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New York Folklore Vol. 4. Nos. 1-4, 1978
Utica Project Issue
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NEW YORK FOLKLORE
Vol. 4, Nos. 1-4, 1978

IMAGE AND IMAGINATION: HOW AN ETHNIC COMMUNITY SEES ITSELF
by Linnie H. Thuma

West of Utica, along the path of the old Erie Canal, lies the village of New York Mills, From early in the nineteenth century until the closing of its textile mills in 1951, the proprietors of this company town rented housing to an often migratory labor force. While the original workers were drawn from the surrounding countryside, a succession of immigrant groups later filled the village and worked in the mills. During the mid-1800s Scots and Welsh made up the community and the work force, but by the early twentieth century, Poles predominated. Today, their Polish- American descendants form a self-identified ethnic core in this community of four thousand.

When the mills’ final owner, the A. D. Juilliard Company, moved away, local patterns of employment changed drastically. Suddenly, workers had to find jobs in nearby Utica or Rome, and New York Mills became a satellite community rather than a self-contained economic unit. On the other hand, company dominance was now at an end, leaving the way clear for increased Polish- American involvement in local government, civic improvement efforts, and the school system. While other small towns on the outskirts of Utica have been absorbed into that city’s suburbs, New York Mills, though no longer an industrial center, stands apart both politically and in the minds of its residents. Perhaps a key to the difference lies in the strong identification of its Polish- American population with a distinctive community image, an image shaped by its industrial heritage.

My task, in a three-month study of New York Mills, was to determine what roles ethnic and historic consciousness played in residents’ perception of their environment. What image did people have of their village? What landmarks were important to them, and why? To determine what local traditions and outside factors influenced their perception, I questioned people about the importance of their homes, the community, and local history in their daily lives. I used non-directed interviews to see if ethnicity would surface as a factor in the image forming process. I observed traffic flow, open space treatment, and the placement of monuments. Finally, I asked informants to draw maps ot Main Street from memory....


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