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From Seminar 2: The Peopling of New York City




"The Peopling of New York City" class at The City College of New York investigated the role of immigration in shaping our city. For this class we examined historical, anthropological, and sociological research on immigration. We explored and grappled with theories and concepts such as transnationalism and diaspora. For much of the semester we focused on the West Indian community of East Flatbush, Brooklyn. In class we explored issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and class with which West Indian migrants engage. We also learned about social scientific methods and applied them as a way to learn about this community firsthand. These methods included participant observation, interviews, polls and surveys, as well as library research. We stayed abreast of current issues in the media related to immigration locally and globally.

East Flatbush

The first wave of immigrants entered into Brooklyn during the 1840s-1850s including many migrants from Ireland and Germany. They eventually dispersed into other areas of New York City and by 1880 the second wave of immigrants had arrived. East Flatbush was then mainly inhabited by Jewish and Italian immigrants, who eventually became upwardly mobile and left the city. West Indians began to settle into the East Flatbush community mainly after 1965, coinciding with the removal of the the Hart-Cellar Act which lifted immigration quotas. According to the 2000 Census data, West Indians comprise 87.6% of the neighborhood.

The dominant presence of West Indians in East Flatbush has shaped the entire community, which has been tailored to fit the West Indian culture. For instance, the myriad beauty salons offer hair relaxing services for West Indian women. In addition to the cultural cuisines around the neighborhood, there are groceries where one may find distinct West Indian foods such as yuca and mauby bark. Barrel and shipping places have been instituted for the West Indians who often send money and goods back home to the Caribbean. The West Indian community can also be found on the weekends in one of the many churches around the neighborhood. Those same churches also offer many services for the community such as translation and immigration services. Everywhere in East Flatbush, even on Bob Marley Boulevard, is a product of the West Indian imprint that they have created since settling into the community.


Walking Tour

The walking tour for the class was our introduction to the neighborhood. We emerged from the subway at the intersection of Church Avenue and Bob Marley Boulevard. We gathered at Golden Krust, a well-known Caribbean fast-food restaurant, where we met community activist and our tour guide for the day, Zenobia McNally. She guided us through the streets of the community while we took note of the businesses, organizations, political offices, and places of worship. We briefly visited Rugby Congregational Church, where we met with the pastor who gave us a tour of the building and informed us about the vital role it plays in the lives of their predominantly Caribbean congregation. Around the corner we visited the Grace Kennedy Remittance Services which operates a busy Western Union office. A company representative shared information about the parent company, Grace Foods, and explain how Grace went from food to money transfers. Throughout the tour we were driven through the neighborhood by a "dollar van", a local taxi service. Flatbush is a highly energetic place, and the walking tour gave us a small sample of the things we would soon explore.

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In this age of globalization, the nations of the world are becoming more integrated and interdependent economically and it has become increasingly important to include the broader global economy in the definition of a nation state (Yeung 1998). All localities are influenced by one another and the lines of demarcation between these localities are disappearing (Kearny 1995). The process of globalization has greatly influenced Immigration. The immigrants of the past were viewed as leaving behind their home country to assimilate to a new life in their adopted country, while current immigrants become rooted in their new country but also maintain many economic, political, and cultural connections to their homeland making them transmigrants. Transmigrants may own homes and land in both their adopted country and their country of origin. In addition, they may also have business interests and investments in both. Furthermore, some may be involved in politics at home even though they may be United States citizens.

“Transnational migration is the process by which immigrants forge and sustain simultaneous multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement…[and] construct and reconstitute their simultaneous embeddedness in more than one society” (Schiller, Basch, Szanton Blanc 1995, p48). Transnational communities consist of migrants that identify with more than one locality in the social, cultural, and/or economic spheres. In addition, different transnational localities tend to be connected to each other through cultural, economic and social interactions.

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Deterritorialization of the nation-state also contributes to the creation of the transnational identity. Many of the countries the immigrants come from encourage dual citizenship, property ownership and investment for nationals who have become citizens of another country. For example, former president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristede has even stated that Haitians in the United States constitute a “‘tenth province’ in addition to the nine within the national territory of Haiti.” (Kearny 1995, p553). He embraced the process of Haitian immigration and created the Ministry of Hatians Living Abroad. This notion created unity across national borders and "helped [Aristede] mobilize the economic and social capital of immigrants (Itzigsohn 2000, p1135). With deterritorialization, not only does the transnational migrant identify with the home country but the home country also claims the transnational migrant as its own. Kearny puts forth that “people may be ‘anywhere in the world and still not live outside the state’” (1995, p553). Thus, the transnational identity is unique in that it transcends borders while still being connected to different localities.

The theory of transnationalism has not been set in stone due to the fact that it has been periodically changing. The concept of transnationalism has been formed and edited according to the events current to that time period. Transnationalism began as having connections across national borders. As globalization grew, transnationalism also weaved in the sense of unity across borders and identifying with more than one country. In addition, there was the factor of migrants having influence back in their home country and being part of a transnational world, where daily lives depend on multiple and constant interconnections across international borders.

Flatbush as a Transnational Community

The class took with them knowledge of the intracacies of transnationalism and used this concept to observe the West Indian culture; a flourishing culture filled with the essence of transnationalism. We focused on a neighborhood that had a rich concentration of West Indians; East Flatbush. The community of East Flatbush developed into a transnational locality where the businesses and services cater to the transnational West Indian immigrants. In our research, we examined this neighborhood in relation to transnationalism and learned that the transmigrants living in East Flatbush are simultaneously connected to more than one society. These connections were explored within each group project listed below:

1. Expressive Culture

2. Transnational Economy

3. Religion

4. Language

5. Community Development

Works Cited

  • Islands in the City: "West Indian Migration to New York." Nancy Foner, ed. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Blanc, Cristina Szanton; Linda Basch; Nina Glick Schiller. “Transnationalism, Nation-States, and Culture.” Current Anthropology, Vol. 36, No. 4: 683-686
  • Foner, Nancy. 2000. "From Ellis Island to JFK : New York's Two Great Waves of Immigration." New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Glick Schiller, Nina; Linda Basch; Cristina Szanton Blanc. 1995. "From Immigrant to Transmigrant: Theorizing Transnational Migration." Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 1: 48-63.
  • Itzigsohn, Jose. 2000. "Immigration and the Boundaries of Citizenship: The Institutions of Immigrants' Political Transnationalism." International Migration Review, Vol. 34, No. 4: 1126-1154
  • Kearney, M. 1995. “The Local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Transnatinalism.” Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol 24: 547-565.
  • New York City Census. 2000. Profile of selected social characteristics: Brooklyn Community District 1 , N.Y. Retrieved May 3, 2008, from
  • Trotz, D. Alissa. 2006. “Rethinking Caribbean transnational connections: conceptual itineraries.” Global Networks. Vol. 6, No. 1: 41-59.
  • Yeung, Henry Wai-chung. 1998. “Capital, State and Space: Contesting the Borderless World.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series. Vol. 23, No. 3: 291-309

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