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Original Ethnic Neighborhoods Disappearing


As the immigration debate rages in the United States, Jeff Swicord takes a look at one of the original immigrant neighborhoods in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. It is a reminder that the U.S. always has been a nation of Immigrants.

They came in the early part of the 19th century in search of a better life. America's first major wave of immigrants was of Europeans. Seventy five-year-old Roberto Marsili's family came from Italy.

He was born and raised in the neighborhood known as "Little Italy" in the East Coast port city of Baltimore, Maryland.

"America was the land of prosperity and to look forward to a good future," said Roberto as he showed off some popular restaurants in his neighborhood.

They settled in major cities along the U.S. East Coast, like Boston, New York, and Baltimore. And, entire neighborhoods soon took on the feel and character of the countries the people had come from.

"When I was a child,” Roberto told us, “the character of the neighborhood was nothing but happiness, a lot of activity, parties, festivals, a lot of work, a lot of good times."

Audrey Singer is the immigration fellow at The Brookings Institution, a policy group in Washington D.C.

"These were really important anchor communities for groups, so if we want to talk about Italians, there were lots of Little Italy's around the country. Important ones in the Northeast around Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore, all had them,” said Singer. “And so these communities were places where people economically were anchored and socially were anchored. And they were very integral to people's way of life."

Today, in cities across the U.S., many of these original ethnic neighborhoods are disappearing. Baltimore's Little Italy is about half the size it once was. New development and urban sprawl now surround it.

Seventy-year-old Gene Raynor was the administrator of elections for the State of Maryland for almost 50 years. He also grew up in Little Italy, and is saddened by its decline, which he says was accompanied by a decline in the quality of education in inner city schools.

Raynor told us: "As the people got married and had children, they wanted them to go to better schools. And so they moved out in the country for the school system."

Baltimore's ethnic neighborhoods were affected by specific economic factors as well.

"Well, Baltimore was a really important port and so there were a lot of industries that grew up around that,” says Brooking’s Singer. “Like most Northeastern cities it had important manufacturing and the industries that we saw build cities in the early period, those jobs have all gone away. And they haven't necessarily been replaced by new jobs in the city."

Immigration patterns have also changed. The older immigrant groups: the Italians, the Germans, and the Poles, have not been replaced. But, some individuals who grew up in Little Italy, and left as young adults, are returning in later life.

Driven by childhood memories, John Guerriero returned after living in other parts of Baltimore for over 30 years. "It is the atmosphere. You have the people you see every day, there is so much action going on, the restaurants," says John.

Baltimore's Little Italy is now primarily a tourist area full of restaurants. Its heritage is largely preserved through the memories of an older generation. But in cities across the U.S., as these original ethnic enclaves disappear, new ones form: some cities now have a Little India, or a little Cambodia.

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