Rebuilding Shattered Worlds: Creating Community by Voicing the Past

Rebuilding Shattered Worlds: Creating Community by Voicing the Past

Rebuilding Shattered Worlds: Creating Community by Voicing the Past

Rebuilding Shattered Worlds: Creating Community by Voicing the Past


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.”


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 . . .

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