Two professors document history of ‘the Burg’

Rachel Adler, chair of the department of sociology and anthropology, has teamed up with Susan Ryan, chair of the department of communication studies, to lead the production of a documentary that explores the social structure of Chambersburg, a local immigration hotspot in Trenton.

Adler began the project three years ago, when the New Jersey Historical Commission granted her $14,000 to conduct her extensive research. The documentary will show the ethnic transition from predominantly Italian to predominantly Latino culture in Chambersburg. It will feature interviews and life stories of 150 Italian and Latino immigrants in the Trenton neighborhood locally known as “the Burg.”

The film is centered around St. Joachim’s Catholic Church, which Adler said clearly shows the influence of the shifting immigrant populations on the entire community. The church was built in 1903 by Italian settlers, who once represented a large part of the Burg’s population. She said the documentary would focus on the changes made in the church to accommodate recent Latino settlers, mainly from Guatemala, Costa Rica and Ecuador. Masses in the church are now given in Spanish, English and Italian.

Other traditional Italian ceremonies will be featured in the film as well. The Feast of Lights, Columbus Day and others have already been filmed by the crew. The project is being completed “little by little,” Adler said.

Adler said she hopes that the documentary will appeal to a wider audience than only Trenton locals, since the shifting of ethnic groups in a community can occur anywhere. “The process replicates,” Adler said. “It may involve different groups, but everyone should care, because it happens all over.”

Sonia Reso, sophomore psychology major, spent a great deal of her childhood in Chambersburg, where she said her grandparents, aunts, uncles and mother all settled after immigrating from Sicily.

Much of Reso’s family still lives in there, but she said her mother moved to the suburbs when the Latino immigrants began to change the atmosphere of the neighborhood.

This is evidenced by the fact that in a world that used to be dominated by Italian culture, her uncle now speaks Spanish.

She spoke of Italian block parties that her family used to enjoy, but are now less frequented because many family friends have moved away, mainly to the suburbs.

She said many gangs started to move into the area as well, which has also changed the culture. “The Feast of Lights used to be very safe,” Reso said, “but it became more and more dangerous, mainly because of gangs.”

Reso’s aunt still lives in Chambersburg, and is dealing with the changing tides of ethnic groups. “Now my little cousin can’t go to the park,” Reso said. “We used to go all the time and stay until after dark.” About eight years ago, parents really started cracking down.

“The Burg hasn’t completely deteriorated,” Reso added. “There is still a sense of community.” Adler also agreed that many people have “fond memories, and there is lots of local interest.”

Ryan said that they are documenting “how the change is affecting the neighborhood, both the good things as well as the problems.” She is attacking the project from a different angle – documentary production. Her duties, with the help of a team of students interested in film production, include capturing footage of the ceremonies and interviews, and editing.

“It is not common for two chairs from different departments to work together,” Adler said with a smile. “The dean of the School of Culture and Society, as well as the dean of the College has been really supportive of this interdisciplinary work.”

“Students are helping out, and we are hoping to raise funds to possibly hire professional camera people,” Ryan said.

Students who are interested in the social aspect of the project or the filming of the documentary can get involved by contacting the producers. “It’s an opportunity to get involved with faculty research,” Adler said.

The team began filming the documentary over the past summer, but it still remains in the initial stages of production.

The date of completion is unknown, but Adler has hopes for getting much accomplished during the upcoming summer.