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  • Rebuilding Shattered Worlds: Creating Community by Voicing the Past by Andrea L. Smith and Anna Eisenstein
  • Michael Silverstein (bio)
Andrea L. Smith and Anna Eisenstein. Rebuilding Shattered Worlds: Creating Community by Voicing the Past. U of Nebraska P, 2016,xvi + 190 pp. ISBN 978-0803290587, $30.00.

Among anthropologists, memory ethnography—the reconstructive description of a more vibrantly functioning sociocultural world of the past based on interview material from survivors in the present—has long been considered an ersatz scholarly enterprise. Yet such an ethnographic project is reformulated here by coauthors Andrea L. Smith and Anna Eisenstein as an investigation of contemporary American modes of "collective memory," a Durkheimian concept developed by Maurice Halbwachs most notably in his posthumously published La mémoire collective (1950). But Rebuilding Shattered Worlds emerges not by studying public monuments and ritual commemorations, as did the Durkheimians, but by aggregating the historical consciousness of survivors, people who had been scattered fifty years earlier by so-called urban renewal in the small Lehigh Valley town of Easton, Pennsylvania.

Smith, a professor of anthropology at Lafayette College, located on Easton's tonier and topographically elevated north side, developed this project with Eisenstein, now a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Virginia, by recruiting to their ethnographic team many undergraduates to mingle and engage at get-togethers, in visits to people's homes, and large old-neighborhood reunions. Students approached the research subjects like inquiring grandchildren (and great-grandchildren) interested in the older generation's experiences of their now-vanished neighborhood.

The memory ethnography exemplified by Franz Boas was carried out among Native Americans who had survived various depredations of the North American settler states and their agents and who were aggregated in ethnic jumbles onto reservations and thus politically and economically marginalized. [End Page 452] As Smith and Eisenstein detail, by contrast the multiethnic, multiracial dwellers in Easton's "Syrian Town," already socioeconomically marginalized by the 1960s, were bulldozed out of their tract of land at the downtown confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, their functioning community completely disaggregated and erased in the name of urban renewal, its residents ordered to relocate—some multiple times—wherever they could find housing. Rebuilding Shattered Worlds is their story or, rather, their many stories that converge on a collective biography of a physically vanished but memorialized neighborhood.

The compact presentation of the results of the ten-year project is divided into six chapters. The first chapter, "Ethnography of the Expelled," discusses the rationale and the methods, in particular the focus on stimulating narratives of remembrance as a kind of verbal archaeology of a disappeared community. Next, "The Language of Blight" is good investigative journalism, reconstructing how Easton officialdom between 1957 and 1977 armed itself with the usual plethora of studies kept secret from the residents and their advocates so as to target the neighborhood for removal. The city used the mid-century modernist language of social "blight" to justify seizing property by eminent domain and ultimately eradicating this working-class, multiethnic and multiracial area entirely.

Chapters three through five are the heart of the ethnography, quoting liberally from transcripts of autobiographical narratives of former neighborhood dwellers. We may see in the aggregate a kind of "distributed autobiography" of Syrian Town, much as the "distributed cognition" within a community of practice rests on the fragmentary, overlapping knowledge of each of its members that can be reassembled by a researcher to create a model of the plenum—here, an implicitly shared model of the prototype Syrian Town dweller of the postwar, pre-renewal era.

Chapter three, "Narrating Diversity," focuses on people's consciousness of demographic identities within the neighborhood, commenting on the dense presence in interviews of ethnonyms by which relevant groups knew and classified each other: "Syrians" (Lebanese Christians), "Jews," "Italians," "Irish," and "Afro-Americans" (itself a label indicating an era). Such descriptors contrast Syrian Town residents in perceived class position with the spatially distant, non-ethnically characterized inhabitants of the elevated lands of College Hill. It also demonstrates that while relative poverty united the neighborhood's inhabitants, each group did have residential and commercial enclaves after all that constituted a patchwork within the overall social...


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