Jordan Stanger-Ross’s insightful (and thoroughly and creatively researched) book, comparing the experiences and practices of Italians in two South Philadelphia parishes, and in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood, in the period after World War II, prompts the question of what it means to be Italian in large North American cities, and what that Italian identity can tell us about the nature and structure of those cities. His central thesis is that South Philadelphia’s Italians both confronted and constructed greater neighbourhood constraints than the Italians of Toronto. That is, the South Philadelphians were far less likely than the Torontonians to sell their houses and move out of their neighbourhood; Catholic carnivals and processions in South Philadelphia were hosted, and attended, almost exclusively by parish residents, whereas celebrations in the St. Agnes/St. Francis Parish of Little Italy were attended by Italians (and others) from throughout the Toronto region. And finally, since World War II, South Philadelphia Italian couples lived closer to one another at the time of their marriage than couples in Little Italy. In fact, “By 1990, the couples married in Toronto’s Little Italy were separated by almost twice the distance of their South Philadelphia peers.” (p. 105)
Stanger-Ross provides a careful accounting of the local, regional, and national forces and structures that might account for at least some of the differences between South Philadelphia and Toronto’s Little Italy, his purpose evidently being to provide a context for his more fine-grained comparisons in later chapters, and not to identify specific causal mechanisms, which remain unclear. In the period after World War II, Philadelphia, like almost every other American Rustbelt city, faced a steady loss of businesses and middle- and upper-income families to the surrounding suburbs and elsewhere. At the same time, African Americans moving up from the South were perceived to threaten property values, arguably a self-fulfilling prophecy. The influx of new residents, the outflux of businesses and more affluent taxpayers, and the overall net population loss, all combined to keep city services poor and property values stagnant, thus creating a sense of insularity and “defensive localism” in the Italian parishes. Stagnant property values provided little incentive to sell homes and move, whereas Italians in Toronto could realize a healthy profit by selling their homes, as many of them did, thus accounting for their greater likelihood to leave their neighbourhood.
Defensive localism in Philadelphia was supported by parochial schools that were controlled by the parishes, whereas Toronto’s parochial schools were administered by the metropolitan government, and they thus never developed the same local attachments as in Philadelphia. Toronto’s metropolitan government also redistributed taxes between the city and suburbs, with the result that Toronto did not suffer the same decline in city services as did Philadelphia. And though Toronto was a more popular destination for immigrants than Philadelphia (and Canada as a whole let in relatively more immigrants than the United States), these new arrivals did not find themselves enmeshed in a spatialized racial conflict, as did black arrivals to Philadelphia, who were welcome in only a few neighbourhoods. By contrast, the Italians who were still arriving by the tens of thousands to Toronto after World War II settled throughout the city, thus expanding their ethnic social networks beyond the confines of Little Italy.
Despite the fact that they were and are both Italian enclaves, it does seem a bit like comparing apples and oranges for Stanger-Ross to compare a vibrant commercial and entertainment district in Toronto to largely residential communities in Philadelphia. Yet the differences between the neighbourhoods are illuminating. There is some small irony in the fact that, in the years covered in this book, Toronto’s Little Italy, despite its name, contained proportionately fewer Italians than the two South Philadelphia neighbourhoods that were known (at least in this book) only by their parish names. The only portion of South Philadelphia that is semi-officially designated as “Italian” is the “Italian Market,” an open-air food market that once consisted of mostly Italian proprietors, only a small portion of which overlaps with one of the parishes studied by Stanger-Ross. And, of course, few Italians have ever actually lived in the Italian Market.
Stanger-Ross’s comparison between Philadelphia and Toronto thus hints at an inverse relationship between the extent to which an urban space might serve as an anchor of ethnic identity, and the extent to which it can also be a residential community of ethnics. Such an inverse relationship is suggested further by the fact that South Philadelphia’s Italians apparently shed their ethnic identities more rapidly than Torontonians when they left the confines of their arguably more Italian neighbourhoods. Thus, for instance, Italian Philadelphians, while they lived closer to their coethnics, were less likely than Italian Torontonians to work in distinctly Italian ethnic occupational niches. And by 1960, as both South Philadelphian and Torontonian Italian women looked beyond their parishes for eligible marriage partners, the rate at which the Philadelphians married Italians declined, whereas the rate increased among Torontonian brides.
If the spatial confines of defensive localism in South Philadelphia fostered a strong sense of identity and community, as Stanger-Ross suggests, his comparison to Toronto suggests that South Philadelphians identified less strongly as Italians when they left their neighbourhood. Possibly a more specifically Italian identity in Canada that transcended neighbourhood borders resulted in part from the Trudeau administration’s emphasis on multiculturalism, which “has placed diverse immigrant origins at the center of Canadian self-conception.” (p. 30) Yet Stanger-Ross is also quick to point out that “Study of Italians in Montreal warns against facile national generalizations.” (140)
Regardless of whether national policy or local context shapes the nature of ethnic identity, Stanger-Ross leaves us with a further, and unanswered, question—how do variably constructed ethnic identities shape their respective cities? Have the different Italian identities in Philadelphia and Toronto contributed in any significant way to those cities’ larger stories of political and social development? For Philadelphia, we only have a few biographies of Frank Rizzo that hint at answers. We could use instead a second volume from Stanger-Ross, equally as impressive as his first.