Diversity in the West Bank Neighborhood
I went to a neighborhood organizations meeting organized by Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) here at the University a few weeks. Days later, Chris, one of the organizers of the event invited me and my friends to discuss how immigrant students in colleges and universities can be utilized as cultural bridges between their communities and organizations such as CURA which aims to encompass immigrant groups into the mainstream community organizations. My friends and I, and other immigrant students here at the University met with four to five CURA members in a small gathering. This was an informal discussion about our immigrant experience and what we think should be done by both immigrant communities and organizations that help such communities in order for immigrants to participate in neighborhood organizations and other community/civic activities. One topic that dominated over the others was the invisible division between the immigrant community on the west bank and the rest of the University of Minnesota.
Although they are located in the same area and breath the same air, it seem as if those apartments which house few thousand immigrants, mainly Somalis, and the University community belong to different worlds, divided by one street. There are many businesses, including restaurants and coffee shops, clothing, art and even grocery stories around Cedar Ave. which offer great opportunity for University students to experience a different culture and get variety of choices, on food and other things. However, this diversity-mingling does not occur most times. A Vietnamese student said that he invited a group of classmates to study with him at his apartment in Riverside Plaza. He said that he often studied with them at their dorms and wanted a change of environment; and he actually wanted to treat them with some Vietnamese dishes. However, they gently turned him down. On of the classmates later told him that she and the others did not feel comfortable coming to â€œthat area.â€? This â€œareaâ€? is actually in the same spatial location as the University, yet the classmates made is sound like a foreign and unknown country of its own. I know this cannot represent the attitude of all students and faculty members here at the University towards this immigrant neighborhood, however, humans choose familiar things and avoid the unfamiliar, and that often leads to close mindedness. A Somali student took her biracial classmate to one of the Somali restaurants on west bank. The classmate who has been attending the University for four years did not know there were â€˜ethnicâ€™ restaurants in the area. Others immigrant students at the meeting shared their experiences of having American friends and classmates who either fear or dislike being around that area.
Two of the thirteen immigrant students at the meeting live in this neighborhood, however, most of us understood the invisible division between two communities that are in the same space. If you compare this neighborhood to the Dinkytown neighborhood, there is a huge difference, because students frequent this area and some even live there. It makes sense why students would rather meet friends at restaurants and coffee shops over there, but the same effort is not put into coming to the diverse west bank restaurants and cafes. If, for instance, a student has a class in Fraser Hall and wants to get lunch after class, he/she would walk to either the Dinkytown area restaurants or Coffman Union and the rest of the Washington Ave./Stadium Village places. Compare this student to a student who has a class in Blegen Hall and wants to go to lunch. This student is more likely to take the shuttle or walk to the east bank to the above mentioned places, rather than walking three to four minutes to the restaurants and cafes on the west bank. The point here is that most students would rather go all the way to the east bank, if they are on the west bank, to get the things they need even if those things are available nearby.
Although my argument here sounds like I am blaming the University community for this lack of interaction between the school and the neighborhood, one must understand that students can go to places such as restaurants, stores, community centers, and so on, whereas the neighborhood residents cannot intermingle with University students and use University facilities as they like, unless they are students. Hence, students and faculty have that advantage over the residents. On the other hand, the businesses on the west bank (excluding Chipotle, Noodleâ€™s & Co., etc.) do not expose themselves to the otherwise unfamiliar students. When you are at the east bank, restaurants like Subway and others are constantly trying to attract students by passing out free sandwich or discount fliers. This kind of strategy is missing from the west bank. Therefore the blame lies within the west bank neighborhood for not reaching out to the University community.
This kind of situation makes you think that there is no such thing as diversity in America. There are different cultures, religions, and ethnicities in the country, however, each ethnic/religious/cultural group lives in their own â€˜imagined community.â€™ The University is part of the mainstream American community while the apartment residents and the surrounding â€˜ethnicâ€™ stores and restaurants are within their own imagined ethnic/cultural boundaries, each not passing the invisible line that divides them apart. Another similar example is witnessed in school cafeterias. I remember my high school was one of the most diverse high schools in Minnesota, with almost thirty languages spoken and many parts of the world represented. However, the cafeteria was the most segregated place one could see. I would say that 98% of the students sat with people of the same color, culture, religion, etc. Hence, this makes you question the idea of diversity. What does it really mean to be a diverse society? Does diversity mean having people with different backgrounds in the same space, while those boundaries which divide them and hinder interactions between them exist? Is this good or bad?