Mosaic Multiculturalism

The mosaic multiculturalism rendered by the ethnic enclaves subdividing Manhattan undermines the pretext that a cosmopolitan city is a transnational space of social intercourse, intercultural integration and communication. Dissecting the complexities of multiculturalism, the relationship between cosmopolitanism and glocalization become increasingly perplexing. New York City is the “most tangled site of socio-cultural hybridity in North America” (Stroller 82), wherein the flow of commodities, currencies and people create a transnational landscape. In this sense, the transglobal city serves as a paradigm for the multicultural possibilities of a metropolis. Yet with the pressures of economic and political assimilation, immigrants are torn between salvaging remnants of their cultural inheritance and integrating into the “American way of life”.  The hybrid identities constructed within the context of New York City’s diasporic communities presents a paradox that fuels the discourse that multiculturalism is inimical to a national identity. In tandem to this argument is the notion that the mosaic multiculturalism created by ethnic enclaves renders subdivisions of pride that undermines the aspirations of ethnic integration within a cosmopolitan society. Two traits of ethnic enclaves pose a threat to the discourse of integral multiculturalism. First off, as stated before, the segregated boroughs unveil a separatist impulse on the part of ethnic minorities. Secondly, the urban gentrification of ethnic enclaves engenders disneyfied representations of multiculturalism, which exploits the cultural capital of the multiethnic metropolis deteriorating the district’s authenticity and driving the original inhabitant out. This marketing of ethnic enclaves such as New York City’s  “Chinatown” and “Little Italy’” commodifies on the “‘cultural’ features of a particular community” (Ram 41) as a ploy to seduce tourists.

Laced with possibilities, the era of reflexive modernity is concurrently pregnant with unpredictability.  Yet the intercourse of the aforementioned has given birth to the transnational terrain of the contemporary cosmopolitan city. For Beck, to be cosmopolitan is to have a splintered identity, it is to be “a citizen of two worlds” (Beck 18). This “internal globalization” (Beck 17) merges the global with the local resulting in an “intensification of worldwide social relations” that “link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa’ (Giddens 64). Yet any attempt to define the implication of such can be like “trying to nail a pudding to the wall”(Beck 17) as globalization carries the connotations of internationalization, liberalization, universalization, westernization or modernization.  Regardless of the complexities inherent to this term, the deterritorialization that has resulted from the transnational flow of people and information has indisputably fueled the formation of the multicultural metropolis. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who was among the first to foresee the inevitability of cultures existing “side by side, in combination, comparison, contradiction and competition in every place and all the time” (Beck 18). In theory, it is this pluralization of social demarcations that deteriorates borders. Embracing the otherness of the other, “cosmopolitanism lacks orientation, perhaps because it is so much bigger and includes so many different kinds of people with conflicting customs, assorted hopes and shames, so many sheer technological and scientific possibilities and risk, posing issues people never faced before” (Beck 20). Yet, with this said, does globalization and the emergence of the multicultural city undermine the ideologies of the nation state?

American society is united under a constitution of shared moral precepts, norms and values, which has evaded the divisiveness of multiethnic society through purporting the ideology of the “American Way of Life”. The politic of assimilation in America mirrors the laissez faire approach, wherein an immigrant either adopts the “American way of life” and is thus absorbed into the established culture or is left behind to make ends meet in the ghetto. Those who fail to be Americanized can be understood as the “residue of the melting pot” (Schlesinger 67).  It is for this reason that multiculturalism poses an indisputable threat to the national unity of the United States, as it is an ideal laced with a “separatist impulse” that renders “multi-nationalism”(Schlesinger 43).   Furthermore, it undermines the assimilation aspirations of America and threatens the shared ideological beliefs that the coherent national identity of the States relies on. In sum, a nation-state is built on the hope of homogeneity, whereas multiculturalism is hinged on the embrace of diversity (Grossberg 54). Nationalism and cultural homogeneity are fundamental ideologies of the modern nation state. In other words, “American” identity is constructed through political or national affiliation rather than ethnic or cultural ties. The coupling of identities, such as African-American or Asian- American, proves that race emerges as supplement to American identity with the undisputed hegemonic center being Caucasian males. In short, multiculturalism’s promotion of cultural diversity is ideologically contradictory with the ideals and national identity of America.

