May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
Tomorrow, Thursday 29 May, I’ll be appearing on CKUT, McGill University Campus Radio’s programme on Oral History, O Stories. The show will be hosted by my old friend, Elena Razlagova, a professor of Public History at Concordia University. I will be talking about Boston College’s Belfast Project, and the fallout therefrom. So tune in around 2pm tomorrow, I’ll be on around 2.30. You can tune in the old fashioned way, on your radio at 90.3 fm, or on CKUT’s website.
May 23, 2014 § 26 Comments
I got called a ‘frog’ today. Every time this happens, it stuns me. Like stops me in my tracks stuns me. It’s happened a handful of times in my life, a few times in Ontario and British Columbia and now twice in Massachusetts. The last time it happened was at the bar of a restaurant in a small town in Western Massachusetts. I was having an amiable conversation with a guy about hockey. He was a New York Rangers’ fan and I, of course, cheer for the Habs. When I told him I was from Montreal, he said, “Oh, I guess that makes you a frog.” I don’t think he really understood what the word meant. But it was a conversation stopper, I visibly recoiled from him.
I have asked most of my French Canadian friends about this. They, of course, have been called ‘frog’ many times in their lives, in Canada, the US, and Britain. None of my friends is particularly fond of this particular epithet, of course, but most of them are also rather sanguine about it. Perhaps due to being called a ‘frog’ repeatedly, according to one friend. One of my tweeps is married to a French guy, as in from France, and she calls him ‘the Frog.’ Clearly, for most people who actually are French or French Canadian, the term isn’t a big deal. Me, on the other hand, it is a big deal for me. Maybe because I’m an Anglo.
The term ‘frog’ was actually first applied to the Dutch by the British, who saw the Dutch as marsh-dwellers. Get it? Frogs live in marshes, too. But then, in the mid-18th century, the French became the main enemies of the British, so the term got applied to the French due to their propensity towards eating frogs’ legs. Eventually, the term ended up getting applied to French Canadians, just, I suppose, due to Anglo laziness. Then again, Anglo Canadians have come up with other names for French Canadians, such as ‘pea soupers’ and ‘Pepsis,’ due to their alleged fondness for pea soup and Pepsi. One Anglo Montrealer once told me that the Pepsi epithet also worked because French Canadians were said to be ’empty from the neck up.’ And French-speaking Quebecers also have a whole long string of nasty names for Anglos, including my favourite, tête-carré.
But. I’m not French Canadian. I’m an Anglo from Quebec. So when I get called a ‘frog’, it stuns me. Today I was called a ‘frog’ because I was wearing my Montreal Canadiens ball cap around. I’m used to the abuse the hat brings me in and around Boston. I welcome most of it, especially since the Canadiens knocked out the Bruins in the last round of the playoffs. But usually it doesn’t go beyond “Habs suck” and variations thereof. I don’t get told to go back to Canada (though I was once told to “Get out of my country” by a guy in Vancouver once), I don’t get called names or anything like that and 98% of the banter is friendly. Since the Canadiens knocked out the Bruins, most people have even been respectful.
What makes today’s name-calling all the more puzzling is that I’m wearing a t-shirt that makes fun of Irish stereotypes and I have a huge Celtic cross tattooed on my right calf. So clearly I’m not French Canadian. And when this guy called me ‘frog’ and dissed the Habs, I actually stopped cold in my tracks. I was stunned. I just looked at him, he seemed to realise he’d gone too far and scooted off.
But I do find it interesting how much I detest the term. And how much it offends me. Any thoughts on the matter are welcome.
March 28, 2014 § 2 Comments
An old friend visited us this weekend, and as he and I drove up the Massachusetts coast to hunt down the best pizza in the Commonwealth (Riverview in Ipswich, if you’re wondering), we got to talking about New England. Despite having lived in New England, he always feels like he could never penetrate the insularity of New England culture, and he always feels alienated here. I found that interesting, given I don’t feel that way at all, despite obviously being a transplant.
