Imagine the American Dream

One of my hobbies is genealogy, and one of the cool things about genealogical research is the variety of information you can get from census records. Not only can you learn facts such as who was regarded as the head of the household, what your ancestor’s occupation was, where her or his parents were born, and what each family member’s first language was, but, because the census takers went from house to house (or flat to flat) in order, you can see the same kind of information for your ancestor’s neighbors. In 1920 my mother’s great-grandfather Henry Lupton (whose father was an immigrant from Yorkshire) lived on West 5th Street in Elmira, New York. His next-door neighbors were a Syrian couple and their Canadian- and American-born children; the census taker lists every family member’s “mother language” as “Syrian,” which may have been Assyrian (or, of course, Arabic). Next is a Pennsylvania family, then an Irish widow, then another Irish widow, her son, and two lodgers, a couple from New York. Down the street are two or three Irish-speaking families, with some family members born in Ireland and some in the United States. Then comes a Swedish family, the parents born in Sweden and the children in Pennsylvania, all speaking Swedish. The final entry on this census page is a man from Germany. The majority of the people on this multicultural street own their own homes, and most of them (women as well as men) are employed. The range of occupations is fascinating: owners of a shoe repair shop (the Syrian family), lineman for the water company, machinist, railroad car inspector (the second Irish widow’s son), salesman in a butcher shop and saleslady in a candy shop (the widow’s lodgers), railroad brakeman, nurse, milliner, hemmer at a knitting mill, carpenter, guard at a factory, stenographer, telegraph operator, railroad section boss (the Swedish father), bookkeeper and telephone operator and teacher (the Swedish daughters, ages 25, 22, and 20 respectively), and inspector in a factory. Imagine visiting this street, hearing English, “Syrian,” Irish, Swedish, and German; imagine the pride these people took not only in their own homes but in their neighborhood. Imagine how they must have supported one another’s businesses and other endeavors; imagine how they must have asked after one another’s children and looked in on the elderly and the ill. Imagine how they saw and heard (and perhaps even appreciated) the differences among them, but no matter what respected one another’s work and contributions to the community. Imagine everyone in this neighborhood was part of “us” and there was no “them.” Imagine the American dream.