A Question for Rochester: Who Are We Today?

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

Rochester, 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 smells.

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.

Recent Immigrants

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.

Spanish Clothes

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 the air.

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 or Detroit.

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 Saskia Sassen.

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