Si se puede (5/1/06)

December 29, 2006

Down the hill from the palatial offices of The Opinion Mill is the Central Jersey burg of New Brunswick, which was still being called “Little Newark” during my bright college days in the 1970s. It didn’t get that name because it had a great neighborhood for Portugese restaurants, either. The only thing that kept the city breathing was the continuing presence of Rutgers University and, most crucially, Johnson & Johnson, which gave the city planners a nucleus to build around when redevelopment efforts began in earnest during the 1980s.

Much of that redevelopment was a study in low comedy. The main drag, George Street, was designated a pedestrian plaza, and the city spent a fortune tearing up the asphalt and laying down attractive brickwork. Only after it was done did the city realize that city traffic had nowhere to go without George Street, so it was reopened to vehicular traffic and the brick pavement promptly collapsed under the weight. Stories like that played out over and over again as the city poured money into the downtown area. Don’t get me started on the Ferren Parking Deck and the upstairs space that John Lynch’s wife tried to use for various business ventures like Club New York and the Hungry I restaurant, all of which fell to Earth faster and harder than a spent Saturn rocket booster. Only now, after about a quarter century, have the efforts really begun to pay off.

I’m not here to slag redevelopment — New Brunswick needed resuscitation. But while all kinds of public-private efforts were made to revitalize the city’s downtown, a more natural kind of revitalization was taking place less than a mile from George Street.

All along the French Street corridor, just south of the Robert Wood Johnson medical multiplex, Latino immigrants — mostly Mexican — have been turning a former war zone into a thriving community. My gourmand friends regularly head down there every Saturday to buy handmade tamales from a woman who sells them from the back door of her kitchen. There are a score of good, cheap Mexican joints serving the best and most authentic food you’ll find in New Jersey. Cinco de Mayo gets to be a little bigger deal each year.

The area has its problems, notably gang activity — I catch glimpses of Latin Kings iconography here and there, and I have no doubt the clashes between American-born nortenos and fresh arrivals from the old country get as nasty here as they do in Salinas and other Latin-intensive regions.

But I also see families, and a sense of life and vitality along a street that used to be bare and threatening. I’m sorry to see the formerly hot music bars like the Roxy go by the boards, but that’s what happens to scenes — they get hot and they burn out. What’s happening here now feels organic and permanent. In another decade or so, I can easily imagine the area becoming a tourist attraction.

And I’ll bet a significant percentage of the people living here are illegals.

And I for one couldn’t care less. To put it even more bluntly, I don’t give a shit.

Even some of my more fair-minded and liberal acquaintances betray a slightly weird streak of nativism when the topic of amnesty for illegals comes up.

“You wanna reward people for breaking the law?” they ask, and I say, “If the law was written by WASPs to discriminate against dark-skinned people, then frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn who breaks it.”

“But there’s no room for everyone who wants to come into America. We have to draw the line somewhere,” they cry, and I say, pointing to New Brunswick, “They’re here now and they’re already making a contribution.” I’m not interested in creating a guest-worker caste of second-class citizens just like they have in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. I don’t care if they don’t know how to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They fought their way to get here because they wanted something better, which is the exact same reason my relatives wanted to come here. And if they didn’t come through Ellis Island to get chalk marks put on their backs and their names anglicized, all I can say is, Big fucking deal.

You wanna build a wall along the southern border? Fine, but make sure it gets built behind the Minutemen. And as soon as it’s done, chuck Michelle Malkin, Lou Dobbs, Hugh Hewitt and Pat Buchanan over the top, along with every over winger hysteric who promotes fantasies about al-Qaeda recruits wading across the Rio Grande. Ditto for any redneck who makes cracks today about the “wetback walkout.”

One of the glories of America is that it was not founded as a homeland for a particular religious or ethnic group. It was founded on an idea, and if you like the idea and want to live it, that makes you an American. The illegals now living in New Brunswick are more in touch with that principle than any of the hatemongers frothing away on the cable shows, and the country that can acknowledge them and welcome them will feel a lot more like the real America than the gnarled, dessicated wasteland of the mind Lou Dobbs and his buddies would like to see.

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