The concept of the melting pot materialized as a response to the influx of foreigners from around the world into cities across the country. Hinged on the economic interests of the United States, the hospitality granted to these immigrants stemmed from the selfish ulterior motives that they are affordable assets to the labor force. The metaphor of hospitality thus blurs the line between the discourse of generosity and the discourse of fundamental human rights. Forced to construct homes in countries where they are marginalized and rejected, foreigners are oftentimes alienated from society at large. Diasporic communities represent the collective experience of displacement. After having been induced to leave their homelands behind, immigrants are communally drawn together in a collective struggle to acclimate. This alienation engenders a splintered response on the part of the marginalized immigrant in their approach to assimilation.  On one hand, foreigners construct a transnational identity exemplified by the paradigm of “roots” and “routes”. This “double diasporic identity” (Kaya 52) formation can be best understood through the term intersectionailty, which signifies that identities are constructed at the intersection of shifting elements such as race, class, gender and nationality. The diasporic “subject crosses over the cultural borders and constructs a syncretic cultural identity, or a rhizomatic space” (Kaya 59). Acquiring traits from another cultural identity while still clinging to past understandings of selfhood, co-optation signifies the coexistence of contradictory cultural forms within an individual. Furthermore, the decentered lateral connections experienced by a Puerto Rican living in an Italian neighborhood in Lower Manhattan also contributes to the proliferation of schizophrenic identities. In an effort to evade this violent transition and process of identity construction, some immigrants, drawn together through a common thread of nationality and/or ethnicity, decide to inhabit ethnic enclaves wherein their traditions, customs, language and cultural practices remain intact.  This separatist impulse undermines the politic of assimilation and integral aspirations of cosmopolitanism.

Distinguished from the city at large by its cultural inheritance, an ethnic enclave is a cluster of immigrants with shared roots. Ethnic enclaves “consist of immigrant groups who concentrate in a specific spatial location and organize a variety of enterprises serving their own ethnic market and/or the general population. The basic characteristic is that a significant proportion of immigrant labor force works in enterprises owned by other immigrants” (Portes 290).  Ethnic neighborhoods, although not always the most desirable places to live, provide a safe haven for foreigner where they can engage in common social practices with others of the same ethnicity, language and/or nationality. The “commercial thoroughfares of migrant enclaves in large cities have functioned as retail centers, catering to the requirements of ethnic minorities” (Shaw 1996). Seduced by the infinite possibilities lacing the great “American Dream”, many foreigners migrate to the United States without knowing a word of English and with only the clothes on their back.  Ethnic enclaves facilitate a foreigner’s adaptation to the “American way of life”.

These ethnic enclaves geographically engender mosaic multiculturalism in the metropolis.  This social reductionist view delineates the cultural differences of a people as demarcated entities that co-exist with one another like pieces of a mosaic. In other words, it is an essentialist perspective that organizes population groups according to ethnicity, nationality and/or race (etcetera). Ironically, these subdivisions of pride often start as slums, yet as a result of their ‘exotic’ cultural capital become sites of urban gentrification that render disneyfied shadows of the original. Driven by economic interest, the instant city officials recognize the cultural capital of an ethnic enclave, they begin heavily investing in its gentrification, ultimately rendering it a tourist attraction. The term monopoly rent implies that “culture has become a commodity” (Harvey 1) that can be profited from. The transformation of ethnic enclaves into tourist destination is determined by its geographic location and/or symbolic capital (Harvey 3). David Harvey employs the term monopoly rent to explain why areas in close proximity to a city’s center or of historic significance often fall victim to heavy commercialization (Harvey 2).

A haven of cultural consumption, Manhattan Island has, over the years, disneyfied every ethnic enclave subdividing its urban landscape in a campaign promoting the city’s diverse multiculturalism. New York City’s “Little Italy”, an ethnic enclave formerly populated with people of Italian decent, is an ideal example of the process in which a districts cultural inheritance deteriorates at the hands of gentrification. In effect, “Little Italy” is no longer a neighborhood of Italian immigrants, but rather a themed street constituted of Italian restaurants catering to tourist from abroad.  Most local New Yorkers would not be caught dead cutting through the sea of sightseers. “The original inhabitants of ‘Little Italy’ have long moved away from this particular district” (Shaw 1988), and the authentic nature of the borough has dissipated, as “commercial gentrification is likely to drive out small businesses” (Shaw 1997). Italian style cafes, restaurants and hotels lace the main street, commidifiying on the enclave’s “cultural inheritance” through offering traditional food and musical entertainment to tourist eager to consume.