This might be the advantage of being an Anglo from Montréal. Anglo Montrealers are always at least slightly alienated from the city and dominant culture. We are a (small) minority, and we speak a minority language. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you.
I’ve always felt alienated from my surroundings. I grew up in British Columbia, very aware of the fact I didn’t belong, which came out in everything from my distaste of the wet, soggy climate to continuing to cheer for the Montréal Canadiens, Expos, and, when they existed, the Concorde or Alouettes of the CFL, as opposed to my friends who cheered for the Vancouver Canucks, the BC Lions and either the Toronto Blue Jays or Seattle Mariners. I felt similarly alienated in Ottawa. It was only when I moved back to Montréal I finally felt comfortable in my surroundings. But I still felt alienated from the larger culture, mostly due to language, even as my French language skills improved.
But, as with all things Montréal, it was never this simple. My Anglo friends and family dismissed any suggestion I might be a Montrealer, by continually reminding me I grew up out west. On the other hand, my francophone and allophone friends made no such distinction, and this is also true of my separatist friends. Go figure. Anglo mythology would have it the other way round. One of the most amazing moments of my life in Montréal came during the 2000 federal election campaign when I answered a knock on my door and found Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc québécois, with Amir Khadir, who was the BQ’s candidate in my riding (Khadir has since gone on to be the co-leader of the sovereigntist provincial party, Québec solidaire, and is currently the MNA for the Montréal riding of Mercier). Duceppe, Khadir, and I spent a good 15-20 minutes talking about place, identity, and belonging in Québec. Largely in English. Even the leader of a separatist party and the candidate for my riding didn’t dispute my bona fides as a Montrealer and a Quebecer (maybe, in part, because I assured them the BQ had my vote).
Since 2006, I have spent a lot of time in New England, before moving here in 2012, on account of my wife being American. She lived in Western Massachusetts when we met, so we did our best to split our time between Montréal and Western Mass. After all those years spending time out there, I came to feel like it was Home. Sure, I was never going to fully fit in, be a part of the scenery, but that was ok by me. And, even now, living at the other end of the Commonwealth, in the massive urban sprawl that is Boston, I feel similarly at home. The ways I feel alienated here are mostly due being Canadian. But I don’t find myself feeling excluded by New Englanders, or, really, Americans as a whole. In other words, I can deal with my alienation, it has kind of become my default way of being.
No doubt this is due to being an Anglo Montrealer and experiencing some degree of discomfort and alienation my entire life in my hometown and anywhere else I lived in Canada, tainted as I was, so to speak, by being from Montréal.
March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
Back in July, when the insta-memorial for the Boston Bombing of 15 April 2013 was taken down, I wrote this piece at the National Council of Public History’s history@work blog. In it, I expressed my cynicism of what happens to the items of the memorial when they are removed from the site and put in storage, or even brought out again for a more permanent exhibition. I also argued in favour of insta-memorials such as this, seeing some value in our hyper-mediated lives, watching the world through the screens of our iPhones. What resulted, from the piece on history@work, as a notification here on this site, as well as Rainy Tisdale’s blog, was a rather robust discussion, especially between myself and Rainy, a Boston-based independent curator about authenticity and memorials.
To sum up the discussion, we debated whether or not Boston needed an exhibition on the first anniversary of the attack. I argued that the running of the 118th Boston Marathon, as well as the traditional Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park, would serve as a chance for Bostonians to reclaim Boylston Street and Copley Square one year later. Rainy, on the other hand, argued that an exhibition was necessary in order to prevent the kind of frenzy that began to emerge surrounding the #BostonStrong rallying cry when the Bruins went to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring (and lost. I hate the Bruins).
In the time since, I have come around more to Rainy’s argument than my own, though I still worry about questions of authenticity and memorial mediation on the part of the curatorial hand (though, of course, that spontaneous memorial, first on Boylston Street and then at Copley Square was also curated, in part). Nevertheless, I am very much looking forward to Rainy’s exhibit at the main branch of the Boston Public Library on Copley Square. Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial opens on 7 April, and will run to 11 May. It is a tri-partite exhibit: the first part will encompass the immediate responses to the bombing, the second will be people’s reflections on the bombs, and the final part will be the hopeful part, messages of hope and healing.
