The old blog Civis, at laicus.blogspot.com, has now been migrated here to WordPress. There are certain ways that WordPress is a little easier for me to use. But we also wanted to relaunch with a new name. The relaunch allows me to introduce a couple of characters: my wife, whom we shall call Hypatia (a model of feminine virtue and philosophy — and a little sauciness), and my dearest interlocutor, whom we shall call Aloysius (to emphasize his youthful idealism, his love of the poor, and his somewhat more Jesuit proclivities).
Dialogue with Hypatia and Aloysius is, in fact, a key part of my thinking; I hope that giving myself permission to mention the conversational context of many of these discussions will facilitate my writing (and the publication of many conversations that have in the past been confined to email). But it also exemplifies a central thesis of these pages, which is that life is lived in communion. We think, we live, we are human, not in isolation, but in connection. So I hereby give myself permission to mention those connections on this blog.
Finally, the relaunch gives me the opportunity to redefine the mission of the blog in clearer language: new urban traditionalism. We might say that the central insight of this blog is that the city marries the best of traditionalism and innovation, allowing innovation (to happen and) to happen in the context of tradition, and tradition to be discovered in its newness and liveness, not as a dead letter. I take it that is a somewhat unconventional idea — that tradition can be new, that newness is part of tradition, and that the city has anything to do with tradition. But that is really the idea this blog is meant to explore, the argument all these things are meant to make. Our oppositions are all wrong.
TO LAUNCH the new name, a couple thoughts on an interesting institution of our neighborhood here in Newark. Caffe Espresso Italia has great sandwiches. They also serve, a la carte, traditional Italian dishes; the kind of place where they offer you tripe with a straight face. Our neighborhood is mostly Lusophone now, with northwest-South American Spanish picking up, but this is one of the few places where the regulars still speak Italian.
I take delight, by the way, in the propensity of old-fashioned urban dining establishments to have pointless names. Hypatia’s closest friend is in an old neighborhood in southwestern Brooklyn; the restaurants in that neighborhood have names like 86 Noodles (on 86th St.) or, as more than one place in our neighborhood is named, Cafe Caffe. It’s not really about marketing. To market a Thai place you name it “Thai Restaurant.” They have a bakery called “Your Bakery.” Ours is called Cucuzella’s because . . . it’s the bakery run by the Cucuzellas; thus most of us call it Georgie’s. Our Italian deli is called Caffe Espresso Italia — because it’s not about clever marketing.
THERE ARE traditional restaurants in the countryside, of course. Here and there in German parts of Minnesota there are still German restaurants — though automobiles and television have almost entirely washed out anything nonconforming, even in New Ulm and New Prague. I think an old city like Newark has two advantages for keeping alive the old traditions.
First, there’s a unique kind of backwardness. Maybe it’s that city people are used to bumping up against people who are different. In New Ulm, Minnesota, people were German because they’d never seen anything else; the moment they got a car and a television, they conformed, because their life is all about conformity. But in Newark, the Italians were always right next door to people who were different: the Irish and the Germans, then the Poles and Lithuanians, then the Spanish and Portuguese, now the South Americans, always the Puerto Ricans, always the condescending WASPs. Like New Ulm, people here stuck to the old languages for a long time because there were enough old-country folks that they could. But unlike New Ulm, they weren’t shocked when they found out other people were different.
In other words, diversity, oddly enough, encourages urban traditionalism. Everyone is weird. There are always weirder people than you. It’s okay to be different, and people don’t get nervous or treat you funny. The Muslims make it seem normal to be an old-fashioned Catholic; Ecuadorian “typical” cuisine means no one blinks if we plant bok choy in our garden, order liverwurst at the deli, or buy anchovies at the store. Yes, the cities are full of hipsters chasing after every new things; full, too, of objectionable people. But the diversity of the city also liberates old-fashioned people to be old-fashioned.
The old neighborhood people here in Newark may be over tolerant, from the perspective of country traditionalists. But they are tolerant, too, of Caffe Espresso Italia, of Church processions, of big families, and little old ladies who don’t speak English, and old-fashioned food. Country people may be backward, but they are not tolerant. As long as everyone is backward, they stay backward. But when something new becomes normal, their intolerance is anti-traditional.
THE SECOND advantage Newark offers to Caffe Espresso Italia is . . . us. Because the city brings together different kinds of people: this is, I think, the central distinguishing mark between the city and the non-city. The city is not only tolerant of oddities, but brings them together. This is the central point of new urban traditionalism: we have the opportunity to discover old-fashioned things, to rediscover our roots and to rediscover the best of other traditions, of other people’s roots, to rediscover Italian tripe.
This is, clearly, a different kind of traditionalism. Not the dead letter of doing things because that’s how we’ve always done them, but the liveliness of doing old things because we rediscover their goodness. It comes down to whether we value tradition because we hate change, or value tradition because we believe it is a repository of wisdom and goodness. Do we eat bok choy or liverwurst because there’s nothing else to eat, or because they’re good?
I do not doubt the value of friction, of hanging on to old things just because they’re old. And, I repeat, this is one of the valuable things about the city: the diversity and tolerance of the city affords Italian immigrants — who have not been coming to America for several decades now — the possibility not to integrate, to continue to do things the old way, just because that’s the way they do things. The possibility to speak Italian at a deli that speaks tripe, which still happens in places like Newark and New York.
But the possibility, too, for people who don’t speak Italian to discover the goodness of those traditions. This is new urban traditionalism.