Wandering into Someone Else’s Backyard
Looking back on photos from a recent trip to the U.S, the realisation came that although the big cities were visited, the traditional tourist track was certainly stumbled off too. Wandering inadvertently into seemingly other worlds allowed us to see places that didn’t rate a mention in the guidebooks but which showed us interpretations different from the conventional American Dream.
Whilst ignorantly setting out for the streets of San Francisco in search of the perfect taco, we were by chance fortunate enough to catch glimpses into the lives of immigrants who we assumed had moved to California in pursuit of something better.On advice from local friends, we headed towards the Mission, an area originally established by missionaries at the city’s inception and now largely populated by people who have immigrated from Mexico, which borders the base of the state. Whilst taquerias did indeed abound here, what was more intriguing was the vibrancy, the colour and the visible stories everywhere.
Despite quickly becoming aware that we had traipsed into a lower socio economic area, it was clear that as a community these people were not attempting to solely adopt the so called American Dream of pastel houses, picket fences and big cars that are often seen in this city, but were embracing their traditions and ensuring they were not being forgotten by children who have been born on the surrounding blocks more recently. Murals on every blank wall painted reminders of hometowns far away, of festivals, of religious celebrations, of hope and spirit, of political icons, and of proud depictions of their determination for equality and rights- an in depth education of the experiences of a whole people was to be found on the fences in crooked back lanes in this vibrant San Franciscan suburb.
Half way across the country however, deep in the Mid-Western states near the Great Lakes, an area on the lower West side of Chicago painted a different and more sobering tale on its ice paved streets in mid Winter.
Pilsen, like the Mission, is an area largely populated by Mexican immigrants, although unlike the other, there is a strong sense of disadvantage in the streets. We felt this immediately on exiting the almost deserted 18th Street El station*. Plastered on the walls of decrepit surrounding buildings were posters that reminded young citizens about recent crimes in the area and pleading against re-occurrence. A large concrete church with bordered up doors loomed above everything. There were no murals depicting community festivities or reminders of home, only one sombre statement, illustrating the community’s frustration about immigrants’ standing in American society- its bright presence making a stance half way down the empty main street. It seemed here a community was still fighting to establish their slice of the dream.
Further to the East, in an attempt to walk from Williamsburg to Downtown Brooklyn in New York, we stumbled into the devout Hassidic Jewish community. Suddenly the iconic yellow schools buses had Hebrew inscribed on their sides, the trendy indie hipsters of Bedford Avenue a few blocks before were replaced by similarly aged young women wearing conservative black dresses and pushing strollers. Bearded men stood about on street corners holding their prayer books and chatting. Non-elaborate signs were written in both Hebrew and English, advertising local businesses and community services. Unlike the rest of New York, there were not several convenience stores on every block, or flashing neon signs or even a Starbucks to be seen. An ancient community had managed to maintain their way of life in the middle of the biggest metropolis in the world, not conforming with the American Dream, but paralleling their own.
*The El is the Chicago train system which transports residents across Chicago on raised or ‘Elevated’ tracks. Established in 1892, it is famous for its loud rattling noise and was once declared above legal noise levels by a university study.