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Immigrant Trails: Brooklyn Hidden Treasures

By Joshua Brustein

An Underground Movement: Designers, Builders, Riders
36th Street Stop: N,R line in Brooklyn.
Owen Smith.

While many are looking for ways to escape the city this summer, Karen Smith, a professor at New York City College of Technology of CUNY, and a group of her students are trying to give people a reason to stay by creating a guide to Brooklyn that celebrates its diverse ethnic populations.

Entitled Immigrant Trails, the project is taking a look at the four largest ethnic groups in Brooklyn — Caribbean, Eastern European or Russian, Hispanic, and Italian. A website, and soon a print guidebook, profiles the historic neighborhoods, local restaurants, cultural and artistic sites, everyday activities and each group’s major festivals. This project began in a class that Smith taught in the spring on community based tourism in Brooklyn, yet she was able to extend it beyond the end of the semester after receiving a grant from CUNY’s Diversity Projects Development Fund in May.

Smith’s class deals with the idea of sustainable tourism, which implies a respect for the "carrying capacity" of a place, and tries to make sure that tourism does not dominate or damage it. Applying this to Brooklyn, Smith is focusing on the use of public transportation. "We don’t want everyone driving through," she says. "Nothing against the tour bus companies—but we want them to use public transportation." A special MTA subway map with the project’s sites is in the works, and will probably be completed in about six months.

"International travel is terrific," says Smith, who has been to over 70 countries herself, "but it’s really very rich right here." There is value in a personal connection to a place, and rumor has it that one out of seven Americans can trace their roots to Brooklyn. Whether or not that statistic is true, Smith wants to give people a chance to see where they came from. "Our audience is two fold," she says, "We’re trying to get local people to celebrate and identify with their own roots, but also [to allow] people who maybe had Brooklyn as their first starting point to come back and see either where you are from or where their forefathers - their mom, their dad, and their great aunt—first settled."

The student research assistants, who do the bulk of the fieldwork for the project, have jumped on the chance to be involved in a project where they get to learn about Brooklyn’s ethnic communities—and to teach about their own. "I was greatly interested in working on this project for two reasons," says Inga Taper, who has been researching Eastern European sites, "first, I’m really interested in tourism, and the second reason is because I’m an immigrant myself. Originally I come from Poland—I was born and raised there. So, after the twenty years I spent in Poland I’m looking to preserve our traditions, customs, and language, and to promote that to other cultures."

Cheavon Braff, another participant who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 8-year-old daughter, says, "I am a resident of Brooklyn and prior to working on this project, I never knew [it] had so much to offer."

While this summer’s focus is on the four largest ethnic populations, Smith intends to teach the class again next year, and expand it to include other groups. She sees the various areas of Brooklyn as a way to get away without leaving home. And while the thought of staying around the city for a vacation may not seem like an appealing alternative to a trip to some faraway beach, Smith points out that there are advantages to sticking around. "You can start feeling like you’re in a different country," she says, "and then just go home and sleep in you own bed that night."

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