The Working-Class and Community, Griffintown and Beyond
February 1, 2013 § 6 Comments
Almost to a person, every former Griffintowner I talked to over a decade of working on the neighbourhood commented on the sense of community they felt in living there, how it was a place where people took care of their neighbours. David O’Neill, who helped me extensively during the research and who put in me in contact with many former Griffintowners, commented that when he was growing up there in the 1940s and 50s, it was like having a community of parents, everyone watched out for each other’s children on the streets. And if O’Neill and his friends got up to something they shouldn’t have, by the time they returned home, their parents would be waiting for them with the intelligence, ready to punish the kids.
But Griffintown was never unique for this characteristic, this is a commonality to nearly all former working-class neighbourhoods I’ve ever read about, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. It is also a way that is lost today. People who grew up in close-knit working-class communities are almost always nostalgic for what has been lost. They miss the community and comaraderie they experienced in those communities. They miss what kept them in line, be it the Church or work, or just the simple existence of real and authentic community.
The universality of this mindset hit home the other day in Salem, MA, at the National Park Service’s Custom House site. When the Park Service created the site, they removed a set of derelict buildings that had popped up in an alleyway behind the old Customs House on Derby Street. In the early 20th century, an entire working-class immigrant community existed along Derby Street, and in the alleys behind the Customs House. Here there were tenement houses of varying quality and shops and services that served, first, Irish immigrants, and then, in the 20th century, Poles and Russians and Ukrainians. Taking aside the question of the authenticity of the Customs House site given the destruction of the homes of this long-gone working-class community, what struck me the most was the description of what was once there, including a quotation from a former resident, Dorothy Philip, as seen in the photo here.