The Quarter

Our village, small as it is, did not develop any handful of ethnic “quarters”. One hears of French Quarters, Spanish Quarters and Latin Quarters in larger cities, with “enclave” seeming the more common term for Irish and Scottish neighborhoods, implying, to me at least, a discriminatory and defensive attitude from within, quite opposite the image formed by the assignation of “ghetto”. Our little Sherburne, in my youth and to my knowledge, had but one Quarter, quite distinguished by its poverty and homeliness, and populated with assorted Lebanese, Italian, Irish, and Polish  families. A checkerboard of enclaves, some the size of single lots, others amalgams of the properties of like descended folk, or those like minded but of different background. It was known by all as “The Quarter”, and at it’s center was the largest building in town, the still enduring Knitting Mill.

I grew up, like my father, on the southern edge of The Quarter, which in his day was fairly separated from the “downtown” by a swamp, reduced by fill and building in my youth, but still  a “forest” of perhaps 10 acres, quite enough for boys to disappear into with shovels, BB guns, machetes, slingshots, rope, hammers, nails and lumber, matches, and containers of whatever highly flammable liquid we could procure. In groups of two or three or four, we set out on a daily basis to enlarge our knowledge of construction, learning first those wilderness prerequisites: killing, starting fires, and felling trees.

The Quarter to the North had access to both streets and fields, but nothing, to my mind, rivaling our forest/swamp. We all had access to “the hill” off to the East, but that was more the playground of the northern Quarter boys, and stories of their BB gun wars left us incredulous. They used their weaponry on one another, not, as seemed more natural to us, for killing birds and shooting holes in Mrs. Power’s hanging laundry. The boys up north on School and New Streets seemed a hardened bunch,  well documented fist fighters, and what little bullying we sought to practice we took farther South, into the softer part of town.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Oh my, I’ve never seen anyone take this on, and I hope you’ll write a lot more about it. My mother and grandmother had many stories about the social interactions (or lack thereof) between The Quarter and The Rest of Town, centering on students at school, and there used to be a school up there, long before you and I were born, where my grandmother taught as a young woman. In the early 20th century the Quarter was mostly Arab, and Christian, settled by the first wave of immigrants who came from Lebanon and Syria. Most of them were Christian but may have been Maronite in their homeland — I’d like to know that — in any case, that meant that they went to the Catholic Church, as did the Polish, Italians, and Irish families. I bet we’d find that a lot of the segregation was as much due to religious prejudice as it was due to ethnicity and poverty. In the 30s and 40s, girls from the South weren’t supposed to date boys from the Quarter. And even in the late 1970s, when I married an Arab American, I knew the announcement in the local paper would raise some eyebrows in both places, which it did, but I also hope it lowered a few of those invisible barriers a notch or two.


  2. I can remember the school building, though it wasn’t a functioning school by the time we came around. Never gave a thought to what a concentrated Catholic neighborhood it was, and I’m sure that was felt as a bond among the adults. The gradual relocation of the Catholic Church, from the southern fringe of the Quarter to it’s downtown location, was probably cause for some debate, too. I do recall hearing some expressions of resentment toward more well to do Irish and Italian Catholics who lived in The South. I think our parents perceived them lacking in humility.
    There is quite a contingent of Mexicans living in the Quarter today, their status as citizens unknown to me. They are Catholic, hard workers, lovely people.
    Mayor Acee recently purchased Joe and Jenny Shaheen’s old place. I’ll try to conjure more memories, but I doubt they’ll do much to advance the geopolitical history of the region. Mostly “miracle of survival” stuff.


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