Rebuilding Shattered Worlds: Creating Community by Voicing the Past

Rebuilding Shattered Worlds: Creating Community by Voicing the Past

by A. Lynn Smith, Anna Eisenstein
Rebuilding Shattered Worlds: Creating Community by Voicing the Past

Rebuilding Shattered Worlds: Creating Community by Voicing the Past

by A. Lynn Smith, Anna Eisenstein


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Rebuilding Shattered Worlds explores the ways a demolished neighborhood in Easton, Pennsylvania, still resonates in the imaginations of displaced residents. Drawing on six years of ethnographic research, the authors highlight the intersecting languages of blight, race, and place as elderly interlocutors attempt to make sense of the world they lost when urban renewal initiatives razed “Syrian Town”—a densely packed neighborhood of Lebanese American, Italian American, and African American residents.

This ethnography of remembering shows how former residents engage collective memory-making through their shared place, language, and class position within the larger cityscape. Demonstrating the creative power of linguistic resources, material traces, and absent spaces, Rebuilding Shattered Worlds brings together insights from linguistic anthropology and material studies, foregrounding the role language plays in signaling “pastness.” 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803299436
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 10/01/2016
Series: Anthropology of Contemporary North America
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 208
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Andrea L. Smith is a professor of anthropology at Lafayette College, the author of Colonial Memory and Postcolonial Europe: Maltese Settlers in Algeria and France, and the editor of Europe’s Invisible Migrants: Consequences of the Colonists’ Return. Anna Eisenstein is a doctoral candidate in the department of anthropology at the University of Virginia.

Read an Excerpt

Rebuilding Shattered Worlds

Creating Community by Voicing the Past

By Andrea L. Smith, Anna Eisenstein


Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9943-6


Ethnography of the Expelled

In a small city in eastern Pennsylvania, elderly men and women have been gathering to talk about the past. Ostensibly planned as elementary school reunions, these meetings allow participants to recollect a whole neighborhood. We have been following this activity since 2007; this book is the result of this inquiry.

What makes this reunion activity especially intriguing is the fact that the neighborhood these men and women are so keen to discuss is completely gone: it was obliterated during 1960s urban renewal projects. Many of the eighty- and ninety-year-olds meeting up in the dingy basement social hall are encountering each other for the first time since they were "scattered" by the demolitions. Now, a half-century after wrecking balls "took the heart out of the city," as one speaker puts it, they are reuniting to reminisce about the past. What is prompting them to meet, to meet here, and to meet now?

This is a study of memory and place, of place-loss and recovery. The effects of midcentury urban renewal on minority communities and urban landscapes are well documented in studies focusing on the nation's largest cities, such as Chicago, Boston, and Detroit. Less examined have been the smaller cities, which also took advantage of generous federal funds to remove so-called blighted landscapes. This ethnographic study, conducted a half-century after renewal struck Easton, Pennsylvania, explores the ways a demolished neighborhood continues to reverberate in the imaginations of its former residents. This neighborhood, once known locally as "Syrian Town," was densely packed and inhabited by Lebanese Americans, Italian Americans, and African Americans, among others, and was noteworthy for its unusually integrated nature. Our book follows neighborhood reunions and the intersecting languages of blight, race, and place as elderly interlocutors attempt to make sense of the world they have lost.

This is an ethnography of remembering. Our speakers reconstruct Syrian Town through narratives of everyday life, elucidating the subjective experience of displacement in their own words. The power of place and the pull of former ways of speaking are two themes that run through this text. The unique circumstances of this study, in which people often meet for the first time since the neighborhood's destruction, provide a rare opportunity to observe the articulation of shared memories, a "collective memory" in the making. Although many of the reunion participants do not share identical life experiences, they nevertheless experience what appears to be a remarkable bonding as they reunite over smaller details that stem from having shared a common place, language, and class position within the wider cityscape. By following their gatherings, we are able to bring insights from linguistic anthropology on the role language plays in signaling the past and new work on materiality and memory together with a processual understanding of place to show how people collaboratively reconstruct their lost world in terms from a former era. By conceptualizing historical consciousness as a form of "distributed cognition," we show how in collaborative collective remembering, linguistic terms and material objects serve as "signs of history," verbal and material clues to a lost world necessary for further recollecting.

Urban Renewal as Place-Loss: Origins of This Project

The first glimpse of this book project occurred in 2006 when I heard back from a student I had sent to a local bar the night before. "Professor!" he exclaimed, animated when we met. "There really is a Lebanese night, and boy, are they mad! They are still talking about it is if it all happened yesterday!" The "they" Eddie encountered was a group of local Eastonians of Lebanese descent who met weekly at a local bar, Sami's Place, which had been moved to College Hill from the downtown neighborhood when it was seized by the city through eminent domain in 1965. The "college" of College Hill is Lafayette College, a small private college known for its liberal arts and engineering focus that is situated on a bluff overlooking the city of thirty thousand. It is where I have been teaching anthropology since 1999. I followed up on Eddie's adventure and found, like he had, a vivacious group of friends, still seething about the effects "redevelopment" had on their lives.

