Ethnicity and Neighbourhoods: Looking Backward, Facing Forward

By Zucchi, John | Urban History Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Ethnicity and Neighbourhoods: Looking Backward, Facing Forward


Zucchi, John, Urban History Review


Robert Harney was the most important influence on the history of urban ethnicity in Canada. We will examine how Harney and those who worked closely with him approached this phenomenon in the exciting period of the 1970s and 1980s. The second half of the article acknowledges the recent interest in immigrants, ethnicity, and the urban setting and suggests new avenues of research in this area.

Robert Harnay a ete une influence majeure dans le domaine de l'histoire de l'ethnicite urbaine au Canada. Nous analyserons comment Harney et ses collaborateurs de travail approchaient ce phenomene pendant la periode des annees 70 et 80. La deuxieme partie de l'article presente le renouveau d'interest pour les immigrant, leur ethnicite et leur milieu urbain et ouvre la porte a de nouvelles pistes de recherches dans ce domaine.

At a conference about ten years ago a colleague remarked that there was no longer any interest in the history of ethnic neighbourhoods in Canada. It is true that at the time fewer historians were examining the urban ethnic experience than before. It was strange that historical geographers and sociologists continued to produce monographs and articles on the phenomenon just as historical production had waned, but there may have been good reasons for historians' loss of interest. The changing face and features of ethnic enclaves in the 1980s and 1990s may have left historians at a loss to understand the urban ethnicity of the past. But this change was unusual because only a few years earlier historians had gone through a vibrant phase of research and writing on the history of ethnic enclaves. Much of this new wave was associated with Robert Harney at the University of Toronto. He arrived at the university in the early 1960s to teach European history and his own specialization, Italian history. The bustling setting of Toronto and Harney's predilection for social history and national identity made him sensitive to the phenomenon of ethnicity in his adopted city.

This paper has two objectives. First, it will recall how Harney and his students approached ethnicity and the city in that exciting period of the 1970s and 1980s. Harney's students came from different backgrounds and had different political and ideological perspectives, yet together with Harney they were able to bring a freshness to the study of urban ethnicity. That initial enthusiasm for studying the ethnic quarters of a city subsided but now appears to be making a return. Secondly, this paper will briefly examine questions about urban ethnicity that still need to be asked, in particular in light of new developments in the relationship between ethnic groups and the city. This paper does not pretend to be a comprehensive examination of the state of the art in the field. Rather, it looks back to an exciting period of research on urban ethnicity and looks forward to new research questions that we still need to pursue.

There was very little interest in the history of urban ethnicity in Canada until Robert Harney shifted the focus of his research from the Italian Risorgimento to the study of immigrant groups and the city. There was some irony in this fact. The young Harvard and Berkeley--trained historian was not particularly enamoured of Canadian history. He also had a love/hate relationship with Toronto that, I believe, had a great deal to do with his own experience of growing up in Salem, Massachusetts. His mother was of Polish-Jewish background, while his father was Irish Catholic, and Bob resented the sense of ownership or appropriation of Swamp Yankees or the descendants of Boston Brahmins in Salem or Boston. Harney found their corresponding class in Toronto in those whom he called "those Upper Canadian types." As an American, he took exception to Donald Creighton's evident unease at the significant growth in the hiring of fresh PhDs from south of the border in the early 1960s. As a social historian (his doctoral dissertation was on the mercenaries in Pius IX's army) (1) he was perplexed by the silence of urban historians on the immigrants of the city.

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