November 12, 2018

What is a Ghetto?

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

When I ask students this question, they often dance around the answer. “A place where low-income people live,” is a common response. “Somewhere that isn’t very nice,” is another. But when I ask where this term comes from, few know.

The term is one we might avoid now, as ghetto might be seen as a derogatory word used to describe a low-income neighborhood in the central part of a U.S. city. Sometimes the term is also used as an adjective to describe people, often negatively.

Sociologist Mitchell Duneier explores the origin of the word in his book Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea. Historically, ghettos were communities in which people were legally restricted. A de jure ghetto is a neighborhood where members of a certain group must live by law or edict, and in extreme cases, may never venture out of. A de facto ghetto is a community where there is no law keeping people in, but social forces (like poor educational opportunities and low paying jobs) may make living elsewhere extremely difficult.

People are often surprised to learn that the world’s first ghetto was in Venice, Italy, and targeted the city’s Jewish population. In fact, the word ghetto is in part derived from the Venetian term getto, or foundry, as the ghetto was located near the city’s copper foundry.

Between 1516 and 1797, by law Venetian Jews could only live within the confines of this tiny community; upwards of 5,000 people lived within a few blocks at one point in time (see this Lonely Planet article for a map of the area).

On a recent trip to Venice, I went to see the ghetto. It was so small that it was easy to walk by before realizing that I missed it. Signs like the ones on the walls in the photo below are the only clues that you are in or near the former ghetto. (They loosely translate to “Bridge of the Old Ghetto” and “Field of the New Ghetto.”) A few old synagogues remain, but when I was there hardly a tourist strolled by at a time when the city was otherwise overrun with tourists.

A red wall with three signs. They read Parrochia de s. alvise; ponte de ghetto vecchio; campo de ghetto novo

A closer look reveals wooden frames that once held gates, as in the photo below looking into the ghetto. The doors were locked at night, and residents were required to be within the gates every night.

A basement of a brick house with a doorway leading outside

While in the U.S., people were not necessarily locked into communities at night, other legal restrictions created de jure ghettos. Racial covenants contained clauses prohibiting the sale or lease of property to people based on race until they were outlawed until a 1948 Supreme Court decision made them illegal.

Suburban housing tracts created after World War II began as segregated spaces, thanks to policies like redlining in communities across the country. Redlining refers to the banking practice of mapping cities by race, drawing red lines on maps with African American residents. Regardless of the other characteristics of a redlined community—it might feature people of mixed income and racial groups—such neighborhoods were deemed to be problematic simply because of their racial composition.

While whites could get low-cost loans to move to newly forming suburbs, people of color were routinely denied mortgage loans in such communities. This practice was legal until the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Fifty years later, we still see the lingering legacy of de jure segregation in the U.S. Because most Americans’ wealth is built from homeownership, in communities that have been segregated decades of lower housing values have helped create a wealth gap. Consequently, a lower property tax base means less money for schools. Poorly funded schools, and few opportunities for good paying jobs often keep people stuck in such communities, creating de facto ghettos.

Photos courtesy of the author


This is an important point to remember, especially when so many politicians bang on about ethnic and/or immigrant enclaves as ghettos. They 'forget' that ghetto's were not formed by the choice of the group but by the wider society with power over them. And racialised segregation in the city is still with us...

Professor Sternheimer,
Thank You for sharing this information. I had a general idea of what the term was referring to from my education in Sociology. This new information is a refresher!

I enjoyed over read your blog post. This was actually what i was looking for and i am glad to came here!

Great article! As you said when asked what is a ghetto I usually give the usual " low income housing" answer. But It was a breath of fresh air to see where the term comes from.

The content is quite elaborate and detailed, but I think it needs more practical elements to attract the readers' attention, thank you for sharing this article.

Thanks for great materials for such an important topic. Also Thanks for the book you advise( it has made a great impression for me!
Kind regards!

Good post guys!

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