller picture of a city in transition. This is real working New York, politics became a subject for both debate and a call to action. Sadly, it was not the move away from liberalism that is problematic, it was the race based hatred underlying it that solidified their beliefs.

Commentary Alan S. Brody, Fall, 2011

Borrowing from famed sociologist Erving Goffman, Reider uses the phrase “insanity of place” to describe the expectation that things will remain the same, when obviously they cannot (p. 177) This is the best summary of Canarsie, a study in the norms, values and attitudes of these working class residents many of whom are portrayed as ‘authentic’ . This is problematic because Reider seems to believe that these residents are exceptional in some ways but he never fully explains how this is the case. This book seems more social exploration and ethnography than political explanation and at times, it is hard to follow the various political factions and allegiances, perhaps a case study of a few illustrative families might have served him better. For the urban historian, this is an interesting read as it helps us understand the notion of boundaries, and it was the psychological boundaries that defined these residents of Canarsie. As Reider notes, “the basic fact of life for the residents of Canarsie was the precariousness of their hold middle class status, the regency of their arrival in that exalted position, and the intense fear that it might be taken from them.” (p. 96) This fact, more than any other, caused the underlying hatred of Blacks and virulent racism that came to be a defining factor of Canarsie residents.

The voice of Blacks is absent and while this is outside of his defined scope, the work lacks because of it, and undermines his point that there was no unified consensus. Thus, the definition of liberalism and the move away from it excludes the key stakeholders, what were Blacks thinking? Were they overwhelmingly liberal in their politics? Rieder claims that the incursion of Blacks from Brownsville was one of the reasons that the Italians in particular turned towards conservatism. The Jews are portrayed with more sympathy, however, they also moved to Canarsie to escape encroachment and the decline in the old neighborhoods. The other underlying actor is Brooklyn and New York municipal governments, portrayed as political hacks and patronage givers who were aligned with the welfare system to reinforce and squeeze the sled perceived middle class. Issues like school busing and education became flash points for the community and the violent reaction is one major factor that Reider cites in the move towards a more conservative agenda.

Lastly, for someone interested in urban history, this work occupies a small and unique niche, not truly ethnography and not social history, it appears to be a hybrid narrative that looks at two unique groups and how they unified against what they imagined to be threats from the neighbors, the city, the state and the federal government. Arguably, it was entitlement programs that were pressuring them and in turn they reacted by voting for Ronald Reagan. As one reviewer noted, it was the inability of these ethnic groups to assimilate and map themselves to outside trends was the root cause of their discontent. Reider is very strong in his explanation of some aspects of his informants, however, he needs to help us place these people within an urban context. While this is a work that has merit, however, a micro study of the neighborhood from an historical perspective would serve us better.

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