Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Background Reading

Peopling Pennsylvania, Part 2: Creating Community

black and white photo of butcher shop storefront, three men and one woman standing on front steps, men in aprons, meat hanging in windows

This butcher shop was located in Cambria City, a place where many immigrants first arrived.  Shops like this one allowed immigrants to find familiar foods that reminded them of home. 

2.3 Becoming "American"

What happens when all these cultures come together in Pennsylvania?

After they've been in their new place for a while, most immigrants begin to feel like they were part of two communities: their immigrant community and their American community. After another while, most feel closer to America than their old country. They decide to become American citizens.

Meanwhile, while a migrant adapts to his or her new home, something interesting happens. The new home adapts too!

"Culture is contagious," one anthropologist says! Even if cultures conflict, they always exchange something with each other when they meet. When a traditional song, food, or story travels across continents it constantly adapts to new surroundings, languages, religions, and cultures. Bitter enemies can share the same traditions!

black and white photo standing in front of store, bins of vegetables and fruits on both sides along the sidewalk

Many immigrants opened stores that provided people of their ethnic group with foods they were familiar with from the Old Country.

black and white photo of buildings on left side of street, store signs on building, people on sidewalk

Along Washington Street in downtown Johnstown, the Penn Traffic Company had a grocery department.  How are these two grocery stores different? What other differences can you see in the store, street, and people? What could be some reasons for the differences?

Here's an example. Over 200 years have past since most of Pennsylvania's Indians were pushed out of our state. Yet the parts of their culture that Europeans adopted are still with us. Place names like Youghiogheny, Punxsutawney, Erie, Tioga, and Aliquippa still remind us they were here. We still eat corn, squash, beans, and other Native American foods.

A business like "Polish Hill Pizza" in Pittsburgh is an example of cultures meeting! Philadelphia's Italian Market is an example of cultures adapting. It started out as a place for Italian merchants to sell to Italians. Now it sells products from other cultures, too, to customers of many different cultures.

Some of America's favorite music came about when several cultures blended. Traditional African American music was a blend of African music and English and Scotch music sung in the South. Out of that blend grew jazz and the blues. Before long the blues blended with gospel singing and country music and gave birth to rock and roll.

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As each generation goes by, families' ties to the old culture get weaker. They start to speak English instead of their native language. Then they may pick up foods and traditions from other cultures. The next generation decides to move out of the old neighborhood to the suburbs. Their children might marry someone of a different faith or nationality. They create a new culture that combines the old ways with the new.

People whose ancestors came a long time ago sometimes look for ways to keep their traditions alive. They want to pass them on to their children and grandchildren. Family

Many Pennsylvanians also hold festivals to show off traditional food, music, dances, arts, and storytelling.

Living in a state where many cultures have come together makes our lives rich. We all have a chance to eat pasta, tacos, potato pancakes, pierogies, spring rolls, gyros, pita bread, and sushi!

We all benefit from the new ideas new migrants bring to our state. They are the kind of people who are willing to take risks and try new things. They also remind us what is good about our country. Our freedoms and way of life are treasures that people are willing to leave home to find!

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Excerpted with permission from the textbook Pennsylvania, Our Home by Susan K. Donley (Layton, UT: Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 2005)

See also: "Peopling Pennsylvania, Part 1, Push and Pull"


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