I appreciate the exhibit’s title perhaps more than anything at this point, as it makes direct references to the curatorial hand at work here, as the exhibit will deliver messages from the memorial. In July last year, I worried about the loss of meaning of the individual artefacts when they were boxed up and stored in the Boston Archives. A running shoe had a very poignant and powerful meaning when displayed at the memorial, and in a box in the archives, it’s a running shoe. Restored to the public eye, however, attached with a symbolic meaning that no one in Boston, or anyone visiting the exhibit, will miss, the shoe regains its poignancy.
What struck me in my discussion with Rainy last summer was how she intended to approach the exhibit, and her sensitivity to the very issues that concerned me. I am very much looking forward to what she comes up with.
January 22, 2014 § 7 Comments
I read an interesting article on NPR.org this morning, about gentrification. Based on recent research from Columbia University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, gentrification may not entirely suck for low-income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods. The Columbia study looked at displacement in Harlem and across the US, calculating how many low income people moved out of their neighbourhoods when gentrification occurred. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank looked at the credit scores of low income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods. In the first case, researchers found that people didn’t necessarily move out, in fact, low income earners were no more likely to move out of a gentrifying neighbourhood than a non-gentrifying one. In the case of the Federal Reserve Bank, the credit scores of low income earners actually improved with gentrification of their neighbourhoods.
Not surprisingly, I find these kinds of studies slightly disarming. Lance Freeman, Director of the Urban Planning programme at Columbia, expected to find that displacement was a common occurrence. But he is still cautious to note that gentrification can and does indeed lead to displacement.
Most studies, at least most I have read from a wide variety of disciplines, lay out the reasons for displacement with gentrification: higher housing costs, higher food costs, higher taxes (if they own), amongst others. In my experience of living in gentrifying neighbourhoods, the cost of gentrification is obvious on the street, as the original residents get marginalised as cafés, hipster clothing stores, and yuppy restaurants open. There is no place for them to go, and the coffee shops and bodegas they used to frequent close down. However, it is also obvious that people stay. In part, they are helped by things such as rent control, or dedicated low income housing. And, at least from my own anecdotal evidence, mixed-residential neighbourhoods are certainly friendlier, more community-based, and generally nicer to live in.
Last weekend, there was a story in the Boston Globe about a Southie woman, Maureen Dahill, who ran for State Senate, but lost gloriously, in large part because she supported the right of LGBT groups to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Dahill ran for office in order to attempt to bridge the gulf between “new” and “old” Southie, between the yuppies, artists, and hipsters, and the old Irish. Dahill, a native of South Boston, works in the fashion industry, her husband is a firefighter. In other words, she was the ideal candidate for the role.
What I find interesting, aside from the fact she was trounced in the election, was the discussion in this article about the gulf that exists between the old and the new in Southie. And this is something that is overlooked by quantified research studies such as the Columbia and Federal Reserve Bank ones. However, what they add to the discussion is that there are those who remain, who refuse to leave for a variety of reasons. The job now is to, if not attempt to emulate Dahill’s failed campaign (the Globe notes that from the get go “there were many who didn’t want any part of her bridge-building.” The article doesn’t identify which side of the gulf this resistance came from.
At any rate, it is refreshing to see researchers attempt to explore the myths of gentrification, but I would also caution that we do not need a neo-liberal backlash that leads us to conclude that gentrification is good, it’s the best thing that can happen to us. We must still discuss the human costs of gentrification, we must still fret over the plight of low income earners in neighbourhoods where rents go from $500 to $3,000 a month in short order.
