Rhetoric of Place: Shaping a Struggling Neighborhood's Reputation
Author: Tom Mitchell
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2013
This dissertation is about the rhetoric of place in a Pittsburgh neighborhood, Beechview, where active residents are making efforts at revitalization after years of decline. More specifically, it is about the rhetorical dimensions of neighborhood reputation. I am interested in how competing discursive constructions of Beechview—based on people's differing experiences with, ideas about, and goals for the neighborhood—may shape Beechview's image among outsiders and residents.
I use ethnographic data as a contextual backdrop to inform close linguistic and rhetorical analysis of discursive constructions of Beechview. I trace the formation of a lasting external reputation, created and sustained in the news media, of Beechview as Pittsburgh's first Latino neighborhood, investigating how an individual newspaper reporter's experience of the neighborhood became mediatized and later cemented in the public imagination. I show how this outside representation (dis)aligns with Beechview's internal reputation, and I analyze local activists' attempts to resist this representation, which they perceive to be inaccurate and harmful. Finally, I examine the rhetorical strategies these activists use to bolster Beechview's internal reputation in a monthly newsletter, repeatedly highlighting the positive values of the neighborhood and its residents in the face of prevailing negative local discourse.
Despite the central importance of place, and representations of place, in a variety of public policy issues, scholars have only recently begun to pay attention to the rhetoric of place. I contribute to work in this area by focusing on community development from a bottom-up perspective, emphasizing the oft-overlooked rhetorical dimensions of conflicts over neighborhood reputation, and combining ethnographic and discourse analytic methodologies. Neighborhood reputations can have significant effects on residents' quality of life, since they may influence outsiders' decisions about whether to move to, invest in, or even visit a place. Furthermore, places and identities are intimately intertwined, and this may be particularly true at the level of a neighborhood: neighborhood reputations allow outsiders to ascribe particular identities to residents, and when there is a mismatch between a neighborhood's reputation and how residents experience the neighborhood or imagine it could be, a key component of their sense of self is at stake.