Only a few blocks south, New York City’s notorious ‘Chinatown’ sprawls, An assault on the senses, the district geographically imperializes the lower east side. In the past, ‘Chinatown’ was perceived as an overcrowded haven of cultural insularity. The chain migration fueling the influx of foreigners deteriorated the ailing economy of the ethnic ghetto. The civic government neglected the poor economic state of the district until deciding to gentrify the district and commodify on its potential cultural capital.  With the living expenses skyrocketing, the streets are now infested with tourist from abroad rather than the borough’s original inhabitants.  Shops, markets and restaurants that once catered to the Chinese populace, have now been appropriated to appease the Western palette.  The disneyfied version of “Chinatown” has been in effect stripped of it authenticity. The influx of Chinese immigrants has shifted to Flushing Queens, a district on the periphery of New York City.  This urban migration is rooted in either economic reasons or the fact that “Asians tend to live separately from others” (Zukin 836). The transformation of an ethnic enclave into a gentrified site of commercialization, cultural consumption and tourism has alarming implications.  Although at its surface the urban revitalization of ethnic ghetto proves positive, the true character of the boroughs is lost and the original inhabitants driven out.

The use of theming, branding, merchandizing and dedifferentiation of consumption render these fading enclaves havens of consumption commercializing on the alleged “cultural capital” which underpin their appeal.  This mechanism of “district branding” is an “essentially an American invention” (Ward 234) that transform authentic ethnic enclave into “’islands of pure consumption’ for visitors who are wealthier than the local population” (Shaw 1986).  However, in the end the original residents can no longer afford to subsist in their own neighborhood after having transformed into a perversely disneyfied destination. Ultimately, “the place is conceptualized as the ‘product’ to be repositioned.  Differentiation from competing place-brands- in this case, through distinctive ethnic or cultural associations- must be highlighted and promoted to target audiences, following advocacy of strategic image management to reposition destinations that may include small areas, such as districts within cities” (Shaw 1997) The branding of this romantic “Otherness” explains the process “through which multicultural districts are selected and redefined as destinations for leisure” (Shaw 1996).  However, unfortunately “tourist bubbles are more likely to contribute to racial, ethnic and class tensions than to an impulse towards local community” (Judd 53).

As the Americanization of global culture metastasize, the threat of disneyfication grows under the frail guise of multiculturalism.  Stripping a locality of its cultural inheritance, this term refers to the process in which a place undergoes urban transformation according to Disney standards, ultimately rendering it a diluted version of its original.  The theme park has, in some respect, become a model for both urban and commercial development and within no time cities will mirror the Disney’s Epoch Center.  Shopping malls, food chains and reconstructed city centers are all evidence of this societal impulse towards escapism and consumerism. Yet from this “relentless commercialization of culture connected with the Disney Empire” (Huyssen 2) a contradiction emerges, as the democratic aspirations of a society along with its cultural inheritance are lost to corporate globalization. The more districts of a metropolis surrender to disneyfication, “the less unique and special they become.  The bland homogeneity that goes with pure commodification erases monopoly advantages” (Harvey 4). Thus, the symbolic capital of an ethnic enclave is self-destructive, as it engenders the economic development that inevitably homogenizes and commodifies it. This unfortunate paradox is evident in ethnic enclaves such as ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Little Italy’, wherein its cultural capital is both responsible and threatened by its urban redevelopment. The generic homogeny plaguing these districts is ironic in that it was the initial inimitability of the enclave that rendered it a tourist attraction and led to its corporate gentrification. Uprooting its past and exploiting its historical significance and cultural capital, city officials and corporations have commodified and commercialized the very thing that rendered the neighborhoods so unique and, in doing so, destroys it.

The notion that multiculturalism is incompatible with the nation-state is wounded by the pretext that cosmopolitanism is a “dialectic process in which the global and the local do not exist as cultural polarities but as combined and mutually implicating principles” (Beck 17). Yet despite the contention that cosmopolitanism is a catalyst to integral multiculturalism, the complexities presented by ethnic enclaves undermine the fundamental aspirations of the transnational metropolis. Fostering a separatist impulse, ethnic enclaves are culturally homogenous groups inclined to sequester themselves from the city at large.  Furthermore, districts such as ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Little Italy’ illustrate how the gentrification of enclaves renders the “commodification of culture” (Wasko 271). The façade constructed by the disneyfication of multicultural districts strips them of authenticity. New York City’s subdivision of pride illustrates how multiculturalism can be mosaic and in some instances contrived, diluting intercultural implications of cosmopolitanism.


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