Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Urban Ethnic Landscape Identity

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Urban Ethnic Landscape Identity

Article excerpt

To the identity city is to begin to understand human association with place and how localities become defined by varied interests. The identity of a city is not necessarily the same as the image that individuals perceive. Neither is it exactly a mental map nor a sense of place. City identity involves the meanings projected by a landscape. Identity can change through time, as may image. Transcending physical examples that serve as the icon of a city, such as a skyline or a mountain, identity can also be conceptual - a regional flavor like southwestern or a specific function like mining. Urban identity is inevitably a constructed idea that is tied to a real or ideal landscape. This quality of inseparability from landscape distinguishes identity from image. In this essay I examine how ethnic association shapes urban identity and how ideal landscape is forged through a process directed by individuals and institutions in a specific cultural context.


One of the strongest measures of American urban identity is the association of a city with a specific ethnic group and its landscape. The Chinese in San Francisco and the French-Creoles in New Orleans are two well-known examples, but there are many others. During the late nineteenth century immigrant groups settled in many American cities, and their presence became a major element in city identity, as was the case with the Germans in Milwaukee or the Irish in Boston. This pattern of urban ethnic association has persisted, although today many older urban immigrant centers in the United States are less diverse than are newer immigrant destinations (Allen and Turner 1989). Nevertheless, immigration in the United States remains an urban phenomenon and one very much concentrated in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other large cities (Portes and Rumbaut 1990). But how can a large immigrant center with its highly diverse population develop a singular ethnic identity? Consider the case of Hispanic representation.

Hispanic subgroups are significant in Los Angeles, where they are enumerated as 40 percent of the city population; in New York, where they measure 24 percent of the city population; and in Chicago, where they are 20 percent of the city residents (Reddy 1993). Yet significant demographic concentration alone does not ensure an Hispanic identity for these places. The diversity of each is indicated not only by the presence historically and recently of other ethnic groups but also by the Hispanic plurality in each. Even Los Angeles, where Hispanic has long been equated with Mexican, is now diversified by the presence of Cubans, Central Americans, and South Americans in distinctive quarters (Pearlstone 1990). Furthermore, Miami, which is 63 percent Hispanic and proclaimed as the "Cuban Capital of America," is admittedly multiethnic, with Haitian and other Latin American subgroups, despite the dominance of Cubans (Boswell and Curtis 1984).

Among large cities, San Antonio is the most Mexican urban area in the United States; the Hispanic subgroup accounted for 56 percent of the city in 1990. Although San Antonio is ranked the fourth-largest Hispanic media market in the country after Los Angeles, New York, and Miami (Veciana Suarez 1990), the Texas city's claim as the premier ethnic capital for the Mexican subgroup still has significant currency. Unlike other big cities with numerically large Mexican-descent populations, in San Antonio Mexicans are unchallenged as the Hispanic group of the city demographically, socially, and historically (Arreola 1987).

The Mexican identity of San Antonio is not, however, simply a result of relative population numbers or even of a long cultural presence. In large measure it is a constructed identity based principally on a pair of ideal landscapes conceived, assembled, and promoted by non-Hispanic city patrons. The ideal landscapes, the Paseo del Rio, or River Walk, and La Villita, or Little Town, are chiefly exotic creations situated in the downtown. …

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