December 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
We’ve been watching the American version of Shameless off and on for the past year. The American version is based on the British show, but is set in the South Side of Chicago. It is centred around the big and cacophonous Gallagher clan. The patriarch is Frank, played by William H. Macy. Frank is a drunk asshole. There’s no other way to put it. His wife, the children’s mother, has up and left. The family is held together by the eldest daughter, Fiona. There are 5 more children, the youngest of which is 2 (and somehow African American in a family of white Irish Americans; this is never explained). Fiona scrounges and scrimps and saves to keep food on the table and the roof over the heads of the other Gallagher kids. The house is possessed by the Gallaghers through dubious means, involving some welfare scam on the part of Frank. Fiona is left to scam to keep the family together and to keep the rest of the kids from ending in foster care.
I have to say, I enjoy the TV show, though occasionally it hits kind of close to home, in that I grew up mostly poor with an alcoholic and abusive step-father. But, this show is a rather complicated look at poverty, particularly white poverty in America. It also dovetails nicely with Michael Patrick MacDonald’s points about South Boston. The show is set in Canaryville, the historically Irish section of Chicago’s South Side. Canaryville, like Southie or Griff, is rather legendary for being both Irish and hostile to outsiders.
As I watch the show, I can’t help but wonder if Shameless romanticises poverty, portrays it accurately, or stereotypes poor people as scammers. I find myself torn every time I watch it.
On the one hand, the Gallagher clan and their friends struggle everyday trying to make ends meet, but it seems they’re always able to put aside their money worries to have fun. No, they don’t get drunk (except for Frank) and they don’t do drugs. But they do have a lot of fun, there’s a lot of wisecracking, and teasing. There’s also a lot of scamming of pretty much anything that can be scammed, from welfare officers to schools, to businesses and anyone else stupid enough to get involved.
When I was growing up, my life wasn’t exactly as glamourous as the Gallaghers, but it’s not like we spent our entire lives miserable because we were poor. And the “system,” such as it were, was there to be scammed. To a degree. It was not like anyone I knew scammed welfare or Unemployment Insurance (as Employment Insurance was once called in Canada), and so on. Scams tended to be smaller scale. Like scamming free rides on the bus or the Skytrain. Life wasn’t one thing or the other, it wasn’t black and white. It was complicated.
And this is where I think Shameless is a brilliant show. Obviously there is some mugging for the cameras and the creation of some dramatic storylines for entertainment purposes. But it represents the life of these poor white trash Irish Americans in Canaryvlle, South Side Chicago, as complicated. Their lives aren’t all of one or the other. They live lives as complicated as the middle-classes. Perhaps more so, because they’re always worried about having something to eat and having gas to heat the house. In the end, Shameless represents the poor as multi-faceted, complicated people, who are pulled in various different directions according to their conflicting and various roles (as breadwinner, daughter, son, friend, lover, etc.). In short, at the core, their lives are no different than ours. They are, essentially, fully human.
Too often, when I see representations of the working-classes and the poor in pop culture, whether fiction or non-fiction, these representations are nothing more than stereotypes. Poor people are lazy. Poor people are scammers. Poor people are dishonest. Poor people are victims. Poor people need help. And so on and so on. In reality poor people are none of these things and all of these things and more. In fact, the poor are just like you and me. And, at least in my experience, essentialising the working classes does them a disservice.
And this is where works like Shameless or All Souls come in. MacDonald complicates our stereotypes of Southie. He shows us the complications of the impoverished Irish of South Boston, and he makes it impossible for us to stereotype. In the end, Shameless does the exact same thing.
December 5, 2013 § 4 Comments
Last month, I met Michael Patrick MacDonald at an Irish Studies conference in Rhode Island. He was the keynote speaker. I didn’t know much about him beforehand, other than he wrote All Souls about growing up in South Boston in the 70s and 80s. I knew All Souls was a story about heartbreak, drugs, and the devastation suffered by his family. But MacDonald’s talk was one of the best I’d ever heard, he spoke of Whitey Bulger, drugs, Southie, his work in non-violence and intervention, and he talked about gentrification. He was eloquent and fierce at the same time. He is, of course, an ageing punk. He was also pretty cool to talk to over beers in the hotel bar later that night.
