‘Whittier Stories’ tells the tale of a neighborhood

"E Pluribus Unum" is a Latin inscription found on every penny. Translated, it means "out of many, one." It’s a reference to the melting pot that has supposedly characterized American society from the beginning.

That theme is examined from a current and local perspective in the new "Whittier Stories," a play from the Whittier-based Children’s Theatre Company (CTC). The work will be staged Dec. 10 and 11 at Intermedia Arts, part of its "Home, Land, Security" series examining immigrant assimilation into Minnesota society.

CTC Writer/Director Rebecca Brown sent her cast of six into Whittier with tape recorders to interview dozens of business owners, neighborhood group leaders, schoolteachers, students, new immigrants and community service employees.

Whittier’s boundaries are I-35W, Lyndale and Franklin avenues, and Lake Street. One of Southwest’s highest poverty neighborhoods, it is experiencing a rebirth, from its 80 restaurants including Eat Street’s row of immigrant cuisines, to mansions that are once again luring the well-heeled.

Still, it remains a landing pad for newcomers. While its melting pot once incorporated Irish, Jewish and Polish immigrants, many of the newest Whittier residents are Somali, Mexican and Hmong.

Cast members asked their subjects about their heritage, daily life, interests, how longtime residents interacted with new arrivals and how everyone makes Whittier home.

Said Director Brown, "The cast did not have a theme at the outset but instead tried to follow the conversations wherever they led."

Asked what she thought of the neighborhood, Lisa Carlson, youth program director at Old Arizona Collaborative at 2821 Nicollet Ave. told CTC performer Rebecca Lord: "I think of diversity, I think of Eat Street, I think of a little bit of danger. It’s a combination of bohemian glamour, pissy bus stops and a lot of different people."

Lord, a Whittier resident, did nine interviews. She said, "There is a real sense of commitment to neighborhood improvement and taking care of the people who live there."

According to the 2000 Census, its 15,000 residents were 53 percent white, 20 percent black, 6 percent Asian, 2 percent Native American and 3 percent designated as "other." One in five residents were Latino (who can be white or black); nine in 10 were renters.

Brown examined transcripts and found themes, conflicts and inspiration from the collected stories.

"I found myself striving to define what the Whittier neighborhood was but soon realized that it was not one thing," said Brown. "It was different things for different people."

The play begins at 8 p.m. each night at Intermedia Arts’ 2822 Lyndale Ave. S. facility. A post-play discussion will take place following each performance.

Tickets are $5. To reserve tickets, call the Intermedia Arts Box Office at 612-871-4444.