Academic journal article Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies

From Urban Enclave to Ethnoburb: Discourse, Space, and Community in Polish Chicago

Academic journal article Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies

From Urban Enclave to Ethnoburb: Discourse, Space, and Community in Polish Chicago

Article excerpt

In this paper I want to tell a story of discourse, space, and community-or more specifically, a story of how discourse and space can intersect with a community's efforts to construct its own identity. The community that interests me is the Polish immigrant community in Chicago, which is the center of my ethnographic research. By telling the story of how Chicago Poles have moved among urban neighborhoods and suburban areas over the last 150 years or so, and by drawing on research participants' ways of talking about the present-day spaces of metropolitan Chicago, I want to look at how these collective movements and discourses overlap with the community's shifting ideologies and aspirations. Also, by drawing on the idea of the "ethnoburb," a term geographer Wei Li uses to describe the emerging phenomenon of suburban areas where many ethnic groups live together, I aim to show how Chicago Poles' recent settlement patterns mirror larger demographic trends. But I also want to use this specific site to develop a broader theoretical understanding of the relationship between discourse and space. In short, my argument is that discourse and space are mutually productive and constitutive forces, such that our experience of space is deeply discursive and our discursive inventions are deeply embedded in spatial experience. Even more, I want to show not only how space interlinks with discourse, and implicitly ideology, but also how it actively partici- pates in discourse as a signifier. My method for developing this argument relies on a combination of theoretical insights from fields such as spatial theory, urban planning, and rhetorical studies; evidence from historical writings about both Chicago and Poland; and data from my fieldwork among Polish immigrants in and around Chicago. It is this "grounded" evidence-which emerges from nearly two years of participant observation and extensive interviews with several Chicago Poles-that provides the real foundation of my argument, because, in my view, the analysis of everyday practices and ways of talk offers an exceptionally rich method for understanding the relationship between space and discourse. In my case, these are the practices of a specific group of immigrants in a specific place, and in the second half of the paper I will examine some of the ways in which Poles' unique political and social histories have influenced their discourses. However, the processes I will explore operate among many other groups, including other immigrant groups in the U.S., and the theoretical implications are much broader.

As a way into those broader claims, I want to start at the level of ethnographic observation, by offering two brief vignettes from my fieldwork that I think help encapsulate, in miniature, the larger points I am trying to develop. Both scenes involve maps-our most pervasive and stylized discourse of space-and both scenes take place in a small room in the basement of a Polish church on Chicago's northwest side. As a central aspect of my fieldwork from 2010-2012,1 participated in a grassroots Polish immigrant rights organization, whose weekly meetings took place in the church basement.1 This meeting space was used by the group for the first few years of its existence, and it was attractive primarily because it was free (one of the members was a parishioner). But the location was also agreeable, since the church was in the heavily Polish neighborhood of Portage Park, where some group members lived; also, it was easily accessible from the 1-90 Kennedy Expressway, which connected to the northwest suburban homes of some other group members. The organization has grown since those times and now has its own space inside the building of a major Polish-American cultural institution. However, for that first period of development, the church basement provided a conducive setting for regular Wednesday-evening planning sessions, which were, from my perspective, events of inspiring camaraderie-but also very intimate, intense affairs that sometimes included heated debates and, on occasion, raw emotional displays. …

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