I finally got around to reading All Souls last week. I’m glad I did. I was stunned that MacDonald and his siblings could survive what they’ve survived: three of their brothers dead due to gangs, drugs, and violence. One of their sisters permanently damaged by a traumatic brain injury brought about due to drugs. And another brother falsely accused of murder. It was a heartbreaking read, at least to a point. I know how the story ends, obviously.
It was also interesting to read another version of Southie than the one in the mainstream here in Boston. The mainstream is that Southie was an Irish white trash ghetto, run by Whitey Bulger, terrorised by Whitey Bulger, but all those Irish were racists, as evidenced by the busing crisis in 1974. And while MacDonald tried to revise that narrative, both in his talk and in All Souls, pertaining to the busing crisis, it is hard to argue that racism wasn’t the underlying cause of the explosion of protesting and violence. But, MacDonald also offers both a personal and a sociological view of how Southie was terrorised and victimised by Bulger (and his protectors in the FBI and the Massachusetts State Senate). And, today, he talks about gentrification in a way that most mainstream commentators do not (something I’ve railed about in my extended series on Pointe-Saint-Charles, Montréal, his blog, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, and Pt. 5).
But something else also struck me in reading MacDonald’s take on Southie. I found that he echoed many of the oldtimers I’ve talked to in Griffintown and the Pointe in Montréal about their experiences growing up. Griff and the Pointe were the Montréal variant of Southie, downtrodden, desperately poor Irish neighbourhoods. And yet, there is humour to be found in the chaos and poverty, and there is something to be nostalgic for in looking back.
I didn’t know if I loved or hated this place. All those beautiful dreams and nightmares of my life were competing in the narrow littered streets of Old Colony Project. Over there, on my old front stoop at 8 Patterson Way, were the eccentric mothers, throwing their arms around and telling wild stories. Standing on the corners were the natural born comedians making everyone laugh. Then there were the teenagers wearing their flashy clothes, their ‘pimp’ gear, as we called it. And little kids running in packs, having the time of their lives in a world that was all theirs.
This echoes something journalist Sharon Doyle Driedger wrote of Griffintown, where she grew up:
Griffintown had the atmosphere of an old black-and-white movie. Think The Bells of St. Mary’s,with nuns and priests and Irish brogue and choirs singing Latin hymns. Then throw in the Bowery Boys, the soft-hearted tough guys wisecracking on the corner.
The difference, of course, is that MacDonald’s ambivalence runs deep, he also sees the drug addicts and dealers, and the grinding poverty. Doyle Driedger didn’t. But, MacDonald is standing in Southie as an adult when he sees this scene, Doyle Dreidger is writing from memory.
Nostalgia is a funny thing, and it’s not something to be dismissed, as many academics and laypeople do. It is, in my books, an intellectually lazy and dishonest thing to do. Nostalgia is very real and is something that tinges all of our views of our personal histories.
But what I find more interesting here are the congruencies between what MacDonald and Doyle Driedger writes, between what MacDonald says in All Souls and what he said in his talk last month in Rhode Island, and what the old-timers from Griff and the Pointe told me whenever I talked to them. There was always this nostalgia, there was always this black humour in looking back. I also just read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a kid growing up in Dublin’s Barrytown, a fictional inner-city neighbourhood. Through Paddy Clarke, Doyle constructs an idyllic world for a boy to grow up in, as he and his mates owned the neighbourhood, running around in packs, just like the kids in Southie MacDonald describes, and just as MacDonald and his friends did when they were kids.
I don’t know if this is something particular to Irish inner-city slums or not. But I do see this tendency as occurring any time I talk to someone who grew up in such a neighbourhood, or read stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, to say nothing of the music of the Dropkick Murphys (I’m thinking, in particular, of almost the entirety of their first album, Do Or Die, or the track “Famous for Nothing,” on their 2007 album, The Meanest of Times), I’m not one for stereotyping the Irish, or any other group for that matter, I don’t think there’s anything “inherent” to the Irish, whether comedy, fighting, or alcoholism. But there is something about this view of Irish slums.