Anthony Bak Buccitelli is a folklorist and assistant professor of American studies and communications at the Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg. He is the author of City of Neighborhoods: Memory, Folklore, and Ethnic Place in Boston. We spoke with Buccitelli about growing up in the Boston area, the study of folklore, and his research in Boston’s neighborhoods.
As publishers in the academic field of folklore studies, we know that “folklore” means different things to different people. What is your approach in this book?
Oh, yes, that’s so. Sometimes the general public uses the term to talk about things that are wrong: “oh, that’s just a bit of folklore!” Or some people think folklore applies only to ancient cultures, or only to fairy tales. There’s a lot of room for misinterpretation there. But what most folklorists these days study are the traditions of creative expression that make up quite a bit, perhaps most, of our lived cultural experience.
This can mean those recognizable traditions, such serving turkey on Thanksgiving or a bride’s white dress at a wedding, but it can also mean a lot of other things that don’t necessarily jump out at you as “traditional.” Cracking jokes with your friends at a bar; playing games on the playground as a kid; telling stories about family history, memories, or experiences; ways of making food; neighborhood festivals or fairs; songs you sing at a birthday party or around a campfire; even the way you write a text message to a friend; all of these things can become traditions and so can be studied as folklore. So when I talk about folklore in the book, I am really talking about these traditional, but sometimes seemingly trivial, forms of culture that actually define a great deal of our contemporary cultural lives.
I am especially interested in the culture of urban neighborhoods, so my choices of what folklore to study and how to approach it were influenced by the specific Boston neighborhoods where I did my fieldwork: South Boston, East Boston, and North Quincy. I looked at their parades and festivals, stories folks told about life in the neighborhood, and their use of visual symbols in neighborhood spaces.
You also write about memory and ethnic place. How do these connect with the study of folklore? The experience that led me down the road to writing this book was going to the L Street Brownies Annual Plunge. The Brownies are possibly the oldest “polar bear” swimming club in the U.S. and are based in South Boston. I was doing a small field project with them, and their theme that year for the Plunge was “Southie Pride.” I noticed that people were wearing clothing or objects associated with being Irish or Irish American, and Southie does have a history and public identity as an “Irish neighborhood.” But, local residents I had interviewed had just been telling me how they saw Southie as an ethnically diverse neighborhood, and that it had been diverse for a long time. This got me thinking about why South Boston, and many other places, are associated strongly with particular forms of identity, especially ethnicity or race, despite underlying diversity.
So my research evolved into understanding two things. First, how do ethnic identity and place identity converge in people’s lived experience? In other words, how closely is my feeling of being “Italian” or “Irish” or “Greek” connected to my sense of being “South Bostonian” or, in my own case, a “Hinghamite”? Other scholars have argued that American ethnics today are very mobile and no longer intimately connected (or restricted) to enclaves of specific urban neighborhoods. But at the same time, there still seems to be a strong cultural sense of connection between ethnicity and place. The force of this connection, I found, can remain even after the actual demographics of a neighborhood have changed significantly. So, understanding the process of “social memory” in each neighborhood became a crucial part of the picture. I was exploring not just what the actual history of the neighborhood was, but also how that history is remembered and represented by people and communities.
Second, I wanted to understand how people use folklore to negotiate these kinds of situations, and to form or alter these kinds of memories. I kept coming back to the idea that, despite the many, varied, or conflicting ways people represented the history and ethnicity of their neighborhood, there was often a single representation that served as a base for variation. For example, even when residents of South Boston told me that their neighborhood wasn’t actually as Irish as outsiders thought, they were still starting from a basic idea of Southie as an Irish enclave, an idea widely represented in neighborhood folkloric practices. It’s this dominant sense of connection that I call the “sense of ethnic place.”
So is “ethnic place” kind of a shared “archetype” or a universal idea that people have about the connection between ethnicity and places? No. It’s not universal at all. In fact, I contend, that it’s very specific to a single place and time period. And, the dominant “sense of ethnic place” in a given area is never completely dominant, and it’s certainly not permanent. In fact, as I demonstrate in my book, it’s always changing. And, I found, there are multiple senses of place at work at the same time in the same neighborhoods! Places can become full of meaning for us, both because we connect specific memories to places and because we attach cultural significance to places. This cultural significance can be expressed through formal commemoration of historical or heritage sites, but also in informal understandings shared by a specific community of people.
You grew up in Hingham, in the Boston area. How did that influence your research? I spent a lot of time in my younger years hanging around different parts of Boston. I could say that I intended to “write what you know,” but I think it was actually the reverse. I wanted to study and write about Boston to understand it better. I already knew people in some of the places I was studying, so that was somewhat helpful in doing fieldwork. My own sense of identity as an Italian American from Hingham surely shaped some of the interactions I had in my fieldwork. How exactly? Well, I’m not sure!
Since you were not from any of the neighborhoods you were studying, and there are so many diverse neighborhoods in Boston, how did you choose the areas you wanted to focus on for this book? Boston has such a vital, longstanding, and very rich history of neighborhood cultures that I could have chosen almost any neighborhoods to write about. I chose these three for practical reasons, but also because they represented different configurations and histories in connection with ethnic identity. South Boston, as I mentioned, has a very public association with Irish American identity, but also longstanding Polish, Lithuanian, and Italian communities, and a unique history with other communities including African and Asian Americans. Demographically, the ethnic composition of the neighborhood has been changing gradually over the past few decades.
In contrast, East Boston has an association with Italian American identity going back to the first half of the twentieth century, and some small but longstanding communities of other ethnic groups. But, since the 1980s, the neighborhood has seen much more dramatic changes, particularly with the emergence of very large communities of different Latino/a ethnicities, mainly Salvadorian, Puerto Rican, and Mexican.
Finally, again in contrast to the other two, North Quincy never had a strong association with a particular ethnic group. It was a mix of mainly European ethnicities. But more recently, it has become one of the largest Chinese American communities in the state.
My choice of locations with three very different demographic ethnic histories wasn’t to build a model for direct comparison, but rather to try to get a sense of the diverse ways in which connections between ethnicity and place can take shape.
In a number of places in the book, you write about contemporary conflicts between people or groups that are tied to historic ethnic or racial conflicts in the Boston. Is there a culture of racism or ethnic hostility in these neighborhoods?
Boston does have a history of racism, as well as ethnic and racial tensions that have sometimes emerged as open conflict or violence. There’s no doubt about that. But I don’t think that this is in any way limited to a particular neighborhood or group of people, although it sometimes has been portrayed that way. Glossing over the larger historical dynamics that have shaped these conflicts misrepresents the history of the city and hinders our ability to address these issues.
I don’t shy away from talking about interethnic or interracial conflicts in the book, sometimes in pretty stark terms. But these are not the only defining features of local cultures in Boston. Nor are they the only element around which memories take shape in Boston. Memories of racism or ethnic tensions exist as a part of the landscape of memory, but among many other parts.
There is certainly still a great deal of work to be done in Boston to bridge the barriers that exist between ethnic and racial communities. But what I also think the book shows is that no culture is static. A city is always changing. People in the Boston area care a lot about their neighborhoods, spending a lot of time thinking about them and working to make them better places. I hope that my book can, in some small way, contribute to these discussions as they take shape.