- Staying Italian: Urban Change and Ethnic Life in Postwar Toronto and Philadelphia by Jordon Stanger-Ross
Historians in Canada and the United States have largely ignored the role of ethnicity in the post-World War II period. Jordon Stanger-Ross’ Staying Italian: Urban Change and Ethnic Life in Postwar Toronto and Philadelphia sets out to fill in this significant gap. Through his comparative study of the Italian neighborhoods of Toronto’s Little Italy and the Italian-American enclave of South Philadelphia, Stanger-Ross demonstrates that ethnicity and its enactments differ according to location. Stanger-Ross amply shows that there is a difference between the way Italians [End Page 218] use both their neighborhoods and the larger urban landscape to define their notions of what it means to be “Italian” in a period in which ethnicity has been assumed to be secondary to assimilationist impulses.
By using multiple comparisons in the areas of real estate, religious participation, marriage, and work, Stanger-Ross artfully explains that the Italians of South Philadelphia identified their ethnicity through their localism and protective instincts, while the Italians of Toronto had a more elastic relationship with Little Italy. This contrast forms the center of Stanger-Ross’ argument, one which he readily proves with multiple examples and helpful photographs that support his thesis. Above all, Staying Italian illustrates the fluid nature of both ethnicity and neighborhood, showing that ethnicity is something which Italians in both countries actively enacted and engaged in maintaining.
While Stanger-Ross successfully proves that the Italians of Toronto and South Philadelphia used and conceived of space and, therefore, ethnicity in different ways, he falls short in explaining exactly why this difference occurred. In Stanger-Ross’ analysis, the economic conditions of each city in the post-war period take center stage. Toronto thrived, while Philadelphia, due to loss of its industrial base and other forces, fell into decline. Housing prices rose in Little Italy and dropped in South Philadelphia, setting up an interesting dichotomy that affected the relationship of Italians to their respective neighborhoods. This factor deserves more than a cursory examination.
Undoubtedly, economics played a central role in the development and maintenance of ethnicity, but Stanger-Ross fails to show how the Italians in each city fit into the economic structure. He examines the role of ethnicity in finding work and discusses the spatial relationship of Italians to their workplace, but fails to identify into which social class the majority of his subjects fell. The reader, therefore, is left to assume that, due to the broader economic circumstances surrounding them, the Italians of Toronto enjoyed a higher social class than their fellow ethnics in Philadelphia. However, the role of social class in facilitating either the movement or territorialism of Italians remains unexamined and unexplained.
However, the failure to tackle the difficult subject of class status remains a minor point in light of two other areas that Stanger-Ross glosses over: assimilation and race. In his conclusion, Stanger-Ross acknowledges that he has consciously chosen to ignore the issue of assimilation, in favor of furthering his point that, regardless of where on the chain of assimilation each group fell, “ethnicity continued to happen within the enclaves at the heart of each city” (138). Stanger-Ross has proven this point, but in ignoring assimilation, he misses an opportunity to bolster his argument that ethnicity evolved differently in each city. The majority of Toronto’s Italians entered Canada in the post-war period, encountering a society that stressed multiculturalism. The circumstances of Italians immigrating to the United States cannot be further removed from the Canadian experience; in Philadelphia and throughout the United States, Italian immigration peaked in the early decades of the twentieth century and faced the forces of the Americanization movement. Surely the Italians of South Philadelphia had a different concept and experience of what it meant to be Italian [End Page 219] than the Italians of Toronto. This idea of Italianness (or Italianita), in turn, when coupled with the differences in economic climate, would presumably color the way in...