A Question for Rochester: Who Are We Today?
By Doug McGill
MN --The Gothic-style Plummer Building, covered with stone
carvings representing human progress in science and the arts, and
chiming the hours of our
days from its carillon, was our secular cathedral.
It assured us that the light of human reason would safely illuminate
our path to the future.
The corncob water tower, in all its cartoonish glory, was no less
powerful a symbol of our community's roots in agriculture and the land.
Even today, it unmistakably reminds us that notwithstanding our achievements
in health care and high technology, our community's life began on the
farm with its dawn-to-dusk rhythms, its animal sounds, and its earthy
We need a new symbol for a town that's grown into a new phase of its
life, one that's profoundly multicultural.
It's often said that at the turn-of-the-century, Rochester, like the
entire United States, was more multicultural than it is today. In 1910,
more than half of Olmsted County's population of 22,500 was either
born, or their parents were born, outside of the United States. Today,
only about one in 10 people living in Rochester was born outside of
the United States.
Similarly, there are fewer immigrants today on a percentage basis
in the United States, than there were a century ago. In 1900, about
14 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born, compared to about
11 percent today.
Yet in three important ways, multiculturalism is far more pronounced
today than ever before.
First, mass immigration that began in the 1960s opened the door to
some 30 million immigrants now living in the United States, a far larger
number than at any time in American history.
Second, America's first wave of immigrants came mostly from Europe
and thus, despite language differences, was a relatively homogenous
group in terms of religion and shared history. Our recent immigrants,
by contrast, represent many dozens of cultures and languages from all
over the globe.
Third, the enormous numbers of recent immigrants has allowed numerous
cultural subgroups to form within American society. These strong identity
groupings allow, to a much greater extent than previously, the retention
of native languages, cultures, and customs.
All three of these great themes play out in Rochester every day.
At the corner of
Broadway and Fourth Street Southwest, at the Indian Rice & Spice
grocery, on an average day at 7 p.m. you'd swear you were at a Bombay
market with the crowd of women wearing
saris and henna
tattoos, engaging in long friendly chats, with the smell of sandalwood
incense and the sounds of the Hindi and Gujarati languages filling
Just across the street, at Tejano Western Wear, another conclave of
recent immigrants to Rochester meets to socialize -- but the smell
is leather from the boots and vests on sale in the shop, and the language
spoken is Spanish.
A new immigration
trend is also afoot in Rochester that is probably the most important
of all. Our city is filled with
a new breed of immigrant
that sociologists called "transnationals."
These immigrants move not for the old reasons of political persecution
or to escape abject poverty, or war, but simply because they found
a better job in the United States than they did in their native country.
For them, a wage comparison trumps all.
Sense of Identity
Last Spring, I led a weekly English conversation class with a half-dozen
Chinese immigrants from mainland China, who work at the Mayo Clinic
as laboratory researchers and doctors. Had they stayed in China, all
of them would have had good jobs and enjoyed high standing in Chinese
society. They had simply chosen Rochester over a Chinese city as other
Mayo employees chose Rochester over, say, Atlanta or San Francisco
Cities with many
transnationals in their workforce are "fragile
ones, whose survival and successes are centered on an economy of high
productivity and advanced technologies," warns immigration scholar
They are fragile because the minute another city comes up with a better
job offer, there go our employees. I mean, er, our citizens. There's
nothing else to keep them.
A community's sense of identity, despite obvious pitfalls if taken
to extremes, is also a great potential source of strength and cohesion.
When things get tough it may be all a community has to hold together.
Once upon a time, Rochester had a corncob water tower and a Gothic
carillon tower to tell us who we are.
Who are we today?
Copyright @ 2002
The McGill Report