One reason it’s so appropriate to have a center for law and religion here at St. John’s is that our main campus sits in perhaps the most religiously diverse county in the nation–the Borough of Queens in New York City. Queens, for those of you who haven’t been here, is the embodiment of Joyce’s observation about the Catholic Church: “Here comes everybody.” Nowhere is that more apparent that on the Number 7 train, the elevated subway line that runs through the borough. In my brighter moods, it seems to me the diversity one finds along the 7 train is a good example of the kind of religious tolerance America, and New York, has traditionally shown, especially for immigrants. At other moments, it seems to me the tolerance more reflects the fact that the communities largely keep to themselves and avoid more than passing contact with one another.
A new book from Columbia University Press, International Express: New Yorkers on the 7 Train, by sociologists Stéphane Tonnelat (Paris-Nanterre) and William Kornblum (CUNY), describes what one can find on the line to Main Street, Flushing. The publisher’s description follows:
Nicknamed the International Express, the New York City Transit Authority 7 subway line runs through a highly diverse series of ethnic and immigrant neighborhoods in Queens. People from Andean South America, Central America, China, India, Italy, Korea, Mexico, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, and Vietnam, as well as residents of a number of gentrifying blue-collar and industrial neighborhoods, fill the busy streets around the stations. The 7 train is a microcosm of a specifically urban, New York experience, in which individuals from a variety of cultures and social classes are forced to interact and get along with one another. For newcomers to the city, mastery of life in the subway space is a step toward assimilation into their new home.
In International Express, the French ethnographer Stéphane Tonnelat and his collaborator William Kornblum, a native New Yorker, ride the 7 subway line to better understand the intricacies of this phenomenon. They also ask a group of students with immigrant backgrounds to keep diaries of their daily rides on the 7 train. What develops over time, they find, is a set of shared subway competences leading to a practical cosmopolitanism among riders, including immigrants and their children, that changes their personal values and attitudes toward others in small, subtle ways. This growing civility helps newcomers feel at home in an alien city and builds what the authors call a “situational community in transit.” Yet riding the subway can be problematic, especially for women and teenagers. Tonnelat and Kornblum pay particular attention to gender and age relations on the 7 train. Their portrait of integrated mass transit, including a discussion of the relationship between urban density and diversity, is invaluable for social scientists and urban planners eager to enhance the cooperative experience of city living for immigrants and ease the process of cultural transition.