In 2006 I had been seeking topics for student research related to local sites of memory: I had envisioned a series of research projects around monuments and commemorative plaques that students in my Social Memory seminar might pursue. A ninety-five-year-old head librarian at the county historical society suggested a different kind of "site of memory," a whole neighborhood lost to urban renewal. I was fascinated by librarian Jane Godfrey's accounts of the ethnic and racial mixture and harmony characterizing Syrian Town, and I had sent Eddie and a few other early student researchers to see if anyone was left who remembered what it had been like.

Preliminary research with members of the remaining local Lebanese community was astounding, and I was hooked. This community and its predicament compelled me, because the consequences of place-loss have been a topic of enduring interest, an interest that first led me to fieldwork among former settlers of Algeria. After their mass flight from Algeria to France at the end of the French-Algerian War in 1962, many former settlers (pied-noirs) spent much of their adult lives longing for the former colony. Not only did Algeria seem off-limits to them following the violence of the war, but also the country has undergone so many changes since decolonization as to become a different place from that imagined in their nostalgic yearnings. As a result, settlers have developed a rich set of cultural creations, such as social clubs, genealogical societies, and an array of publications, that can be viewed, ultimately, as efforts to cope with place-loss. These creations include the Maltese settler clubs I studied that replaced journeys to the former colony with "return" trips to a prior homeland, Malta, and ongoing settler efforts to alter the French metropolitan landscape with the addition of monuments of or from the colony.

"Place-loss," the removal from home, from a homeland, a severing from the source of an individual's foundational orienting sensory inputs — of smells, sounds, and material matrix — might be productively viewed across instances as a single phenomenon. The loss of place can be such a powerful motivating force that it can lead to a rewriting of history. When I explored the longing of Mormon settlers for their former hamlet of Forestdale, Arizona, I found an elaborate reworking of the late nineteenth-century past. Although documentary evidence indicates that the Mormon settlement of Forestdale was an example of squatters attempting to claim lands granted to the Western Apache as part of the White Mountain Apache Reservation, descendants of these early settler-squatters continue to discuss this place and their removal from it by federal officials as an unjust eviction. The careful retracing of village homesteads and their preservation in local lore and family history volumes demonstrate how expulsion and place-loss can be a powerful force that can endure, motivating creative production.

As quickly became apparent, people were also coping with dramatic place-loss right in the Pennsylvania town where I teach and reside. But in contrast to the previous cases I have studied, the Eastonians I met were not removed from their homes; instead, their homes were removed from them. While some of the people discussed in this book live in virtually the same spatial coordinates as they had before, the land has been utterly transformed. This is certainly the case for many of the very old who live in senior citizen high-rises built on land seized through redevelopment and now look out on the contemporary wasteland that had once been their childhood home. While they have not crossed oceans or endured a dramatic regime change, their lived experiences and daily outlook echo those of the Maltese settlers I worked with who were ever-distracted by their memories of a former place and time.

After Eddie's providential adventure, undergraduates carried out further research in the spring of 2007. Rachel Scarpato continued to work with me that summer, and we investigated the history of the renewal project, culminating in a publication that forms the basis of a chapter in this book. Anna Eisenstein, then an undergraduate as well, joined the project in 2009. The more we explored, the more we found a community fascinating to work with and fascinated by the idea of working with us. As they taught us, place-loss experienced through urban renewal is parallel in many ways to that stemming from emigration, diaspora, and the global sea change that was decolonization. Parallel though they are, the particular qualities of place-loss through urban renewal merit in-depth consideration.

Expulsion as American Leitmotif

In her recent book, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, sociologist Saskia Sassen identifies expulsion as a leitmotif of the contemporary world order. She points to the sharp growth "in the number of people, enterprises, and places expelled from the core social and economic orders of our time." A new "logic of expulsion" is emerging, she writes, whether it be "expulsion from a life space" for people relegated to the lower levels of a world characterized by increasing inequality, extreme environmental devastation ("an expulsion of bits of life itself from the biosphere"), mass incarceration, or mass displacement due to war and disease. Drawing on cases from across the globe, she writes that "since the 1980s, there has been a strengthening of dynamics that expel people from the economy and from society, and these dynamics are now hardwired into the normal functioning of these spheres."

Our work speaks to the lengthy genealogy of expulsion in the United States specifically. This trend has deep roots, as evidenced by the case at hand. Syrian Town was located in the heart of the city and bordered the railroad station. This area, composed of row houses, single-family residences, and independent shops, was eradicated in short order despite clear local opposition, and its residents were expelled. Today, it is a "non-place" typical of supermodernity, an expanse of empty parking lots, a worn motel, and federal offices typically devoid of people, except for a few solitary older people struggling to bring their purchases back to their apartments.

