»»Technical requirements for each journal:
»»Topic for JOURNAL #1: What is your family's history in America? When did they get here, from where, and how long ago? If you come from a mixed background (as most of us do), from what different parts of the world did your various ancestors come from, and how has settling here changed them? Basically, look at your own family as an example of "America" and comment on them. In this journal essay, I specifically do not want a flat genealogy list; instead, I want an essay. Look seriously and with a critical eye at what your family has become since landing on these shores (or since others landed on your shores, depending). I don't need to know whether you love your family; I need you to look at them as the product of population shifts around the world.
»»Topic for JOURNAL #2: What place in the United States that you have personally visited or lived in says a good deal to you about "American" character, identity, or society? What idea of "America," or what American sense of identity, does this place project? In this journal essay, I specifically do not want the kind of comments that I could get from any travel brochure or travel program. I want your comments, and I want them to be informed and serious. I will penalize any easy, effortless or cliched gushing that tells me nothing. I don't care whether you love the place or hate it: treat the place as a social phenomenon that you observe and report on.
»»Topic for JOURNAL #3: As stated above, attend a
museum exhibit, art film, Cultural event, theatre performance, or orchestral
music performance -- no rock concerts -- and review it. What did you
see, how do you read it, and what did you think?
Links to Cultural Events calendars at local venues:
Hilarious Q. Student
January 32, 2004
Recently I was in Tampa with friends, visiting one of my old haunts: Ybor City. The gentrification that has happened there since 1995 continues to appall me. What was once a vibrant (if rough-at-the-edges) and diverse community has become another homogenized conglomeration of tchotchke shops, chain restaurants, and corporate stores. More than simply edging out the original communities that made up Ybor, however, this corporatization of one of Florida's historically mixed communities has given an ominous shift to the idea of "American." No longer racially, culturally, ethnically, and class mixed, mestizo if you will, "America" through venues like Ybor City has come to (at least) appear mired in a tacky "sameness."
Although I'd known Ybor City from my childhood, I didn't have any long-term exposure to the area until my best friend Sasha went to the University of South Florida after we'd both graduated high school in Bradenton (an hour south of Tampa). While I stayed behind in Bradenton, working 3/4 time and going to a community college (without a car), Sasha would come down every other week-end or so to spirit me up to Tampa. It was then that I could wander "La Septima" -- Seventh Avenue, Ybor's main street -- at will. In the late 1980s, I discovered the mix of Cuban, Italian, art student, and gay cultures that Ybor had become. Through mom-and-pop restaurants, Cuban cigar shops, coffee houses, head shops, art galleries, gay bars, small bakeries, printing houses, and individuals' homes (not yet registered as "historical areas" by the Florida Historical society) I became fascinated with the diverse history and contemporary make up of the area. Being from an immigrant family myself, perhaps I was slightly more attuned than most to the immigrant history of Ybor. Whatever the case, I found there something that the rest of Tampa bay did not -- indeed, could not -- offer.
When I eventually moved to Tampa myself in the early 1990s to pursue my M.A. at USF, I made weekly, sometimes daily, trips to Ybor and discovered more of its history. (A good deal of this can be found in Gary R. Mormino and George E. Pozzetta's The Immigrant World of Ybor City and Ferdie Pacheco's memoirs.) In short, Ybor was settled by Cuban and Italian immigrants in the late 1800s who were part of the workforce that made Tampa Florida's leading manufacturing centre by 1900. During the troubled times of the 1950s, Ybor, like Miami, became a hotbed of Cuban exile agitation against Castro. But eventually, as Tampa's fortunes and commerce changed, Ybor fell into slow decline; much of the city remained derelict, and drug trades moved in to the area's once splendid social palaces and intimate spaces. But the now elderly descendants of Ybor's families stayed on, maintaining Ybor's particular mestizaje of Italian, Spanish, Cuban, and "American" culture. Slowly, local communities of art students from USF and Hillsborough Community College, as well as local gays, all of whom took advantage of the low rents the area asked for its often ruined historic buildings, not only began discovering Ybor's hidden culture and historic architecture, but also began restoring it while respecting diversity and difference. The area gained popularity with other students and the area's version of culturati.
But as Ybor and its cultural events (like Guavaween, a city-wide costume party near Halloween that began among a group of three friends but within a decade had ballooned into a yearly 200,000-strong festival) became more popular, the economic interests of the Tampa City Commission entered the play. By 1996, when my wife and I returned from an ill-fated year in Ohio, Ybor was already undergoing an odd reconfiguration: like much of Florida, it was being subjected to an ongoing and simultaneous "New Orleanization" and gentrification. For some reason, any historic area that includes balconies (ubiquitous in tropical climates) becomes "New Orleans" in many Anglo American heads, regardless that New Orleans has its own distinct history. The link, of course: New Orleans=Bourbon Street=booze=money. The old culture of Ybor was zoned out, and bars were zoned in. Upon their heels followed the worst yet: "Centro Ybor," a massive corporate retail complex built on the bulldozed site of what was once a passway named after Jose Marti. While sporting as its symbol a reproduction of a Ybor cigar band, the area's Starbucks, Urban Outfitters, corporate movie chain, and the like have nothing to do with the culture which that symbol represents. It's more of the same: same shops, same piped-in music, same "it's Florida so we must get drunk" attitude superimposed on a bizzarely New-Orleanized (which no actual New Orleanian would ever deign to claim) civicscape.
The point of this tirade? Part of what Ybor indicates is a recent, ominous, but oddly ambivalent way of America thinking itself: all the (safe, sanitized) chic of mestizaje without any actual mestizaje. Until recently, Ybor was uniquely "American" simply because it was itself unique, a product of interchange that was more than the sum of its parts, and that could not be reduced to any one of its original components. Not wholly Italian, or Spanish, or Cuban, or student, or gay, Ybor was its own entity. Nowadays, however, Ybor has ceased to be uniquely "American" but has become typically American: the same corporate consumer culture one finds scattered from coast to coast regardless of climate. What distresses me more than even this redefinition of "American" are the Americans themselves who now flock there, who actually want this kind of wide-scale sameness and who define themselves in its terms. As long as "difference" speaks uninflected and homogenized English, hands them the same beer they have at home and lets them buy the same jeans and coffee that they have at home (which, reciprocally, has become simply another version of what's in Ybor now) but in a different town that has been forced to look like another town, they're happy -- without knowing what they're missing. The collective differences that once made "America" unique have become an artificial uniqueness that masks the same.
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