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“Where I Came From, How I Got Here” Ethnic Diversity, Cultural Tourism, and the Memory of Immigration They built the American Dream . . . coal miners, steelworkers. . . . They were immigrants to the United States, who came here to build a better life for themselves and their families. In addition, they built the bridges, railroads, and skyscrapers that transformed America into a modern nation. . . . Faced with harsh conditions . . . they kept their traditions and values alive, enriching the life and culture of a changing nation. They changed what it means to be an “American.” —Frank and Sylvia Pasquerilla Heritage Discovery Center promotional pamphlet (2007) Thus begins the explanation that greets visitors to the newest major museum in Johnstown. The deindustrialization of this steelmaking city was the narrative backdrop for the 1977 movie Slapshot, about the fictional, struggling “Charlestown ” Chiefs minor league hockey team. Between 1973 and 1982, the number of workers at the once-massive Cambria Steel Company shrank from nearly twelve thousand to just over two thousand; ten years later, they were out of work entirely when the plant closed.1 Along the Conemaugh River—which flooded in 1977 as well as, more famously , in 1889—the former industrial site has attained both brownfield status and a designation as a national historic landmark. While its buildings await redevelopment, its workers’ stories are told in the nearby Heritage Discovery Center. Richard Burkert, executive director of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, describes the Discovery Center’s main exhibit, titled “America: Through Immigrant Eyes,” as “almost a successor to Ellis Island. That’s a gateway experience, but where did these people go?”2 The exhibit’s promotional 78   Pennsylvania in Public Memory materials promise, “The setting is Johnstown, but the stories will be familiar to all Americans.”3 “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother”: Ethnicity as Inheritance When you enter this museum, you’re given a choice of cards, each one containing the (real) name and picture of (an actor playing) a particular immigrant; as you walk through the exhibit, you then learn what happens to “your” immigrant . My choices were Katerina, Stefan, Prokop, Moshe, Anna, Andrej, and Maria, and Josef, all of them symbolic of the large waves of eastern European immigration to this area around the turn of the twentieth century. Josef, “a 12-year-old Polish orphan,” is the main visual symbol of the exhibit and the organization’s website.4 Here, the working-class past is almost entirely personalized, though the interpretation emphasizes the hardships these people faced, including their ill treatment by more established ethnic groups who had the better jobs in the mills and mines. It also stresses the dangers of work in the iron, steel, and coal industries, especially for these most recent immigrants in this nonunion, company town that had a clear worker hierarchy, within which workers were segregated by nationality, language, religion, and neighborhood. But, as wall text tells us as we leave the historical part of the exhibit, “That was then. . . . This is now.” “Now” is presented in an area where visitors may sit and watch, on video, current Johnstowners talking about their grandparents and about growing up in those segregated cultures during difficult times. Their reminiscences are proud ones, laced with fond memories of food and dancing and social clubs, of close friendship and family within tight-knit communities.5 These narrators are the inheritors of ethnic legacies but are themselves fully assimilated within Johnstown and within America, now that the old industries are gone. In the meantime, a nearby display explains, Johnstown has welcomed newer immigrants , mainly Asian, who have come to work in the new industries of technology and health care. This part of the museum also contains a set of computer kiosks, called “Our Stories,” where visitors may make a video recording of their own recollections or comments and listen to those of other visitors. At the very end, we learn about “our” immigrant’s descendants, who assure us that, ultimately, their hardship was worthwhile. A touchscreen display asks you to cast your vote in a single-question poll: Should America allow more immigration ? Then you get the cumulative poll results. The last time I was there, in Ethnic Diversity, Cultural Tourism   79 July 2009, the vote was:48,038 for “Yes!” and 19,453 for “No!” In a conservative region of a largely conservative state—and in a twenty-first-century national climate of rising intolerance of immigrants—this is a somewhat surprising result . Its decisiveness suggests that the presumably depoliticizing...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780271053943
Print ISBN
9780271052199
MARC Record
OCLC
821726207
Pages
272
Launched on MUSE
2012-09-04
Language
English
Open Access
N
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