In spring 2012, adjunct English lecturer Wes Kennison and Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mathematics Olympia Nicodemi co-taught INTD 288: Court Street, The Pilgrimage, a course that tasked students with a firsthand study of Court Street.
Students said what they discovered through their own fieldwork was an unexpected story of immigration, transformation and community present in Geneseo that reflects the history of the U.S. as a whole. They also learned how drastically Geneseo as a college has affected and shaped the surrounding neighborhoods, for better and for worse.
“I wanted to have a study abroad course in Geneseo, where students could … find that there are some very interesting ways of connecting the history of Geneseo to the history of the wider world,” said Kennison. “What we discovered in the process was that it was a lot more diverse than many people imagined.”
By visiting local businesses, prisons, a sewage treatment plant and even a prisoner-of-war camp, students discovered the rise in immigration in the community during the late 1800s and early 1900s. European populations, mostly Italian, developed a strong and integrated community in Livingston County, residing most prominently along and near Court Street.
“You go from Italians being very alien … to Italians being in very prominent roles and fully integrated into the community,” said Kennison.
Students also found that the expansion of the Geneseo campus in the 1960s caused the demolition of many old houses and the displacement of Italian families living there. Junior Philip Romano researched this shift.
“It did drastically change the town and the culture,” said Romano. “It literally shaped the town.” The decision to demolish the old neighborhood for campus construction remains controversial to this day, especially when considering Geneseo’s other options for nonintrusive expansion.
“The entire north campus, when it was built, obliterated parts of that neighborhood,” said Kennison. “There was open ground and territory in other directions for the campus to expand.”
However, evidence suggests that Geneseo’s expansion was not what diminished the immigrant communities that no longer exist.
“That particular part of the community was already extensively abandoned,” said Kennison. “The process of the Irish and Italians moving across Main Street began in 1938.”
Furthermore, students found that many community members welcomed the college’s expansion quite quickly.
“[Students] took polls about how people felt about the expansion,” said Romano. “Most people were at first … averse to it, [but eventually] 80 percent of the town was in favor of it.”
“I think most people understood that it would be a big help in the long run,” he said.
The immigrants’ adaptation to the construction demonstrated the fluidity of culture, just as the course revealed the fluidity between Geneseo and its community.
“I want to break down the distinction between college and the real world,” said Kennison. “I think it’s a false distinction … Every community of people have their own stories; stories identify them like a fingerprint.”