The eradication of a small neighborhood in a small city in Pennsylvania was not unusual for the time, for the 1950s and 1960s were decades of demolition. Title 1 of the Housing Act of 1949 provided funding to cities, allowing them to purchase properties through eminent domain with the hope of encouraging redevelopment on cleared lands. City upon city took advantage of this and successor programs, altering urban America to a staggering degree. Projects often fell short of expectations, however, and local redevelopment organizations did not always comply with federal requirements to replace demolished housing with additional housing units, exacerbating existing housing shortages for lower-income families. Cities often practiced "bulldozer" renewal, eradicating whole neighborhoods. Projects sometimes proceeded despite civic outcry, and in city after city, cleared lands remained vacant. Mark Gelfand observed, "Throughout the country, wrecking crews leveled the homes and businesses of urban Americans, who then watched their former properties sprout weeds and remain fallow for years." Even smaller cities like Easton, Pennsylvania, with a population of approximately thirty-five thousand in the 1950s, sought these funds. In fact, by 1961, almost 28 percent of cities of twenty-five thousand to fifty thousand inhabitants were participating in federally funded renewal projects. Expulsion was in vogue and continues to this day; Americans everywhere cope with its aftermath.

Twentieth-century urban renewal episodes, however, are but a recent iteration of an American leitmotif of longue durée. A settler society, this country has a history of relentless uprooting and replacement of populations through a continual shuffling of people westward, eastward, and northward, disruptions that help feed an ever-evolving class hierarchy. Similar if not identical processes are ongoing today, even in this small city: Easton leaders, while critical of the way urban renewal was carried out in the 1960s, continue to tap federal funds to tear down and rebuild now-defunct businesses on the very lands cleared earlier; a bus depot is now under construction. It is thus vitally important to understand the causes and consequences of the "logic of expulsion" that pervades contemporary American society.

The scholarship on postwar urban renewal has rightly highlighted the nation's larger cities, such as Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Kansas City, New York, and Newark. As a result, however, experiences in smaller cities remain a "largely unexamined component of our recent history." Furthermore, citywide studies often emphasize the whole picture at the expense of subjective experiences. Our study starts in the opposite direction and emphasizes an understudied dimension of renewal, namely, its long-term effects on specific individuals. How does the renewal experience compare to other well-studied examples of expulsion or diaspora? Former colonists can unite around images, songs, histories, and maps, the whole ideological underpinnings of a former sociopolitical order. Armenians living in Canada today display pictures of Mount Ararat in their homes. But in Syrian Town, everyday life has carried on almost exactly as before. In such a case, what are the resources people use to reconstruct or return to past worlds? We will want to consider which signs and symbols they mobilize and to what ends. The role played by language and narrative and by material culture — or its near-complete absence — in influencing people's ways of remembering are all concerns that motivated this research. Through this focus, we want to emphasize the place-loss generated by the urban renewal fever that has been sweeping this country in waves since its earliest years, accelerating in speed and scale since the 1950s. Whole neighborhoods were forever changed, whole city landscapes were completely reworked, and the social consequences have been catastrophic.

Informed by new literature in the anthropology of space and materiality, we explore the subjective meanings associated with a rapid loss of place, focusing on how that place-loss reverberates decades after the fact, creating such a powerful affective force that it may, paradoxically, help to unite people years later.

Bridging Divides

On a hot day in late July 2010, we held an elementary school reunion in Easton, Pennsylvania, in the basement of a downtown Lutheran church. The atmosphere was abuzz with anticipation; participants were drawn by the possibility of meeting former school friends and neighbors, many of whom they hadn't seen for fifty years. When we pulled into the parking lot, Jerry, an eighty-five-year-old black man bedecked in jacket and embroidered cap, called out happily, "Here are the instigators!" as he came to greet us. Inside waited Sal, a self-described "Italian" of Sicilian ancestry who was also attired formally. As we came down the stairs hauling a wooden stand and poster board we brought to decorate the drab basement meeting space, he announced his age, ninety-two, to the youngest of the organizers, winking as he added, "And I am not senile."

As people arrived, we directed them to displays of photographs we brought depicting street scenes of another era and eventually to a sea of folding metal tables and chairs that filled the vast room. The din was great as approximately thirty people gathered and multiple conversations proceeded simultaneously, and we wondered if people would be able to connect across the many divides separating them. As the event commenced, one octogenarian suggested that we go around the room introducing everyone by name, former street address, and years at the school. For the women, it was essential to declare (loudly) their maiden name. At that point, other people often shouted out street names or siblings' nicknames before the speaker could: "Ah, Bank and South 5th!" Recognition proceeded according to people's former location within the place they were remembering. If there was any segregation at this event, it was by age as people sat along three long tables. Gloria, a spunky woman of German and English descent in her eighties, joked with a black man, Mark, who was nicely dressed in a bright gold blazer. He called her his "girlfriend." A small group of men of various races and ethnicities (black, Lebanese, Sicilian) talked at length about town movie theaters ("The Boyd The-a-tre!" "The Ranch House!") and which street barricades they could get through when chased by the local police.


Excerpted from Rebuilding Shattered Worlds by Andrea L. Smith, Anna Eisenstein. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Terminology and Transcription Conventions,
1. Ethnography of the Expelled,
2. The Language of Blight,
3. Narrating Diversity,
4. Voices from the Past,
5. The Material of Memory,
6. Nostalgia as Engine of Change,

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